Thursday, November 16, 2017

Carl Sandburg: "Muckers"



                   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!'

'Ah.'

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. 



DESIRES

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.


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 at 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:

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm



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
 



VII.26

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


 


Bell-Ringer

"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.