Friday, December 15, 2017

A Minute Meditation

 Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong.  They are conflicts between two rights.

-- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel --

How does one decide when faced with this conflict?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Loren Eiseley: The Long Loneliness (from The Star Thrower)

Loren Eiseley
"The Long Loneliness"
an essay in The Star Thrower

The first two paragraphs of "The Long Loneliness,"  one of the essays in  The Star Thrower.

There is nothing more alone in the universe than man.  He is alone because he has the intellectual capacity to know that he is separated by a vast gulf of social memory and experiment from the lives of his animal associates.  He has entered into the strange world of history, of social and intellectual change, while his brothers of the field and forest remain subject to the invisible laws of biological evolution.  Animals are molded by natural forces they do not comprehend.  To their minds there is no past and no future.  There is only the everlasting present of a single generation--its trails in the forest,  its hidden pathways of the air and in the sea.   

Man, by contrast, is alone with the knowledge of his history until the day of his death.  When we were children we wanted to talk to animals and struggled to understand why this was impossible.  Slowly we gave up the attempt as we grew into the solitary world of human adulthood, the rabbit was left on the lawn, the dog was relegated to his kennel.  Only in acts of inarticulate compassion, in rare and hidden moments of communion with nature, does man briefly  escape his solitary destiny.  Frequently in science  fiction he dreams of world with creatures whose communicative power is the equivalent of his own.

Later in the essay, he introduces  the research of Dr. John Lily and his studies on the porpoise.  So far, we haven't been able to determine whether porpoises actually communicate as we do or whether they have simply evolved a complex signaling system with little or no flexibility.   Maybe, some day,  we will find that we aren't as alone as we think. What will it be like to encounter another sentient species in the universe?

I wonder if this sense of isolation has anything to do with the prevalence of talking animals and fairies and trolls and dragons and all sorts of talking creatures that don't exist.  Most cultures have myths and legends and tales filled with talking animals, some of whom actually exist,  while others are products of creative and imaginative minds..  Tradition has it that King Solomon owned a ring of power that enabled him to understand and communicate with animals.  

Eiseley's comments also resonate with much of SF.  Stories about aliens are very common in SF, and there's even a subgenre called "First Contact."    How will we communicate with them?  Or, can we?   And, what is behind the belief in UFOs so prevalent today?  Is that another sign of that loneliness?

In many SF tales of contact with aliens, it is often observed by someone in the story that this will be the most important event in human history.  Is it and why?

It seems to me that we as a species spend a considerable amount of time fantasizing about   communicating with other species, real or imagined.  In addition we also spend a lot of time trying to communicate with other species here on this planet and attempting to detect signs of communication out there among the stars.

Eiseley states, There is nothing more alone in the universe than man.  Is he right? 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Emily Dickinson: "Success is counted sweetest"

No. 67

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated -- dying --
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

-- Emily Dickinson --
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

For Emily Dickinson, this seems like a fairly straightforward poem.   Only those who have never won can really appreciate victory.   But, still, I wonder.  How could one who has never experienced victory, realistically understand or comprehend it? The more I consider this poem, the more perplexed I become.

As usual, I must ask if I am  missing something here in this poem by Dickinson.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Minute Meditation


"Plans made swiftly and intuitively are likely to have flaws.  Plans made carefully and  comprehensively are sure to."
-- Robert Grudin --
Time and the Art of Living

This seems to contradict conventional wisdom or common sense, no?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Spirit of Place

Lawrence Durrell
Spirit of Place:  Letters and Essays on Travel
426 pages
Alan G. Thomas, Editor

I am now embarked upon a project of reading and rereading everything I have and can find that Lawrence Durrell has written.  One of those works which I have is Spirit of Place:  Letters and Essays on Travel, which is slightly misleading because it also includes excerpts from some of his early novels. Normally I don't read letters written by and received by authors.  I don't know why I don't find them interesting, but that's a fact. However, I must say that I'm finding these letters to be engrossing, probably because Durrell frequently refers to the place where he is writing this letter and also to whatever he's working on at that time.  In addition, I'm also picking up references and clues to a number of the themes that permeate his works.  One of them, and an important one, is  what he calls "Spirit of Place." 

The following quotation is from his essay, "Landscape and Character," first published in the New York Times magazine section, (June 12, 1960).

"'You write,' says a friendly critic in Ohio, 'as if the landscape were more important than the characters.'  If not exactly true, this is near enough the mark, for I have evolved a private notion about the importance of landscape, and I willingly admit to seeing 'characters' almost as functions of a landscape.  This has only come about in recent years after a good deal of travel--though here again I doubt if this is quite the word, for I am not really a 'travel-writer' so much as a 'residence-writer.'    My books are always about living in places, not just rushing through them.  But as you get to know Europe slowly, tasting the wines, cheeses and characters of the different countries you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all--the spirit of place.   Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture--will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wild flowers.  We tend to see 'culture' as a sort of historic pattern dictated by the human will, but for me this is no longer absolutely true.  I don't believe the British character, for example, or the German has changed a jot since Tacitus first described it; and so long as people keep getting born Greek or French or Italian their culture-productions will bear the unmistakable signature of the place. "

Durrell, later in the essay,  makes this point even more clearly and emphatically.

"I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the country with Tartars, and within two generations discover, to your astonishment, that the national characteristics were back at norm--the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat."

The significance of the place and its control over the inhabitants occurs in several of Durrell's works.  For example, in Justine, we read

I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together:  the city which use us as its flora--precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!.  .  . I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past.  It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.

The human residents in essence were puppets acting out Alexandria's conflicts, deluded into thinking they were responsible, that they were in control.  It is the spirit of the place which controls them.  I can't help but think of the following quatrain from the Rubaiyat of  Omar Khayyam:

Quatrain XLIX

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
   Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays.
And one by one back in the Closet lays.  

I find this a fascinating concept, one that intrigues me, but I wonder if Durrell hasn't gone a bit too far.  Would the second generation of Tartars exhibit those same national characteristics-- "the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat"?

I believe the environment does play a role in our lives, making some things possible and others impossible or at least highly unlikely, influencing our behavior to some extent, but just how much is the question.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Kenko: on doubt

No 98

When in doubt whether or not to do something, generally it is best not to do it.

-- Kenko --
Essays in Idleness

Kenko is most assuredly a cautious fellow.

Generally, if I have doubts about doing something, I will wait.  After some time has passed, I frequently decide that I don't need to do it.  However, sometimes I will close my eyes and jump right in.  

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Gregory Benford: "White Creatures"

Gregory Benford
"White Creatures"
a short story
from The Best of Gregory Benford

The story begins:  

The aliens strap him in.  He cannot feel the bindings, but he knows they must be there; he cannot move.  Or perhaps it is the drug.   They must have given him something because his world is blurred, spongy.   The white creatures are flowing shapes in watery light.  He feels numb. the white creatures are moving about him, making high chittering noises. 

This appears to be an alien abduction story.   However, it isn't as straightforward as that.  The story has two narratives: one is of Merritt's experiences as a prisoner of the aliens and the second, of his memories that one would expect may explain what caused or led to his abduction.

When the second narrative begins we learn that Merritt is on Puerto Rico and is a technician involved with a seti project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), probably at the Arecibo Observatory, although I don't remember it being mentioned in the story. 

While the two narratives alternate between the inexplicable things being done to Merritt and Merritt's memories, something doesn't seem right.  His memories cover a considerable passage of time, decades possibly, from his affair with Erika, the seti project's director's wife, to his resignation and subsequent employment at NASA where he becomes immersed in the study of other star systems, searching for those which approximate earth-like conditions.  

He is totally dedicated to his work, and the only personal relationship he has is with Erika, the now ex-wife of the project director.  She has created a career out of conducting guided tours of  young, wealthy businessmen, and whenever she is in town, they get together.  Her charm and attractiveness are her strengths, but as the years pass, these begin to fade.  Finally she decides on the long sleep, to be awakened when effective rejuvenation techniques are developed.  

Merritt doesn't understand her.  They live in two worlds:  she in the physical here and now, while he in essence lives in the future, absorbed in searching the universe for answers.   Centuries ago Merritt might have been a theologian or philosopher searching the heavens for answers to the perennial questions.   Or, perhaps a priest/astrologer searching the heavens for signs of or hints from a divinity or divinities.  Is his now scientific search for signs of life in the universe that different?   What is also surprising is that Merritt never considers going for the long sleep, to be awakened when there is definite proof of intelligent life on other planets.  I wonder if, for Merritt, the search is what is important, not the result.

Some years later, seeking something, he visited the Krishna temple. . .they led him through a beaded curtain to the outside.  They entered a small garden through a bamboo gate, noisily slipping the wooden latch.  A small man sat in lotus position on a broad swath of green . . . Merrick explained his feelings, his rational skepticism about religion in any form.  He was a scientist.  But perhaps there was more to these matters than met the eye, he said hopefully.

The teacher picked up a leaf, smiling, and asked why anyone should spend his life studying the makeup of this leaf.  What could be gained from it?

Any form of knowledge has a chance of resonating with other kinds, Merrick replied.

So? the man countered.

Suppose the universe is a parable, Merrick said haltingly.  By studying part of it, or finding other intelligences in it and discovering their viewpoints, perhaps we could learn something of the design that was intended.  Surely the laws of science, the origin of life, were no accident.

The teacher pondered for a moment.  No, he said, they are not accidents.  There may be other  creatures in this universe, too.  But those laws, those beings, they are not important.  The physical laws are the bars of a cage. The central point is not to study the bars, but to get out of the cage.  

Merrick could not follow this.  It seemed to him that the act of discovering things, of reaching out, was everything.  There was something immortal about it.

The small man blinked and said, it is nothing.  This world is an insane asylum for souls.  Only the flawed remain here.

Merrick began to talk about his work with NASA and Erika.  The small man waved away these points and shook his head.  No, he said.  It is nothing.

(The italicized part above was actually one paragraph which I broke down) 

Merrick can not understand the teacher's dismissal of the physical universe just as he didn't understand Erika's immersion in it.  He seemed to be somewhere in the middle: the physical universe was important as something to study and learn from.  While he went beyond Erika's immersion in the physical universe, he could not leave it behind as the teacher had insisted that he must.

Later, he encounters a woman in the street whom he thinks is Erika.  However, when their eyes meet, she shows no reaction, and Merrick realizes that his interest is purely intellectual.  That part of his life was over, for he hadn't been with a woman in years.

It is ultimately a sad story, for Merritt has grown old, but he refuses to believe it.  He hadn't noticed the years passing by because of his obsession.  He doesn't even have the satisfaction of having his abduction prove the existence of aliens, for those white creatures are doctors and nurses, and in his drugged state he doesn't recognize an operating room.

Perhaps I'm going too far here, but it seems to me that differing attitudes to life and existence are presented here.  At one end of the spectrum is Erika's immersion in the physical world, while at the other end is the teacher's dismissal of it as unimportant, "it is nothing."  Merrick would seem to be in the middle somewhere: the physical world is important, not in itself, but as a means of finding its purpose, its design.   But, while it appears that three views are presented,  I can't see any conclusion to be drawn from them as to which would be the most fulfilling one.

I am unhappy with my reading of the story.  I wonder what I have missed or misread.  I shall have to return to this tale sometime to see how it has "changed."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Minute Meditation

We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow-citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease.
           --  H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) --
             Prejudices: First Series, I: Criticism of Criticism of Criticism

Most of us, including me, believe that we have the best way of doing things--the best way of acting, the best way of thinking--and forget the most important last two words--FOR ME.  Your way may be different than mine, and if it works, great.  However, don't try to improve my life by trying to force it on me.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Russell Hoban: Kleinzeit

Russell Hoban
a novel

When I first began reading Kleinzeit I immediately thought of Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky."   Wrong!  It soon became clear that there was a significant difference.  In "Jabberwocky," Carroll creates words that almost make sense, so that one gets only a general sense of what is happening.   Hoban doesn't make up words; he uses real words  but he uses them in a strange way.  Fortunately they only occur in limited situations, usually when medical personnel are discussing Kleinzeit's symptoms.

For example . . .

Sister nodded with closed eyes, thought of Kleinzeit's blood in the phial she had held, warm in her hand.  The tests had shown a decibel count of 72, a film speed of 18,000 and a negative polarity of 12 percent.  She didn't like the polarity, it might go either way, and the decibels were on the dodgy side.  But his film speed!  She'd never had an 18,000 before.

And later. . .

'That's why I'm asking,' said Dr. Pink.  'I'm not worried about your diapason.  That sort of dissonance is quite a common thing, and with any luck we'll clear it up fairly soon.  The hypotenuse of course is definitely skewed, but not enough to account for a 12 percent polarity.'  Fleshky and Potluck nodded, Krishna shook his head.  'On the other hand,'  Dr. Pink continued,  'the X-Rays  indicate that your asymptotes may be going hyperbolic.'  He felt Kleinzeit here and there  warily, as if sizing up a combatant hidden in him.  ' Not too happy with your pitch.'

Aside from the occasional linguistic muddle, the reader soon discovers that  everything talks: the hospital, the corridors in the underground subway, a mirror, the hospital bed . . .

It is night and Kleinzeit has left the hospital and is standing by the square in front of the hospital.

The day knocked three times at his eyeballs.
Morning for Mr. Kleinzeit, said the day.
I'm Mr. Kleinzeit, said Kleinzeit.
Sign here, please.
Kleinzeit signed.
Thank you very much, sir, said the day, and handed him the morning.
Right, said Kleinzeit.  The square was wide-awake with people, had a hum of cars around it.  Backdrop of buildings, rooftops, sky, traffic noises, world.

Later, the hospital speaks:

Six o'clock in the morning, and Hospital had had enough of sleep.  Drink tea, it said.  Patients sighed, cursed, groaned, opened or closed their eyes, came out  from behind oxygen masks, drank tea.

Or, Kleinzeit's encounter with his mirror one morning: 

He put his face in front of the bathroom mirror. 
I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit.
Not my problem, said the mirror.

This does not sound like a very congenial way to begin the day--perhaps an omen, an ominous one of things to come?  

These are not rare occurrences in the novel; they can be found on almost every page.  I find them to be the major attraction in Kleinzeit, as I turn the pages, wondering what next.  By the way, there is a plot here--it's noticeable if you take an overview and ignore most of what's happening in the individual chapters.  And for the romantically inclined, there's even a love subplot  (or perhaps the major plot, depending on what you're looking for in a novel).

This is my second reading. There will be more, for who knows what I've missed this time around.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Carl Sandburg: "Muckers"


 Twenty men stand watching the muckers.
       Stabbing the sides of the ditch
       Where clay gleams yellow,
       Driving the blades of their shovels
       Deeper and deeper for the new gas mains, 
      Wiping sweat off their faces
                 With red bandanas.

The muckers work on  . . .  pausing  . . .  to pull
Their boots out of suckholes where they slosh.

    Of the twenty looking on
Ten murmur, "O, it's a hell of a job,"
Ten others,  "Jesus, I wish I had the job."  

-- Carl Sandburg --
Complete Poems 

Two groups of ten and while they stand next to each other, they occupy different worlds, or so it seems to Carl Sandburg.   It reminds me of that saying attributed to a Native American:  Condemn no one until you have walked a mile in that person's shoes.  As I look back, I see too many times when I forgot this.

This is a very physical  poem: ditch, clay, stabbing, blades, shovels, sweat, boots in suckholes, slosh, red bandanas.  .  ..

Monday, November 13, 2017

Bokeh, a film

Bokeh, a film

A young couple, Americans, are on vacation in Iceland.  One morning they awake to find that everybody else has disappeared--completely disappeared.  There are no bodies; no signs of any disaster.  The only change they can see is that the human race has vanished and only they remain.  Radio, TV, and phones are silent.  The world has gone silent, whether it is local in Iceland or international.  They have no idea of why or how this happened nor why they alone remain. 

Bokeh is a quiet film with no monsters, mutants, aliens, car chases, or devastation found so frequently in post-apocalyptic films.   To a considerable extent, it reminds me of another film, a documentary that discussed what would happen if the human race just simply disappeared. Unfortunately I can't remember the title.

The film focuses on their attempts to deal with the situation, and with each other.  While they are in love, this is the first time they have been forced to interact solely with each other for any extensive length of time.   In the past, other people  have always been nearby, along with their work and life in the 21st century, with its distractions, crises, and pleasures.  Now, for the first time, they are really alone and are faced with the reality of being alone for a long time--just the two of them.  

They appear to live in the present.  There is little thought for the future.  Their main concern seems to be to exist.  They ignore the potential Adam and Eve setting for they do not even speak of children.  It was as if they thought only of themselves and weren't concerned that the human race might die out with them. 

The photography was one of the strong points of the film .  This could almost pass as as travelogue for they took advantage of Iceland's scenery and filmed much of it.  It almost made me want to schedule a trip to Iceland.  If you are curious about Iceland and can't find a travel film, rent this film. 

 In the press notes, the writer-directors explain that "bokeh"is a photographic term for the part of a photo that's out of focus, the background that helps to set the foreground.   In their film, the science fiction scenario of this silent apocalypse is part of that background.

I must admit that I wasn't that impressed immediately after watching the film.  However, I have been thinking about it, on and off, since then.  Something about the film intrigues me,  but I don't know what it is.  I just may rent it again to find out.  If so, that suggests that the film had affected me at some level below the conscious level.

Bokeh is a puzzlement.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ray Bradbury: "The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind"

Ray Bradbury
"The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind"
a short story
found  in Twice 22

This, of course, is a fairy tale, and that means it's not true.  This is fortunate because there's a great evil in the story.  The problem is that the great evil is what many believe is responsible for the superiority of Western Civilization.  Of course, they don't believe it's evil, but a good thing, and if Western Civ were ever to give this up, it would no longer be superior.  Anyway, here's the tale . . .

The Mandarin was upset.  He had watched the neighboring town of Kwan-Si grow in size so that it was as large as his town.  What was worse, now, was that the people were building a wall.

(from the story)

"'But why should a wall two miles away make my good father sad and angry all within the hour?' asked his daughter quietly.

'They build their wall,' said the Mandarin, 'in the shape of a pig!  Do you see?   Our  own city wall is built in the shape of an orange.  That pig will devour us, greedily!'


They both sat thinking.

Life was full of symbols and omens.  Demons lurked everywhere.  Death swam in the wetness of an eye, the turn of a gull's wing meant rain, a fan held so, the tilt of a roof, and yes, even a city wall was of immense importance.  Travelers and tourists, caravans, musicians, artists, coming upon those two towns, equally judging the portents, would say, 'The city shaped like orange? No! I will enter the city shaped like a pig and prosper, eating all, growing fat with good luck and prosperity!'"


The daughter has an idea which the Mandarin immediately accepts.  He calls the stonemasons together and tells them to rebuild their wall in the shape of a club "'which may beat the pig and drive it off.'"

"Rejoicing, the stonemasons rebuilt the wall."  But the celebration was short-lived for the people of Kwan-Si rebuilt their wall into the shape of a great fire which would burn the Mandarin's club.   The Mandarin then retaliated with a  wall built in the shape of a lake that would extinguish the fire. The people of Kwan-Si rebuilt their wall in the shape of a mouth which would swallow the lake.   In short, a wall-shape-race had begun.  And so it went, for many months.

Finally it became too much, for the people stopped doing everything except reshaping the wall.

 (the story)
"Sickness spread in the city like a pack of evil dogs.  Shops closed.  The population, working now steadily for endless months upon the changing of the walls, resembled Death;himself, clattering his white bones like musical instruments in the wind.  Funerals began to appear in the streets, though it wads the middle of the summer, a time when all should be tending and harvesting.  The Mandarin fell so ill that he had his bed drawn up by the silken screen, and there he lay, miserably giving his architectural orders."


The race ended.  The people could do no more.   The daughter told him to send for Kwan-Si.  They met; both mandarins were ill and had to be carried to the meeting.  The Mandarin's daughter appears and orders the servants to carry the mandarins outside.  There she points out several kites.

(the story)

"'What does it (a kite) need to sustain it and make it beautiful and truly spiritual?'

'The wind, of course!' said the others.

'And what do the sky and the wind need to make them beautiful?'

'A kite, of course--many kites, to beak the monotony, the sameness of the sky. Colored kites, flying!'

'So,' said the Mandarin's daughter.  'You, Kwan-Si, will make a last rebuilding of your town to resemble nothing more nor less than the wind.  And we shall build like a golden kite.  The wind will beautify the kite and carry it to wondrous heights.  And the kite will break the sameness of the wind's existence and give it purpose and meaning. One without the other is nothing.  Together, all will be beauty and co-operation and a long and enduring life.

.  .  .
And so, in time, the towns became the Town of the Golden Kite and the Town of the Silver Wind.  And harvestings were  harvested and business tended again, and the flesh returned, and disease ran off like a frightened jackal.  And on every night of the year the inhabitants in the Town of the Kite could hear the good clear wind sustaining them.  And those in the Town of the Wind could hear the kites singing, whispering, rising, and beautifying them."


Of course, this is a fairy tale, so it is not true.  Competition is the great thing, and co-operation is OK, in its place, a small place though.    I'm sure most would agree, right?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Eric Hoffer: re-seeing the ordinary

No. 90

Familiarity blurs and flattens.  Both the artist and the thinker are preoccupied with the birth of the ordinary and the discovery of the known.  They both conserve life by recapturing the childhood of things. 

-- Eric Hoffer --
Reflections on the Human Condition 

In the introduction to one of his stories, Conrad is quoted as saying that the work of the artist is to make the reader see, above all, to make the reader see.  I find it interesting that this could refer to something new or something old, just as Hoffer suggests in his comment.  I think I remember that Wallace Stevens said something similar--the job of the poet was to rub off the patina that obscures words over time.

Something I have noticed, also, is that after being away from home for a week or more, everything at home seems slightly different when I return--newer, if that makes any sense.  Of course, that feeling doesn't last long.   

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Haiku Bells

Long ago I believe bells, church bells, played an important role in everyday life, especially in rural areas.  I wonder if that's still true today.   Growing up in Chicago, I don't remember bells as being especially important or noticeable.  I wonder if we lost something when we moved from the countryside to urban areas.

     Cloud of cherry-bloom . . .
Tolling twilight bell . . .Temple
            Ueno?   Asakura?
                  -- Basho --

I remember reading in a novel (Proust?) about a traveler listening to the sounds of church bells in the village he has just left, when he reaches the crest of a hill and now hears also the sound of bells from the village he is approaching.

       Silent the old town . . .
The scent of flowers floating . . .
          And evening bell
            -- Basho --

What must that be like?  Silence....the scent of flowers... joined by the sound of a bell

              Voices of two bells
That speak from twilight temples . . .
               Ah!  cool dialogue
                       -- Buson --

I never connected bells with temperature, but cool is very apt. 

             Butterfly asleep
Folded soft on temple bell . . .
     Then bronze gong rang!
         -- Buson --

Poor butterfly!

               In the holy dusk
Nightingales begin their psalms . . .
         Good!  the dinner gong!
                   -- Buson --

Interesting shift from "holy dusk" and the nightingales' "psalms."  Contrary to the usual portrayal, these bells lead one from the sacred to the profane.

Ah!  I intended
Never never to grow old . . .
     Listen:  New Year's bell!
                 -- Jokun --

Is New Year's a time for sorrow at the passing of the old or joy at the entrance of the new?

     We stand still to hear
Tinkle of far temple bell . . .
      Willow-leaves falling
               -- Basho --

I think the tinkle of that far off temple bell would be the perfect accompaniment for those falling leaves.  I can close my eyes and see and hear them.

The calling bell
Travels the curling mist-ways . . .
             Autumn morning
                   -- Basho --

a bell and mist--again perfect for autumn

Are bells still important in places?

Above haiku are found in A Little Treasury of Haiku
Translations by Peter Beilenson. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 224

I never saw a discontented tree.  They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.

-- John Muir --
from  John Muir: In His own words

He may have a point here.  

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

An History of Ancient Egypt

An History of Ancient Egypt
A Teaching Company Production
Eight DVD set
48 lectures, 30 minutes each

This is an excellent introduction to the early history of Egypt.  It begins about 700,000 years ago with the discovery of a hand axe and ends with the death of Cleopatra, the last independent ruler of Egypt, on August 12, 30 BC.

Along the way we see the development of the pyramids and temples, how they developed from relatively simply structures to the magnificent structures that are slowly crumbling over the centuries.  The first graves were pits in the ground and covered with rocks to protect the bodies from predators, mainly jackals.  The next step was the placing of a large rectangular, flat-roofed structure, a mastaba, with rooms and a burial chamber.  Eventually one king had several of these mastabas of deceasing size placed over his burial chamber.  Eventually these developed into the familiar pyramid shapes.  

The lecturer varies at times from a strict chronological historical presentation by introducing related topics.  Some of these are

--some information about Egyptologists and their methods, including an extensive discussion of the effect that Napoleon's invasion of Egypt had on the science of Egyptology:  according to the lecturer, Napoleon brought, along with his army, hundreds of scientists, historians, artists, and anybody else who might be helpful in the study of ancient Egypt.  In effect, Napoleon created the scientific study of ancient Egypt.

--mummies, three lectures on mummies (the lecturer's specialty), including one on his attempt to create a mummy using what he could learn about the Egyptian method.

--one lecture each on the Biblical stories of Joseph in Egypt and the Exodus which included a discussion of the so-far existing evidence, both external archeological findings and internal evidence within the Biblical accounts,  and a guess as to when they might have  taken place.

 The last lecture included a brief overview of the course and then he discussed the effects of Egyptian history and culture on contemporary films and books.  He, of course, mentioned the various mummy films and  the Elizabeth Taylor film of Cleopatra.   In addition, he mentioned the mystery series written by Elizabeth Peters (who is a specialist on ancient Egypt) and that the hero, Amelia Peabody, is really a caricature of Sir Flinders Petrie, a highly respected Egyptologist.

Overall, I would say that the lectures provide an excellent introduction to the early history of Egypt.   He also includes a bibliography for those wishing to go further in the study of Egypt or on some .specific topics that the viewers may wish to follow up on.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Cavafy: "Desires"

Cavafy is the poet celebrated by Lawrence Durrell in his "The Alexandria Quartet."  It was those frequent references to him and his poetry that got me interested in him. 


Like beautiful bodies of the dead who had not grown old
and they shut them, with tears, in a magnificent mausoleum,,
with roses at the head and jasmine at the feet--
that is how desires look that have passed
without fulfillment; without one of them having achieved
a night of sensual delight, or a moon lit morn. 

-- Cavafy --
The Complete Poems of Cavafy 

A very sad poem, or so it seems to me.  It's also a strange one, primarily because I don't react the same way as Cavafy.   For me, an unfulfilled desire simply withers away over time.  There is no everlasting body in state nor any long-lasting feeling of regret.   Perhaps there's something wrong with me?    

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Gene Wolfe: "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories"

Gene Wolfe
"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories"
from The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive
Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction

In spite of the misleading title, this is a short story, and the title does make sense, although in Gene Wolfe's usual quirky manner.  As I read this tale, I couldn't help but be reminded of James Thurber's Walter Mitty.  While Thurber's Mitty is a middle-aged man, and  Wolfe's character is Tadman Babcock, a young boy,  both use fantasy to deal with reality.  Mitty fantasizes to escape his boring life while Tackie shields himself from his troubled home situation.  

Tackie's parents are divorced, and he's living with his mother on a small peninsula in a boarding house run by his mother.  There is one boarder (I think he's a boarder), Jason, who has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Tackie's mother.  Tackie's mother has a drug problem.  She is also trying to capture a neighbor, Doctor Black, in the bonds of holy matrimony.  Several aunts are also regularly present, one of whom is the sister of his father.  She is determined to get Tackie's mother married off, so as to reduce her brother's alimony payments, and Doctor Black appears to be a very acceptable candidate.

However, on closer reading, several significant differences between Wolfe's tale and Thurber's tale.  Walter Mitty makes himself the hero of his fantasies, the super spy, the brave soldier, etc, while Tackie interacts with the characters in a book he is reading, a book that Jason stole from the store when Tackie asked him to buy it for him.  The book is very familiar, although no title is given.  It appears to be a revision of two very popular novels.  Initially it's the story of shipwrecked Captain Philip Ransom who drifts ashore on an island occupied by Doctor Death and other strange creatures.    It seems as though Doctor Death employs surgical techniques on various creatures, one of whom is Bruno, who originally was a Saint Bernard, but is now a shambling hulk, vaguely humanoid in shape. In his first encounter,  Tackie doesn't rescue Ransom but does help him to make it safely to the shore.

Captain Ransom  manages to escape the good Doctor and at the same time rescue a beautiful young maiden, Talar of the Long Eyes,  who just happens to be the queen of "(a) city older than civilization, buried in the jungle here on this little island."

This city, Talar, tells him is the last remnant of the lost civilization of Lemuria.  In addition, Talar tells him that he shouldn't be surprised at the degraded appearance of the other inhabitants of the city for they have degenerated from their original appearance while she alone still possesses the original appearance of the founders of their civilization.  This is why she was made their queen.

As I mentioned earlier, it does sound familiar.   There are at least three stories here: the book that Tackie reads seems to be a combination of two famous novels, while Tackie's situation is the third.  One might argue that the reference to Lemuria suggests a fourth, but I'm not aware of any novel that is set in Lemuria, although one might argue that everything said about Lemuria is fiction.

But, as I read I began to realize that this was a much more involved story than that of a troubled boy simply escaping from his home situation.  He does not construct the situation in order to make himself, as does Mitty, the hero of the story.  Instead, he seems to play the role of a minor supporting character in the story.

My initial assumption was that these encounters took place, just as does Mitty's fantasies, in Tackie's imagination.  However, his encounter with Bruno takes place in his own home.  One of his aunts sees him talking to Doctor Death,  and then Captain Ransom and Talar appear at a costume party, again in his home.  And this time, someone at the party sees them waking by and greets them.  Wolfe has crossed now into that gray area between consensus reality and fiction, or perhaps the imagination..

At one point, Tackie tells the Doctor that he doesn't want to finish the book because some characters will probably die and others will go away.  Doctor Death responds, "'But if you start the book again we'll all be back . . .  It's the same with you, Tackie.  You're too young to realize it, but it's the same with you.'"  Is Doctor Death suggesting some sort of repetitive universe or reincarnation or simply recognizing that Tackie is also a character in a story?

It is true, isn't it?  I can reread the story, and regardless of the ending, everything will be as it was when I first read it.  Only,  I have changed.

It's clear my first take on this story was inadequate.   It is much more than the simple escape from mundane reality.  I think Wolfe is blurring the lines that separate three different worlds here:  the world of the book, the world of the imagination, and the mundane or everyday world.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

It's not always Edenic

A favorite form of poetry of mine have been those created by the hermit poets in China and Japan.  Many of their poems portray the simple life of the hermit, high up in the mountains in a small hut or cave,  free of the cares of the mundane world.  However, it isn't always that Edenic as we learn from some of their poems.

Shut up among the solitary peaks,
I sadly contemplate the driving sleet outside.
A monkey's cry echoes through the dark hills,
A frigid stream murmurs below,
And the light by the window looks frozen solid. 
My inkstone, too, is ice-cold.
No sleep tonight, I'll write poems,
Warming the brush with my breath. 
                           -- Ryokan --

In a dilapidated three-room hut
I've grown old and tired;
This winter cold is the
Worst I've suffered through.
I sip thin gruel, waiting for the
Freezing night to pass.
Can I last until spring finally arrives?
Unable to beg for rice,
How will I survive the chill?
Even meditation helps no longer;
Nothing left to do but compose poems
In memory of deceased friends.
                           -- Ryokan --

The above poems are from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf  
trans.  John Stevens 

 No. 6
The mountains are so cold
not just now but every year
crowded ridges breathe in snow
sunless forests breathe out mist
nothing grows until Grain Ears
leaves fall before Autumn  Begins
a lost traveler here
looks in vain for the sky
-- Han Shan  (Cold Mountain) --

No. 172
I'm poor alas and I'm sick
a man without friends or kin
there's no rice in my pot
and fresh dust lines the steamer
a thatched hut doesn't keep out the rain
a caved-in bed hardly holds me
no wonder I'm so haggard
all these cares wear a man down 
 -- Han Shan  (Cold Mountain) --

No. 6 and No. 172  are from 
The Collected Poems of Cold Mountain
trans. Red Pine

note: Grain Ears falls fifteen days before the
summer solstice and Autumn Begins occurs
45 days after the solstice.

The world can be a cruel place, even for enlightened ones. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A. E. van Vogt: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

A. E. van Vogt
The Voyage of the Space  Beagle

In 1831, a British warship was refitted for an exploratory mission. It's task was "to complete a survey of the South American coast and to carry out a chain of longitude measurements around the world." One of the crew was Charles Darwin, who had signed on as ship's naturalist. His task was "collecting, observing and noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history." The ship's name was the HMS Beagle.

What Darwin saw on this exploratory expedition led him to write The Origin of the Species in 1858 and thereby bring the issue of evolution, which had been lurking in the background, out in the open and initiate the debate that still rages in some places today. In 1859, Darwin then published an account of his almost four years on board the ship. The title was The Voyage of the Beagle.

Some 90 years after Darwin published The Voyage of the Beagle,  the SF writer, A. E. van Vogt published The Voyage of the Space Beagle in 1950. The novel depicted the adventures of a space ship whose mission was to explore uncharted areas of space--to go places where no humans had gone before. The book includes four encounters with alien species, with internal linking created by a basic cast of about ten characters with one or two crew members who hadn't appeared before in each of the four encounters. The encounters were all published separately in various SF magazines, prior to the book publication.

The novel begins with what is probably van Vogt's most famous short story, "The Black Destroyer," the first line of which has remained with me for many decades--"On and on Coeurl prowled." There have been some rumors floating about that Coeurl and the creature from the third episode were influential in the design of the Alien in the film series with Sigourney Weaver. Unfortunately I can't document this story.

In 1956, Jack Vance published To Live Forever, a novel set in a society that had conquered death. In the novel, one of the characters is described as the navigator of the galaxy-exploring "ship, Star Enterprise." It's just a coincidence, I suspect.

In 1966, Gene Roddenberry presented an SF series which depicted the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise on a ten year voyage of exploration--"to boldly go where no man has gone before."  Roddenberry has given credit for his idea to van Vogt's novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle.  Some have thought that he got the idea from another TV series, Wagon Train. However, Roddenberry explained that he used the Wagon Train concept when he tried to sell his idea to network executives. He feared that they wouldn't understand what he was talking about, so he used a more familiar concept, one that they could grasp--a western.

Prior to reading the novel, I had read in the short story version only the first alien encounter titled "The Black Destroyer."  In fact I hadn't even known the others existed until I did a little research on the novel.  One of the significant differences between the short story, The Black Destroyer, and its version in the novel is the presence of Elliott Grosvenor.  Grosvenor is a student of a new science van Vogt calls Nexialism.  Just where and why he named it so, I never did find out or I missed it.  But, it seems that the real issue in the novel is the collision between two points of view:  that of the specialist, one who knows more and more about less and less,  and the Nexialist or the generalist, jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

Grosvenor's Nexialist education has equipped him to at least be able to converse with the various specialists on board the Beagle, even if he isn't able to conduct a serious research into that science.  He therefore is able to draw upon the findings of the various sciences and interrelate them in ways the specialists are unable to.  It is this that allows him to solve the problems that arise aboard ship, either alien or human.

It vaguely reminds me of the debate going on when I entered college back in the late 50s:  the value of a liberal education versus the concentration on a specific course of study designed to lead to a career: in other words,  gaining a broad perspective on all human activities (science, social sciences, economics, philosophy, history, humanities, arts, etc.) versus concentrating on a narrow course of study designed for a profession  (pre-law, pre-business, pre-med) 

I suspect that the liberal arts philosophy lost out.  However, recent college graduates are better equipped to answer that question.   But I also hear occasionally about attempts to develop a "Nexialist" position--an attempt to close somewhat the gap that exists among the various sciences.

I did notice though that, in the novel,  Grosvenor had to go to Korita, the historian, for information regarding history.  I wonder if Nexialism also included the humanities and arts in its curriculum or restricted it to the hard sciences.  If limited to the hard sciences, I wonder what that suggests about van Vogt's POV.

Another point I found interesting was the political issue that ran throughout the novel.  Morton, the director at the beginning, seems to be more or less democratic in his actions and encourages free discussion of the problems facing them, while Kent, who takes over temporarily, seems far more authoritarian in his philosophy and is willing to use violence to get his way.  Kent seems especially disturbed by the Grosvenor's presence aboard ship.  I wonder if Kent sees him as some sort of threat to his program.  That these stories were written just before, during, and after WWII makes me wonder if van Vogt is making some sort of point here about problems facing these exploratory journeys that last for years. 

This seems to be the first time that I've encountered a political issue in stories of this type, or at least in which this issue stands out.

I have some questions about Elliott Grosvenor,  specifically in the last encounter with an alien.  He addresses the scientists regarding the fourth alien encounter, presents his conclusions based on his Nexialist training which, unfortunately no one without Nexialist training can grasp, and issues the following ultimatum when his plan is voted down:

"If by 1000 hours tomorrow my plan has not been accepted, I shall take over the ship.  Everybody aboard will find himself doing what I order whether he likes it or not.  Naturally, I expect that the scientists aboard will pool their knowledge in an attempt to prevent my carrying out such a stated purpose.  Resistance, however, will be useless."

Later in a discussion regarding the ethics of Grosvenor's actions, one of the scientists comments that the ethical position of Nexialism seems "pretty elastic" even though the Nexialists have been conditioned into following a code of ethics.  Grosvenor replies, "When I firmly believe, as I do now, that my actions are justified, there is no internal nervous or emotional problems."  In other words, the conditioning is useless in the face of the person's firm conviction that he or she is absolutely correct.  This seems a bit scary to me.

This position  presented in the novel seems to embody the end-justifies-the-means philosophy.   This is worrisome, to me anyway, for it can be and sadly has been used to justify the most inhumane actions taken for a good reason.

Overall, it's an interesting read on its own, and it also exemplifies some philosophical positions as they would be expressed in the real world, not just as some abstract concepts.