Monday, September 22, 2014

Robert Frost: "Misgiving"

An Autumn Poem----


All crying, 'We will go with you, O Wind !'
The foliage follow him, leaf and stem;
But a sleep oppresses them as they go,
And they end by bidding him stay with them. 

Since ever they flung abroad in spring
The leaves had promised themselves this flight,
Who now would  fain seek sheltering wall,
Or thicket, or hollow place for the night.

And now they answer his summoning blast
With an ever vaguer and vaguer stir,
Or at utmost a little reluctant whirl
That drops them no further than where they were.

I only hope that when I am free
As they are free to go in quest
Of the knowledge beyond the bounds of life
It may not seem better to me to rest. 

-- Robert Frost --

The usual debate is whether there is life after death.  Is the soul or some sort of life force immortal and does it survive the death of the body?  Frost, being Frost, doesn't see it that way in this poem, naturally.  In the last stanza, Frost's usual place for mischief, he posits it a different way.  He fears that he may follow the lead of leaf and branch and flower and take his final rest instead of attempting to go beyond what knowledge we have gained from life and finding out if there is something more.

A very disturbing thought.  We spend much of our lives wondering about, speculating about, arguing about, even killing others who disagree about the possibility of life after death and then be too tired to find out when we have the opportunity.   Typical Frost--always off on his own somewhere. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Judex: a film

Judex, a French language film
Black-and-white, English subtitles
Directed by Georges Franju

The public library in Tucson publishes around the first of the month a list of acquisitions made during the previous month.  I always check it to see if anything interesting has come in.  In this way, I find  some intriguing books and films, many of which I had never heard of. This is how I found Judex.   Although it came out in 1963, it was in black-and-white.  It is also a French language film, with subtitles in English.

The description sounded intriguing. A corrupt banker is kidnapped by a shadowy crime fighter, Judex, played by the American magician, Channing Pollock.  The plot gets more complicated as a group of thieves led by the scheming Diana Monti attempts to benefit from the situation by getting their hands on some of the banker's files that have information about rich and powerful people and using the information for blackmail.  Diana had worked her way into the household by gaining a position as a maid and then getting the banker, a widower, to fall in love with her. 

A short way into the film, I began to think that this film resembles a serial and also a film that might have been produced much earlier, perhaps the 20s or before.  It was in black-and-white, and scene-changes were denoted by several seconds of darkness.  In addition,  text messages providing narrative information were provided during some of the scene changes.  Other elements were some vaguely SF or futuristic technology such as a closed circuit TV picture that resembles others I had seen in early serials and rock doors that slide open smoothly accompanied by a distinct hum, obviously the motor.  Some drugs with unusual properties were also used by various individuals in the film.

After viewing the film, I read the information booklet that came with it.  The film was produced in 1963 and directed by Georges Franju.  Franju's Judex, according to the booklet, is his homage to Louis Feuillade, who in 1916 had produced a five-and-a-half-hour, 12 episode serial by the same name.  Franju cut a considerable amount of the film that dealt with the backstory explaining Judex's motivation for attacking the banker.

Judex, when he is the crime fighter (he also had a secret identity, naturally), is dressed in black with a hat and cape that reminds me of Zorro (no sword though).  He is assisted by four or five men who also dress in black clothing and wear black masks.  Diana Monti, who leads the group of three or four thieves,  wears a tight, black outfit, reminiscent  of numerous catwoman outfits that have appeared over the years, and has a stiletto. strapped to her thigh.    

While there really are no cliffhangers, forcing one to wait for the next episode, the influence of the serial format appears clearly as every one of the major characters--the banker, Diana Monti (the chief villainess) , Judex,  Jacqueline (the banker's beautiful young daughter), and at least one of the thieves--is captured and either knocked out or drugged into insensibility at least once during the film and then manages to escape.  In fact, the banker's daughter spends much of her time unconscious and being carried about by the thieves, who plan to force her to reveal where her father's papers are hidden, or by Judex and his crew when they rescue her.

And, you mustn't miss the battle to the death on the rooftops between the attractive Diana Monti in her tight, black catwoman outfit and Daisy, an attractive circus performer, in her tight. white trapeze outfit.   

 Lots of fun.  I wonder if the original 12 episode serial is available somewhere.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Simon Ortiz: Hawk


clear through
the background
which is sky
and mountain ledge,
--Old Chuska Mountain,
my friend, shelter--
His immense knowledge
of wind,
his perception
of circling slow wind,
his edge of wing
on air trail

straightens then suddenly
directly above us,
the pines.

This man, he knows
what he is doing.

-- Simon Ortiz --
from Woven Stone

What would it be like to fly like this hawk? 

I remember standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon and watching birds fly, first maybe ten feet off the ground where I was standing and then, beyond the edge where I couldn't go.  What would that be like, to have the ground maybe ten feet below and then suddenly drop away to hundreds of feet below?  What would that be like?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Kenko: an anecdote, with a point?

No. 45

Kin'yo, an officer of the second rank, had a brother called the High Priest Ryogaku, an extremely bad-tempered man.  Next to his monastery grew a large nettle-tree which occasioned the nickname people gave him, the Nettle-tree High Priest.  'That name is outrageous,' said the high-priest, and cut down the tree.  The stump still being left, people referred to him now as the Stump High Priest.  More furious than ever, Ryogaku had the stump dug up and thrown away, but this left a big ditch.  People now called him the Ditch High Priest."

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness

Perhaps he should have just left well enough alone.  Frankly, I think I would have much more preferred being called the Nettle-tree High Priest than the Ditch High Priest.   Some people take longer to learn than others, while some never learn.  

Fujiwara no Kin'jo (died 1301)  was a poet.
Ryogaku Sojo (died about 1305)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lu Hsun/ Lu Xun: A Madman's Diary

Lu Hsun or Lu Xun (his stories and poems appear under both names) is a new name to me.  I just happened to run across him while browsing the shelves of a used bookstore (can't count the number of times this has happened).  The title of the book is Selected Stories of Lu Hsun.  It was while I was searching for information about him and other works by him that I discovered that his works show up under two names.

"A Madman's Diary" is just what it purports to be, for the most part, anyway.  However, there are some disquieting elements to it that appeared only after I had finished the story.  It is the journal kept by a man who was suffering from a persecution complex and was convinced that all around him were cannibals, just waiting for the chance to sink their teeth into him.  At one point he even catches a dog eying him strangely.

The journal depicts his slow disintegration, from the early stages when he wonders about the strange look the dog casts his way and his suspicion that his neighbors had a inexplicable grudge against him to when he was convinced that all, including his older brother, were just waiting for a chance to eat him.

What makes me wonder though is the frame to the story.  The first chapter of the story is a first person narrative in which the anonymous narrator tells us that one of two brothers that he had been friend with was ill.   He had to be in the neighborhood, so he stopped by to see him.  At the house, he was met by the older brother who said that "my brother recovered some time ago and has gone elsewhere to take up an official post."  He then laughed and showed him the younger brother's diary in which he said he could see the nature of the younger brother's illness.  The older brother then gave him the diary, saying there could be no harm in giving it to him since he was a friend.

This sounds strange to me.  If I had become mentally disturbed in this way and had kept a diary, I should want to keep it with me when I recovered, or perhaps destroyed it if I found it too disturbing to be reminded of what had happened.  I doubt if I would give it to my brother.  Secondly, if my brother had been ill, recovered, and left his diary with me, I would never have given it to someone else, regardless of how good a friend that person might be.

The third point that bothers me is the present status of the younger brother.   According to the older brother, whom the younger brother was convinced he was a cannibal, "he recovered some time ago and has gone elsewhere to take up an official post."  Why was the older brother so vague about where his younger brother was and what that official post was?   

I've been accused in the past of over-reading, and this, possibly, could be another example.  But, I see no reason why the older brother couldn't have simply said what city his brother was now living in.  It is this point and the relinquishment of the diary that makes me wonder what really happened to the younger brother.

I've also toyed with the idea that there is a political message behind the story and the cannibalism is a mask to avoid getting afoul of government censors.  His reference to cannibalism could be symbolic of his insistence on being independent and not just part of a faceless community.  After all, cannibalism is the most extreme form of being absorbed by the community.   Unfortunately, I know too little of the political situation in China when this story was written in 1918.

In any case, I find the story intriguing and shall definitely go on to the others in the collection and perhaps, go looking for more by him.

September 4, 2014:  Late comment.  I should read intros and informational flyleaves more often--might learn something.  

From the flyleaf of Selected Stories of Lu Hsun:

"A Madman's Diary" was Lu Hsun's  " 'declaration of war' against China's feudal society, and the first short story in the history of modern Chinese literature."

Monday, September 1, 2014

N. Scott Momaday: The Bear

Words are names.  To write a poem is to practice a naming ceremony.

              These figures moving in my rhyme,
              Who are they?  Death,and Death's dog, time.     

And to confer a name is to confer being.  We perceive existence by means of words and names.  To this or that vague, potential thing, I will give a name, and it will exist thereafter, and its existence will be clearly perceived.  The name enables me to see it.  I can call it by its name, and I can see it for what it is.

-- N. Scott Momaday --

The Bear

    What ruse of vision,
escarping the wall of leaves,
    rending incision
into countless surfaces,

    would cull and color
his somnolence, whose old age
    has outworn valor,
all but the fact of courage?

    Seen, he does not come,
move, but seems forever there,
    dimensionless, dumb,
in the windless noon's hot glare.

    More scarred than others
these years since the trap maimed him,
    pain slants his withers,
drawing up the crooked limb.

    Then he is gone, whole,
without urgency, from sight,
    as buzzards control,
imperceptibly, their flight.

The quotation and poem are from
-- N. Scott Momaday --
In the Presence of the Sun:  Stories and  Poems

About the Author:
"N. Scott Momaday is a poet, novelist, painter, playwright, and storyteller.  He resides in the American Southwest, and he is Regents Professor of the Humanities at the University of Arizona (in Tucson).  Among his numerous awards are the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Premio Letterario Internazionale 'Mondello.'  He is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Dance Society and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He walks long distances, and he rides an Appaloosa mare named 'Ma'am.'  At his best he cooks.  He is justly famous for a recipe named 'The Washita Crossing Soup,' the ingredients of which are, in his words, 'simple, sacred, and secret.'   He is a bear."

Taken from the back cover:
In the Presence of the Sun:  Stories and Poems is a collection of poems, stories (obviously), paintings,  and illustrations by N. Scott Momaday.  They represent thirty years of work, from 1961 to 1991.  "Momaday's voice is ancestral and contemporary, profoundly American and genuinely universal.  Here, at his best, is a truly distinguished poet, storyteller, and artist.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Eric Hoffer: on total commitment

No. 54

Anyone aware of the imperfections inherent in human affairs is hardly capable of total commitment.  Part of him will inevitably remain uncommitted.  It is the perch of uncommitment which makes an act of self-sacrifice sublimely human, and distinguishes the man of faith from the fanatic.

-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

The question that immediately comes to my mind is what Hoffer means by self-sacrifice.   Would this include suicide bombers, those who strap a bomb to themselves and then go on a school bus or in a crowded restaurant or a market and blow up themselves and numerous others--men, women, and children?   Is this sublimely human or the act of a fanatic?   How can one distinguish between them?


Friday, August 22, 2014

Eric Hoffer: some thoughts on freedom

Some random quotations from Eric Hoffer on the nature of freedom:

No. 55

We take for granted the need to escape the self.  Yet the self can also be a refuge.  In totalitarian countries the great hunger is for private life.  Absorption in the minutiae of an individual existence is the only refuge from the apocalyptic madhouse staged by maniacal saviors of humanity.

Fortunately we don't have any of these maniacal saviors of humanity, around here, do we?  We don't have people here who are convinced that they and they alone have the Truth and God's blessing on them and their ideas and are willing to create chaos and massive disruption unless they get their way, do we?  We are so lucky, aren't we?

No. 56

One of the chief objectives of freedom is to make it possible for a person to feel himself a human being first.  Any social order in which people see themselves primarily as workingmen, businessmen, intellectuals, members of a church, nation, race, or party is deficient in genuine freedom.

Since I retired, I've met a number of retired people who are unhappy, confused, and lost.  They do not know how to define themselves anymore.   They no longer are teachers, business executives, engineers, police officers, clerks. . .  They defined themselves in the past by their occupations, and now, since they no longer work, many are lost and no longer see themselves as anything.  They are lost and bitterly speak about retirement for they no longer have an identity.

Others take refuge in politics and redefine themselves as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Greens.  Politics, which had been of lesser importance in the past now becomes their all-consuming interest. They now become staunch supporters of their party, complete with closed minds and unwilling or unable to listen to opposing views for fear that they may develop doubts and again lose their identity.  And others turn to religion, again rejecting and demonizing those who think differently.

On the other hand, it's harder to see oneself as a human being only because then one has to make one's own decisions about the pressing issues of the day.  Being a staunch member of a political party or a religious group gives one a ready-made collection of maxims or rules to follow, a set of criteria for making the "right" decision, and leaders who explain the right way to think, the approved opinions and ideas.

It isn't just retired people who are this way.  There are many who are not retired but show the same attitudes about the groups they belong to and also about those who are different.  I'm not saying all members of any political party or religious group are like this, but they are there and generally they are the ones who cause the most problems.  They have a way of making others, who are not as adamant or unswerving in their faith, appear to be less than genuine members of the group.  They are loud in their condemnation of others who are not really True Believers, as defined by them, True Believers really being those who think the same way as they do.  They and they alone are qualifed to decide who is and who is not a real member of the group.

These true believers are really slaves, trapped within an imperfect belief system, as all human systems are, and cannot really breath the fresh air of freedom for they spend their waking hours making sure that they and all others are on the One True Path to Paradise.

Quotations are from
Eric Hoffer
Reflections on the Human Condition

Monday, August 18, 2014

Han shan or Cold Mountain: a poem

Han shan was a hermit poet who probably lived sometime during the ninth and tenth centuries.  "Han shan" means cold mountain in Chinese, which is the name of the mountain where he resided.  His poems show a strong Taoist and Buddhist influence, and he may have been a monk at some point.  His poems were only collected after his death by someone who went looking for him and found his poems on trees, rocks, and walls of a nearby temple and nearby villages.

Today, according to one account, Han shan is ignored by scholars and critics, but his poems are found in very many temples and shrines throughout China. 

People ask the way to Cold Mountain
but roads don't reach Cold Mountain
in summer the ice doesn't melt
and the morning fog is too dense
how did someone like me arrive
our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here

-- Cold Mountain --
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans.  Red Pine

At first I thought the difficulty was purely physical.  Cold Mountain is a difficult place to reach, according, at least, to the first four lines.  However, the last four lines suggest that the real difficulty may not be physical but psychological or even spiritual.  That brings me to ask if  "Cold Mountain" is a place or a state of mind. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Baltasar Gracian: the necessity for the coverup

No. 126

"He is not a fool who commits foolishness, but he who having done so does not know how to conceal it.  If your merits should be kept under seal, how much more your demerits.  All men go wrong, but with this difference, the intelligent cover up what they have committed, and the fools expose even what they  may commit.  A good name rests more upon what is concealed, than upon what is revealed, for he who cannot be good, must be cautious: the sins of great men should be regarded as mere eclipses of the heavenly bodies.  Let it be a mistake to confide your errors even to  a friend, for were it possible, you should not disclose them to yourself; but since this is impossible, make use here of that other principle of life, which is: learn how to forget."

--Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
trans.  Martin Fischer

I think the core of the paragraph is the following:

"A good name rests more upon what is concealed, than upon what is revealed.  .  ."

Is this true?  I admit that this probably is true in a number of cases.    Almost daily we hear about the hidden transgressions of our social, financial, political, entertainment, and religious leaders and idols.  However, is this true of all, or even a majority of them?   Are there people whose good name is just who they are and not the byproduct of a campaign of concealment?

The last few words--"learn how to forget"--reminds me of a favorite saying of mine.  I've forgotten the author, but I do remember the remark: "Perfect happiness is good health and a bad memory."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Henry Beard: the anonymous old English epic--Beocat

Following is a poem that dates back to the heroic years, a thousand years ago, an Old English Epic written by an Unknown Author's Cat. 

Grendel's Dog

Brave Beocat,      brood-kit of Ecgthmeow,
Hearth-pet of Hrothgar     in whose high halls
He mauled without mercy     many fat mice,
Night did not find napping,     nor snack-feasting,
The wary war-cat,     whiskered paw-wielder,
Bearer of the burnished neck-belt,     gold-braided collar band,
Feller of fleas     fatal, too, to ticks,
The work of wonder-smiths,     woven with witches' charms,
Sat on the throne-seat     his ears like sword-points
Upraised, sharp-tipped     listening for peril-sounds,
When he heard from the moor-hill     howls of the hell-hound,
Gruesome hunger-grunts     of Grendel's Great Dane,
Deadly doom-mutt,     dread demon-dog,
Then boasted Beocat,     noble battle-kitten,
Bane of barrow-bunnies,     bold seeker of nest-booty:
"If  hand of man unhasped     the heavy hall-door
And freed me to frolic forth     to fight the fang-bearing fiend,
I would lay the whelpling low     with lethal claw-blows;
Fur would fly     and the foe would taste death-food.
But resounding snooze-noise,     stern slumber-thunder,
Nose-music of men snoring     mead-hammered in the wine hall,
Fills me with sorrow-feeling     for fate does not see fit
To send some fingered folk     to lift the firm-fastened latch
That I might go grapple     with the grim ghoul-pooch."
Thus spoke the mouse-shredder,      hunter of hall-pests,
Short-haired Hrodent-slayer,     greatest of the pussy-Geats.

-- Anonymous Feline --
trans. by Editor's Cat

 Henry Beard
from Poetry for Cats

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Robert Grudin: the loss of the past


"One of the most mysterious operations of time is the way in which things silently divorce themselves from us and slip into the past.   We are like people climbing out of an immensely deep valley on a trail which only occasionally allows us glimpses of the geography below or the heights above.  We turn to see, distant and small beneath us, places which only recently have constituted our total environments; we glance far down at our own beginnings as things dear but inexorably removed from us.  Other people walk with us, so close and for so long that they form a part of our identity.  When they leave us at last, we see them for the first time as separate beings, suddenly clear and whole, yet hopelessly distinct and diminishing.  Only those of us who habitually and affectionately consult the past, who see the present as the birth of the past and appreciate it as the freshness of a new vintage, can hope to mitigate the appalling sadness of these views."

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

First known when lost
I never had noticed it until
'Twas gone, --the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill.

-- Edward Thomas --

The above is the first stanza of "First known when lost," a poem by Edward Thomas.  The complete poem was posted on June 8, 2014.  It came to mind when reading Grudin's short meditation.   It is sad to think that we really don't know something until it's gone, and then only briefly for it quickly fades from memory as time passes.  And as we've been told by poet and novelist and philosopher, we can never go back, for it is gone forever.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Otomo no Tabito: a suggestion for the wise


Instead of  fretting
   over things that can't be changed,
how much better
   to swallow down a full cup
       of cloudy sake!

-- Otomo no Tabito --  (665-731)
from  Traditional Japanese Poetry:  An Anthology

Works for me. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Colin Wilson: THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE, an SF novel

Colin Wilson
The Philosopher's Stone

                                             PART ONE

                                The Quest of the Absolute

 I was reading a book on music by Ralph Vaughan Williams the other day, while listening to a gramophone record of his remarkable Fifth Symphony, when I came across the following remark: 'I have struggled all my life to conquer amateurish technique, and now that perhaps I have mastered it, it seems too late to make any use of it.'  I found myself moved almost to tears by the poignancy of those words of a great musician.  Admittedly, he was eighty-six when he died, but for practical purposes--the value of the music he wrote in his last years--it might well have been twenty years earlier.  And I found myself thinking:  Supposing by some fluke, Vaughan Williams had lived another twenty-five years .  .  . or supposing he had been  born a quarter of a century later.  Could I have passed on to him what I now know, so that he might still be alive and writing great music? .  .  .

It was this train of thought that decided me to tell the story of my discovery exactly as it happened.  In doing so, I break my own vow of secrecy; but I shall see that the account is withheld from those whom it might harm--that is to say,  from most of the human race.  It should exist, even if it never leaves a bank vault.  The carbon copy of memory grows thinner year by year.   

It's hard to decide whether to call this a two-part novel or two novels (the second being a sequel) between the same covers.  It's only 300 plus pages, but it's small print and much of which is narrative, which can provide far more information in a short space than dialogue. The strange turn occurs about two-thirds of the way into the book.


The following is taken from the Wikipedia entry on "the philosopher's stone."

 "The philosophers' stone or stone of the philosophers is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning  base metals such as lead into gold or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immorality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal in alchemy. The philosophers' stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosophers' stone were known as the Magnum Opus ("Great Work")."

The title is quite apt as the novel is an autobiographical account of the narrator's (first person narrative) details the results of  his lifelong attempts to discover the means of increasing the life span of humans.  He has noted that many of the greatest writers and composers have lived far longer than the average person and attempts to discover whether their genius is the result of a long lifespan or conversely, their long life span is somehow connected to their genius.

The first part of the novel is an extensive portrait of the narrator's life and the various experiments and theoretical considerations that he worked his way through in his attempt to discover ways of further developing human thinking and consciousness.  Wilson has obviously done considerable research for this part of the novel, for I recognize many of  the concepts from various psychology courses that I had taken many years ago.  Eventually, as it happens so often in science, the breakthrough was made completely by accident.

The second part concentrates on the process of  determining just what his new powers are and how to use them.   The breakthrough comes from an experiment that initially involved inserting a small probe into a part of the brain.  In one experiment, a minute piece of a metal breaks off and remains embedded in the cortex of the subject.  This results in changes in the person's thinking and behavior.   Eventually, the narrator tries the experiment on himself and begins an extended process of studying the changes occurring in himself.

The narrator discovers that his expanded consciousness and ability to focus allows him to detect details about objects that normally go unnoticed.  In short, he can take an object and "see" its past history to a far greater extent than was considered possible.  It is this new ability that is responsible for the sudden change in the novel.  The effect of this  is quite startling, and it turns the novel into a totally unexpected (unexpected by me, anyway) direction.

One example given occurs when he looks at a print of Goethe, Werner, and Napoleon.  After studying it for a short time, he is able to see the scene as the sketch for the print is being made.  It is in a large ballroom and he can see the three principles in the print and even hear the music.   

Shortly after this, he is shown a figurine that comes from a sacrificial well in Mexico.  His expanded powers of observation tell him that this comes from a period long before any human civilization, at least a half million years before this.  He begins to study mythology, since there is no archeological or anthropological evidence.  Eventually he stumbles across The Secrets of Atlantis, by Gabriel Guenon, who apparently really existed.  There are references to a book with that title, but, according to The H. P. Lovecraft Archive web page, the book can not now be located.

In the book, Guenon supposedly states that H. P. Lovecraft had written a number of stories about "the Ancient Old Ones [who] had come from the stars, and once dominated the earth.  .  ."   It is at this point that the narrator discovers that there are forces that are attempting to prevent any further research into this topic and seemingly are willing to do anything to stop him.

This is not an easy book to read.  It, again, is one of those books that one settles down with over a period of several nights and concentrates solely on it.   It was first published in 1969, but it has a very distinctly older ambiance about it.  I'm reminded of works by Jules Verne by it or a more recent novel which I commented on a short time ago--Franz Werfel's Star of the Unborn.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Eric Hoffer: quiet confidence and noisy insecurity

No. 11

"The passionate state of mind is often indicative of a lack of skill, talent or power.  Moreover, passionate intensity can serve as a substitute for the confidence born of proficiency and the possession of power.  A workingman sure of his skill goes leisurely about his job, and accomplishes much though he works as if at play.  On the other hand, the workingman who is without confidence attacks his work as if he were saving the world, and he must do so if he is to get anything done.  The same is true of the soldier.  A well-trained and well-equipped soldier will fight well even when not stirred by strong feeling.  But the untrained soldier will give a good account of himself only when animated by enthusiasm and fervor."

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

This reminds me of certain politicians today--those who make a lot of noise and insist they are saving the country from its internal and external enemies, when in reality they accomplish the opposite and, what is worse,  they prevent others from doing what is necessary.  In other words, those who shout the loudest and make the most noise accomplish the least. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Robert Louis Stevenson and Langston Hughes: Two points of view


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
   And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
     And the hunter home from the hill.

-- Robert Louis Stevenson --

Death of an Old Seaman

We buried him high on a windy hill,
But his soul went out to sea.
I know, for I heard, when all was still,
His sea-soul say to me:

Put no tombstone at my head,
For here I do not make my bed.
Strew no flowers on my grave,
I've gone back to the wind and wave.
Do not, do not weep for me,
For I am happy with my sea.

-- Langston Hughes --
from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
Arnold Rampersad, Editor

It almost seems as though Hughes' poem is a response to Stevenson's.  Some days I'm with Stevenson, but on other days, well, Hughes seems right for me.  Actually I'm of two minds here: both seem right and fitting when I read them. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Joseph Conrad: A SET OF SIX

short stories

"Gaspar Ruiz"
This story takes place in South America during the period when the colonies were struggling with Spain to gain their independence.  While many of the combatants had strong views for maintaining Spanish rule or for gaining their independence, numerous others were drafted or conscripted by either the Royal or by the republican forces.  It was pure chance in many cases which side one ended up with.

Gaspar Ruiz is the son of a poor farmer and had no political views.   A rebel contingent appeared one day, killed the guard dogs, stole some cattle, and persuaded Gasper to join them.  Shortly after he left, a royalist force appeared and finished the destruction of the farm.  In a subsequent battle, Ruiz was captured by the royalists.   He was given a musket and forced to the front of the attacking forces and was given the choice of firing his weapon or of being shot by a royalist officer.

Again he was captured--this time by the rebels.  Declared a traitor, he was sentenced to be shot with a number of others, but covered with the blood of others he manages to play dead.   Wounded, he finds a refuge with local royalists.   Because he feels the rebels treated him unfairly, he becomes an ardent royalist.  

"Gaspar Ruiz" is probably set before the time of Conrad's South American novel, Nostromo, in this story the colonies are fighting for independence while in the novel, countries have their own government but are regularly overthrown by various factions, some little better than bandit gangs.

"The Informer"  is set in the world of Conrad's novels of political espionage The Secret Agent  and Under Western Eyes , the world of anarchists, who are hiding out in England.  In fact, one of the group refers to the Professor who "was engaged in perfecting some new detonators." This could be the same professor in The Secret Agent who supplies Verloc with the bomb that had such tragic consequences for Verloc and his wife Winnie.  That Professor was also known to be obsessed with finding the perfect detonator.

A group of anarchists are located in a house in London on Hermione Street.  The European leadership has come to the conclusion that the Hermione St. group has been infiltrated by an informer.  They decide to gather together some comrades unknown to the Hermione St. group and pretend to be police conducting a raid.  In this way, they hope the informer would reveal himself. 

"The Brute"
This is the only sea tale in the collection.  The Brute of the title is a ship, a monster according to the tales told of it.  The setting is a classic for sea yarns: a small local pub,  on a rain-swept street, with three friends and a stranger in the parlour.  It's the stranger, of course, who provides the tale of the murderous ship, The Apse Family.  It was owned by the firm of Apse & Sons, shipowners.  All of their ships were named after family members. This one, representing the entire family, was to be the biggest and safest ship of the fleet.  Unfortunately, they went overboard and ended up with the biggest, heaviest, and clumsiest ship in their fleet, and murderous too.  During every journey, at least one sailor was killed.  While reading the story, one could almost believe that ship was fully conscious of what it was doing.

"An Anarchist"
This story is a classic example of how a chance encounter can determine the course of one's life.  "An Anarchist" is a story within a story.  The narrator meets the manager of a plantation on an island in a South American river and rents a room in order to conduct his research.  While there the narrator meets Paul, the engineer of the plantation's steam boat.  The manager insists Paul is an anarchist from Spain and has spread the word in the vicinity, thus ensuring Paul can't get work anywhere else.

The narrator's kindly treatment of Paul eventually leads Paul to tell his story.  He is French, not Spanish.  Shortly after serving his term in the French army, he gets a well-paying job as a mechanic.  At a dinner with friends one night, he invites several strangers at a nearby table to join them.  Paul becomes inflamed by their talk of the plight of the working man and drunk, he jumps up shouting "Vive l'anarchie" and "Death to the capitalists."  A riot breaks out and he is arrested, convicted, and sent to prison as an anarchist, a threat to France.  His life has changed irrevocably.

Two interesting characters are developed in this tale:  that of Paul "the anarchist"  and that of the manager of the plantation who is the type of a manager who will turn anyone into an anarchist or anti-capitalist.  Conrad has captured this employee of a large corporation perfectly:  he can justify any cruel act as being for the good of the company profit-and-loss statement, just as government operatives  justify their actions in the name of  "national security."

"The Duel"
"The Duel" is the longest story in the collection--perhaps closer to being a novella in length.  The story covers the events of over twenty years as an officer in the French army challenges another officer to a duel.  It began because of a misunderstanding and continued through the years as various attempts at holding the duel were either prevented by other events or ended unsatisfactorily.  Both officers were generals at the time the issue was finally resolved.  

"Il Conde"
Il conde  (the count), an aged nobleman,  suffering from rheumatism, finds that the climate at Naples is most salubrious for him, but, because of a chance encounter, he finds he must leave.  If he stays, he will be killed, and if he leaves, he will die, probably within a year.  The plot is minimal, barely a story, but the meticulous depiction of the count makes it well worth reading--actually more a portraiture than a story.

   "-- having conversed already in the morning I did not think I was intruding when in the evening, finding the dining-room very full, I proposed to share his little table.  Judging by the quiet urbanity of his consent he did not think so either.  His smile was very attractive.
   He dined in an evening waistcoat and a "smoking" (he called it so) with a black tie.  All this of very good cut, not new--just as these things should be.  He was, morning or evening, very correct in his dress.  I have no doubt that his whole existence had been correct, well ordered and conventional, undisturbed by startling events.  His white hair  brushed upwards off a lofty forehead gave him the air of an idealist, of an imaginative man.  His white moustache, heavy but carefully trimmed and arranged, was not unpleasantly tinted a golden yellow in the middle.  The faint scent of some very good perfume, and of good cigars (that last an odour quite remarkable to come upon in Italy) reached me across the table.  It was in his eyes that his age showed most.  They were a little weary with creased eyelids.  He must have been sixty or a couple of years more.  And he was communicative.  I would not go so far as to call it garrulous--but distinctly communicative."

I can picture him now, and his reactions to later events seem perfectly understandable when considering Conrad's outer and inner portrayal of him.

Overall comment:  Joseph Conrad is probably best known for his novels, but his short stories are just as good.  Highly recommended.

Monday, July 21, 2014

David Brin: EXISTENCE, an SF novel of the near future

David Brin

This is, as far as I can tell, Brin's latest novel, and it's a hefty one at some five hundred and fifty+ pages.  As he did with an earlier work, Earth, Brin set it on Earth in the near future, the mid 2050's probably and used the multiple narrative structure following a number of people.  This does distance the reader from identifying closely with any one character, but it does allow for a better overall impression of the world at that time.
Existence needs to be a large book for it explores a number of themes, disparate on the surface, yet Brin manages to interweave a fascinating tale with them.  Existence, first of all, is a first contact novel, but not with just one alien, but with a wide variety of species.  It is also a very dangerous crowd that comes visiting, for if nothing is done,  civilization will be destroyed and humanity itself will bring it about.  It's an insidious attack, well-meaning in its intent, yet humanity will be doomed unless it resists the invasion. 

The Information Age is another theme.  Here is a theme that I recognize as being a frequent topic on Brin's blog  Contrary Brin   --specifically the right to privacy and access to information.  In essence, it appears to me that Brin believes that the issue of privacy is dead.  There is too much information out there and generally speaking, today, only the privileged few have access to it, as well as governments, large corporations and powerful special interest groups.

Alvin Toffler wrote Power Shift in 1970 and posited that land, labor, and capital would no longer be the major sources of power in the 21st century: it would be information. In this novel, Toffler's prediction comes true.   Brin argues that the solution to the problem of information control is to make access to information available to everybody.  In Existence we see several people who are "outsiders" become important because they take advantage of the free flow of information.  It isn't perfect yet, but they have better access than we do today, and they know how to use it.

Project Uplift appears at a very early stage.  In fact, the process of "uplifting" dolphins and chimps has halted for lack of funding.  As usual, governments are playing their usual game of getting enthusiastic about a project because a particular party is in power.  When the opposition gains control, the funding stops, regardless of its value.  Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

This is a big, sprawling novel with a variety of major characters ranging from a reporter so badly damaged that she must live in a mobile metal cylinder; a Chinese man who makes his living scavenging homes flooded out by the rising sea level; a rich, young man who rents small shuttle craft to go into near Earth space; and an astronaut who gets into space because he is hired to clean out all the debris and garbage in orbit around earth.  And, of course, there are the aliens who didn't come to destroy or even conquer Earth.  They have come to spread the Good News.

This is not a book that can be read in short ten to fifteen minute segments.  You have to turn off the TV and all the other distractions and settle down with this one.  It's worth it.

Lawrence Durrell: "Mneiae

I think I had mentioned before that Lawrence Durrell is one of my favorite novelists. His "Alexandria Quartet" and "The Avignon Quintet" are favorites of mine which I have read and reread several times.  It's been some time since I last read them, and I can hear them calling out from the bookcase as I pass by.  Perhaps. . . soon.

Durrell is also a poet, probably one of the most perplexing poets I've ever read.  His poetry is far more cerebral or intellectual than my favorite poets; in fact, his poetry strikes me as being even more intellectual than that of T. S. Eliot.  I can make some sense of parts of a Durrell poem, but I have trouble coming up with more than a few broken ideas or phrases when I try for an overall view.  Here is one of the simplest of his poems, or so I think.


Soft as puffs of smoke combining,
Mneiae--remembrance of past lives:

The shallow pigmentation of eternity
Upon the pouch of time and place existing,

I, the watcher, smoking at a table,
And I, my selves, observed by human choice,

A disinherited portion of the whole:
With you the sibling of my self-desire,

The carnal and the temporal voice,
The singing bird upon the spire:

And love, the grammar of that war
Which time's the only ointment for,

Which time's the only ointment for.

-- Lawrence Durrell --
from The Poetry of Lawrence Durrell
selected by  Lawrence Durrell
E. P. Dutton and Company

A touch of irony here, from a source that's unexpected--at least by me--the spell checker.  My spell checker coughed at Mneiae and, really, truly, suggested a better spelling would be amnesia.  The irony here is that Mneiae is a common name for the Muses, and means remembrance,  according to the Greek Mythology Index (  The Greek muses were the nine goddess of inspiration for poets and writers who called upon them for help to present their work with beauty and gracefulness.

 While the narrator begins with what appears to be a merging of past lives,
"Soft as puffs of smoke combining,
Mneiae--remembrance of past lives:"

 the theme of separation soon appears--

"I, the watcher, smoking at a table,
And I, my selves, observed by human choice,

A disinherited portion of the whole:"

or does it? 

Are "I, my selves" that which make up "I, the watcher"?   


"And love, the grammar of that war
Which time's the only ointment for,"

 What war is he speaking of--the war between the sexes?  Grammar is defined as a set of rules relating to language.  Is love then, as "the grammar of that war" a set of rules for that war?   Of course, the second line brings up that old cliche--time heals all wounds, perhaps those wounds suffered because of love, "the grammar of war." 

Favorite line: "Soft as puffs of smoke combining"

Any observations--good, bad, or indifferent?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Kenko: longing for the past


"When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past.  After the others have gone to bed, I pass the  time on a long autumn's night by putting in order whatever belongings are at hand.  As I tear up scraps of old correspondence I should prefer not to leave behind, I sometimes find among them samples of the calligraphy of a friend who has died, or pictures he drew for his own amusement, and I feel exactly as I did at the time   Even with letters written by friends who are still alive I try, when it has been long since we met, to remember the circumstances, the year.  What a moving experience that is!  It is sad to think that a man's familiar possessions, indifferent to his death, should remain unaltered long after he is gone."

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness

This is a common theme in Kenko's collection of essays.  In one essay, he writes that in all things those of the past are superior to the present.    I guess as one gets older one only remembers the good things.  Someone, I forget who, once wrote that perfect happiness was good health and a bad memory. 

I wonder if those "familiar possessions" are really unaltered.  I wonder if they may be changed in some way by the person who uses them or even just contemplates them.