Monday, October 16, 2017

A Minute Meditation

Henry Beston
Northern Farm: A Chronicle of Maine
written during the late 1930s
first published in 1949

When the nineteenth century and the industrial era took over our western civilization, why was it that none saw that we should all presently become peoples without a past?  Yet this is precisely what has happened and it is only now that the results of the break have become clear.

The past is gone, together with its formal arts, its rhetoric, and its institutions, and in its place there has risen something rootless, abstract, and alien, I think, to human experience.  Nothing of this sort has ever occurred in history.   

This was written during the late 1930s and published in 1949.  Is any of the above relevant today?   To be honest, I'm not even sure I know what he means.   Perhaps it's because I'm an urbanite (if there is such a word), having grown up and spent all of my life in cities.  I did spend a number of summers while growing up on my grandparents' farm in Wisconsin, but that was only for three months of the year.  I wonder if that loss he speaks of accounts for my fascination with and love of the writings of Loren Eiseley, Joseph Wood Krutch,  John Muir (a recent discovery), Konrad Lorenz, and now Henry Beston.  All focus on the natural world and on those who share this unique planet with us.

Yet, Beston speaks of this loss: The past is gone, together with its formal arts, its rhetoric, and its institutions, and in its place there has risen something rootless, abstract, and alien, I think, to human experience.  What has this to do with our alienation from the natural world?    Unlike so many fortunate people, I find only questions and more questions and seldom answers.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Two New England Farmers--A Brief Conversation

One comments. . .

As I  "mushed" on into a little clearing, walking towards the sun, I had a glimpse of a winter effect I always like to see.  On the tops of the trees the wind was blowing, and just ahead of me there suddenly fell from a hemlock branch a quantity of snow which disintegrated to powder in the sunlit air.  As it thus dissolved, the snow dust turned to a mist of rainbow brilliance, a certain coppery, bronzy glow seeming to hang for a moment against the sun.  

The other replies . . .

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

The paragraph is from Henry Beston's Northern Farm:  A Chronicle of Maine, and the poem is by Robert Frost, "Dust of Snow."

I don't know if they ever met, but I think they would have gotten along very nicely.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Theodore Sturgeon: "A God in the Garden"

Theodore Sturgeon
"A God in the Garden"
in The Ultimate Egoist:
Volume 1: The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon

This tale strikes me as a variant of the Midas Touch.  What appears to be good as first glance proves ultimately to be a curse.

Kenneth digs furiously in his garden, working on a lily pond.  His ferocity comes from a recent flareup between him and his wife.  She suspects he is lying to her.  Unfortunately she is right, once again.  He is an inveterate liar, whether it benefits him or not.  It's just the way he is and she refuses to accept that.

Digging deeper he comes across a huge rock, and he calls a friend who has the necessary equipment to remove it from the hole.  Once on the surface he realizes that it isn't just a rock, but a carved rock!

"Yes, it was an idol, that brown mass in the half-finished lily pool.  And what a face!  Hideous--and yet, was it?  There was a certain tongue-in-cheek quality about it, a grim and likable humor.  The planes of that face were craggy and aristocratic, and there was that about the cure of the nostril and the heavily lidded eyes that told Kenneth that he was looking at a realistic conception of a superiority complex.  And yet--again, was it?  Those heavy eyelids--each, it seemed, had been closed in the middle of a sly wink at some huge and subtle joke.  And the deep lines around the mouth wee the lines of authority, but also the lines of laughter.  It was the face of a very old little boy caught stealing jam, and it was also the face of a being who might have the power to stop the sun."

Kenneth is overjoyed.  He had been looking for a statue to set off his garden and this seemed perfect.  With help he sets the statue upright in a prominent place, overlooking his garden.  It is then that Kenneth realizes that he  has found something much more than he expected.  The statue talks to him.

"'I"m a god,' said the idol.  'Name's 'Rakna.  What's yours?'"

After demonstrating his powers, much to Kenneth's discomfort,  Rakna relents.

"'Look, Kenneth, I've been a little hard  on you.  After all, you did give me a comfortable place to sit.  Anything I could do for you?'"

Kenneth says that all is well, except that, well, there's this little problem with his wife and lying.   The god's first offer to help is simple:  he will "adjust" Kenneth so that he only tells the truth whenever he is asked a question.   Kenneth cringes at that suggestion, especially when he thinks about being asked what he really thinks about his boss and having to answer truthfully.   The god suggests another solution:  whatever Kenneth answers will be the truth, for the god will make it so.

The god points to a chain on the ground and asks Kenneth to say it is in the shed when he is asked.  Kenneth does so and the chain disappears.  It is in the shed.   Kenneth, a skeptic, is confused:  is he crazy or hallucinating?   He goes into the house and discovers she is preparing turnips for dinner.  He doesn't like turnips and frowns slightly.  His wife remembers and says that she forgot.

"'Don't be silly.'  he lied gallantly. 'I love 'em.'  No sooner had he said the words than the lowly turnips seemed to take on a glamour, a gustatory perfection.  His mouth watered for them, his being cried out for them--turnips were the most delicious, the most nourishing and delightful food ever to be set on a man's table.  He loved them."

Kenneth is now a believer.

At first it's party time.  Kenneth tells his wife that there's $20,000 in their checking account, and it''s true.  But then . . .

Think about it--suppose everything you said became the truth.   Someone wonders how an incredibly rich person became so wealthy, and you cynically replied that that person must have stolen it.  Regardless of the real situation, that person was now a thief.   Or, someone asks you whatever happened to so-and-so, and you replied, "Oh, he or she probably died long ago."  Well, once you said that, it had to be true.

It seems to me to be a frightful gift.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Baltasar Gracian: a man of peace

-- 192 --

A man  of peace, a man of years;
in order to live, let live; 
the peaceful not only live,
but they reign;

lend your ears, and your eyes,
but hold your tongue;

the day without strife,
makes the night with its sleep;

to live long, and to live in joy,
is to live twice, and the fruit of peace;

he has everything who gives no concern
to what does not concern him;

nothing more purposeless,
than to see purpose in everything,

for it is equally stupid to break the heart
over what is not your business,

as not to set your teeth
into that which is.

-- Balthasar Gracian --
The Art of Worldly Wisdom

I think the last four couplets, beginning with "he has everything,"  are the greatest source of misery that even well-meaning people bring upon us.   Minding one's own business may be the greatest aid to peace and contentment ever conceived by the wise among us.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Pope Joan

Lawrence Durrell:  Pope Joan
translated and adapted from the Greek of Emmanuel Royidis. 

Brief  quotation from the Wikipedia article on Pope Joan

"Pope Joan (Ioannes Anglicus) was, according to popular legend, a woman who reigned as pope for a few years during the Middle Ages. Her story first appeared in chronicles in the 13th century and subsequently spread throughout Europe. The story was widely believed for centuries, but most modern scholars regard it as fictional.

Most versions of her story describe her as a talented and learned woman who disguised herself as a man, often at the behest of a lover. In the most common accounts, due to her abilities, she rose through the church hierarchy and was eventually elected pope. Her sex was revealed when she gave birth during a procession, and she died shortly after, either through murder or natural causes. The accounts state that later church processions avoided this spot, and that the Vatican removed the female pope from its official lists and crafted a ritual to ensure that future popes were male.  In the 16th century, Sienna Cathedral featured a bust of Joan among other pontiffs; this was removed after protests in 1600."

From the Catholic Encyclopedia: 
The fable about a female pope, who afterwards bore the name of Johanna (Joan), is first noticed in the middle of the thirteenth century.The Catholic Encyclopedia lists a number of variations on this legend at this address:

From the Wikipedia article on Emmanuel Royidis:

"In 1866 Rhoides published a controversial novel, The Papess Joanne ( Ἡ Πάπισσα Ἰωάννα), an exploration of the legend of Pope Joan, a supposed female pope who reigned some time in the ninth or tenth century (which was in fact a time of great turmoil for the papacy). Though a romantic novel with satirical overtones, Rhoides asserted it contained conclusive evidence that Pope Joan truly existed and that the Catholic Church had been attempting to cover up the fact for centuries.
The book's scathing attacks on what he viewed as an uneducated, uncultured, superstitious and backward clergy were controversial, and led to Rhoides's excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church which perceived that its own clergy was the real target of those attacks."

Now, to the novel:

The narrator at the beginning of Part Three, approximately half way through the work states that "good Christians loathe those who mix religion  for the sake of profit, with the various inventions of their shaven or sprouting heads; the miracles of irons, pagan gods disguised as saints, genuflections, tickets for Paradise, holy relics, rosaries. . ."  Yet, this is what is found in this work, which is supposed to provide conclusive proof of its claim of a female pope.  Should good Christians, therefore, loathe this work?

The first three parts of the novel tell of her early life, her wanderings with her father,  an itinerant  monk, and the miraculous escapes and events of that time of her life.  This includes a long period in Athens, after she and her lover (a monk) had escaped from the monastery.  At the beginning of Part Four, about 3/4 through the work, the narrator now tells us that everything up to this point has been the product of his imagination, but from this point on everything is based "on the works of eminent chroniclers."

At this point, we are told of her career in Rome, prior to becoming pope, "She also studied medicine and according to some evil tongues she was well acquainted with the principles of witchcraft; it is said that she could force the evil spirits of the day (the former gods Bacchus, Hera, Pan and Aphrodite to leave the gates of darkness and run to do her bidding."  No source is given for this statement, as for most of the other claims in this part of the tale.

We are told of the fabulous natural wonders that followed Joan's election as pope.  Though it was still midsummer, heavy snow fell and blocked the streets of Rome, earthquakes shook Europe, while a rain of blood fell in Bresse and a hail of dead locusts in Normandy.  "Even the owls and night-jars which infested the roofs of the Vatican hooted for three successive nights in the most ominous manner. . ."

Part of the chroniclers's account includes wonders that occurred on her ascension to the throne of Peter, but even here, a footnote suggests that these were borrowed from other accounts of miraculous occurrences at the selection of various popes.  For the most part, this part tells mostly of her love affair with her secretary and personal assistant and little about her activities as pope.

Since I don't read Greek, I have no idea of how much of the book is Royidis and how much is Durrell.  The scathing attacks on the monks and clergy is commented on by critics who were reviewing Royidis's  novel and not Durrell's.  So, that part of the book is probably Royidis' work.

Overall, the tone of the work does not inspire me with great confidence in the argument of a female pope back in the ninth century.  Could there have been a female pope back then?   It's possible, but the complete lack of anything documenting such an event, which should have been shocking, from that time and only appearing some four hundred years later, suggests it's a myth. 

I suspect Lawrence Durrell had as much fun translating and adapting this work as I had in reading it.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Robert Grudin: on watch shapes

Robert Grudin
Time and the Art of Living


For a while now I have kept, along with our more traditional timepieces, a digital watch which shows hours, minutes and seconds in illuminated Arabic numerals.  Such watches, my wife remarks, give their wearers a wholly different idea of time.  Looking at them we see a particular time, divorced from its context in the broader picture of the day.  The round faces of the older watches and clocks speak to us not only of the present but also of the past and the future--when we woke, when we will work or play or rest, where we have been, where we wish to be or must be.  Intricately and persistently they remind us of our existence in a continuum, which includes not only the social and natural world but also our own extending identity in time.  The new watches, like many other modern and businesslike thins, ignore such frivolities, demarcating only that particular island of time on which we happen to be stranded.

-- Robert Grudin --
Time and the Art of Living

What sayest thou?   Has his wife a valid point?

Do the  round faces of the older watches and clocks speak to us not only of the present but also of the past and the future?

Do they remind us of our existence in a continuum, which includes not only the social and natural world but also our own extending identity in time?

Does the sweep of the "seconds" hand convey a different picture of time passing than does the sight of numbers increasing one-by-one on a digital watch?.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Loren Eiseley: "The Innocent Fox"

This is an excerpt from an essay in Loren Eiseley's collection, The Star Thrower.  The essay is titled "The Innocent Fox."   Perhaps it could have been called "The Innocent Fox and the Innocent Human"?

The episode occurred upon an unengaging and unfrequented shore,  It began in the late afternoon of a day devoted at the start to ordinary scientific purposes.  There was the broken prow of a beached boat subsiding in heavy sand, left by the whim of ancient currents a long way distant from the shifting coast.  Somewhere on the horizon wavered the tenuous outlines of a misplaced building, growing increasingly insubstantial in the autumn light. 

A fog suddenly moved in, and he is trapped.  Rather than wander about, he decides to stay by the beached boat until the fog lifts or morning comes.

. . . It was then I saw the miracle.  I saw it because I was hunched at ground level smelling rank of fox, and no longer gazing with upright human arrogance upon the things of this world.  

I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon.  As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun.  Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me.  The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull's cry and the far horn of a ship.  They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity, they had not learned to fear.  The creature was very young.  He was alone in a dread universe.  I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him  It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me.  God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters.  His parent must not have been home fro hunting.

He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly.   There was a vast and playful humor in his face.  "If there was only one fox in the world and I could kill him. I would do."  The words of a British poacher in a pub rasped in my ears. I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature.  It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe  Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in  retreat.

Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of it two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head.  The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.

It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars.  Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement.  I drew the breath of a fox's den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose.  Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment.  We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.

But, I had seen my miracle.  I had seen the universe as it begins for all things.  It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe.  I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the neared ridge.  The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal.  The adult foxes would be already trotting home.

A little farther on, I passed one on a ridge who knew well I had no gun, for it swung by quite close, stepping delicately with brush and head held high.  Its face was watchful but averted,  It did not matter.  It was what I had experienced and the fox had experienced, what we had all experienced in adulthood.   We passed carefully on our separate ways into the morning, eyes not meeting. 

.   .   .   .   .

For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone.  It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as  Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.

Perhaps we should, at times, forget our status as lords of creation.  I read somewhere the creativity is strongest in those who have never quite completely grown up.  Something to think about anyway.

I suppose this will be seen by many as just a cute story, of little consequence and to be quickly forgotten or ignored.  I think it's very significant in that it tells us a lot about the type of person Loren Eiseley was and much about the way he saw the world.   I wonder how many other scientists would act as he did and also reveal it to their fellow scientists.   Eiseley had mentioned once or twice that some of his colleagues actually reprimanded him for his non-scientific outlook as expressed in his essays and poetry.

I am reminded of many SF stories I had read in the past that pushed the idea that the world would be a better place, a more open and tolerant world if run by scientists and technologists, for they were free of prejudice and would be more willing to forgo past ways of thinking and rely on evidence.   I don't see much of that anymore in SF.  Perhaps SF writers have also read the accounts of the difficulties that new ideas, in spite of the evidence, had in being accepted.  As usual, it's a case of yesterday's heresies are today's truths and will be tomorrow's dogmatic barrier to new ideas.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

John Donne and Elizabeth Jennings: Bells

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe;
Every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
If a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
As well as if a Promontorie were,
As well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were;
Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
-- John Donne --
Devotions upon Emergent Occasion
Meditation XVII



"The bells renew the town, discover it
And give it back itself again, the man
Pulling the rope collects the houses as
Thoughts gather in the mind unscanned, he is
Crowding the town together from the night
And making bells the morning, in remote

Control of every life (for the bells shout 'Wake'
And shake out dreams, though it is he who pulls
The sleep aside.)  But not into his thought
Do men continue as in lives of power;

For when each bell is pulled sufficiently
He never sees himself as any cause
Or need; the sounds had left his hands to sing
A meaning for each listening separately,
A separate meaning for the single choice.

Yet bells retire to silence, need him when
Time must be shown a lucid interval
And men look up as if the air were full
Of birds descending, bells exclaiming in
His hands but shouting wider than his will."

-- Elizabeth Jennings --
Collected Poems

Several days ago I read Elizabeth Jennings' poem, and it has stayed with me, occasionally popping up in odd moments.   A day or so ago, early in the morning  "when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky" Donne's poem emerged from somewhere.

Both poems focus on the human community, but from a slightly different perspective, or so it seems to me.  Donne's poem asserts the close relationship of all humans, so much so that the death of one "diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;"  However he just asserts it and gives no reason why this is so.  Conversely, I suppose that each birth has the opposite effect: it increases him.

Of course, it is the last two lines. " And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/
It tolls for thee." that provides a link to Jennings poem.  Jennings' poem proposes that it is the sound of the bells that "collects the houses" and to some extent controls their lives.

The title, however, is "Bell-Ringer," not "Bells."  Jennings tells us that the bell-ringer is not aware of his power or role in the community.  His job is simply to ring the bells at a specified time, and that's all there is to it.

Are there others who possess and exercise similar powers but are unaware of it?  

One last point:  I wonder, though, is it the sound of the bells, or  something signified by the bells.   I have a block, I fear, for I can hardly think of bells without thinking of church and church bells.  I have a problem considering bells in a non-religious setting, so I can't go beyond thinking that the sound of the bells may symbolize a faith that unites the human community.

Are there other possibilities? Could it be language or culture?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Cordwainer Smith: "War No. 81-Q"

Cordwainer Smith
"War No. 81-Q"
from The Rediscovery of Man

In the future, humanity has progressed to the point that, while they can not completely eliminate war, they have restrained it sufficiently, at least in most cases, so that it has become harmless and a game telecast on TV, a spectator sport.  War No. 81-Q is an example of this new type of war.

America believes that it has a valid complaint against Tibet and has applied for  a license to conduct a limited or "safe" war.

"The Universal War Board granted a war permit, subject to strict and clear conditions.

1.  The war was to be fought only at the times and places specified.

2.  No human being was to be killed or injured, directly or indirectly, by any performance of the machines of war.  Emotional injury was not be be considered.

3.  An  appropriate territory was to be leased and cleared.  Provisions should be made for the maximum removal of wildlife,  particularly birds, which might be hurt by the battle.

4.  The weapons were to be winged dirigibles with a maximum weight of 22,000 tons, propelled by non-nuclear engines.

5.  All radio channels were to be strictly monitored by the U. W. B. and by both parties.  At any complaint of jamming or interference the war was to be brought to a halt.

6.   Each dirigible should have six non-explosive missiles and thirty non-explosive countermissiles.

7.  The U. W. B. was to intercept and to destroy all stray missiles and real weapons before the missiles left the war zone, and each party, regardless of the outcome of  the war, was to pay he U. W. B. directly for the interception and destruction of stray missiles.

8.  No living human beings were to be allowed on the ships, in the war zone, or on the communications equipment which relayed the war to the world's television.

9.  The 'stipulated territory' was to be the War Territory of Kerguelen,  to be leased by both parties from the Fourteenth French Republic, as agent for Federated Europe, at the price of four million gold livres the hour.

10.  Seating for the war, apart from video rights belonging to the combatants, should remain the sole property of the lessor of the War Territory of Kerguelen.

With these arrangements, the French off-lifted their sheep from the island ranges of Kerguelen--the weary sheep were getting thoroughly used to being lifted from their grazing land to Antarctic lighters every time a war occurred. . . "

As you probably guessed from the list of limitations, no humans were placed in jeopardy.  The actual fighting was confined to remote radio-controlled dirigibles, the drones of their day, I guess.  Dirigibles were chosen because they moved slowly enough to be visible on TV screens (always an important issue) but complex enough to require real skill to operate.   The war was fought in a confined space with spectators.  Non-explosive missiles were used for obvious reasons.   I am reminded of the games in the Roman Coliseum, only less bloody.

Each side had five dirigibles.  The limited number of ships reduced the advantages that large and prosperous countries had over smaller and possibly poorer countries.  That a country with a large population would have a greater pool from which to find skillful pilots was still an advantage, although mitigated by the rules which allowed for the hiring of mercenaries.  

.The Americans, confident in their pilot, elected for the one-pilot rule.  Therefore, Jack Reardon, a very skillful pilot, would control all five dirigibles in the contest against the five pilots controlling the Tibetan ships.  It was a risk, but the advantage was this:  in this type of contest, all the one pilot had to do was down only two of the enemy ships to be victorious, regardless of the number of ships he had left. 

A brief introduction indicates that this situation lasted for a few centuries only.  When the population reached thirty billion, war stopped being a game and once again became real--an interesting commentary on the role of war, I think.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: The Black Book

Lawrence Durrell
The Black Book

The Black Book is the novel that gained Lawrence Durrell notice in the literary world.   T. S. Eliot called it "the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction."  Henry Miller worked to get a private edition printed in Paris when Durrell had difficulty finding a publisher.

I find some interesting parallels between The Black Book and the Alexandria Quartet  (AQ).  It's almost as if this was a first attempt which gave him the experience to produce the much larger work, four novels in the Alexandria Quartet, instead of one. 

Both novels are 1st person narratives,  and the narrators of both are now on islands in the Mediterranean, writing of  their experiences of the past year or two.   While the narrator in the AQ writes of his experiences in Alexandria just before WWII, the narrator of The Black Book tells the reader in the past year he has spent in a tired, rundown  hotel in London.  Both narrators struggle as they are in the process of learning their craft.

We don't find out the narrator's name in the AQ until the second novel, Balthazar.  And then, it's only his last name, Darley.  However we do get a clue in the first novel when Darley is told that he's referred to as Lineaments of Gratified Desire.  These are his initials, which coincidentally happen to be the same as the author's: Lawrence George Durrell.   The narrator in The Black Book jokingly refers to himself several times as Lawrence Lucifer. 
Those are not the only parallels.   As in the AQ, various forms of love or lust are portrayed in The Black Book, although limited in comparison to the AQ. Another is that at least one other writer is featured prominently in both works.  Journals and diaries also play an important role in both works.  One last commonality is the broken narrative structure in both works wherein the time line is fractured.  Characters are brought into the narrative, and we learn that they are dead or have left before we find out anything about them, including their relationship to the narrator.  It is only later that we learn their significance

Of course, differences exist.  Aside from the size of the two works, one major difference is tone.  The AQ seems to be, to me anyway, a celebration of Alexandria, with all its marvelous characters, its romantic and tragic tales, and its history.  On the other hand, The Black Book is a bitter, biting satire on England between the two world wars.  The narrator refers to "the English death" frequently when speaking of the England of the 1930's.  In the AQ, the golden, if sometimes harsh, light of the sun is an important characteristic of the natural world, while England is usually portrayed as dark, gloomy, and rainy. 

I had first read The Black Book only after reading The Alexandria Quartet, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge it on its own merits.  How much of my interest in the work is the result of having read it after The Alexandria Quartet and, therefore, seeing the relationship of this work to the larger work is debatable. I just don't know.  What my feelings toward this work would be if I had read it first is difficult to say right now.

Friday, September 15, 2017

W. H. Auden: "Their Lonely Betters"


As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

No one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

-- W. H. Auden --
from Art and Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry

And miles to go before we sleep.
And miles to go before we sleep.

Does being able to create poetry make up for this loneliness?  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A History of India: a series of lectures presented by the Teaching Company

A History of India
A Great Courses Set on DVD
The Teaching Company
6 DVDs, 18 hours of lectures

I've long been impressed by the lecture sets produced by the Teaching Company, called The Great Courses.  They are a series of lectures, four or six to a DVD, each lecture being 30 or 45 minutes in length.  The sets range from 2 to 8 DVDs, and each DVD contains three hours of lectures.  The format is that of the ordinary classroom lecture, supplemented by appropriate visual and auditory aids.    Discussions of the arts will include photographs of the paintings  or sculptures under discussion while excerpts of music are presented during lectures on the work being discussed.

The topics covered include the sciences, mathematics, literature, religion, economics and finance, history, music, the fine arts, meditation, gardening, cooking, home decoration, various self-help topics, and a number of subjects I've forgotten to mention.  I think there's something here for just about everybody.

The lectures are geared for the average student who may know a little about the subject, but those who know nothing about the subject will have little or no difficulty understanding the lectures.   For example, I've viewed a number of lecture sets on astronomy and have found that most, if not all, begin with an introductory lecture on the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang theory or its variants.

This set of lectures on the history of India, presented by Professor Michael H. Fisher of Oberlin College,  begins with what is known about the earliest inhabitants of the subcontinent.  Most agree that they were there at least 35,000 years ago and some argue for a date of 70,000 years.  It appears as though, later, that there were three distinct cultural threads forming the early population, and DNA tests suggests that the survivors are still present today, though mixed and interspersed among the general population today.

Subsequent lectures include the various attempts to unify India, the development of  various religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism), and the effects of the interactions with other cultures and religions, including Islam and Christianity.  The last set of lectures include the results of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India,  Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh and the violence that resulted.  The set came out in 2016, so it is quite up-to-date to that point.  However, it appeared prior to recent events in Pakistan, so the effects of the attempted coup are not covered. 

Viewing the lectures will not make me an expert on India, and they are not designed to do that.  They do provide an excellent overview of the subject, though, much like an introductory course on any subject.   One of the topics covered was Hinduism, of which I know little.   Another was Sikhism.  So, in the future, I will be looking for more information on those subjects.  I have already viewed its set of lectures on Buddhism and have some ideas about further research on that topic.  That's one of the benefits of courses such as this: it provides areas for further investigation.

I get these sets from the local library which has a wide variety of the Teaching Company offerings.  I have probably viewed around 50 of the sets over the past ten to fifteen years.  At present I have the following sets awaiting me:  The Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology,  How to Read and Understand Shakespeare, and The Great Tours:  Experiencing Medieval Europe.

The following is a link to the Teaching Company's web page where you can peruse its extensive collection.  The sets are for sale and can be purchased in a variety of formats, including downloads.

I hope some of you are interested sufficiently to browse through the Teaching Company's offerings.  It's free.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

A Minute Meditation

Outwardly the enlightened seem the same as everybody else.  Inwardly, however, their distinctive trait is that they have no goal, but simply allow life to enfold with no concern for where it is going.  For them, effort, cunning, and purpose are the results of having forgotten one's true nature.

-- Zi Gong --
from Taoist Wisdom
Timothy Freke, editor

No goal?  No plans for the future?  Just drift with what is happening at that time?   It seems to go against everything we in the West are taught, or so it seems to me.

This sounds strange to me.   But, then again, when people asked me long ago what I was going to be when I grew up, I never had an answer.  I can look back and see how one thing led to another; however, I never imagined my life would go as it did. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Loren Eiseley and Robert Silverberg: a strange pairing?

Robert Silverberg
Downward to the Earth
an SF novel

Loren Eiseley
The Star Thrower

I found the following conversation in Downward to the Earth,  a science fiction novel by Robert Silverberg.  It is set on an alien planet which Earth had colonized and then had to leave because it was discovered that there was a sentient/intelligent race native to the planet, something that should have been obvious from the beginning.  Why it wasn't is explained in the discussion between Gunderson, once head of the Company's operation on the planet and a tourist. 

"Watson asked, 'Why don't they have a civilization, then?'

'I've just told you that they do.'

'I mean cities, machines, books--'

'They're not physically equipped for writing, for building things, for any small manipulations,' Gunderson said.  'Don't you see, they have no hands?  A race with hands makes one kind of society.  A race built like elephants makes another.'''

At about the same time I read  Downward to the Earth, I also read a collection of essays, The Star Thrower,  by Loren Eiseley--anthropologist, poet, essayist.  In one of the essays, he brought up the research findings by Dr. John Lilly about the intelligence of the porpoise.  Eiseley asked an interesting question. 

"We are forced to ask ourselves whether native intelligence in another form than man's might be as high as or even higher than his own, yet be marked by no such material monuments as man has placed on the earth."

Eiseley then proposes a thought  experiment.   We will trade in our hands for flippers and the land for the ocean, bringing with us only our intelligence.

"The result is immediately evident and quite clear.  No matter how well we communicate with our fellows through the water medium we will never build drowned empires in the coral .  .  .  Over all that region of wondrous beauty we will exercise no more control than the simplest mollusk.  Even the octopus with flexible arms will build little shelters that we cannot imitate.  Without hands we will have only the freedom to follow the untrammeled sea winds across the planet."

And later, Eiseley paraphrases Melville's commentary about the sperm whale and in which he substitutes the porpoise: "'Genius in the porpoise? Has the porpoise ever written a book, spoken  speech?  No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it.  It is proved in his pyramidal silence.' "

"If man had sacrificed his hands for flukes, the moral might run, he would still be a philosopher, but there would have been taken from him the devastating power to wreak his thought upon the body of the  world.  Instead he would have lived and wandered, like the porpoise, homeless across currents and wind and oceans, intelligent, but forever the lonely and curious observer of unknown wreckage falling the through the blue light of eternity.   This would now be a deserved penitence for man.  Perhaps such a transformation would bring him once more into that mood of childhood innocence in which he talked successfully to all things living but had no power and no urge to harm.  It is worth at last a wistful thought that someday the porpoise may talk to us and we to him.  It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even to himself."

It is coincidence, of course, to find a similar topic in an SF novel and in a collection of essays.   But, finding the same topic in both made me think about it in a way that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't encountered it in two such different works.

It is a fascinating question; what would my life be if I had flippers instead of hands and feet and if I lived in the sea? 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Thomas Mann: "Disillusionment" Part 2

Thomas Mann
a short story

After rereading the post, I realized that I had focused on the relationship between the story and the song and had ignored some interesting points in the story, or at least, they seemed interesting to me.
I wondered about  the source of his disillusionment.    He apparently believes that the problem lies in the situations themselves rather than in any deficiency in himself:  the problem is external rather than internal.  I think it is an internal problem: it is inside him.  Either he has excessive expectations or he is deficient in some way.  

Another of those ignored points is that the disillusioned man brought forth both types of disappointments:  he recognized that he was disappointed not only in those situations where the joy did not reach the hoped for expected levels, but also in those situations where the grief or sadness also did not achieve those heights.  It is almost as if he recognized that both had to be necessary: the great joy as well as the great sadness or grief.  Is this true:  one must be able to experience both? 

I think there may be those who would have regretted missing out on the great joys of life while being happy to have escaped those situations of grief or sadness.   Could there be those who never missed feeling even the great joys of life?  In other words, are there people who would envy the disillusioned man?

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Thomas Mann and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and Peggy Lee?

Thomas Mann
a short story included in Stories of Three Decades
H. T.  Lowe-Porter, translator 

I, after a few decades of my own, dug out my copy of Thomas Mann's Stories of Three Decades, a collection of twenty-four short stories.  It was while reading the second story in the collection, "Disillusionment," that something strange happened.

It's not a complicated tale at all.  The first person narrator is sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Venice, enjoying the evening, when a man seated at the next table, begins to talk to him.  After a few opening pleasantries, the stranger suddenly  becomes quite serious.

"Do you know, my dear sir, what disillusionment is?"  he low, urgent tones, both hands leaning on his stick.  "Not a miscarriage in small, unimportant matters, but the great and general disappointment which everything, all of life, has in store?  No, of course, you do not know.  But from my youth up I have carried it about with me; it has made me lonely, unhappy, and a bit queer, I do not deny that." 

One night, when he was a small child, his parents' house caught on fire, and it was only with some difficulty that the entire family was saved.  After it was over, he thought:

"So this,' I thought, 'is a fire.   This is what it is like to have the house on fire.  Is this all there is to it?"

Later, the inevitable happens: romance enters his life.

"'Years ago I fell in love with a girl, a charming, gentle creature, whom it would have been my joy to protect and cherish.  But she loved me not. . .and she married another. . .Many a night I lay wide-eyed and wakeful; yet my greatest torture resided in the thought: 'So this is the greatest pain we can suffer.  Well, and what then--is this all?'"

Even the sea and a vast gorge disappoints him.  And the last disappointment hasn't occurred yet, but when it does:

"'So I dream and wait for death.  Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment!  At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: 'So this is the great experience--well, and what of it? What is it after all?'"

It was a sad story, and I felt sorry for the disillusioned man to some extent.  However, it seemed to me, though, that he had suffered from an exaggerated or excessive expectations about the upcoming events.  He was much like a child, or so it seemed to me.

As I read the story, it not only seemed familiar to me (very possible as I had read it a long time ago), but I also associated a tune with it.  Finally, at the end of the story, I remembered a hit song from the late '60s.   The song, of course, is "Is That All There is?" sung by Peggy Lee.

Some of the lyrics:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire
I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement
And I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames
And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire?

And then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world
We'd take take long walks down by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other's eyes
We were so very much in love
And then one day he went away and I thought I'd die, but I didn't
And when I didn't I said to myself, is that all there is to love?

I know what you must be saying to yourselves
If that's the way she feels about it why doesn't she just end it all?
Oh, no, not me I'm not ready for that final disappointment
'Cause I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you
When that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is

I went a bit further and found the following in a Wikipedia article titled "Is That All There Is?"  The following is an excerpt from that article.

"The song was inspired by the 1896 story Disillusionment (Enttäuschung) by  Thomas Mann.   Jerry Leiber's wife Gaby Rodgers (née Gabrielle Rosenberg) was born in Germany, lived in the Netherlands. She escaped ahead of the Nazis, and settled in Hollywood where she had a brief film career in films noir.  Gaby introduced Leiber to the works of  Thomas Mann. The narrator in Mann's story tells the same stories of when he was a child. A dramatic adaptation of Mann's story was recorded by Erik Bauserfeld and Bernard Mayes; it was broadcast on San Francisco radio station  KPFA in 1964."

The three events mentioned in both, of course, are the house fire, the unrequited love, and death.   Of course, not all of the incidents in the story were included in the song, and the visit  to the circus in the song was not in Mann's story.  Two disappointments in the story that are not included in the song are visits to a magnificent river gorge scene in the mountains and a visit to the seashore.   The river gorge scene could have become a trip to the Grand Canyon wherein Peggy Lee remarks that it's just a big hole in the ground and "Is that all there is?"

Rereading for me is positive pleasure.  Of course, after all these years, it will almost be like reading them for the first time--one of the advantages of a slowly decaying memory.   I wonder what else I shall find in the remaining 20+ stories.  If you are looking for a collection of literate and intriguing short stories, I would like to recommend  Stories  of  Three Decades  by Thomas Mann.

I know there have been many poems that were adapted for songs, but this is the first short story that I have found that has been turned into a song.  There probably are others, but so far I haven't come across them.

Do you know of any stories that became songs?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Deng Ming-Dao: invisibility

No. 203

In this competitive world, it is best to be invisible.  Go through life without showing off, attracting attention to yourself, or making flamboyant gestures. These will only attract the hostility of others.  The wise accomplish all that they want without arousing the envy or scorn of others.  They make achievements only for the sake of fulfilling  their inner yearnings.
       -- Deng Ming-Dao --
from  365 Tao: Daily Meditations 

Is this best today?  I wonder what kind of world we would have if people followed this as a general rule?


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lawrence Durrell's The Avignon Quintet: an overall view (my view anyway)

The Avignon Quintet  (five novels)


The following quotation from Constance provides a glimpse into the workings of  The Avignon Quintet. 

"If real people could cohabit with the creatures of their imagination--say, in a novel--then what sort of children would be the fruit of their union: changelings?"

Lawrence Durrell
"The Avignon Quintet" (aka The Quincunx)

The following is my reading of the structure of  "The Avignon Quintet."  I don't know if it will make sense to anybody else, but it helps me keep the characters and events of the Quintet straight.    FL is the abbreviation for Fiction Level.

FL0:  Lawrence Durrell, the Person.

FL1:  Lawrence Durrell, the Novelist.   I read somewhere that the Person creates a fictional construct who is the writer, sometimes referred to as the second self or the implied author.  So, Lawrence Durrell, the Novelist, is a creation of of Lawrence Durrell, the Person, and it is this fictional construct who wrote  "The Avignon Quintet."   One might wonder about the common practice of pseudonyms or aliases adopted by many writers in this context.

FL2:  The Avignon Quintet:

Monsieur, the first novel, has a unique structure. It has five parts.  These five parts constitute the external or the Durrell Monsieur.   I call the first four parts the internal or Blanford Monsieur.  These four parts  contain the story of  Piers, Sylvia, and Bruce.  The fifth part of the Durrell or external Monsieur introduces the reader to Aubrey Blanford, who has "written" the internal Monsieur

The remaining four novels tell the reader of the lives of Aubrey Blanford and those around him.  As the readers go through these four novels, they see how Blanford has modified and combined the personalities of the people he knows and the events of their lives to create the characters in the first four parts of Monsieur.  
Major Characters in the Avignon Quintet:  Aubrey Blanford, Constance, Hillary, Sylvia,  Sam 

FL3:  Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness  (the internal or Blanford Monsieur)

This is the internal novel "written" by Aubrey Blanford.  It takes up the first four parts of the external or Durrell Monsieur.  The three most significant characters are Piers de Nogaret, his sister Sylvie, and Bruce Drexel, the narrator of the internal novel.  The three share a long, complex, and intimate relationship.  

Important characters:  Piers, Sylvie, Bruce, Sutcliffe, Pia, Toby,

What is most confusing is that the reader encounters FL3, the internal Monsieur, first and, moreover, doesn't realize what is going on until Part 5 when Aubrey Blanford is introduced.  At this point the reader then moves from FL3 to FL2.

But, these fiction levels are permeable.  Characters from FL3 frequently cross the line and interact with characters in FL2.  Some examples--

FL2:   Aubrey Blanford talks to Sutcliffe, the novelist he created in Monsieur, the internal novel.  At times it's difficult to determine whether Sutcliffe is only Blanford's sounding board, existing only in his mind, or whether Sutcliffe has  somehow become an independent person at Blanford's level. However, in Constance, the third novel in the Avignon Quintet,  Constance meets Sutcliffe and Pia, who have now  moved from FL3 to FL2. 

FL3:  Sutcliffe, a character in Blanford's internal novel,  says he wrote a novel about Bruce, Piers, and Sylvie.  His novel  begins with the same words that Blanford begins his novel, the internal Monsieur in FL2.

While reading the Quintet, I couldn't help thinking about Philip K. Dick, the SF writer who delights in creating works in which the boundary between reality and fantasy blurs and frequently disappears.

To add to the fun, Durrell sends several of his characters to Alexandria during WWII and also brings  in several characters from The Alexandria Quartet: Pursewarden and Melissa, while two members of the British military in Egypt, Maskelyne and Telford, make brief appearances. The two series, The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet, overlap chronologically, both taking place during WWII.

Some of the themes and issues brought up in The Avignon Quintet

--the German occupation of France during WWII
--the Knights Templar and their lost treasure
--various forms of love
--Provence and Alexandria, although Provence is the place where most of the novels take place
--Freud and psychoanalytic theory

I find The Avignon Quintet a complex and, at times, a confusing work, which may account for much of my interest in it.  I've now read it at least twice, and possibly three times now.  No doubt, I shall reread it in the near future.

I hope I haven't confused you too much.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Han Shan (Cold Mountain) a question


Is there a self or not
is this me or not
this is what I contemplate
sitting in a trance above a cliff
between my feet green grass grows
and on my head red dust settles
I have even seen pilgrims
leave offerings by my bier 

-- Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
edited and translated by Red Pine 

This is a strange one from Han Shan.  The poem has him meditating up in the mountains, a common enough occurrence, regardless of culture, religious tradition or continent.  But then, there's those last two lines--I have even seen pilgrims/ leave offerings by my bier.   Does this suggest that he is dead but still wondering about a question asked long ago by the Buddhists, and is now taken up by some contemporary psychologists.

Those last two lines bring poems by another poet, Emily Dickinson, to mind.  She also posits an awareness after death.  However, I don't remember that asked any questions; it seemed as though her reaction was a calm and detached acceptance.

Is there a self or not

I know what my answer would be, and as usual I'm from another era, one that's thousands of years before those early Buddhists and some contemporary psychologists.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Minute Meditation

In the arts, one must distinguish, of course, between the lie and the tall story that the audience is not expected to believe.  The tall-story teller gives himself away, either by a wink or by an exaggerated poker face: the born liar always looks absolutely natural.

-- W. H. Auden --
from his Introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy

Born liars look like they are telling the truth and that they actually believe what they are saying, even to the point that contradictory lies never bother them.  They just blame the ones who expose their contradictory tales.