Friday, March 24, 2017

Li Po: "Drinking Alone in Moonlight"

I have already posted this poem, but it was a different translation.  I have heard the saying, "In vino veritas,"when means, I guess, in wine there is truth.  But enlightenment. . .?

Drinking Alone in Moonlight

If Heaven had no love for wine,
There would be no Wine Star in Heaven;
If earth had no love for wine,
There would be no city called Wine Springs..
Since Heaven and Earth love wine,
I can love wine without shaming Heaven.

They say that clear wine is a saint,
Thick wine follows the way of the sage.
I have drunk deep of saint and sage:
What need then to study the spirits and fairies?
With three cups I penetrate the Great Tao,
Take a whole jugful--I and the world are one.
Such things as I have dreamed in wine
Shall never be told to the sober.

-- Li Po --
from A Treasury of Asian Literature
John  B. Yohannan, editor

Sounds very modern to me.  Just substitute LSD or peyote or any other mind altering drug for wine.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Robert Frost: Spring Pools

Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods--
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only recently.

--Robert Frost --

Another of Frost's enigmatic poems.  Those summer woods, celebrated by other poets and writers, are portrayed somewhat differently here for they "darken nature."  Even more ominous is Frost's warning to those trees with "their pent-up buds."
"Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only recently."

What is dangerous about that snow that melted only recently"?  Or, is it something other than that melted snow?

As usual, his poem is characterized by a straightforward, almost conversational sentence structure and simple, everyday words, and yet he manages to hint at something behind all this deceptive simplicity.   

Now that I've finished my brief ramblings, go back and read the poem again.  That's what's important--the poem..

Friday, March 17, 2017

Basho's frog

This is probably one of Basho's most famous haiku.   I have a book titled Basho's One Hundred Frogs,  a collection of 100 different translations of this one haiku.  Surely, that must be a record of some sort.

Old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

This is my favorite translation.  I can picture myself sitting near a pond or river, with a frog nearby.  I can't see the water directly below the frog because of the bank.  The frog jumps and disappears in the sound of water.  I never do see the frog enter the water; he just jumps into the sound.  Oh, I know very well what happened, or think I do anyway.  However, maybe that frog really did jump into the sound of water. Just why this grabs me, I have no idea.  Perhaps you may have some suggestions. 

Basho: The Complete Haiku
Jane Reichhold, ed. and trans.

Following is a much more mundane (to me anyway) translation:

The quiet pond
  A frog jumps in,
    The sound of the water.

The comma provides a pause between the frog jumping in (and not "into")  and the resulting sound of water.
 tran.  Edward G. Seidensticker
from  One Hundred Frogs.
ed.  Hiroaki Sato

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Minute Observation

Nothing very profound here--just an observation by Joseph Wood Krutch on the long northern winters and various ways that some animals have found to handle them. usual it is the cats who are provided with the most perfect mechanism.  They are, to be sure, capable of a kind of short-range impatience--when, for example, food is being prepared.  They seem at time to suffer momentarily from boredom, as a wild animal perhaps never does.  But when the weather is too bad to go out, or when for any reason there is absolutely nothing to do, they can simply curl up and sleep almost endlessly, for days at a time if necessary, with perfect ease.  Even going to sleep seems to be a process entirely under their control, as voluntary as shutting the eyes is for us.  Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many different ailments, but I never heard of one who suffered from insomnia. 

Cats with insomnia:  sounds self-contradictory or mutually exclusive to me. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Eric Hoffer: totalitarianism in free societies

No. 28

There is a large measure of totalitarianism even in the freest of free societies.  But in a free society totalitarianism is not imposed from without but is implanted within the individual.  There is a totalitarian regime inside everyone of us.  We are ruled  by a ruthless politburo which sets our norms and drives us from one five-year plan to another.  The autonomous individual who has to justify his existence by his own efforts is in eternal bondage to himself.  

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

If autonomous individuals are in bondage to themselves, then the non-autonomous individuals must be in bondage to outside forces.  Since there is no escape from bondage, according to Hoffer, then I would prefer to be in bondage to myself.

Aside from death, is there another option which could free us from this bondage?  Or, does this bondage really exist?   

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Favorite Fiction--2016

Some favorite works of fiction I read during 2016,


Sarah Orne Jewett:
                  The Country of Pointed Firs
                   --my first reading of her masterpiece.  Why did I take so long to get to it?
                   --this is on my must reread list.

                   A Country Doctor
                   --this one is a bit weaker than the first, but still an excellent read. and better     
                      than 90% of the other works I've read this year.

Joseph Conrad:  Suspense
 --an unfinished novel set in the Napoleonic era.
 --a traveler gets involved with a plot of Napoleon's escape from Elba.

Ray Bradbury:         Farewell Summer
--the sequel to Dandelion Wine.  The tone is different in this one.  The boy resists growing up.

Graham Greene:    The Human Factor
--a spy novel.  The unmasking of a mole in the British secret service, told from the mole's point of view.

Nathaniel Hawthorne:: The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories
--a collection of some of Hawthorne's most well-known short works.
--decided to leave this in the First Reads grouping as there were several short stories that I hadn't read before.

Kazuo Ishiguro:   The Remains of the Day
--a great novel of repression and fear of commitment, set against the backdrop of WWII.   
--his master is a Nazi sympathizer and the butler refuses to go against his master for he  is the master.


Jane Austen:
                   Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon
                   Northanger Abbey
                   Mansfield Park
                   Sense and Sensibility
                   Pride and Prejudice

--as always, great reading.  This was my fifth? sixth? who knows how many readings I've had of her works over the years.  They are just as good, if not better, the fifth? time around as the first.

A. Solzhenitsyn:   One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

--the title says it all--one day in a Soviet Union era gulag in Siberia, based loosely on his time there.  I like to pair this one with Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead, his experiences in a Siberian prison camp during the reign of the Tsars.  Forced to make a choice, I would choose life there under the Tsars.  The treatment was cruel but  much more humane than under the commissars. 

Dostoyevsky:   "The Gambler"
--Dostoyevsky's great novella depicting the downfall of an gambling addict.
--great character study of numerous Russians traveling abroad. sometimes just for travel and sometimes to avoid debt collectors back home.  Comic figures trapped within a tragic story.

Evelyn Waugh:   Brideshead Revisited
--Flashback:  an English army officer finds his unit stationed  on one of the grand   
   estates and recognizes it as the one that had a great influence on him, beginning with
   his stay at Oxford.

--there's a great BBC TV adaptation of the book.  After watching it, I went out and 
   got the book.

Herman Melville:  “Benito Cereno”
--Melville's great novella regarding the slave trade and a very naive American ship captain.

Nikos Kazantzakis:   Freedom or Death

--his powerful novel set in Greece during the time of the Greek war for independence.
--as usual his characters come off the page at you.

Oscar Wilde:   The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray
--This is the first and censored version of Gray's novel.  To be honest, I can not see anything that
   would be more offensive than anything in the published version.  A classic example of changing
    tastes, I will includ this among the rereads for I have read this several times.

There were a number of enjoyable works that I read during the past year, but these are the ones that stand out.  While there  appears to be a large number of first reads, equal to the rereads, one should note that Bradbury, Greene, Hawthorne, and Conrad are all favorites of mine from way back when.  These are works by them that I've never read before.

Only two of the authors in the First Reads Section are new to me:  Kazuo Ishiguro and Sarah Orne Jewett and are now on my reread list.  Coincidentally, I read two books by both.  The other book by by Ishiguro will appear on my Favorite SF novels of 2016 list.

Forgot to mention, but if you have questions about any of the authors or books, please ask.  I may not know the answer, but it's worth trying anyway.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXVI

A confusing quatrain:  the syntax is not clear to me.


Nay, but for the terror of his wrathful Face,
I swear I will not call Injustice Grace;
    Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but
Would kick so poor a Coward from this place. 

Perhaps FitzGerald felt there were problems with this quatrain, for it had disappeared by the time the Fifth Edition was published.

I think the meaning is that the  "terror of his wrathful Face," what is what would prevent him from calling  "Injustice Grace."  This refers back to the theme of those pleasures that God set before us and then forbade us from tasting them under pain if eternal punishment. 

I think he refers to himself as so poor a Coward  for being afraid to stand up and say what he thinks.  Those in the Tavern understand his fear and therefore would not reject him. If this is an adequate reading, then the quatrain is a very strange one: one that suggests that it is fear of God that keeps him from speaking the truth.  Perhaps FitzGerald had similar problems with it, for it was removed by the fifth edition, if not earlier.

Any other meanings possible?  Am I missing something?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Minute Meditation

I realized then the truth about all love:  that it is an absolute which takes all or forfeits all.  The other feelings, compassion, tenderness and so on, exist only on the periphery and belong to the constructions of society and habit.  But she herself--austere and merciless Aphrodite--is a pagan.  It is not our brains or instincts which she picks--but our very bones.

-- Lawrence Durrell --
from Justine, Part II

I think that there are a number of examples of this in the novel:  Darley, Melissa, Justine, Nessim, Mountolive, Leila, although it is not clear just whom these characters are in love with. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Robert Hayden: Those Winter Sundays

Sometimes while reading a poem, a stanza or even a line may resurrect memories long forgotten or at least not recalled in many years.  This is what happened yesterday when I read Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."   According to the brief bio note with the poem, Hayden was born in Detroit.  I was born and raised in Chicago, so my winter mornings were much like Hayden's in Detroit. 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

I remember my dad getting up in those cold, dark winter mornings and going down into the basement to remove the cinders and shovel coal into the furnace.  I too never said anything about it for I just took it as a part of living and never considered what it meant, until I read this poem.  Hayden says so little, yet suggests so much in this brief poem.

"No one ever thanked him."

"fearing the chronic angers of that house."

"Speaking indifferently to him,"

And of course, the last two lines:

"What did I know, what did I know
  of love's austere and lonely offices?"

How much regret, how much regret is contained  within those fourteen words?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ryokan: the ultimate enlightenment?

Is he enlightened or just lazy?

Without a jot of ambition left
I let my nature flow where it will.
There are ten days of rice in my bag
And, by the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
Who prattles of illusion or nirvana?
Forgetting the equal dusts of name and fortune,
Listening to the night rain on the roof of my hut,
I sit at ease, both legs stretched out.  
                           -- Ryokan --
from  Zen Poetry
edited and translated by Takashi Ikemoto and Lucien Stryk

What I find most intriguing is that he rejects both the spiritual world (illusion and nirvana) and the material world (name and fortune).  Is this the ultimate enlightenment? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 65

Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, calm and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation--a change from beauty to beauty.

-- John Muir --

from   John Muir:  In His Own Words

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favorite Films: 2016

These are the films that I watched and most  enjoyed in 2016 and would like to view again.  The first group are those films I watched for the first time, and probably not for the last time either.  As you can see, there were 20 film which I would like to view again some time, but only four of them were films I had viewed for the first time.  Sixteen of the twenty were films I had already viewed in the past, viewed again in 2016 and would like to watch again some time in the future.

First Viewings:

Symphonies of Beethoven 
a Teaching Company set of 48 lectures on Beethoven's symphonies.  The only downside was that they were too short.  It's on my "must watch again" list.
The Martian   
a very realistic depiction of being marooned on Mars.  

 Love and Friendship  
a marvelous transformation of Jane Austen's novella, _Lady Susan_.  It is the best adaptation of a work by Austen that I have ever seen.  Why they changed the name, I don't know.
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl  
Ken Burns' usual production, which would be extraordinary for anyone else--a great and moving documentary on a sad period in our history.  

Repeat Viewings:

THX 1138
George Lucas' first film, directed when he paid attention to character and plot and kept the action sequences at the appropriate level--but, as usual, he just had to get a car chase sequence in there.

Museum Hours
a great film, simple plot and two main characters.  The sights and scenes of Vienna are matched by the dialogue and paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  This is a link to my post on this film.

Man from Earth
one of my favorite SF films--John Oldman tells his friends that he's over 10,000 years old.  What follows is their attempt to determine if he is lying or deceiving them.  They of course rule out the possibility that he's telling the truth.  This is a link to my post on this film:

The Name of the Rose
a limited but excellent adaptation of Umberto Eco's great novel of the same name--a mystery set in an isolated monastery in Italy?  moody and dark, an interesting mix of religion and politics, and religious politics. 

Witness for the Prosecution
my all-time favorite  courtroom drama film: strangely, I liked the film better than the Christie story it was based on.

The Qatsi Trilogy
all photography, with no dialogue or plot; the  sound track of music composed by Philip Glass is an integral part of the overall effect.  Must be seen and heard to be appreciated.

pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect: -a contrast between wilderness and urban settings--the viewer decides

again, pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect:  the contrast is between the developing parts of the Southern Hemisphere and the still undeveloped parts

--Life as War is a rough translation of the title.  Released some 14 years after the first two--the technology wasn't available at the time.  This is almost all digitized photography. 

Brideshead Revisited
an excellent adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel.  Seeing this on PBS Masterpiece Theatre got me to go and read the novel.

Wages of Fear
one of the most tense and nerve racking films I've ever watched.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Smiley's People
two great BBC adaptations of the Smiley novels by John le Carre'
Alec Guinness is in top form here

The Big Sleep (Bogart and Bacall)

It's Bogart and Bacall in a film adaptation of a novel by Raymond Chandler.  What else need I say?.

If you're in the mood for a film and don't have anything particular in mind, try one of these, and let me know what you thought.  They are all great films and well worth the time spent.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

Jack London:   The Scarlet Plague

Edgar Allan Poe published a short work titled "The Masque of the Red Death" (aka "The Mask of the Red Death) in 1842 about a virulent plague that caused instant bleeding from the pores and immediate death.  In 1912, some 70 years later, Jack London published a novella, The Scarlet Death in which he depicted a plague that caused a bright reddening of the skin and almost instantaneous death.  Did London borrow the idea from Poe?  I don't know as I've never read anything that suggests such a possibility.  Aside from the symptoms and the high mortality rate, the two tales are very different in time and place.  Poe's tale takes place in Renaissance Italy (or so I guess) while London's is set in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013. 

Poe's story focused on a small group of people who fled the city for an isolated "castellated abbey," hoping to escape the plague.  It had a high wall and an iron door.  They sealed the door in an attempt to keep the plague or plague bearers out.  However, as those who have read the tale know, they were unsuccessful  What happened after the plague appeared and apparently killed all in the abbey is not told.

London's tale, however, is a flashback, a reminiscence of one of the few survivors, called Granser by the boys,  told to the next generation, a small group of young males who are the descendants of those few who were immune to the plague.  While the story was written in 1912, London set it in 2013, in the San Francisco Bay area. 

The frame tells us what life is like several decades after the plague.  Granser's  audience consists of teen-aged boys, whose language consists mostly of a very basic vocabulary and they see no reason why there should be more than one word for something.  They deride the old man for referring to something as "scarlet" when "red" is a perfectly good word.  While we never really get a close look at the way the people live then, London does provide sufficient information to suggest that humanity has reverted back to the hunting and gathering stage, a period of savagery, as Granser complains.  But, this is all part of the cycle, for the old man tells the boys:

 "You are true savages.  Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth.  In another generation you will be perforating your nose and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell.  I know.  The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization.  When we increase and feel the lack of room,  we will proceed to kill one another." 

Most of the tale, though, consists of the horrors experienced during the outbreak of the plague and the breakdown of society, the rioting, looting, and killing that occurred as the terrified population thought only of their own survival at any cost.  What's intriguing is that Granser, a literature professor at the University of California,  and numerous colleagues in the university community attempted to barricade themselves in the Chemistry Building, bringing in supplies and weapons and prepared to do whatever they had to do to keep the plague and plague bearers out, just as the Prince and his friends had done in Poe's tale. And, they were just an unsuccessful.  At the end, the few survivors fled the building.

London doesn't go into any great detail about what had happened during the sixty years that had passed since the outbreak.  He is most concerned with the breakdown of society at the time of the plague and some depiction of life today.

Interwoven though is London's socialist philosophy as the old man tells of society in 2013 as consisting of Masters and Slaves (capitalist owners and workers).  He, in speaking of the events of 2013, tells us  "(t)hat was the year that Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates."

London also makes the point, over a century ago, that he was aware of what we today are only too aware of--the relationship of a large population and the appearance of new diseases and the role of rapid global  transportation in the spread of these diseases.  Improved methods of food production led to an increase in population.  "The easier it was to get food, the more men there were; the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth; and the more thickly were they packed, the more new kinds of germs became diseases."

We are certainly well aware of the problem today, especially when we consider the onset of AIDS, Ebola, and most recently the Zika virus.  So far we've been lucky as rapid transmission of information has allowed us to stay ahead of the threat, even though several countries were placed under quarantine during the last Ebola outbreak.

London's tale is a disquieting one, even though it is considered science fiction.  It is not an highly improbable invasion by aliens that poses the threat but invaders from Earth itself.  We see examples of it perhaps every decade or so.

At one time I had considered calling this post "The Three Plagues."  I had planned to write about three plague stories--the two mentioned above and George R. Stewart's great novel, The Earth Abides.   However, the length of this commentary on the first two is long enough, so I will post on Stewart's work separately.

 I would recommend, if you have the time, to read all three stories:  first Poe, then London, and then Stewart's novel, for together they provide an thorough exploration of the theme--the plague and its aftermath.  .  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXV

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain in which the  Poet/Narrator points out that the Creator has put before us certain pleasures and then denies them to us "under pain/Of Everlasting Penalties..."

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXV

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXIX

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd--
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

Aside from the dash after "dross-allay'd" in the second line of the Fifth Edition, I can see no other differences between the Second Edition and the Fifth (Final) Edition. 

This quatrain develops the theme of the previous quatrain--the injustice of an eternal punishment of Creatures for partaking in pleasures put before them.   We are helpless creatures who are expected to act with perfect obedience, "Pure Gold," when we were given only imperfect and sinful characters to begin with, characters that are "dross-allay'd."  Is it reasonable to expect perfect performance from imperfect creatures?   Moreover, we were not given the opportunity to review this "contract."  It was simply placed upon us without our consent.  Would a human court would enforce such a contract?     

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Down Time

It's time for a mental health and sanity check, as it's been too long since my last one.   I need to reduce my time in front of the little screen. so I'm stopping all blogging and book discussion group activities for the time being. I'll be back when I'm back.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: In Defense of Fanny Price

The following is a quotation from Carrots for Michaelmas, a blog belonging to Haley Stewart.  This link will take you to the complete article.  

I want to thank Di from The Little White Attic  who alerted me to this article, "In Defense of Fanny Price,"from which this quotation was taken.

Mansfield Park is about superficiality versus substance. It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue and it’s hard for an entertainment-obsessed culture that glorifies appearances and laughs at the idea of character to understand. All of the characters struggle and are tried and tested…but some fight the good fight and others reveal that they never had virtue to begin with.

This is the best, the most coherent, the clearest statement of the main point of Mansfield Part I have ever read. In a few words she expressed what I've been trying to say for years. 

Thank you, Haley Stewart.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Part I

Lawrence Durrell
Justine:  the first book in the Alexandria Quartet

This is my fourth visit to Alexandria with the aid of Lawrence Durrell, my personal tour guide.  Isn't that what writers are, guides to their worlds?  It has been some time since my last visit, so I had only the vaguest ideas of what was coming.  However, once I started, I began recognize some of what I was reading.

What came first was the memory of the initial confusion I felt when I began to read the novel.  Durrell doesn't believe, at least in Justine, straightforward chronological narrative structure.  Instead, I was faced with short paragraphs and brief references to characters, without any help from Durrell.  Here and there characters were brought up briefly and then off to something else.  It was only I had gotten a way into Part I that I began finding introductions to the characters but in a disjointed fashion, though.

This time though I understood what Durrell was doing.  As the narrator explains very early in the novel, the first page or so, he was going to put down on paper the events of the past year.  If I had decided to do something similar, it would have been difficult to begin as I know that all I would have been able to come up with at first would be fragments, disjointed,  and randomly recalled without any chronological order.  However, the longer I worked at it, the more material I would be able to bring up, and each memory would be accompanied by other memories.  So, as I got deeper into Part 1, I found the fragments were now longer and more complete.  If it had been me, though, I wouldn't have had to courage to include those first brief  fragments in my work, for I would have edited them out and produced a standard commonplace traditional account.  That, no doubt, is why Durrell is a great writer, and I am not.

While Durrell introduces some seven or eight characters, he returns again and again to two of them:  Justine and Melissa.  But, at first I found it difficult to immediately know just which one the narrator was referring to.  It's as if  the narrator mistakenly believes we are as familiar with Justine and Melissa as he is, so he really doesn't have to identify them immediately.   The male characters are introduced without the confusion that surrounded the female characters.  The males are named and their relationship to the narrator is spelled out and occasionally brought back into the narrative. 

As I mentioned earlier, the narrator doesn't provide his reader with a chronological sequence.  When we first meet Justine and Melissa, it quickly becomes clear that he is intimately involved with both of them.  It is only much later in Part I that we are told of their first meeting.  Then comes their first sexual encounter, but not necessarily in that order.

The Quartet, I find, consists of a number of character and plot threads that are intertwined throughout the story. Because of this, at times I simply stop reading, go back to the beginning of the novel, and follow a particular thread, ignoring whatever else is going on at that time.  It is surprising what I find when I do this, even if I limit it just to Part 1.

For example, let's follow the Justine thread and stop when we reach when we reach the part when the narrator tells us how and when they first met.  We first meet, or hear of her actually, on the first page when she is mentioned by the narrator as one of his friends: "Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar.".  Several pages later, the narrator tells us that he has Justine's diary, which he got from her husband, Nessim, who still hoped that Justine would come back to him.  The narrator tells us that he believes he will never see Justine for he and his friends have "taken different paths now."  However, the narrator does have Melissa's child with him and tells us that he "has not named it yet.  Of course it will be Justine--who else?"

Several pages later we read that he catches a glimpse of her from his balcony.  In fact he has seen her many times and knows who she is, even though they haven't met.  He now mentions their many meetings at the cafe, El Bab. Again, pages later, we get a much fuller description of her, and it is obvious they have just been intimate.

Later, the narrator tells us that  he had once agreed to give a lecture on the 'poet of the city,' Cavafy, which was attended by "a dignified semicircle of society ladies."   Justine was in the audience.   He recognizes her, but they do not speak because they have yet to meet.  After the lecture, the narrator, that evening,  stops at a small cafe.  Justine suddenly appears and asks a question about the lecture.  Then she says, "I want to take you to Nessim, my husband.  Will you come?"  She drives them to the house and searched "from room to room, fracturing the silences.  He (Nessim) answered at last from the great studio on the roof and racing to him like a gundog she metaphorically dropped me at his feet and stood back, wagging her tail.  She had achieved me.

Nessim was sitting on the top of the ladder reading, and he came slowly down to us, looking first at one and then at the other. . .for my part, I could offer no explanation of my presence, since I did not know for what purpose I had been brought here."

If I may cheat here, the narrator believes, later, that  he knows why she approached him, gathered him up, and brought him to her husband.  But that's in Justine.  In the second book, Balthazar, he will hear a different explanation, and the reader will find yet one more in Mountolive.   

It is said that a sign of great literature is that one discovers something new in every reading.  That is certainly true of Justine.  Even though this was at least the fourth reading, I was surprised to discover clues,  interspersed in Part 1, to future events, some that will take place in the other volumes of the quartet.   The narrator would make some offhand remark and then go on to something else and would never refer to it again. It meant nothing to the narrator and nothing to me until this the fourth reading.  I should have picked up on them on subsequent readings.

I wonder what I will find on my fifth reading. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: In the Bear's House, an overview

N. Scott Momaday
In the Bear's House

In the Bear's House is a rather unusual work, as will be seen from the Table of Contents I will provide shortly.  To be honest, I have only the briefest glimpse of what Momaday is doing here, but I find that what little I do see absorbing, as well as perplexing.  Rather than stumble about, confusing you and me even more, I will Momaday tell you in his own words what this book is all about.


Let me say at the outset that this is not a book about Bear (he would be spoken of in the singular and masculine, capitalized and without an article), or it is only incidentally about him.  I am less interested in defining the being of Bear than in trying to understand something about the spirit of wilderness, of which Bear is a very particular expression.  Even Urset, who is the original bear and comes directly from the hand of God, is symbolic and transparent, more transparent than real, if you will.  He is an imitation of himself, a mask.  If you look at him very closely and long enough, you will see the mountains on the other side.  Bear is a template of the wilderness.

I am acquainted with Bear,  indeed more than acquainted.  Bear and I are one, in one and the same story.  My Indian name is Tsoai-talee, which in Kiowa means 'Rock-tree boy.'  Tsoai, "Rock tree,' is Devils Tower in Wyoming.  That is where, long ago, a Kiowa boy turned into a bear and where his sisters were borne into the sky and became the stars of the Big Dipper.  Through the power of stories and names, I am the reincarnation of that boy.  From the time the name Tsoai-talee was conferred on me as an infant, I have been possessed of Bear's spirit.  The Kiowas--whose principal religious expression was the Sun Dance and whose most ancient blood memory was of the mythic darkness of a hollow log from which they emerged into the world--believe that the buffalo is the animal representation of the sun.  Bear is the animal representation of the wilderness.

.   .   .   .   .

Something in me hungers for wild mountains and rivers and plains.  I love to be on Bear's ground, to listen for that old guttural music under his breath, to know only that he is near.  And Bear is welcome in my dreams, for in that cave of sleep I am at home to Bear."

N. Scott Momaday

One comment:  Momaday does not mention that the Big Dipper is found in the Ursa Major or Great Bear Constellation.

Below is the table of Contents that follow the Introduction:

The Bear-God Dialogues
There are ten dialogues.  Some of the titles are  "You are, Urset. I am, Yahweh," "Berries," "Prayer,"
"Dreams," and "Baseball." 

The baseball dialogue is especially interesting for Cub fans.  Urset is the Bear and Yahweh is Yahweh.  Urset begins by telling Yahweh that his children want to play baseball.

Baseball. . .Baseball?

Baseball.  You know, played with bats, a ball, gloves. . .

Oh, for heaven's sake!  OF COURSE I know what baseball is.   I was a pretty fair shortstop in my day.  I taught Ernie Banks everything he knew, if I do say so myself.

My children, my little brood of bears, they are forming a team. Their enthusiasm is boundless.  Why, they even have a name for themselves.

Don't tell me.  .  .the "Cubs."

I really don't know why they can't be a football team.  They are bears, after all.  They are thick and furry.  And they are already accomplished at assault and battery.  It is their nature.  It is what they do.  But baseball!  Baseball is a game of swat, catch, and tag--better played by housecats."


This sections contains nineteen poems, and I will post some of them in the future. 

Only two passages are included in this section:  "The Bear Hunt" and "The Transformation."

As you can see from the Introduction, In the Bear's House is a very unique work.  One of the major themes that I've managed to grasp is the relationship Momaday has with wilderness and his thoughts on the significance of wilderness for all of us.   

This is one of those works that I think requires at least another reading, and probably a couple of rereadings.  

The NFL team in Chicago is the Chicago Bears.
The following link will lead you to the Wiki article on Ernie Banks, probably the most popular Cub player of all time..

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine

One of my New Year's resolutions was to read as much of Lawrence Durrell's works this year as I could.  Today I begin with Justine, which is only appropriate since my first introduction to his writings was this work.  Several decades ago, I was in grad school and on the reading list for a course in 20th century novels (or perhaps 20th century English novels) was Justine.  I had heard of Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet, but I had never read anything by him before.

I started reading and was confused and bewildered by the first three or four pages as it seemed to be nothing but randomly placed paragraphs with no coherent plan to structure them.  I was a bit dismayed, a complete novel like this!   Then the following jumped out at me.  It wasn't the first sentence of a chapter, or even of a paragraph.  It was buried in a longish paragraph, but I had to stop and read it again, and again.  It told me what Durrell was up to.  I was hooked. I read Justine and then went on to read as much of Durrell as I could find.   Now, it's time to do it again.

The sentence:

"The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this--that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side."

I doubt if it grabs others the way it grabbed me, and I can't explain why.  It just did. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Baltasar Gracian: Luck

No. 139

"KNOW YOUR UNLUCKY days:  for such there arewhen nothing goes right, and even though the game change, the bad luck does not:  you know them after two throws of the dice, and you retire, or play on, depending upon whether this is such a day, or not.  Even the mind has its periods, for no man is wise at all hours, since it takes luck to think straight,  just as it takes good luck to write a good letter, for all good things have their season, beauty not always being in style, judgment itself turning traitor, now making us too soft, now too harsh: thus anything to come off well, must be of its day.  Just so does everything go wrong with some, and everything go right with others, and with less effort.  All they touch stands ready, the spirit is well-disposed, the mind is alert, and their star is in the ascendant.  Then is the hour to strike, and not to squander the least advantage.  But the man of judgment will not let just one throw augur the day unlucky, or lucky, for the former may have been only mischance, and the latter only happy accident."

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

I know it's unfashionable to talk about luck nowadays.  We have other explanations for it, I suppose, but do they really explain  those long sequences of fortuitous or unhappy  events that strike us all at times?  Or explain why some people are blessed more often than can be expected, or conversely, cursed more often than others.  Do those explanations really answer why or do they just provide another more sophisticated way of hiding our ignorance from ourselves, a scientific way of disguising our real answer of "I don't know."