Sunday, April 13, 2014

Eric Hoffer: Troublemakers

The following are aphorisms taken from the chapter "Troublemakers" by

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

"It is cheering to see that the rats are still around--the ship is not sinking."

Of course,  they won't leave.  It's their duty to save us from ourselves by showing us their road to paradise (and make a few bucks lecturing, appearing on talk shows, and selling books at the same time). 

"Right now it seems that they who have a truth to reveal also have a lie to hide."

This reminds me of numerous books whose titles begin with "20 Lies Your ______ (Parents? Teachers? Religious Teachers?--fill in your favorite here) Told You."  I found a copy of one of them at a used  bookstore for twenty-five cents.  After reading it, I felt like going back and asking for a refund.  The lies? fell into two categories.  The majority of them were the type that belong in a category with  Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, George Washington and the cherry tree,  etc.  In other words, most adults, in fact most teens, no longer believe these things.  The other type, I found, couldn't be verified or came from dubious sources and also had an obvious political agenda. 

"Though dissenters seem to question everything in sight, they are actually bundles of dusty answers and never conceived a new question.  What offends us most in the literature of dissent is the lack of hesitation and wonder."

I never met a true dissenter who didn't believe he/she had a direct line of communication with the Deity and  as well as being gloomy and inflexible.

"Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches.  You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone.  And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity."

 I remember the hippies in the '60s who insisted they had broken out of the conformist trap and were becoming their own person, unique and individual unto themselves.  What was funny was that one could always identify these unique individualists by their uniform--jeans, t-shirts, headbands, beads, long hair, and sandals.  The women were slightly more individualistic as they alternated between granny dresses and jeans, usually cutoffs or with numerous holes.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Wallace Stevens: "From the Misery of Don Joost"

From the Misery of Don Joost

I have finished my combat with the sun;
And my body, the old animal,
Knows nothing more.

The powerful seasons bred and killed,
And were themselves the genii
Of their own ends.

Oh, but the very self of the storm
Of sun and slaves, breeding and death,
The old animal,

The senses and feeling, the very sound
And sight, and all there was of the storm,
Knows nothing more.

-- Wallace Stevens --

As I have mentioned in previous posts, Wallace Stevens intrigues me.   Possibly part of his attraction for me is the problem I have with his poetry.  I find them, to a great extent, mystifying.  I'm not speaking here of any deep, dark underlying symbolism, but of the overt, sometimes literal, meaning of his poems.

This one I find a bit more understandable, thanks to a clue I found in the Wikipedia entry on this poem.  Don Joost, according to a letter Stevens wrote in response to a question about "Don Joost," is a "jovial Don Quixote."   I agree with the author of the entry that this may be Don Quixote, but he certainly isn't jovial.  Don Quixote's struggles with the giants and warlocks and enemy armies were all in his mind.  He creatively transformed mundane reality into something magical and marvelous.  In a sense, this is what the poet does or tries to do--to transform mundane reality so that one sees it anew, sees it differently.  Joseph Conrad expressed a similar desire  when he wrote "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel... before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything."

The overall sense, as I read it, is the end of life or perhaps of his creative life.  All is gone, sight and sense and sound and feeling.  Nothing is left and even the storm, perhaps the struggle between creativity and mediocrity, has ended.

In addition, the seasons, which may stand for the seasons of life, a common and universal symbol for the ages of man in poetry going back long before Shakespeare,  have ended and were the cause of their own ends. They could not last forever. 

I can almost see the title as being truncated: the full title might be "Escape From the Misery of Don Joost."   The only lasting escape from the struggle to be, to do, to create,  is death.

But, then again, I have often been accused of over-reading, and this may be just another example of one of my besetting sins. It is for you to decide.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Franz Werfel: Star of the Unborn, an SF novel

Franz Werfel
Star of the Unborn
Published posthumously in 1946
607 pages

Opening lines from Franz Werfel's Star of the Unborn

"This is a First Chapter simply because it seemed inappropriate to begin this opuscule with a Second Chapter.  The only factors that stood in the way of placing the words 'Chapter Two' on the first page of this novel were the publisher's sense of propriety, the reading public's well-known propensity for the discovery of monstrous typographical errors, and finally, the author's mania for originality, since he feared that some colleague in the gaily flippant era of romanticism must certainly have begun one of his rank works with a Second Chapter.  For these reasons we begin with chapter One, no matter how superfluous this chapter may be for the progress of the action, or, more accurately, of the exploration."

The novel is a first person narrative, of a little more than 600 pages.  Therefore, the nature or the personality of the narrator, especially in a long work such as this, becomes vital to the work and highly significant to the reader.  Consequently, it behooves me to tell you somewhat about the narrator, as a sort of preparation for what you will experience if you decide to take up this work.  And, since the narrator introduces himself in the very next paragraph  (sort of, anyway), I have decided to let the narrator do all the work and simply let my fingers do the walking.

"Since we are dealing with a kind of travelogue I feel the obligation to introduce the hero, or,  more modestly, the central figure of the occurrences here set forth.  This particular literary form has the unfortunate weakness that the eye that sees, the ear that hears, the spirit that comprehends, the voice that narrates, the  'I' that is involved in many adventures, constitutes the central point about which, in the most literal sense, everything revolves.  This central point, candidly designated as F. W., is, unfortunately, I myself.  Purely from an innate aversion to getting into difficulties, I should have preferred not to be I-myself in these pages.  Still it was not only the most natural, but the only way, and I was regrettably unable to invent any 'he' that could adequately have borne the burden of the 'I' for me.   And so the 'I' of this story is not a deceptive, novelistic, assumed, fictitious 'I' any more than the story itself is the mere offspring of speculative imagination.  It happened to me, as I must confess, quite against my will.  Without the slightest preparation or premonition, contrary to all my habits and instincts, I was sent out one night as an explorer.  What I experienced, I really experienced.  I am quite prepared to embark upon a frank discussion of this little word 'really' with any philosophically minded reader and I am confident that I will with the argument in every instance."

As you no doubt may have noticed F. W. rambles on and on, but he does eventually get there, in a very roundabout way.  And, that for me, is one of the charms of this very unique work as he somehow manages to drag in most of the social, economic, psychological, environmental, and religious issues of the day, which we have not yet managed to solve some seventy years later.  Since we began with a quotation from the beginning of Chapter One, it is only appropriate that we conclude these introductory words with the last paragraph of Chapter One.

"And under the words 'Chapter One' that are still waiting for the story of our monstrous reality, I decided to sketch the foregoing paragraphs.  It is a superstitious trick.  I have not forfeited anything.  I have not given up my original task.  The 'Chapter One' that was to have borne an incomparable load, with the full agreement of my readers, is not a First Chapter.  Instead, Chapter Two assumes the function of Chapter One."

And, thus he begins his little adventure in  "Chapter Two."

F. W. is a time traveler, in a way. He lived and apparently died sometime during the 20th century.  He now finds himself approximately 100,000 years in the future.  He has been resurrected as a wedding gift by B. H., who had been a friend of his some 100,000 years ago.

B. H. had gone to Tibet and studied and learned the basic tenets of reincarnation so thoroughly that he has been successfully reincarnated and retained memories of his reincarnations for 100, 000 years now.  Admittedly his memories of the far past were getting a bit jumbled, but he still remembered F. W. and had used the highly developed science of the day to bring F. W. back to life for some undetermined time as a wedding gift.  B. H. was not fully accepted as a true member of the present civilization at this time and had hoped to gain admittance by presenting this unusual wedding gift.   

Surreal allegory?
Socio/political commentary?
All of  the above?
None of the above?
Some of the above?
Something entirely different?

I'm not sure what to make of this work.   I first read it decades ago and recently came across it gathering dust in a remote corner of my bookcase.  Intrigued, I reread it and now it's scheduled for another reread in the near future.  There's just too much going on here to take it all in within one reading or two, or three.

This book requires a real commitment to finish, primarily because it is so different from what is popular today.  It can't be read in ten or fifteen minute segments. Most people will never read it because of this.  Moreover, the narrator's rambling discursive style will also turn readers off.   And, some of those who have decided to read the book will never get around to it because they will wait for the right moment when they have enough time to spend on this book.  But, this decision is unfortunate because spending the time with this book is far more rewarding than spending the same amount of time on lesser works.   The best way to handle this is to get the book and start reading, without waiting for the opportune moment, for it will never arrive. 

I supposed I've scared off most of you who have taken the time to get this far in my ramblings.   I hope not, but .  .  .

Highly recommended. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seconds and Faces and Masks

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Released in  1966

Cheryl, one of my frequent visitors here, suggested a resemblance between the Japanese film The Face of Another and the US film Seconds, starring Rock Hudson.  The Face of Another is the story of a Japanese businessman whose face is horribly scarred in a laboratory accident.  He covers his head with bandages, resembling the character in films of  H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man.  He is not adapting well, so his psychiatrist suggests a radical solution.  He will make a mask that is so lifelike few will ever realize it is a mask.

In Seconds, the businessman is a successful officer at a bank and seems likely to become bank president in the near future.  However, he is suffering from what was called a midlife crisis.   His job is boring and the romance has gone from his marriage.  His daughter has grown up and is now married and living far away, sending only a few letters and making an occasional phone call. He has come to the point that life means little or nothing to him--just endless tedium.

Then, he is contacted by a friend, a shock, for he thought Sam had died.  Sam tells him there is a company that will solve his problems for him, for a fee of course.  The solution is plastic surgery.  The company will arrange everything:  plastic surgery so he won't be recognized and his "death," so he won't be searched for.  The company will even provide him with a new life--something like a witness protection program for the bored.

After a bit of coaxing, he finally agrees.  This part is the one that doesn't work for me--the plastic surgery.  He changes from a 50 year old man, of average height, and somewhat overweight to Rock Hudson, who is 6'4" with an athlete's body.  A few weeks of workouts in the gym is not going to change his  body that much nor can it add maybe a half foot to his height.  However, once I got past that, I found it an interesting and absorbing film.

Rock Hudson comes up with one of his finest acting jobs in this film.  Regardless of his physical appearance, Hudson really seems to be a 50 year old man, still tired and now lost in his new life.   As in Face, events do not go the way all had hoped for.

While Face is concerned with a mask and Seconds employs plastic surgery, the overlying theme in the two films is the same--the change of one's external appearance and the effects of that change.  In Face, the mask seems to release the inner monster or at least it allows one to become something other than it was without the mask, while the plastic surgery in Seconds may change one's physical appearance, it does not change the inner person.

In Thomas Mann's short novel (perhaps even a novella) The Transposed Heads, Mann proposes a third answer to the question of the significance of the physical body to the spirit.  In the story two vastly different friends, one an intellectual and decidedly not athletic and the other a hardworking farmer commit suicide in order to allow the other to win the heart of the woman they both love.   She, on her part, finds it impossible to choose between them.  Discovering that they have committed suicide by praying to the goddess Kali to decapitate them, she attempts to save them by putting their heads back with their bodies and praying to Kali to resurrect them.   Kali hears her plea and brings them back to life, but unfortunately in her grief and panic the young woman had placed the wrong heads on the bodies.

Over a period of time, the intellectual appearing head with the intellectual mind began to change a bit.  The features coarsened somewhat, its interests and thinking processes were not quite as intellectual as before, and the body began to soften and to resemble the body of an intellectual.  And, the head of the farmer on the intellectual body began to change in the opposite direction.  The head began to resemble that of the intellectual while the body became tougher and stronger.   Mann's point, as I see it, is that the spirit and the body are one unit and influence each other.   The two friends over time may resemble each other in physique and mind more than they did before they committed suicide.

So, there are three positions here:  the spirit controls the body or the outward appearance, the outward appearance greatly influences the spirit, and the spirit and the body mutually influence each other for they are really one.

 One side note here--in psychology the term "persona" refers to "the role that a person assumes in order to display his conscious intentions to himself and others."   The term "persona" comes from Latin and it means "mask."  So, the persona is a mask assumed to display his conscious intentions to himself and others.  The relationship to others is very clear, but what does it mean when we assume a mask to display our conscious intentions to ourselves?

I'm not sure what this all means, but the interrelationship among the terms persona, person, and mask is fascinating.   And how does Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fit in here, as well as stories about the doppelgangers by Poe, Dostoyevsky, and others?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Baltasar Gracian: digging up the dirt

No. 125

"Not the police court blotter.  The sign of blemish in yourself, to point to the shame of another: some seek with the spots of others to cover their own, either to white-wash them, or thus to console themselves, which is the solace of fools: the breath smells badly from those who are the sewers of a city's filth, in which stuff he who digs deepest, soils himself most: few are free from some original sin,  be it of commission, or omission, only, the sins of little known people are little known; let the man alert guard against being a recorder of evil, for it is to be a man despised, and one who even though human, is inhuman."

--Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
translated by Martin Fischer

"the police court blotter" This seems to be a bit of an anachronism here.  I'm not sure that police courts existed in the 17th century when Gracian lived.  I wonder what Gracian had written that Martin Fischer decided to translate this way.  Obviously the police court blotter would be one place that a person so inclined could dig up embarrassing information about someone.

I wonder what Gracian would have to say about today when he discovers that there's a multi-million dollar business whose sole reason for existence is publishing scandal, some of which might be true and much of which is false, about anybody whose name the public might recognize.  In addition,  I see ads on the Internet which inform me that if I click here, I can find out the dirt about anybody I want, famous or not.

It's true that those people who specialize in this are lowlife scum, but they do it because it's profitable.  What can we say about the people who pay for this wallowing in dirt?  I think they are the ones that Gracian is talking about.   As usual, if  no audience existed, nobody would be doing it.

What do you think?   Is there something unhealthy or even unclean about wanting to find out the dirt about others?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Museum Hours: a film

Museum Hours
Written and directed by Jem Cohen 
Released in 2013
107 minutes

This is one of those special, quiet films that I thoroughly enjoyed but can't really tell you why.  The plot is simple:  Anne, a woman from Montreal, goes to Vienna to be with her cousin who is in a coma.  Just what happened to her cousin is never really explained, or at least I missed it, if it was.  It really isn't the focal point of the film.

While in Vienna, she visits the Art History Museum and meets Johann, a museum guard.  They get to talking, and she explains briefly why she is in Vienna. Since she is a stranger and alone in Vienna and he has few friends, he offers to be her guide to Vienna.  Much of the film takes place in the Museum or the surround areas since neither has much money.  Over the course of the film, they learn about Vienna, the Museum, and each other.  Johann, at one point, thinks to himself  how lucky he is for having the opportunity to see his city through the eyes of someone new to Vienna. 

The main attraction of the film, though, is the combination of their quiet, joyful association and the photography.  The photography may have been designed by an artist--striking scenes where the colors suddenly become noticeable--not vivid in a glossy way, but strong, even browns and greys stand out.  I know nothing of the technology of film so I can't say how it's done--special filters or screens, perhaps in the film processing.

We are presented with striking juxtapositions between the street scenes and the paintings in the museum.  Frequently the street scenes resemble works of art from the museum, or perhaps it's the art works that resemble street scenes.  At times I wasn't sure whether I was seeing a painting or a street shot.  Some scenes from outside the museum could easily be titled "A Still Life."  And, in addition,   the treatment of many of the people in the film become portraits as we see them in repose.

The film is available on Netflix and the local public library.  I would recommend getting it from the library because it comes with a booklet that's  not available from Netflix.  I have only 10 DVDs in my personal collection, two of which are gifts.  I am seriously considering buying this film.

This film goes on my must see again list.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Simon J. Ortiz: The Boy and Coyote

The Boy and Coyote

for a friend, Ed Theis, met at VAH
Fort Lyons, Colorado, November
and December 1974

You can see the rippled sand rifts
shallow inches below the surface.
I walk on the alkalied sand. 
Willows crowd the edges of sand banks
sloping to the Arkansas River.

I get lonesome for the young aftenoons
of a boy growing at Acoma.
He listens to the river,
the slightest nuance of sound.

Breaking thin ice from a small still pool,
I find Coyote's footprints.
Coyote, he's always somewhere before you;
he knows you'll  come along soon.
I smile at his tracks when are not fresh
except in memory and say a brief prayer
for good luck for him and for me and thanks.

All of a sudden, and not far away,
there are the reports of a shotgun,
muffled flat by saltcedar thickets.
Everything halts for several moments,
no sound, even the wind holds to itself.
The animal in me crouches, poised immobile,
eyes trained on the distance, waiting
for motion again.  The sky is wide;
blue is depthless; and the animal
and I wait for breaks in the horizon.

Coyote's preference is for silence
broken only by the subtle wind,
uncanny bird sounds, saltcedar scraping,
and the desire to let that man free,
to listen for the motion of sound.

 -- Simon J. Ortiz --
from Woven Stone

A quiet moment of reflection for a man and recollection of a similar moment as a child.  I remember times when I've been out hiking and hearing a gun shot and the sudden silence that follows.  Like Ortiz, I, too, crouched and waited, waited for what I don't know, but waited for something.  Something was out there that was inimical to life--killing because killing was fun. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Helene Wecker: The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker
The Golem and the Jinni
486 pages

After reading the novel, the following kept running through my mind, adapted from a soap opera of many decades ago:  "Can a Jewish Golem and a Jinni from the sands of Arabia find happiness in the teeming tenements of nineteenth century New York City."

And the answer is--Perhaps.

This is her first novel, and, frankly, I consider it to be a great debut.  I'm not one who normally reads fantasy, (this was a selection for a book discussion group I belong to), but I'm glad I was forced to read this one.  It definitely escapes the boundaries of most fantasy today.  While it isn't obtrusive, she also provides considerable background and setting for the immigrant ghettos of late nineteenth century New York.

The first third of the novel is essentially background and preparation for the meeting between the Golem and the Jinni and their eventual conflict with Joseph Schaalman who has unpleasant plans for the two of them.  Initially, the three are not aware of the close ties that bind them, so the remaining two thirds of the novel reveals their relationship and the eventual resolution of the conflict.

Shortly after finishing the novel,  I found something interesting and had to go back to check it out.  I was thinking about the characterization of the Golem and the Jinni something seemed vaguely familiar.  I know little about the author, so I don't know what her reading habits are, but I wonder if she is familiar with the Chinese concept of Yin-Yang,  the view that the world is made of opposites which are an integral part of the world.   The following table lists attributes of the Yin-Yang dichotomy and the characteristics of the Golem and the Jinni.

Yin--the Golem                                   Yang--the Jinni   
feminine                                               masculine
dark                                                      light
cold                                                      hot
moist                                                    dry
passive                                                  aggressive
slow                                                      fast
soft                                                       hard
earth                                                     sun
rest                                                       motion

Throughout the book, the Golem and the Jinni are described or depicted in the ways listed above.  She is created from clay while the Jinni is fire, although the spell he is under forces him to remain in the shape of a human.  She is described as having dark hair and is sometimes referred to as the dark lady, while he is always depicted as light and those with special sensitivity see his face as beaming light.   They have been in New York City for about the same  length of time and while she has barely stirred from her apartment to go only a few blocks to work, he has spent his off hours exploring much of the city.  Both have jobs: she works in a bakery while he works for a metalsmith. 

Overall Rating:  an interesting read about two legendary characters who do not get much attention today.  I will be interested to discover what her next novel will be about. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Face of Another

The Face of  Another
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara 
black-and-white film
Japanese dialogue with English subtitles

This film is based on the novel of the same name by Kobo Abe, who also served as screenwriter for the film.  I haven't read the novel yet as I wanted to see the film first.  I find that reading the novel first will prejudice me against the film as I then focus on the film's correspondence to the novel, which is really only one of the criteria for judging a film.   Since Abe is the screen writer, it should be interesting to see what he does with his novel in adapting it for film.

Okuyama is a business man whose face has been horribly scarred in a laboratory accident.  He is having considerable difficulty in handling his situation.  He has decided to keep his head completely covered in bandages, which reminded me very strongly of  films of H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man.   I wonder if  Abe or the director did this deliberately.

Okuyama is seeing a psychiatrist, hoping that this might help him.  His relationship with his wife is deteriorating, as is his work on his job.  The psychiatrist suggests, rather tentatively, that there's a possible solution.  He knows of an amazing synthetic fabric that looks very much like skin.  He might be able to create a mask which Okuyama might be able to wear in public.   While the psychiatrist has considerable ethical and moral problems with this procedure, Okuyama is desperate enough to try it.  They find a man whose has a nice face, not extraordinarily handsome but a pleasant face, and pay him for the opportunity to make a mold of it.

The psychiatrist is concerned about the consequences of creating a mask for Okuyama and for society if the process proves successful and is made available to the public.  One major question is that of identity:  does our identity come from inside or outside?  Would we be a different person if we had a different face?  What would happen to society if we never knew the real faces of people, but only the masks they chose to wear?

Some might argue that we already wear a mask.  One is Paul Lawrence Dunbar whose poem I have already posted here, but  "We Wear the Mask" deserves another reading in conjunction with this film:

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be otherwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar --

In 1966 this film was considered SF, but recent articles regarding at least two face transplants suggest that this issue now requires some discussion.  Also, in Europe there is considerable turmoil regarding the Moslem custom of veils for women's faces.    A mask or a veil is worn to hide or conceal one's identity from others, even though, paradoxically, wearing one in public makes one stand out among others whose faces are open for all to see.  In a sense, a mask or a veil makes it obvious that one wishes to remain anonymous.

The film has some surrealistic elements that occasionally become confusing.  The psychiatrist's laboratory is a bizarre room with glass and strange diagrams and, frankly, it seems to change each time we visit it.  There are also quick changes between the major plot with Okuyama and the secondary plot of a young woman with radiation scars on one side of her face.  She covers the scars with her long hair combed forward, while her hair is combed back on the other side of her face.  She mentions Nagasaki once when she asks her brother if he remembers the sea there when they were children, perhaps a hint as to the cause of her scarred face. 

The theme of the double or the doppelganger is also strongly brought out in the film.   Okuyama himself is the most obvious example as he is wearing a mask of someone else's face.   Some conversations seem to be repetitions of previous encounters, as well as doubling depicted in the early and late scenes in the film.  After he gets the mask, Okuyama supposedly leaves town but actually remains.  He rents two suites in an apartment building, once wearing his bandages and the second wearing his mask. 

The endings of both plots are clear and unambiguous:  we know what happened.  However, the rationale for the Okuyama plot is not.  Just why did Okuyama do what he did?  The ending of the second plot is much more understandable.

I would recommend this film strongly with one warning.  It is in Japanese, so if you don't understand Japanese, you will have to rely on subtitles.  Occasionally I found myself pausing the film and backtracking because the subtitles appeared and disappeared so quickly I had trouble reading them.  Aside from this minor inconvenience, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I now intend to read the novel and then rent the film again.

Friday, March 7, 2014

J. R. R. Tolkien: THE SILMARILLION--"Ainulindale"

J. R. R. Tolkien
Part One of The Silmarillion

"Ainulindale" is the first part, appropriately enough, of The Silmarillion, which is a collection of stories set in Middle Earth prior to the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I say appropriately enough since an alternate title for "Ainulindale" could easily be The Book of Genesis.  In Genesis, the Lord says, "Let there be Light."   Iluvator, in "Ainulindale," essentially says let there be music.

I find it difficult to read "Ainulindale"  (A) without thinking of Genesis (G) , because of  the similarities and the differences between them.  There is but one God in both creation myths,  and both depict God as the First and Only being who is responsible for all of creation.

And in both are spiritual or non-material beings: angels in G and the Ainur in A.  However, I can find no specific mention of the creation of the angels in G, although one might assume they were created sometime during the six days of creation.  The first mention I can find of an angel occurs when a Cherubim was stationed at the gate of  Eden to prevent Adam and Eve from returning to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life and becoming immortal after they had been expelled for eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In contrast, in the first line of  "The Ainulindale" Tolkien specifically states that Iluvatar created the Ainur. 

Iluvatar, unlike the Creator in Genesis, does not work alone in the act of creation.  He proposes a "Great Music" to the Ainur.

"Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music: and a sound arose of endless interchange melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the place of  the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void."

Such is the act of Creation in "Ainulinidale."

In spite of Tolkien's great, in-depth knowledge of Northern European myths, he elected to base his Creation myth on those of the Mediterranean area, and his treatment of the existence of evil in the universe comes from the same tradition.  Melkor, like his counterparts in the Judeo-Christian-Moslem traditions, is actually a creation of God or Allah, and is one who turned against his creator as a result of pride.

Satan or Lucifer is not actually named as the tempter of Eve in the Garden, but later Christian theologians have decided that must be who the serpent was.  Like Satan, Melkor was considered to be the brightest of  Iluvatar's creations, and, just as in Christian teachings, Melkor could not created something that would live on its own.  Melkor could only debase that what was already alive.

Evil has always been a problem for those religious traditions that posit a Supreme Good who creates all things.  How does evil appear in the world created by one who is All Goodness, and why?  One of the first thinkers who confronted the idea of evil in the world is Zoroaster, in the 7th BC.   There may have been earlier conceptualizations of this problem, but the writings of Zoroastrianism are the earliest we have.  From the Wikipedia entry on Zoroastrianism, we find the following:

"Zoroaster simplified the pantheon of early Iranian gods into two opposing forces: Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu  (Destructive Spirit) in the 7th century BCD.  Zoroaster's idea led to a formal religion bearing his name by about the 6th century BCE and have influenced other later religions including Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam."

Zoroaster appears to have been the first to have proposed the Final Judgement Day in which the forces of Good and Evil would meet in a final battle to determine who shall control the universe and these forces would include not only all those living but also those who had died before.  According to Zoroaster,  which side would win was in doubt.

The religious traditions that were influenced by Zoroaster all made several significant changes.  In Zoroastrianism, the Destructive Spirit was an independent entity and equal in strength to Ahura Mazda and that evil might ultimately win out.  In later religious traditions, the evil side is actually a creation of the Good and is one who has through pride isolated itself from the Supreme Good.  In addition, in the later traditions the Evil force is weaker than the Good and is doomed to ultimate failure.

Melkor is clearly within this tradition as he cannot create anything on his own.  He can only debase and deform what is already existing.  He can create destructive storms but only because the elements are already there.  Orcs are not created by Melkor, or his follower Sauron, but are the result of experiments on captive elves.

Many of the Ainur became enamored of Iluvatar's universe and elected to assume physical shapes and reside there, in order to protect it from Melkor's destructive meddling.   These were called Valar, and each of the Valar assumed responsibility for a particular aspect of this new world.  A more specific listing appears in the next part of The Silmarillion, "The Valaquenta."  A great struggle ensues between the Valar and Melkor and his followers for control of Arda (Earth) and while Arda did not correspond to the ideas of the Valar, it slowly took shape.

In the  next part, "Valaquenta," we learn much about Iluvatar's first creations: the Valar, the Maiar, and Melkor and his followers.  Two names appear that will play an important role in The Lord of the Rings--Sauron, who was Melkor's chief follower,  and Olorin, one of the Maiar, who is sometimes called Mithrandir, but who is probably better known as Gandalf.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I think Lao Tzu said something like this: "Those who are content with what they have will always have enough."  The corollary then would be that those who are not content with what they have will never have enough. Following are two who say that their needs are minimal and neither extravagant nor excessive.  They will be content with a few wants.


Happy the man, whose wish and care  
A few paternal aces bound,
Centent to breathe his native air
           In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire;
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
            In winter, fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away
In health of body, peace of mind;
          Quiet by day.

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed, sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please
            With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
             Tell where I lie.

-- Alexander Pope -- 

He wishes for solitude and the simple life:  a small farm perhaps with dairy cows, no doubt, that he will milk.  His fields will supply his bread, and, of course, he will do what is necessary to grow the wheat, harvest it, grind it for flour, and then bake it for bread while he is tending his herd of cows.  And, in addition to this he will personally watch over his flock of sheep, while doing all the rest, sheer them, prepare the wool, and then make up his "attire."

I think his solitude and simple life will require some assistance. 

    "Man wants but little here below"
Little I ask;  my wants are few;
    I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brownstone will do,)
             That I may call my own;--
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.

Plain food is quite enough for me;
     Three courses are as good as ten;--
If Nature can subsist on three,
           Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victual nice;--
My choice would be vanilla ice.

I care not much for gold or land;--
   Give me a mortgage here and there,--
Some good bank-stock,--some note of hand,
            Or trifling railroad share;--
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.

Honors are silly toys, I know,
     And titles are but empty names;--
I could, perhaps, be Plenipo,--
          But only near St. James;--
I'm very sure I should not care
To fill our Gubernator's chair.

Jewels are baubles; 'tis a sin
    To care for such unfruitful things;--
One good-sized diamond in a pin, --
           Some, not so large, in rings,--
A ruby, and a  pearl, or so,
Will do for me;--I laugh at show.

My dame should dress in cheap attire;
   (Good, heavy silks are never dear;)--
I own perhaps I might desire
              Some shawls of cashmere,--
Some marrowy crapes of China silk,
Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.

I would not have the horse I drive
    So fast that folks must stop and stare;
An easy gait--two, forty-five--
             Suits me, I do not care;--
Perhaps, for just a single spurt,
Some seconds less would do no hurt.

Of pictures, I should like to own
     Titians and Raphaels three or four,--
I love so much that style and tone,--
            One Turner, and no more,--
(A landscape,--foregound golden dirt,
The sunshine painted with a squirt.)

Of books but few,--some fifty score
    For daily use, and bound for wear;
The rest upon an upper floor;--
            Some little luxury there
Of red morocco's gilded gleam,
And vellum rich as country cream.

Busts, cameos, gems, --such things as these,
    Which others often show for pride,
I value for their power to please,
            And selfish churls deride;--
One Stradivarius, I confess,
Two Meerschaums, I would fain possess.

Wealth's wasteful tricks I will not learn,
     Nor ape the glittering upstart fool;--
Shall not carved tables serve my turn,
            But all must be of buhl?
Give grasping pomp its double share,--
I ask but one recumbent chair.

Thus humble let me live and die,
    Nor long for Midas' golden touch,
If Heaven more generous gifts deny,
            I shall not miss them much,--
Too grateful for the blessing lent
Of simple tastes and mind content!

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes --

Which, if any, of the two do you think will be content with what he has?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Eric Hoffer: dissipation


"DISSIPATION is a form of self-sacrifice.  The reckless wasting of one's vigor is a blind striving to 'liquidate' an unwanted self.  And as one would expect, the passage from this to other forms of self-sacrifice is not uncommon.  Passionate sinning has not infrequently been an apprenticeship to sainthood.  Many of the insights of the saint stem from his experience as a sinner."

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

In other words, dissipation is an indirect form of suicide.  This seems reasonable to me.  Or perhaps  it's a way of punishing oneself for some sin or transgression.

Does this seem reasonable to you?

That great sinners sometimes become saints has been noted before.   One of the most famous examples is St. Augustine who, after spending many years in dissipation, converted and became one of the most respected leaders of the early Christian Church.

This is the point made by C. S. Lewis in his great satirical work, The Screwtape Letters, specifically in the section titled  "Screwtape Proposes a Toast."  Screwtape is responding to complaints by other devils that the souls served up at the banquets recently have been bland and tasteless, flabby and insipid.  He agrees, but he then points out that while the quality of souls has decreased, the quantity has considerably increased.  There is no risk of famine today because of the great number of souls that just sort of end up in hell without even choosing to do evil.   The reason for the diminished quality of souls is clear:

"The great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena the great Saints."

This, I believe, is the same point Hoffer is making at the end of his statement.  Strong or passionate feelings are the same, but what makes the difference in them is the focus of those feelings.  There are ways of measuring the intensity of one's feelings, but there's no way of identifying the focus of those passions, short of asking the individual.  Emotions are much the same in all, but what makes the difference is the focus of those strong passions.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

John Bradshaw: Cat Sense

John Bradshaw
Cat Sense
Basic Books, NY

This is one of the best books I've read on cats.  Bradshaw is the Foundation Director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of  Bristol.  He is also the author of an earlier best selling work, Dog Sense, in which he does for dogs what he does here for cats.

He provides what little is known about the cat's early history, its likely ancestors, and its incorporation into human society, such as it is.  Little really is known about the cat's early involvement with humans since it never really was taken over as was the dog.  The cat's first encounter with humans was probably when humans noticed that cats provided a defense against rodent raiders of their storage facilities for grain.  Since agriculture was developed relatively recently, the cat's involvement with humans began much later than the dog's involvement.

However, this initial contact required nothing from humans except to allow the cats access to the surrounding area and, no doubt, the facilities themselves.  Nobody had to train the cat to hunt rodents, whereas dogs require training by humans to accomplish their numerous tasks which therefore brought about considerable interaction between the dog and humans.  In fact, Bradshaw argues that cats are not yet fully domesticated to the same extent as dogs, cows, sheep, etc.

Bradshaw also provides information about the physiology and the psychology of the cat, which he says is incomplete at present because while dogs have been studied for many decades, it's only recently that researchers have decided to take a closer look at the cat.

He has an interesting chapter on the way cats perceive the world.  While they have the same senses--vision, hearing, smell, etc.--these are not identical to human senses.  For example, cats' hearing has a higher range than human hearing, such that cats can hear bats' echo ranging cries which humans cannot detect.  This may explain why my cat at night sometimes acts as though she hears something which I am unable to detect.  As most people, I suspect, already know, the cat's vision is superior to humans at night, but human vision is superior during the day.  Humans who have a cat's color vision capabilities would be considered as suffering from red-green color blindness.

Other chapters focus on the social relationships of cats, both with humans and other cats.  While cats are perceived as loners as far as other cats are concerned, this is not strictly accurate.  Recent studies have shown that cats can gather together in groupings which are often comprised of mothers with daughters and grandchildren, and some males.  Males, though, tend to be the loners. 

Cats do not normally accept humans, but instead they must have contact with humans during the first two or three months of life.  Cats who are never handled by humans within the first three months generally never form any sort of relationship with humans, even if captured later and attempts are made to gentle it.  Kittens on the other hand are very tolerant of other critters, which is why we see photos of kittens snuggling up to a variety of feathered and furred beings, including featherless and furless bipeds.

There are also chapters on the cat's personality as well as its relationship to wildlife.  Bradshaw ends with a chapter in which he discusses what he sees will be necessary changes in cat behavior if it is to  
continue as the most popular pet today. 

Highly recommended for those who want to learn more about the cat.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and some like-minded poets


Hundred-foot trees produced by Heaven
get sawed into giant planks
unfortunate building timber
gets left in a hidden valley
its heart stays strong despite the years
its bark falls off day after day
if some astute person took it away
it still could prop up a stable

-- Han-Shan (9th century?) --
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans and edited by Red Pine

"Kwang-tsze was walking on a mountain, when he saw a great tree with huge branches and luxuriant foliage. A wood-cutter was resting by its side, but he would not touch it, and, when asked the reason, said, that it was of no use for anything, Kwang-tsze then said to his disciples, 'This tree, because its wood is good for nothing, will succeed in living out its natural term of years.'"
-- ChangTzu --

Han Shan refers to the "unfortunate" building timber left behind. It should have been chopped down and turned into something useful for humans.  Why?  Is a tree's only value that of being useful to humans?  Doesn't the tree have value in being a tree?

ChangTzu is a legendary Taoist sage, second probably only to LaoTzu in his importance in the Taoist ethical system.  He seems to think differently about the tree.  Since it was fortunately not useful to humanity,  it is able to live "out its natural term of years."

Is that what's important about the plants and animals that precariously share this planet with us?  If they are not useful, then they have no value in themselves. It seems to me that in this immense universe, there may be other life forms, but chances are that life forms found on this planet are unique and unlikely to be found anywhere else, just as life forms found on other planets will also be unique and one-of-a-kind.  Moreover, it seems unlikely that we will find any life forms in our own solar system; again, if some are found, they will not be similar to those of earth.  Again, that points out the significance of life in all its variety found here on earth: it is important in itself and this is far more meaningful than merely being useful to us.  If humans are of value in themselves, then I would argue so are those life forms we share this planet with.

This, however, is a side issue from the original theme of this post, which is a lament, in a sense, for those beauties that blossom unseen or dwelt in untrodden ways, or at least so I thought it was.  Now.  .  .I don't know. 

The Wild Honey Suckle

Fair flower, that dost so comely grow,
Hid in this silent, dull retreat,
Untouched thy honeyed blossoms blow,
Unseen thy little branches greet:
    No roving foot shall crush thee here,
    No busy hand provoke a tear.

By Nature's self in white arrayed,
She thee shun the vulgar eye,
And planted here the guardian shade,
And sent soft waters murmuring by:
    Thus quietly thy summer goes,
    Thy days declining to repose.

Smit with these charms, that must decay,
I grieve to see your future doom;
They died--nor were those flowers more gay,
The flowers that did in Eden bloom;
    Unpitying frosts, and Autumn's power
    Shall leave no vestige of this flower.

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came:
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
     The space between, is but an hour,
     The frail duration of a flower.

-- Philip Freneau  (1752-1832) --
from The Norton Anthology of American Literature

I think that Freneau in the first three stanzas stays with the flower, but read that last stanza again--

From morning suns and evening dews
At first thy little being came:
If nothing once, you nothing lose,
For when you die you are the same;
     The space between, is but an hour,
     The frail duration of a flower.

--especially the last four lines.  From the Rubaiyat, 1st edition, Quatrain XLVII--

    "Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be--Nothing--Thou shalt not be less."

The following is a stanza from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."  It also talks about beauties that blush unseen and "waste its sweetness on the desert air." These unfortunate flowers "waste" their sweetness because there's no human around to appreciate it.  From what I understand, flowers did not develop their odors to benefit humans but to attract pollinator which would help to insure the next generation of these flowers.  It's attractiveness to humans is secondary and, frankly, unimportant to the flower.  It has its own agenda, which doesn't include humans.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

-- Thomas Gray (1716-1771) --
from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

We move now to a human who lives in an isolated area.  She too is ignored by all except for the poet.  And she, too, must die, unknown by all, and missed only by the poet, an unfortunate circumstance.  I wonder if the poet ever thought to ask Lucy how she viewed her situation. 

She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
     Beside the springs of Dove,
A maid whom there were none to praise
     And very few to love;

A violet by a mossy stone,
    Half hidden from the eye,
-- Fair as a star, when only one
    Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
    When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
    The difference to me!

-- William Wordsworth  (1770-1858) --   

I began this simply by reading a poem by Han Shan, a ninth century Chinese poet,  and then remembering poems with similar themes by two English poets and a US poet from the 18th and 19th centuries, over a thousand years later.  But then, something else struck me, and I think I've wandered off from my original thought.  I think I shall come back to this point again. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Langston Hughes: two poems

Empty House

It was in the empty house
That I came to dwell
And in the empty house
I found an empty hell.

Why is it that an empty house
Untouched by human strife
Can hold more woe
Than the wide world holds,
More pain than a cutting knife?

Is he really talking about an empty house?  What is "an empty hell"?   How could it be empty if it was filled with woe and pain?

Minstrel Man

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter 
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
I die?

 -- Langston Hughes --
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

I think "Minstrel Mancould have been included in a previous post of mine, Congruence (Jan. 29, 2014).   On the other hand, it also shares the idea of hidden grief with another powerful poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, "We wear the mask."  This is the last stanza (the complete poem is posted on June 27, 2009).

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
- Paul Laurence Dunbar -

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Loren Eiseley: In the Tales to Come

In The Tales To Come

"I have met the echo people, coyotes,
once in my youth, deep in a badland canyon, coming
upon them unaware.  They vanished
before I could speak.  Esahcawata, Old-man-coyote's people
quick of foot, hunted by all, surviving
traps and poison bait, surviving
where the great wolves have vanished, admirable
tricksters in an endless war.  I would have spoken
peace, but my kind know it not.  They did well
not to trust me--the trap-shy scurriers at midnight.
Their songs are few now.  They live by the thoughts
of Esahcawata and no other thinking is
                                             possible for them.
Their songs echo the wind.  They are echo people
                                                                      but all
under the sky  are echoers and the millennia listen
                                                        and are silent.
It will be so with us.  I have remembered
all my life how fast they scampered.  We the laughers
do not understand fear because of our numbers
                                                and when we vanish
no one will tell stories about our cleverness, the night wind
will not long echo laughter for Old-man, the trickster
married the whirlwind and myth will have us
as part of the singular spinning of a dust-devil
on a dry prairie.  They are the echoers, we
a jumble  of leaves and dust
quickly gone by.  Lovers of form we will be formless
in the tales to come."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from Another Kind of Autumn 

 Eiseley's poem, I think, can be seen as prophetic--a prophecy of the differing fates of the coyote and humanity.  The coyote will be remembered because it is part of the natural world.  In spite of all we can do, the coyote is flourishing, in spite of  "traps and poison bait" or hunters with guns, be they on foot or on horseback or in a helicopter.  According to the Nationale Geographic article,  "These members of the dog family once lived primarily in open prairies and deserts, but now roam the continent's forests and mountains. They have even colonized cities like Los Angeles, and are now found over most of North America. Coyote populations are likely at an all-time high."

Humanity can claim credit for this for it is likely that wiping out large predators, such as the wolf and large cats, allowed the coyote to move into the vacancy thus created.

The poet surmises that in the future the coyote's call will be echoed long after the coyote has disappeared (I suspect that the coyote will outlive humanity if it can avoid being completely exterminated by civilized humans).  On the other hand, humanity is busily working on cutting its link with the natural world (destroying the natural world might be more accurate) and eventually will live in a digital, virtual world, electronic bits of 0s and 1s.   Humanity is like a dust devil which appears suddenly, rushes about with great energy, causing disruption where it goes, and then just as suddenly disappears, leaving no sign of its passing.

"They are the echoers, we
a jumble  of leaves and dust
quickly gone by.  Lovers of form we will be formless
in the tales to come."

Friday, February 7, 2014

Some great books I read in 2013

As I had mentioned in my previous post, I lost considerable information regarding books I had read.  This will therefore be a partial list of some interesting books I had read during 2013 and some I might read again.

Nevada Barr: Track of the Cat
This is actually the second book I had read by Nevada Barr.  The first was The Rope, the prequel that was published in 2013, which I read for a f-2-f mystery group.  It wasn't bad, just highly improbable I thought,  but other members assured me that many of her other works were much better.  So, I grabbed this one which had been the first in the series.  I found it to be a much more enjoyable read and consequently I will go on to read others in the series.  I also found that being familiar with the park the book is set in just adds to the fun.

Harry Beston: The Outermost House
This is from my post last year about this book: "Beston had had a cabin built on Cape Cod, not far from the Atlantic shore of the peninsula.  In September of 1924 he went to the cabin, planning on spending only a few weeks there.   Instead he found himself reluctant to leave.  His two-week stay eventually lasted a full year, in which he took copious notes about the seasonal changes occurring there to the beach, the weather, and the birds, plants, and animals that were his neighbors.  The Outermost House is the result of that unplanned year on Cape Cod."   This was my second reading of The Outermost House, and I doubt very much that it will be the last.

Giles Blunt:  Until the Night
Until the Night is the sixth in the Canadian police procedurals in his series featuring Detective John Cardinal.  It's hard to find Blunt now in the US, so I have to check his website and hit the internet to buy his books.  Blunt is one of those few whose books I always buy, if I can't get them in the library.  He does include some issues that involve Cardinal away from his job, but he doesn't let them intrude into the main flow of the work, which is a police procedural.  His plots tend to be complex.  Occasionally we are told the identity of the killer(s) early on, and the focus is then on Cardinal and his fellow officers' attempt to solve the crime and the killers who are trying to remain hidden.  If we don't know who the killer is, then the plots are complex, and I don't remember guessing correctly until later on near the end. 

Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent  
Contrary to many of Conrad's earlier works, The Secret Agent is set in London England.  A foreign government, which appears to be Russia, attempts to influence the English government to rescind its policy of being a safe haven for those suspected of terrorist acts against other governments. One of the foreign government's tactics is the use of an agent provocateur to encourage the terrorists to become active in England and thereby eliminate England's tolerance of them.  Verloc is one of those employed by the foreign governments, but they are unaware that he is a double agent, for he is spying on the local anarchist group for the London Police.  It all goes wrong when he is persuaded to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.  (The novel is based on a true incident.)

Joseph Conrad: Mirror of the Sea
One of two autobiographical memoirs by Conrad that relates to his years as a seaman, officer, and captain.  He talks of various ports, captains, storms, and perils of the sea.  In Conrad's own words, "I have attempt here. . . to lay bare with the unreserve of a last hour's confession the terms of my relation with the sea, which beginning mysteriously, like any great passion the inscrutable Gods send to mortals, went on unreasoning and invincible, surviving the test of disillusion, defying the disenchantment that lurks in every day of a strenuous life;  went on full of love's delight and lover's anguish, facing them in open-eyed exultation without bitterness and without repining, from the first hour to the last."  He writes for us landlubbers, with little technical terminology.  It's an eye-opener from a seaman's point of view.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky:  The Demons or The Devils (aka The Possessed)
This novel is Dostoyevsky's satire of  various political ideologies and specifically of Turgenev's earlier novel Fathers and Sons.  Turgenev is satirized by Dostoyevsky in the character of the writer Karmazinov, who attempts to win the favor of  the Russian Western/European-leaning social critics.  The novel, published in 1872, is almost prophetic as it depicts the revolutionaries as favoring the use of terror to cow the population and the creation of three person cells to protect themselves from government infiltrators.  The contrast of conflicting ideologies of social democracy and radical totalitarianism is depicted in the differences between Stepan Verkhovensky, the idealistic social democratic reformer, and his son Pyotr Verkhovensky, the nihilist terrorist (the descendents of the social reformers), and therefore Dostoyevsky's version of Fathers and Sons.   

Karin Fossum: The Caller
A disturbed boy plays mischevious and sometimes malicious tricks on his neighbors.  For example, he sneaks into a neighbor's house and spills blood on a sleeping infant.  The parents, of course, are panic-stricken until they learn it was a hoax.  Now, they are angry.  The boy commits a number of these acts as a self-appointed messenger attempting to disturb their complacency. However,  some of his victims are determined not to let it pass, once his identity is known.  This is where Inspector Sejer gets involved.  Again, a great novel from a author whose works I get without even thinking about it. It's automatic.

Hermann Hesse:  Magister Ludi
Hesse, who, in his previous novels, argued for the superiority of the  spirit, the mind, the intellect, creates a small province in which certain inhabitants are able to live the life of the mind, the intellect, without concern for the necessity of earning a living.  They are supported by a government subsidy and the only requirement is that they provide teachers for the rest of the country.  But, here in what should have been the Eden that characters in his previous novels had searched for, Hesse turns his back on his previous beliefs and argues that the life of the intellect must be meshed with the material world, the world of striving and getting, of achieving and earning, and of greed and power. 

Drew Magary:   The Postmortal
The following is from my post last year about The Postmortal:   "Drew Magary's  The Postmortal is probably the best SF novel that explores the theme of an extended life span that I've read in decades, if not ever.  It attempts to realistically depict the effects of the development of an anti-aging medical treatment on society.   A researcher accidentally discovers a gene that controls aging and eventually comes up with a treatment that shuts down the gene.  Those given the cure (as it is popularly known) immediately stop aging and remain at whatever physical state they were in when given the treatment.  It is not immortality.  They can still die from accidents, disease, etc., but they will remain physically the same for an unknown length of time.  I read it twice last year and will read it again.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.:    A Canticle for Leibowitz
This is another reread and one of my favorite post-holocaust novels. It is really three novellas, which focus on a religious order of monks who initially were followers of Leibowitz, a scientist.  Leibowitz gave his followers the task of preserving whatever scientific knowledge they could find. Like the monks of the Middle Ages, they spent their lives copying out whatever written materials they could find. The three novellas take place several hundred years apart, going from a subsistence level of existence in the first part, to a society that is now rich enough to permit some of its members to do something other than bring in food in the second section, to a society that has developed science once again to the point that they now have nuclear weapons.

Leo Tolstoy:   Anna Karenina
A very complex telling of an adulterous relationshipA: the initial stages, the emergence of the relationship into the open, and the gradual disintegration resulting from the characters of the two people,  and the effect on them of the responses of the people about them.  This is my third reading, and it well repays the time spent.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kenko: inevitable change

No. 26
"When I recall the months and years I spent as the intimate of someone whose affections have now faded like cherry blossoms scattering even before a wind blew, I still remember every word of hers that once so moved me; and when I realize that she, as happens in such cases, is steadily slipping away from my world, I feel a sadness greater even than that of a separation from the dead.  That is why, I am sure, a man once grieved that white thread should be dyed in different colors, and why another lamented that roads inevitably fork.  Among the hundred verses presented to the Retired Emperor Horikawa one runs:

mukashi mishi                                           The fence round her house,
imo ga kakine wa                                      The woman I loved long ago,
arenikeri                                                     Is ravaged and fallen;
tsubana majiri no                                       Only violets remain
sumire no mi shite                                     Mingled with the spring weeds.

What a lovely picture--the poem must describe something that really occurred."

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

When I first began reading this essay, I thought it was a traditional essay about a loved one who no longer loved him.  That is there, of course, but as I read further, it seemed as though something else was going on.  He mentioned several examples that didn't seem to fit:  his grief that is stronger than if she had died, the white thread that is dyed, and the road that must "inevitably fork." And the poem, just how strong are the references to his lost love?

The underlying theme, I think, is that of the inevitability of change.  The following quotation is a note provided by Keene to the references to the silk thread and the road:

"The passage comes from the Huai-an Tzu:  'Yang-tzu saw a forked road and grieved that ti would branch south and north.  Mo-Tzu saw raw silk and wept at the thought the some would be dyed yellow and some black.  Kao Yu said, "They were sad because what originally had been the same would now be different."'" 

Those which at one time were similar now change and become different. Nothing is permanent; all must change and become other than they were.  He feels a greater sadness now than if the separation happened because of death.  This seems strange unless this drifting apart was just one example of a greater issue--that all things change and that which had been similar now becomes dissimilar.   The poem contained in the essay speaks more, I think, of the change of the house and grounds than of his lost love.

In a past essay, Kenko had said that everything in the past was better.  This again, I see, as a lament against the fundamental law of this world--all things change--which is the main point here, I think.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


  Ah, the sad expression in the eyes
                     of that caged bird--
                            envying the butterfly!
                --  Basho   (1644-1694  -- 

KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
        When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
    And the river flows like a stream of glass;
        When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals ­
    I know what the caged bird feels!

    I know why the caged bird beats his wing
        Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
        And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting ­
    I know why he beats his wing!

    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
        When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,­
    When he beats his bars and he would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
        But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings ­
    I know why the caged bird sings!
                      -- Paul Lawrence Dunbar  (1872-1906)

From 17th century Japan and in late 19th and early 20th century US,  we find two poems, different in form, but very similar in spirit.  And, one must also keep in mind that the first part of  Maya Angelou's autobiography is titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  In addition, I found the following quotation while reading Frederick Douglass' autobiography, which tells of his life as a slave and after he gained his freedom.  I have often wondered whether it was the inspiration for Lawrence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy."

“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass   (1815-1895)
Remember this the next time someone insists that slaves are happy because they sing so much!  

Friday, January 24, 2014

Some great DVDs viewed in 2013

This will be a short list, mostly because I bought a new computer and lost most of my files during the changeover.  They are in no particular order, simply because I don't want to expend the effort necessary to rank them, and especially since I know quite well that, on another day, I might rank them differently!

The Man from Earth:  I thought enough of this film to buy my own copy.  It's the fascinating tale of a man who tells his friends and coworkers that he's thousands of years old and their response to that revelation.  It's one of the best SF films I've viewed in many years.   For more information, check out the post I did on it last year.

Doktor Fautus:  based on the novel by Thomas Mann about a composer who makes a pact with the devil.  I haven't read the novel in some time, so I can't comment on the fidelity of the dramatization.  I will say though that it was an enjoyable film, even if much of it seemed strange to me, which might be caused by my failing memory, maybe.  .  .

1984: finally after many years Netflix found a copy to send me.  It's the version with John Hurt as Winston Smith and Richard Burton as O'Brien.  It was quite good as far as it went, but there was no way that any film could present the image upon which the tyranny of Oceania rested--"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

12 Angry Men:  starring Henry Fonda as Juror 8, the lone man who, at the beginning of the jury's deliberations, insists that they take time to discuss the case inasmuch as a guilty verdict would result in the death penalty. It's an exploration of the effects of prejudice on our  perception of others and the judgements that result. What was equally fascinating was the discovery that there were two foreign versions of this film, both very close to the US version.  The Russian version's title is 12, and while it follows closely the US version, there are some differences.  The Hindi language version is titled Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, and it is very close to the US version.  For more information, see the post I made of the three last year.

A Dance to the Music of Time: based on the novels by Anthony Powell.  The film is a condensation of Anthony Powell's series of novels published under the same title as the film: A Dance to the Music of Time.  The novels are published in four parts:  First Movement, Second Movement, Third Movement, and Fourth Movement, and each of the four parts consists of three novels each.  A symphony typically has four movements, so that suggests a lengthy and complex treatment of  various themes.  The film begins with a disparate group of people who meet while they are in school.  The narrative follows one man from that point and down the years through the post WWII era.  We see how he grows and develops and the way those people he had met during his academic years drop away and then reappear during this period.  I found the film absorbing enough to go out and get the books.

Europa Report:  an SF adventure/exploration film.  It's somewhat reminiscent of  2001 in that the ship is headed towards Jupiter, or to be more precise, Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.  It's a skillful blending of NASA film clips and fiction.  They have obviously studied NASA technology and methodology to create a very believable film of the way a journey to Europa just might take place.  It's one of the better SF films I viewed last year.

Appalachian Journey: One night over a decade ago I was driving home from work and was listening to PBS radio KUAT-FM.  It happened to be the broadcast from Lincoln Center, a chamber music event.  It featured, among others, Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor with special guests James Taylor and Alison Krauss.  I was instantly captivated by the liveliness of the music--country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and barnyard melodies.  During an interview,  Edgar Meyer stated that the program tonight was duplicated on a CD they had produced: Appalachian Journey.  I immediately went out and purchased the CD.  I then went out and searched for other CDs featuring Edgar Meyer, and I think I now have at least 5.  A short time ago, I discovered that the concert at Lincoln Center had been filmed, so I immediately added it to my queue.  Now I can listen to the CD and see them in my memory on stage.  If you're not familiar with Edgar Meyer and his unique musical universe, you should check it out.

Steel Helmet:  one of the few war pictures that I enjoyed watching.  It is very different from the usual patriotic war films that came my way.  It tells of Sgt Zack, a loner whose outfit had been wiped out by the North Koreans, and his encounter with several stragglers, a Korean boy, and an American unit searching for a Buddhist temple to be used as a forward observation post.  The film came out in 1951, during the Korean War, and those expecting the typical John Wayne patriotic war film must have been shocked by what they saw.  One reviewer called it an anti-American and pro-communist propaganda film.   By today's standards, it probably isn't that shocking, but back then it had to be disturbing to many.

If I were told that I had to buy at least one war film, this would probably be the one.

THX 1138:  This was one of George Lucas' early efforts.  It's based on the film he produced and directed during his studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.  It's a fascinating picture of a future USA where being unhappy and feeling any emotion but happiness is against the law.  It also has one of the riskiest sequences I've ever seen in any film--a long period of time wherein the characters are set against an all-white background, where even the simple furniture is white.  The characters' faces and hands provide a startling contrast.  Of course, Lucas has to include a car chase scene, something he couldn't do without, even back then when he was producing films that had interesting plots and characters and weren't just excuses for action, action, action.

It is one of the eight DVDs that I have in my personal collection.

Twelve O'clock High:  one of the few war pictures I have watched several times, probably mostly due to the fine performance by Gregory Peck, one of my favorite actors.  As an HQ staff officer, he finds it necessary to remove a friend from command of a bomber unit based in England during WWII for he feels the commander has gotten too close to his men and can't make the hard decisions necessary.  Peck's character then takes command and isolates himself from the unit, thereby triggering resentment from the men who had gotten used to the previous commander's more paternal style.        

Zorba the Greek:  I had heard much about this film many years ago and eventually watched it.  I found the music so infectious that I bought the soundtrack for the film.  I also so enjoyed the story that I bought the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.  I was hooked and over the years have purchased as many of his works as possible.  I think my collection of his works exceeds ten books. Zorba is a free spirit, and his behavior and attitude might disturb many.  The Englishman he mentors is at the exact other end of the spectrum--uptight and constrained--and this provides the conflict in the film.   At the end, the Englishman returns to England, but he isn't the same person who came out here.

This is one of the few DVDs that I may add to my collection someday.