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.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Emily Dickinson, a poem


Through lane it lay -- through bramble --
Through clearing and through wood --
Banditti often passed us
Upon the lonely road.

The wolf came peering curious --
The owl looked puzzled down --
The serpent's satin figure
Glid stealthily along --

The tempests touched our garments --
The lightning's poinards gleamed --
Fierce from the Crag above us
The hungry Vulture screamed --

That satyr's fingers beckoned --
The valley murmured "Come" --
These were the mates --
This was the road
These children fluttered home. 

-- Emily Dickinson --
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
edited by Thomas H. Jackson

Lucky children .  .  . or so I think, and perhaps Emily Dickinson thinks the same. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Loren Eiseley: Meaningless Voices

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), as you may have noticed, is one of my favorite essayists and prose writers, possibly my favorite, if I ever took the time to think about it.  He writes clearly and succinctly--his essays are a joy to read.  His poetry, though, is quite different--enigmatic, and puzzling at times, many times actually.  Something there, however, resonates with me, even if I don't understand just what it is.  Here is one of those poems.

Meaningless Voices

Water that comes endlessly from the blue mountain lakes unvisited save by deer

and the deer themselves,
bugling faint calls through the aspen thickets in high autumn.
all talk in meaningless voices.

The valley is filled with cricket chirps and leaf whispers
and whatever it is comes crying
on the rain squalls from the northeast.

Even the grasshoppers have been here a long time and click songs
without the bright, sinister meanings of
the mountain rattlers, whose voice, like death, is purposeful.

All of these have been here for ages, but later
horns rasp in the valley and the voice of dynamite
splits boulders and the roads come, all purposeful, all strident with meaning,
while red-winged blackbirds
fly away to new pools.

Nevertheless the meaningless voices are also significant
in what is past and to come.

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley

Are the only meaningful voices those that signify death or destruction?  Yet, those "meaningless voices are also significant/in what is past and to come."  In what way were they significant in the past and, again, will be significant in what is "to come"?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Thomas Hardy: "I Have LIved With Shades"

Could this perhaps reflect Hardy's own doubts about his place in history?

"I Have Lived With Shades"
I have lived with Shades so long,
And talked to them so oft,
Since forth from cot and croft
I went mankind among,
           That sometime they
           In their dim style
           Will pause awhile
           To hear my say;
And take my by the hand,
And lead me through their rooms
In the To-be, where Dooms
Half-wove and shapeless stand:
             And show from there
            The dwindled dust
            And rot and rust
           Of things that were.

"Now turn," they said to me
One day:  "Look whence we came,
And signify his name
Who gazes thence on thee." --
         --"Nor name nor race
        Know I, or can,"
        I said, "Of man
       So commonplace.

"He moves me not at all;
I note no ray or jot
Of rareness in his lot,
Or star exceptional.
            Into the dim
            Dead throngs around
            He'll sink, nor sound
            Be left of him." 

"Yet," said they, "his frail speech,"
Hath accents pitched like thine--
Thy mould  and his define
A likeness each to each--
            But go!  Deep pain
            Alas, would be
           His name to thee,
           And told in vain!"

-- Thomas Hardy --     
from The Works of Thomas Hardy

The poet-narrator clearly seems to be questioning here his own place in history.  He says that the shade pointed out to him will sink into the dead throngs around and nothing will be heard of him.  In the fifth stanza we learn the the shade looks and sounds like him, and the other shades will not say his name for "Deep pain/Alas, would be/His name to thee."

This all seems straightforward, except for the last line--"And told in vain."  Why would it be useless to tell him?  To prevent pain would be a good reason for not revealing the identity, but why include that it would be useless? 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Village: an SF film

The Village
an SF film

Here's another one of those quiet SF films that I never heard of until I ran across it by accident.  It appeared in 2004 and was written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who has also directed The Last Airbender and The Sixth Sense.  

I'm surprised that I missed this film because it stars William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Joaquin Phoenix, and Bryce Dallas Howard.  With this cast, it should have received more notice.  Of course, I may just have missed it and am the only person in the world who hadn't heard of it.  The background music is also unique in that the solo violinist is Hillary Hahn, a world-class performer who, at age 35, already has won two Grammys. 

The film opens on a quiet village scene, apparently sometime during the 1800s, according to their clothing and the implements they use.  However, something strange appears almost immediately as two young women who are sweeping the porch with brooms make a game of it, dancing with the brooms.  Suddenly the frolicking is interrupted when one spots a red flower.  They stare at it and one wonders where it came from.  One plucks the flower and immediately buries it, saying "bad color, bad color."

The villagers are all from surrounding towns where each has lost someone through violence or has come here to escape violence.  All have taken a vow to remain in the village and not to return to the towns.  It appears to be one of the many utopian communities formed during the 19th century, one of which was featured in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blythedale Romance.  These are the 19th century equivalents of the hippie communes of the 20th century.  

The people are happy and content as they go about their daily chores and work.  The town is self-sufficient as it produces its own food in its own gardens, and it has a small herd of cattle.  We see the women making clothing, and a blacksmith forging tools and other implements.  Ingredients for the meals do not come out of cans or boxes.  Decisions are made by a council of village elders, with William Hurt's character being the unofficial leader.

However, in spite of the ordinariness of their lives,  strangeness appears when we realize that there is a circle of wooden poles surrounding the village that bear lit torches at night.  A guard is posted at night on a tall watch tower that can be reached only by ladder and up through a trap door that is locked by the guard at the top.  Children are warned not to go beyond the barrier.  We also learn that there are creatures out there called "Those We Don't Speak Of," and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that neither bothers the other by coming into the village or going beyond the barrier.  However, several incidents suggest that this agreement is breaking down for some reason.

The first half of the film depicts the lives of these people and the series of disquieting events regarding the relationship of the villagers and "Those We Don't Speak Of."   However, the second half turns into something quite different as it now focuses on the relationship between two of the characters.  A young blind woman, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, goes on a heroic and solitary quest to a nearby town to get some medicine for her newly betrothed lover, played by Joaquin Phoenix.  It is her journey that now becomes the center of the film.  It is because of this journey that dark secrets are revealed, at least for viewers. 

It's an interesting film about a small isolated village whose inhabitants have voluntarily cut themselves off from what they perceive as the dangers of  living in large towns.  The film centers on people and ideas, and the special effects and the usual trappings of action-oriented SF are missing. 

Recommended for those looking for something other than noisy space battles, drooling aliens, and special effects that substitute for plot and character development.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Robert Grudin: what we best understand

II.24    If the words "to have" and "to know" are taken in their deepest sense, then there is nothing in the world that we may truly have or know.  In most of our experiences--personal, professional, political, esthetic--we stand at the periphery, conversant with detail but unsure about structure, basis, context; unsure even about the nature of the emotions that the experience evokes in us.  What we understand best, we understand by renewal--by looking at the same thing again and again in different ways, looking at it internally and externally, walking around it, turning it in our hands, participating in it until some strange abstract spirit of its being rises from the complexity of effort and detail.  And what we have best, we have by renewal--by chronic challenges never refused,  by danger of loss, by repeated cherishings, and by love remembered.

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

I don't know--does this sound bleak to you?--that "there is nothing in the world that we may truly have or know"-- that in most of our experiences we are at the edge of things.  Grudin seems to deny the possibility of an immediate intuitive grasp of things, and that it is only through repeated exposure over a long period that we best understand things, and I suspect this would include people also.   In a sense, I think he insists that only through immersion in whatever it is that we can develop any in-depth understanding of the event or object or person, but we still will never truly know or have anything.

I think that what he says about repeated exposure and renewal is true most of the time.  It does take time and repeated encounters to understand the other, whether it may be an event or an object or a person.  However, there are occasions when there seems to be an instant grasp of the other, being it favorable or unfavorable, that repeated exposure only confirms the first impression.  They are rare, but they do exist.       

Monday, June 9, 2014

David Brin: EXISTENCE, an excerpt

David Brin
SF novel, 553 pages

I'm in the midst of reading a remarkable SF novel by David Brin.  I've always enjoyed his previous works, but this one is something special.  I never thought he would be able to match his earlier ground-breaking novel, Earth, but he has not only matched it, but I think he has gone a step or two  beyond with Existence.  I haven't finished it yet, so I won't comment any more, but I do want to provide this brief excerpt from the novel.

Hamish, a writer and one of many characters,  is reminiscing:


The art that I practice is the only true form of magic.
     It had taken Hamish years to realize this consciously, though he must have suspected it as a child, while devouring fantasy novels and playing whatever interactive game had the best narrative storyline.  Later, at university and grad school, even while diligently studying the ornate laws and incantations of science, something had always struck  him as wrong about the whole endeavor.
     No, wrong wasn't the word.  Sterile. Or dry, or pallid .  .  . that is, compared to worlds of fiction and belief.
     Then, while playing hooky one day from biomedical research, escaping into the vast realm of a little novel, he found a clue to his dilemma, in a passage written by the author, Tom Robbins.

Science gives man what he needs.
But magic gives him what he wants.

     A gross oversimplification?  Sure, Yet, Hamish instantly recognized the important distinction he'd been floundering toward.
      For all its beauty, honesty, and effectiveness at improving the human condition, science demands a terrible price--that we accept what experiments tell us about the universe, whether we like it or not.  It's about consensus and teamwork and respectful critical argument, working with, and through, natural law.  It requires that we utter, frequently, those hateful words--'I might be wrong.'
     On the other hand, magic is what happens when we convince ourselves something is, even when it isn't.  Subjective Truth, winning over mere objective fact.  The Will, triumphing over all else.  No wonder,  even after the cornucopia of wealth and knowledge engendered by science, magic remains more popular, more embedded in the human heart.
     Whether you labeled it faith, or self-delusion, or fantasy, or outright lying--Hamish recognized the species' greatest talent, a calling that spanned all cultures and times, appearing far more often, in far more tribes, than dispassionate reason!  Combine it with enough ardent wanting, and the brew might succor you through the harshest times, even periods of utter despair.
     That was what Hamish got from the best yarns, spun by master storytellers.  A temporary, willing belief that he could inhabit another world, bound by different rules.  Better rules than the dry clockwork rhythms of this one." 

Whether this represents Brin's own thinking or is simply part of the creative process of constructing a character is up for you to decide, if you choose to read the novel.  

I think, though, that there are hints or clues here to the present time, with all the conflict and partisan fighting going on all over the world, and right here at home.  Those who fear and hate the inexorable changes that seem to overwhelm all are in a state of denial.  Magic gives them what they want.    

If there is anything that characterizes science for me, it is the following, idealized though it may be:

For all its beauty, honesty, and effectiveness at improving the human condition, science demands a terrible price--that we accept what experiments tell us about the universe, whether we like it or not.  It's about consensus and teamwork and respectful critical argument, working with, and through, natural law.  It requires that we utter, frequently, those hateful words--'I might be wrong.'

Other ways of thinking --magic-- do not face that ultimate challenge for if something is not to one's liking, one simply ignores it or mentally rewrites it.  It may be more emotionally satisfying, but that really doesn't solve real world problems such as environmental pollution of water and air or global warming or disputes among belief systems.  We must learn to face problems and do something about them or go the way of the dinosaur.