Wednesday, June 29, 2016

John Muir on the unseen

I just encountered this quotation this morning and thought that it somehow fits in with my previous post with the poem about the Unseeable Animal.  The following is from a journal entry by John Muir (author, naturalist, poet, hiker, and father of our national parks system, and if anyone can make the claim, he can)   He is also founder of the Sierra Club.

If the Creator were to bestow a new set of senses upon us, or slightly remodel the present ones, leaving all the rest of nature unchanged, we should never doubt we were in another world,  and so in strict reality we should be,  just if all the world besides our senses were changed. 

--John Muir --
from John Muir: In His Own Words

That's an interesting comment, coming from over a century and a half ago.  Science since then has discovered that many animals detect visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical signals that we are insensitive to.  For example, some migratory birds may use the earth's magnetic field to guide them to their destinations.  Bats, dogs, cats, whales, and dolphins are sensitive to sounds we cannot hear. 

I wonder what the world would look like if we could experience those cues that are undetectable by us now.  Perhaps that "unseeable animal" is real.  While I don't consider myself to be a full-fledged romantic, for some reason, though, I prefer Wendell Berry's "unseeable animal."

The other work by John Muir that I'm reading is A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (Annotated).  This small book is based on his hike from Indianapolis, Indiana, beginning on September 1, 1867, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, to Savannah, Georgia, which he reached on  October 8, 1867.  I may post on this one in the future.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Wendell Berry: "To the Unseeable Animal"

Here's a poem celebrating an unusual animal.  I don't think I've ever read about one like this before.  

To the Unseeable Animal

My daughter: "I hope there's an animal
somewhere that nobody has ever seen.
And I hope nobody ever sees it."

Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods' shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed

particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have waked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope.  The darkness
keeps us near you.

-- Wendell Berry --
from Art and Nature, an Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry

A plea that there should always be mystery, the unknown, the unfathomable?

Does this help to make life bearable?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gene Wolfe: A Borrowed Man, one of Wolfe's quirkiest novels

Gene Wolfe
A Borrowed Man

Gene Wolfe, who regularly turns out quirky novels (who else would write a quartet featuring a trained and licensed torturer and executioner as the hero), has turned out another one:  A Borrowed Man.

The narrator is E. A. Smithe, well,  sort of E. A. Smithe anyway.  He's a reclone of the deceased writer of the same name.   He has been created and then filled with all the information found about E. A. Smithe.  He is then sent to a library where he spends his days, on a shelf, of sorts, waiting for a patron who is doing research to appear and ask him questions about E. A. Smithe or his writings.  (This gives new meaning to the job title of resource person.)    If he is lucky, a patron may even borrow him from the library (even though it's quite expensive) for a short period of time.  While the reclone is not considered a person, the patron who damages one has to pay a hefty fine, just like that for a book or other item borrowed from the library..

Being consulted and being borrowed from the library is very important because the life span of a reclone depends upon usage.   Since space, as always at a library, is limited, those reclones who are not consulted or borrowed are eventually burned.  And, he isn't the only E. A. Smithe reclone, for there are others in other libraries.  

Our Smithe reclone, one day, is borrowed by a patron, Collette Coldbrook, for ten days.  He is a bit disappointed because the fee is only 4700 for the period.  He had hoped it would be higher, a sign of his value to the library.   Eventually he finds out the reason for being "borrowed."   To be brief, the real E. A. Smithe had written a book, according to Collette, in which a clue to a fortune may be hidden.

Collette Coldbrook is the daughter of a recently deceased financier who had built up a considerable fortune, the source of which is unknown.  Collette had been told by her brother, Conrad, that a book written by Smithe holds a clue to the source of her father's fortune.  A short time later, her brother was murdered by person or persons unknown.  Collette reveals this to the reclone only after having gone to an out-of-the-way-place to avoid any possible listening devices.

This is a slow-paced thriller with the reclone and Collette hoping to find the hidden clue in the book before the unknown others get there first.  She has no idea as to the identity of these others--it could be a band of criminals or even one of several government agencies, also curious about the source of her father's fortune.
The novel takes place in the future, maybe a century or more. The US government has obviously been replaced by another government.  Moreover, the world's population is now around one billion.  Wolfe does not explain just what led up to these changes or to the dramatic reduction in population.

And, as this is a novel by Gene Wolfe, the reader should prepared for several surprises along the way.  All is not as it appears to be.

Looking for something a bit strange?  Try this one. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Cordwainer Smith: "No, No, Not Rogov!"

Cordwainer Smith
"No, No, Not Rogov!"
from The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith
16 pages

The following quotation constitutes the first three paragraphs of the story.

That golden shape on the golden steps shook and fluttered like a bird gone mad--like a bird imbued with an intellect and a soul, and, nevertheless, driven mad by ecstasies and terrors beyond human understanding--ecstasies drawn momentarily down unto reality by the consummation of superlative art.  A thousand worlds watched.

Had the ancient calendar continued this would have been A.D. 13,582.  After defeat, after disappointment, after ruin and reconstruction, mankind had leapt among the stars.

Out of meeting inhuman art, out of confronting non-human dances, mankind had made a superb esthetic effort and had leapt upon the stage of all the worlds.

.  .  .

The golden shape on the golden steps executed shimmering intricacies of meaning.  The body was gold and still human.  The body was a woman, but more than a woman.  On the golden steps, in the golden light, she trembled and fluttered like bird gone mad. 

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever," Keats once said.  This, of course, frequently leads to those who enjoy quibbling, and the quibbled topic usually is "beauty."  Is there some beauty that is recognized by all or is beauty always "in the eye of the beholder"?  Part of the debate may involve the issue of the beautiful that appears before its time. Many literary works, musical compositions, paintings, and sculptures are initially rejected or even castigated as ugly and then "rediscovered" a decade or more to be very beautiful.  Aside from these issues, I wonder if  it is "a joy forever," or even if it is a joy?  Could beauty be something else?   Is there a beauty that might be so profound that it becomes destructive to the unprepared?  Cordwainer Smith explores this idea in this short story. 

In spite of the introductory quotation, most of the story is told on a less exalted level.  It is set in the Soviet Union, begins during WWII, and continues on through several decades and commissars.  It takes place in a research laboratory, and the cast of characters includes Rogov, (the head of the research team),  Cherpas (initially Rogov's greatest rival and later his wife), and two observers installed by Stalin.  One is  Gausgofer (a scientist and a policewoman, whose real job is to watch the scientists), who falls in love with Rogov, and, therefore, hates Cherpas.  The other is Gauck (whose real job was to watch everybody, including Gausgofer), about whom nothing is said and who just watches and says little.  "Gauck had no friends, no enemies, no beliefs, no enthusiasm.  Even Gausgofer was afraid of him."

Their goal was to develop a device that, as a receiver, could read and record the thoughts of people at a distance.  In addition, once turned into a transmitter, it should be able to influence the thinking of people at a great distance.

Eventually they focused on the receiver function, but test results shifted the goal from reading thoughts at a distance to being able to see what targeted individuals were seeing.  Being able to see, for example, what the US president was seeing would give the USSR a decided advantage in that it could now read the briefing papers given to the president.  The USSR would know what the US president knew.

They succeed, but not in the way they expected.

Is there a beauty that is so overwhelming that, for those who haven't been prepared, it becomes destructive?

The final paragraphs:

On the golden steps in the golden, light, as golden shape danced a dream beyond the limits of all imagination, danced and drew the music to herself until a sigh of yearning, yearning which became a hope and a torment, went through the hearts of living things on a thousand worlds.

Edges of the golden scene faded raggedly  and unevenly into black.  The gold dimmed down to a pale gold-silver sheen and then to silver, last of all to white.  The dancer who had been golden was now a forlorn white-pink figure standing, quiet and fatigued, on the immense white steps.  The  applause of a thousand worlds roared in upon her.

She looked blindly at them.  The dance had overwhelmed her., too.  Their applause could mean nothing.  The dance was an end in itself.  She would have to live, somehow, until she danced again.  

As in many of Cordwainer Smith's stories, the focus is on the effects of technology and scientific advances on people rather than on the technology or science.  People are most important in his stories.

Cordwainer Smith is one of those sadly neglected SF short story writers from the late 1950s through the 1970s.  While many of his short works take place in a common universe, and several novels have been constructed by linking his short stories, he never got to the point of writing a series of novels that are so popular today, or perhaps required today.

I hope that maybe some visitors here will take a look at his stories.  It will be rewarding.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXVII

This is another of the quatrains Edward FitzGerald added to the Second Edition.


Strange, is it not?  that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
    Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

Strange, is it not?  that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
    Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

The two quatrains of the Second and the Fifth Editions are identical.  I can find no changes, even minor punctuation changes.  I guess FitzGerald thought he got it right the first time.

The point is clear, nobody has come back after death to tell us what actually happens.  I often hear others today discuss smugly how we moderns are so much wiser and more sophisticated than people living centuries earlier, that they believed all sorts of superstitions and had so many silly ideas about the universe. 

Perhaps somebody should point out that Khayyam seems far more skeptical than our contemporaries who believe in channelers and mediums who claim to be in contact with the dead and can bring their words to us, one or more of whom even had a TV series in which they "contacted" the spirits of those gone on before.  I think he would be equally skeptical of those who claim to hear the voices of the dead on tape recorders set on RECORD and left running in a empty room.

We may have eliminated or almost eliminated several diseases, but we haven't even begun to deal with gullibility.  And, I won't say a word about presidential aspirants and their followers. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hermann Hesse: Page from a Journal

Page from a Journal

On the slope behind the house today
I cut a hole through roots and rocks and
Dug a hole, deep and wide,
Carted away from it each stone
And all the friable, thin earth.
Then I knelt there a moment, walked
In the old woods, bent down again, using
A trowel and both my hands to scoop
Black, decaying woods-soil with the warm
Smell of fungi from the trunk of a rotting
Chestnut tree--two heavy buckets full I carried
Back to the hole and planted the tree inside;
Carefully I covered the roots with peaty soil,
Slowly poured sun-warmed water over them,
Mudding them gently until the soil settled.
It stands there, young and small,
Will go on standing when we are gone
And the huge uproar, endless urgency and
Fearful delirium of our days forgotten.

The fohn will bend it, rainstorms tear at it,
The sun will laugh, wet snow weigh it down,
The siskin and the nuthatch make it their home,
And the silent hedgehog burrow at its foot.
All it has ever experienced, tasted, suffered:
The course of years, generations of animals,
Oppression, recovery, friendship of sun and wind
Will pour forth each day in the song
Of its rustling foliage, in the friendly
Gesture of its gently swaying crown,
In the delicate sweet scent of resinous
Sap moistening the sleep-glued buds,
And in the eternal game of lights and
Shadows it plays with itself, content.

-- Hermann Hesse --
from Art and Nature:  An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry

There are times when I read a poem and then move on.

Sometimes I will read a poem, move on, and then come back.  It was a delayed reaction, but it interested me for some reason. 

And, once in awhile, I will read a poem and not move on.  This happened with Hesse's poem. Why?  I have no idea.

Perhaps one of you might tell me why.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Laotse and Eric Hoffer: the odd couple

I first encountered this theme in Laotse's Tao Te Ching and, to be honest,  I didn't understand the significance or the reality at that time.  A day ago, while browsing through Eric Hoffer's Reflections on the Human Condition, I ran across the same theme which was expressed in the identical words that Laotse used. 

Frankly, I still don't accept this as possible.  Perhaps it's because I live in a different time than either Laotse or Eric Hoffer.  Here are the two statements in question.

17.  Rulers

Of the best rulers
     The people (only) know that they exist;
The next best they praise;
The next they fear;
And the next they revile.

      When they do not command the people's faith,
      Some will lose faith in them,
      And then they resort to oaths!
But (of the best) when their task is accomplished,
       their work done,
The people all remark, "We have done it ourselves."
-- Laotse --
The Wisdom of Laotse
Edited by Lin Yutang

No. 87

The genuine creator creates something that has a life of its own, something that can exist and function without him   This is true not only of the writer, artist, and scientist but of creators in other fields.  The creative teacher is he who, in the words of Comenius, "teaches less and his students learn more."  A creative organizer creates an organization that can function well without him.  When a genuine leader has done his work, his followers will say, "We have done it ourselves,"  and feel that they can do great things without great leaders.  With the noncreative it is the other way around: in whatever they do they arrange things so that they themselves become indispensable.  

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

In both statements this theme is expressed  in identical wording: "We have done it ourselves."  Is this possible?  If their accomplishments are not attributed to them, then how do we know they are great leaders or very creative workers? 

Would this work in a democracy where one must win the approval of the voters?  Would a "do nothing" legislator or governor or president ever get reelected if the people didn't recognize the value of that person's actions while in office?  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Jane Austen: Predator and Prey

Don't know why, but upon re-reading P and P for the x? time, I suddenly saw a new title for the novel: Predator and Prey.  The first sentence is what started me thinking:

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

The second paragraph is even more specific actually:
"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his
first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

The phrase "the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters" started me thinking: "rightful property" or prey?  This focus on one of the most famous openings in English literature caused me to see the book in a slightly different way, which resulted in a new title:  Predator and Prey.  Who are the predators and who are the prey.  This resulted in a new perspective as I then began to look at each of the characters to see which role they played.  Some even play both. 

I also paid a bit more attention to Caroline, the unmarried Bingley sister, this time.  Once she senses Darcy's interest in Liz, the claws come out.  Caroline's senses are sharp and sensitive, very necessary for a predator to know when a suspected competitor invades her territory.  However, this different view of the novel also had a surprising effect in that I now viewed Caroline in a much more sympathetic light.  More about that later.

Following is a cast of the main characters and a brief statement regarding my take on their roles in the novel.  Feel free to disagree.

Mr. Bennet: prey-- He was caught and trapped when young by a pretty face.

Mrs. Bennet:  predator--she caught Mr. Bennet and is now on the hunt for her daughters.

Jane:  prey,  not really on the hunt for a husband, potential predator.

Elizabeth: prey,  not really on the hunt for a husband, but could be a potential predator.

Lydia:  predator,  attracted by red coats of officers

Wickham:  predator, searching for a rich woman to marry

Col. FitzWilliam:  predator, see Wickham

Darcy:  prey

Bingley: prey, target of local mothers

Miss Caroline Bingley: predator, on the prowl for Darcy

Georgiana:  prey, with Wickham as a past predator

Mr. Collins:  predator and prey, looking for a wife, becomes Charlotte's target.  Or, as we used to say back in the Dark Ages, "He chased her until she caught him."

Some brief observations:

Lizzie is hard on Charlotte but excuses Wickham and FitzWilliam

Older sons are prey while younger sons are predators, who are forced into those roles because of the culture and the tradition of primogeniture--oldest sons inherit everything in order to keep the family estate intact. Therefore the oldest son is a great catch (prey) , while the younger sons are forced to find an occupation (military or the church) or marry a woman with a large dowry who can support them (predator).  The oldest son can also be a predator if familial pressures causes him to search for a wife who has wealth and perhaps a title, which would be ideal.  Either or both could enhance the family's position in society.

Some critics and readers have dismissed Austen's works as light-hearted romances with the same theme: a young woman out to get a husband, and in spite of the usual obstacles, manages to get her man and live happily ever after.
This may be true on a surface level, but underneath there is a very serious struggle taking place.

The right marriage is not just a road to everlasting bliss but a means of survival for many of Austen's heroines, and heroes also, as it was true for many in the 17th through the 19th centuries.  Many, especially in the middle class, would be doomed to a life of penury or maybe worse, a life dependent upon the good will and generosity of relatives and friends.  Limited as they were by the strictures of their society (as we also are today--even if we don't see it), jobs were unavailable or unthinkable for many.  Marriage to a suitably wealthy individual was the only solution.

And that poses the problem--making a choice, if one were lucky enough to have choices.  Who to choose to spend a lifetime with?  P. D. James, one of my favorite mystery writers in an interview said that Jane Austen was her favorite author, and that, if Austen were writing today, she would be writing mysteries.

Consider--what is the task of the detective in a mystery story--stripping away the public persona to get at the suspect's real character.  What is the task of the wise young woman or man in choosing a mate?  Isn't it the same?  In fact, that is the task of all of us, knowingly or not, of finding out just what are our acquaintances really like and how many would make good and trustworthy friends. 

As for that "living happily ever after" myth, Austen doesn't believe in it, and it shows at the conclusion of most of her novels.  It may be a good match, but unending  bliss is not in the cards.

Just a few thoughts about the far too few works by one of my all-time favorite authors.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Editiion, Quatrain LXVI

This post actually includes an error on my part.  When I went through the First Edition and included those quatrains from the Second Edition that had appeared in that Edition, I somehow missed this one.  Consequently I will include the relevant quatrain from the First Edition as well as that from the Fifth Edition.


Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain--This Life flies;
    One thing is certain and the rest is Lies,
The Flower that once is blown for ever dies.


Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain--This Life flies;
    One thing is certain and the rest is Lies,
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.


Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise 
To talk;  one thing is certain, that Life flies;
     One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

The most significant differences occur between the First and Second Editions, the first two lines to be exact, while the Fifth Edition is identical to the Second.  The quatrain in the First Edition opens with an informal and chatty invitation to join the Poet "and leave the Wise To talk" whereas the tone becomes more serious in the Second Edition when it rejects religious warnings of "threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise."

One reason for the change may be that the quatrain advises readers to leave the wise to talk and listen to the poet.  Then the last two lines refers to lies, which may suggest that the poet thinks the wise are telling lies.  The wise would be theologians and philosophers, some of whom might be the poet's friends or possibly some highly regarded and influential people.  

Much of the second lines of the three editions are the same, and the third and fourth lines are identical in all three editions.

The three editions of this quatrain posits a common theme found in a number of the quatrains in which the Poet reminds us that nobody really knows what happens, if anything, after death.  Secondly, there is a clear rejection of the idea of reincarnation here:  "The Flower that once has blown for ever dies."   While some might argue that he speaks of a flower, I would say that he is generalizing to all life on this planet.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Chi Wu-ch'ien: a poet

A Boat in Spring on Jo-ya Lake

Thoughtful elation has no end:
Onward I bear it to whatever come.
And my boat and I, before the evening breeze
Passing flowers, entering the lake,
Turn at nightfall toward the western valley,
Where I watch the south star over the mountain
And a mist that rises, hovering soft,
And the low moon slanting through the trees;
And I choose to put away from me every worldly matter
And only to be an old man with a fishing pole.

-- Chi Wu-ch'ien --
from The Jade Mountain
trans. by Witter Bynner from
the texts of Kiang Kang-Hu 

I read it, thought about it awhile, and went on to the next one.  I came back and read it again and then went on to another poem.  I came back again.  There is something here, but I cannot speak it and I cannot write it.

Make of it what you will. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Kenko: tricks the mind plays on us

No. 71

"As soon as I hear a name I feel convinced I can guess what the owner looks like, but it never happens, when I actually meet the man, that his face is as I had supposed.  I wonder if everybody shares my experience of feeling, when I hear some story about the past, that the house mentioned in the story must hare been rather like this or that house belonging to people of today, or that the persons of the story resemble people I see now.  It has happened on various occasions too that I have felt, just after someone has said something or I have see something or thought of something, that it has occurred before.  I cannot remember when it was, but I feel absolutely certain the thing has happened.  Am I the only one has such impressions?"

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness
Donald Keene, trans.

I think I am more text-oriented than visually-oriented, for I really don't attach a face to a name upon hearing it.  In fact, I am more likely to do this when I hear a voice on the radio or a phone.   And, seldom do I "see" a place that I think is just like a place that I already know, except in a very general sense.  There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare.

However, I do have the the deja vu experience occasionally, which is quite common as I think that most people I know have had this happen to them one or more times.  It's quite uncanny when it does, for I can never figure out when it may have happened and in some cases, it even appears to be impossible to have occurred.  


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Fergus Hume: The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Fergus Hume
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

This is one for those of you who enjoy old and forgotten mysteries.  Fergus Hume certainly doesn't seem to be a household name, at least in the circle I bumble around in, and as for old?  Well, this book was first published 1886--yes, that's not a typo--1--8--8--6.  As you can tell from the title, it's a mystery involving a hansom cab, shades of Sherlock Holmes. It's set in Melbourne, Australia.

This is the cabbie's testimony, the driver of the hansom cab of the title. It's late at night, and he pulls up to two men, one of whom is very drunk. The drunken man suddenly lifts his face into the light, and the other recognizes him.  Disgusted he leaves.  Struggling, the cabbie finally gets the intoxicated man into his cab when the other man returns. He gets into the cab.  The cabbie drives off, and when the sober man gets off, he tells the cabbie to take the other man home.  When the cabbie gets to the destination, he discovers the man is dead and calls the police.

Detective Gorby of the Melbourne Police is assigned the case which sets up the first part of the novel as a police procedural.  We follow Detective Gorby as he follows up the clues and finally makes an arrest.

However, we haven't even come close to the halfway point, so obviously there is more to come.  There is and it's Perry Mason, or the Australian equivalent there of,  one Duncan Calton.  He takes on the defendant's case and begins his own investigation.

He comes up with some interesting bits of information but is stymied because he lacks the resources and the authority to really chase down those clues.  But, all is not lost, for Calton is shrewd, and  he knows something about the Melbourne PD.  There are actually two top detectives on the Force and Gorby is one of them.  The other is Detective Kilsip, and they hate each other.  This is not the friendly rivalry one might expect from comrades-in-arms but pure hatred.

Calton, the lawyer, takes his information to Detective Kilsip.  Kilsip believes that Gorby did arrest the right person, but there's this information given him by Calton.  Suppose there was something to this, and he could embarrass Gorby  by proving that Gorby had arrested the wrong man, and that someone else had committed the murder.  Calton now has the aid of one of the top detectives on the force.

It's a bit creaky here and there, but overall I found it an intriguing and perplexing and enjoyable read. There's also considerable humor here, some sly and some not so. 

According to the Intro, this was Hume's first novel and it was an instant success.  However, he went on to write another 140 novels, all of which were quickly forgotten.  Several of his books are available on-line, but I'm going to try the InterLibraryLoan method first.  I'm curious to discover whether this work was an accident or whether he was unjustly ignored.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ray Bradbury: "The Night"

Folks, spoilers follow, so if you haven't read the story and prefer to read it with no foreknowledge, you should stop here.

As I've mentioned in the past, too many times I suspect, Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite short story writers, regardless of the genre. He is probably best known for his SF and fantasy tales, but many of his stories stray far afield.  This is an example of a tale of his that doesn't fit easily into any category, except that of an excellent story that makes its point quickly and clearly.  "The Night" (perhaps "The Ravine" would be just as appropriate) is a short and simple tale, one of those that many might complain that "nothing happens."

It's a warm summer evening in a small town.  Doug is an eight-year-old boy who has just returned from getting ice cream at the local grocery.  His mother is busy ironing.  They are the only ones in the house. Father is at a lodge meeting and won't be back until around midnight.  Skipper, Doug's older brother, is out in another part of town, playing with some friends. He is late and should have been home some time ago.

Just as Doug is getting ready for bed, his mother decides to look for Skipper.  They set out along the path that Skipper will probably take on his way back.  They drop down into a ravine and about half way through, they hear Skipper and his friends laughing and giggling.  She scolds him for being late and they return home. Doug and Skipper go to bed.  Shortly afterwards, father returns from his lodge meeting.

Did anything happen?

This story is included in the collection The Stories of Ray Bradbury which the unknown editor describes as Bradbury's  best one hundred stories  (there a couple of stories missing that I would include).  Why is this story included?

Perhaps something did happen, something that only Doug experienced.  While Bradbury can do the obvious monsters and demons and horrors with the best, what I like is his grasp of what goes on inside the characters.  Many times I have recognized myself in his tales, something that doesn't happen with most writers.  Perhaps the following quotation (my apologies for its length, but Bradbury says it much better than I could)  may explain why this tale was included as one of his best one hundred.  At least, I think so.

Doug and his mother are on the path, expecting to meet Skipper on his way back.   The narrator tells us:

"You are only eight years old, you know little of death, fear, or dread.  Death is the waxen effigy in the coffin when you were six and Grandfather passed away--looking like a great fallen vulture in his casket, silent, withdrawn, no more to tell you how to be a good boy, no more to comment succinctly on politics.  Death is your little sister one morning when you awaken at the age of seven, look into her crib and see her staring up at you with a blind blue, fixed and frozen stare until the men come with a small wicker basket to take her away.  Death is when you stand by her high chair four weeks later and suddenly realize she'll never be in it again, laughing and crying, and make you jealous of her because she was born.  That is death.

But this is more than death.  This summer night wading deep in time and stars and warm eternity.  It is an essence of all the things you will ever feel or see or hear in your life again, being brought steadily home to you all at once.

Leaving the sidewalk, you walk along a trodden, pebbled, weed-fringed path to the ravine's edge.  Crickets, in loud full drumming chorus now, are shouting to quiver the dead.  You follow obediently behind brave, fine, tall Mother who is defender of all the universe.  You feel braveness because she goes before, and you hang back a trifle for a moment, and then hurry on, too.  Together, then, you approach, reach, and pause at the very edge of civilization.

The ravine.

Here and now, down there in that pit of jungled blackness is suddenly all the evil you will ever know.  Evil you will never understand.  All of the nameless things are there.  Later, when you have gown you'll be given names to label them with.  Meaningless syllables to describe the waiting nothingness.  Down there in the huddled shadow, among thick trees and trailed vines, lives the odor of decay.  Here, at this spot, civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.

You realize you are alone.  You and your mother.  Her hand trembles.

Her hand trembles.

Your belief in your private world is shattered.  You feel Mother tremble.  Why?  Is she, too, doubtful?  But she is bigger, stronger, more intelligent than yourself, isn't she?  Does she, too, feel that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching malignancy down below?  Is there, then, no strength in growing up? no solace in being an adult? no sanctuary in life? no flesh citadel strong enough to withstand the scrabbling assault of midnights?  Doubts flush you.  Ice cream lives again in your throat, stomach, spine and limbs; you are instantly cold as a wind out of December-gone.

You realize that all men are like this.  That each person is to himself one alone.  One oneness, a unit in society, but always afraid.  Like here, standing.  If you should scream now, if you should holler for help, would it matter?"

This ordinary walk in a quiet town has turned into something else.  Is this a horror story?  Or a growing up story when Doug climbs another step towards maturity and most likely doesn't realize it?

Any thoughts? 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Baltasar Gracian: Let's sit this one out

Something to think about today.

No. 138
THE SENSE TO let things settle.  Especially when the public, or the private, sea  is  most turbulent.  There come whirlwinds into human traffic, storms of passion, when it is wise to seek a safe harbor with smoother waters: many times is an evil made worse by the remedies used; here leave things to nature, or there to God: the learned physician needs just as much wisdom in order not to prescribe, as to prescribe, and often the greater art lies in doing nothing; the way to quiet the turbulence of a mob is to withdraw your hand, and let it quiet itself, to concede today, may be the best way to succeed tomorrow; it takes little to muddy a spring, nor does it clear by being stirred, but by being left alone:  there is no better remedy for turmoil, than to let it take its course, for so it comes to rest of itself. 

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom

I think today could certainly be considered turbulent times, especially in the political world.  The major conflict seems to be centered around Donald Trump.  The country seems polarized between the pro- and  anti-Trump forces.  Is Gracian saying we should disengage ourselves from the conflict and adopt a superior view from on high, being above the conflict?

I don't think so.  It is one thing to express one's opinion quietly and thoughtfully and quite another to engage in vicious verbal attacks, whether based on facts or rumors or just plain lies.  It is almost as though there are two distinct conversations going on: one conducted by those who speak or write quietly and rationally and the other by the most passionate adherents in both camps who spend their time shouting and yelling at each other, hardly bothering to listen to anybody else but their own voices. 

It seems to me that a particularly unwise action, one that has already resulted in so far only minor violence, is the appearance of anti-Trump demonstrators at his speeches.  What purpose is served by these counter-demonstrations at the time of the event?   There are strong emotions on both sides which are bound to flare up into violence given some small and probably trivial incident.  Is this what both sides want?

Some may argue that these demonstrations are necessary to show the strength of the feelings against Donald Trump.  Is this really necessary?  That the Republican Party itself is split for and against him, it's own presumptive nominee for president, should surely tell anybody that he is a controversial individual even in his own party.  Those feelings are strong enough for some to come out and directly oppose him, while others temporize by saying there are serious issues to be resolved.  In addition, there are those who have said that they will not attend the Republican nominating convention this summer.  Is it really necessary to engage in a direct confrontation at this time?

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXV

This quatrain was added in the Second Edition but had been removed by the time the Fifth Edition was published.  Frankly, I'm puzzled by it.


If but the Vine and Love-abjuring Band
Are in the Prophet's Paradise to stand,
    Alack, I doubt the Prophet's Paradise
Were empty as the hollow of one's Hand.

The problem, for me anyway, are the verbs adjure and abjure. Adjure means to encourage or earnestly entreat others to do something, almost a command, while abjure means to forbid or to abstain from something.  I have two copies of The Rubaiyat and in one, the verb is adjure for Quatrains LXIV  and LXV and in the other, it is abjure. The logic of Quatrain LXIV suggests that the verb should be abjure, that one should abstain from alcohol.

That is why this quatrain is puzzling.  The poet suggests that if those who abjure or abstain from the Vine and Love.  .  . gain Paradise, then the poet doesn't think (doubts) that Paradise would be empty.  This suggests that those who abjure wine and love will go to heaven, but it doesn't say anything about those who don't abjure the Vine and Love. Could it be that it doesn't make any difference what one believes?  All will go to Paradise.

I suspect my problem is caused some changes in meaning in one or more words in the quatrain. Or perhaps what puzzles me is what caused FitzGerald to eventually drop this quatrain.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Flowers: One at a time, please

Being in a contrary mood this morning, I thought I would post something contrary.   


One flower at a time, please
however small the face.

Two flowers are one flower
too many, a distraction.

Three flowers in a vase begin
to be a little noisy. 

Like cocktail conversation,
everybody talking.

A crowd of flowers is a crowd
of flatterers (forgive me).

One flower at a time.  I want
to hear what it is saying.

-- Robert Francis --
from Art and Nature
Kate Farrell, Editor

Any comments? 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: Too simple to be profound?

It often happens that while reading a story or a novel or an essay, which is moderately interesting, the author will say something that stops me immediately.  I go back, read it again, meditate a bit, and move on. Yet, even as I move on, that statement or comment will remain in the background.  And it will remain with me for several days or even longer.  Such is the following brief comment or analogy by Robert Louis Stevenson in one of his essays:

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .

Robert Louis Stevenson
"A Gossip on Romance"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays

There are innumerable essays, theses, books on the nature of fiction and its popularity or the reason for its existence.  I think a collection could easily take up several very large bookcases.  I have read a number of essays and have several books gathering dust in my TBR bookcase which I will get to, probably, one of these days. But, Stevenson's brief comment--Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .  so resonates with me that I may never get to those dusty books awaiting me.

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."  We read this in the King James Version of Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, and it seems to fit.  Many adults put away those childish things, one of which is play, and they become very serious and solemn; life becomes a grim struggle.

But, this isn't true of all, for some (and that includes me), have exchanged that childish play for fiction.  A child at play is lost somewhere in there, and that child is thoroughly wrapped up in the game, whatever it may be.  The child is now on a different plane of existence.    How different is this from when I settle down with a book and travel off to far planets or to the future?  or work out how someone managed to murder a thoroughly nasty character and escape from a locked room?  or follow the destinies of a young man or a young woman who struggles to become a mature adult and not just a carbon copy of the neighbors? 

As a child, the call to "come out and play" was an invitation to another world; as adults, some of us have substituted "Once upon a time.  .  ."

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Eric Hoffer: More! More! More! More!

No. 22

"MORE!" is as effective a revolutionary slogan as was ever invented by doctrinaires of discontent.  The American, who cannot learn to want what he has, is a permanent revolutionary.  He glories in change, has faith in that which he has not yet, and is ready to give his life for it. 

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind and other Aphorisms 

Frankly I have some doubt about part of the following assertion:

He glories in change, has faith in that which he has not yet, and is ready to give his life for it. 

I agree that we have faith in that which we don't have and might give up our lives to gain it, depending, of course, upon what it is we think we don't have and must have, but I do think Hoffer goes a bit overboard here.

What I most disagree with is that part about glorying in change.  This may be true for some Americans, but based on how I read the papers and listen to politicians, there appears to be a very large portion of the American populace who do NOT glory in change, but fear it instead.  They glory in stasis and fear any change and are much more likely to give their lives to maintain a static existence or even return to a mythical Golden Age (and what's worse, are ready to give the lives of others also).

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Robert Frost's commemorative poem: Edward Thomas March 3, 1878--April 9, 1917

Sadly, Edward Thomas is another of those artists, from many countries, whose artistic life was cut short during the Great War.  He enlisted in the army in 1915 and was sent to France as an artillery officer at the end of January 1917.   Thomas was at a forward observation post when he was killed.

I posted a sample of his poetry on June 8, 2014 and Dec. 23, 2013 and prose on March 20, 2015.   Robert Frost, a friend and mentor, published the following poem in 1923 in his collection, New Hampshire

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you.

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained--
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge, and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you--the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?
 -- Robert Frost --

"E.T. . . .British essayist Edward Thomas . . ., a close friend of Frost's in England, began writing poetry with Frost's encouragement.   He joined the army in 1915, the year that Frost returned to the United States.   Several of Thomas's poems were published pseudonomously  from 1915 to 1917 and Frost succeeded in having a collection of Thomas's poems published in America."
from "Notes"
Robert Frost:  Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays
Richard Poirier and  Mark Richardson, Editors

Following is one of Thomas's last poems, written on December 24, 1916, while in England at home with his family.

Out in the dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Then the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned,

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

 -- Edward Thomas --
The "Notes" regarding this poem in Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems suggest that Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House," may have been influenced by Thomas's poem.  As Hardy is another favorite of mine, I must take a look at his poem.  It's intriguing to find Thomas as sort of a link between Frost and Hardy, both favorite poets of mine.   And, that "If" at the end sounds a note of ambiguity that is reminiscent of  both Hardy and Frost.
You will be seeing more of Edward Thomas's poetry here in the future.  If you haven't read anything by him yet, I would recommend you take a look.   And, thanks again to Stephen Pentz at "First Known When Lost" for introducing Thomas to me. 

It's a remarkable poem, considering it was written some four months before his death, and he knew he would be sent to France within the month.  Is it prophetic?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXIV

Another in a series of posts regarding quatrains that Edward FitzGerald added when he published the Second Edition of The Rubaiyat.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXIV

I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must,
Scared by some After-reckoning ta'en on trust,
     Or lured with Hope of some Diviner Drink,
When the frail Cup is crumbled into Dust! 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXII
I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must,
Scared by some After-reckoning ta'en on trust,
     Or lured with Hope of some Diviner Drink,
To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust! 

The first three lines of the two are identical, and the only modification appears in the last line where we read

Second Edition:  "When the frail Cup is crumbled into Dust!"
Fifth Edition:      "To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust!"

The "Cup" and its fate is a reference to other quatrains in which the Potter is seen fashioning cups out of clay, much as the Creator created humans out of dust or clay and at the end will return to their original state.  In yet another quatrain, a cup remarks that if filled with wine, it might return to life again.

Is there a difference, perhaps even a subtle difference, between the two versions?
It seems to me that in the Second Edition, there is the hope that after death, there might be "some Diviner Drink," with no reference to the body.  The last line in the Fifth Edition suggests something quite different, or so it seems to me:

". . .some Diviner Drink,
To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust!"

This seems to say that the "Diviner Drink" will fill the "Cup" after death, possibly a reference to the resurrection of the body after death, a belief that Moslems hold, as do Christians, and Jews, as far as I can tell. 

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain in which the Poet defends drinking wine by arguing that it's God's creation, which cannot, therefore, be evil.  In this quatrain, he points out that the ban against alcohol is really based on "trust," or faith that either one might be punished or rewarded in an after-life.  Of course, the Poet has already made the point in previous quatrains that nobody really knows what happens after death, that nobody has ever returned to tell us, and that all such theories are just guesses based on nothing substantial.

The Poet's attitude about the virtues of drinking wine are expressed quite clearly and openly, once again, when he refers to it as "the Balm of Life," something which is comforting.