Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time: Vol 1, Spring

Anthony Powell
A Dance to the Music of Time
Vol. 1,  Spring
A Question of Upbringing
A Buyer's Market
The Acceptance World


One of the most common adjectives applied to this work is "monumental."   It's also been used to describe other works, but this is one of the few times when it is applicable and fitting.  A Dance to the Music of Time is now published as a set of four novels:  Vol. 1 or Spring, Vol. 2 or Summer, Vol. 3 or Autumn, and Vol. 4 or Winter. Each volume consists of three novels, for example the three listed make up Vol. 1.  In all there are twelve novels, one for each month of the year.

When I get around to rereading the set,  I shall begin on the first day of Spring of whatever year that happens to be and then cover one novel a month.  Perhaps then I shall do a more in-depth look at the work.  For now, the best I can do is a brief overview of each of the volumes.

Rather than stumble about trying to describe the overall theme of the work, I'll let Powell do it.  Jenkins musing is brought about when he gazes at Poussin's painting, A Dance to the Music of Time.
(click on the painting for a larger image)


                                                           


     The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: on breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
 

The first novel begins shortly after the end of WWI,  with four young boys:  Nick Jenkins, Kenneth Widmerpool, Charles Stringham, and Peter Templer.  They are finishing schooling, preparatory to entering the university.   At the university, Nick Jenkins, the POV character, meets other students and faculty members who will play a role in his future.  At the same time, his close association with the other three begins to weaken.

The second and third novels provide a picture of university life and the decade after leaving the university as they attempt to establish themselves in the larger world: to find their own places in the social world as well as developing their careers, in the world of the arts, business, and government.  The world they live in is the world of the English middle class. The third novel ends with the four characters in their early thirties and in the early 1930's as well.

Jenkins encounters at varying stages the other three young men as they struggle to establish themselves, as well as some of the faculty from the university.  The various encounters he has with those from his past also bring forward others who will play a role in his future.   He is frequently surprised to find that his earlier judgements of people prove wrong or incomplete as he sees them succeeding in their ventures or slowly disintegrating as the struggle for existence takes its toll on them.

This is a complex work and will require time to fully appreciate it.  It's not a work to be picked up now and then for 15 or 20 minutes at a time.  Perhaps one novel a month might be the wisest schedule.   

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ray Bradbury: The Kilimanjaro Device

Ray Bradbury's "The Kilimanjaro Device"
a short story found in the collection  I Sing the Body Electric


Did the title jog your memory a bit?  Perhaps remind you of another story by an American writer?  Who does the following quotation from the story suggest?

     "Oh, he had readers all right, all kinds of readers.  Even me.  I don't touch books from one autumn to the next.  But I touched his.  I think I liked the Michigan stories best.  About the fishing. I think the  stories about the fishing are good.  I don't think anybody ever wrote about fishing that way and maybe won't ever again.  Of course, the bullfight stuff is good, too.   But that's a little far off.  Some of the cowpokes like them;  they been around the animals all their life.  A  bull here or a bull there, I guess it's the same.  I know one cowpoke has read just the bull stuff in the Spanish stories of the old man's forty times.  He could go over there and fight, I swear."

One last clue:  The narrator refers to "the old man" as "Papa."  Of course, the style Bradbury adopts in this story is also a clue:  short declarative sentences, usually the straightforward subject-verb-object form.  Everything is concrete and definite.

But the point of the story is rather unusual, which isn't surprising since it's a tale by Ray Bradbury.  The narrator is on a mission, which is why he has come to this small town where the "old man" is buried.  He reveals his mission to a local hunter, the one who was quoted above.



     "'You  been up to the grave yet?'  asked; the hunter, as if he knew I would answer yes.
     'No,' I said.
     'Why not?'
     ' Because it's the wrong grave.,' I said.
     'All graves are wrong graves when you come down to it,' he said.
     'No,' I said. 'There are right graves and wrong ones, just as there are good times to die and bad times.'
     He nodded at this.  I had come back to something he knew, or at least smelled was right.
     'Sure, I knew men.' he said, 'died just perfect.  You always felt, yes, that was good.  One man I knew, sitting at the table waiting for supper, his wife in the kitchen, when she came in with a big bowl of soup, there he was sitting dead and neat at the table.  Bad for her, but, I mean, wasn't that a good way for him?  No sickness. No nothing but sitting there waiting for supper to come and never knowing if it came or not.'"



As you can see, the story is going in a strange direction.  What does this have to do with the grave on the hill that is the wrong grave?  The grave is that of Ernest Hemingway, although it is never stated.  However, the clues given above clearly suggest it is Papa Hemingway, who committed suicide in 1961 and was buried in Ketchum, Idaho.  There's also  a time machine involved, sort of a "psychic time machine" that is.

Time machine stories generally fall into two broad categories.  There's type in which the time travelers go solely as observers, fearing to do something, anything  which would change history and perhaps eliminate them.  Frequently though, they end up doing exactly what they feared.  Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of  Thunder" is a variation of that type of story.  The travelers go back, intending to hunt dinosaurs, but they kill only those dinosaurs that will die within a few minutes anyway, thereby reducing the risk of changing the future.  But.  .  .

The second type of time traveler is the one who goes back intending to change history.  There generally two types of these.  One type involves those who go back to kill someone who had a major and deleterious effect (in their minds anyway) on history--I have read several stories in which someone goes back in order to kill Adolf Hitler, thereby reducing the possibility of WWII and the holocaust.   A second type depicts the efforts of those who attempt to save someone from being killed--Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, for example.

But, neither of these is exactly what the narrator has in mind.




SPOILER:  The following reveals the story and the narrator's mission.  











The focus in the story is on dying at the right time.  As I mentioned above,  Hemingway committed suicide after living several years in pain and ill health, the result of an hereditary disease that affected several members of his family, some of whom either died from the disease or committed suicide.  Another contributing factor was the injuries he suffered in two plane crashes.  He and his wife had flown to Africa, but the plane crashed on landing.   He and his wife survived, but with some broken bones and tissue damage.  They attempted to fly out to get medical treatment on the next day, but that plane's engine exploded at takeoff.  Again they survived.  Eventually they did get the needed medical help, but Hemingway suffered health problems after that.

The narrator has a time machine, but he doesn't intend to use it to stop Hemingway from killing himself, nor does he intend to prevent the two plane crashes.  Instead, he goes back in time and meets "the old man." 

The narrator explains that the truck can possibly go back to 1954 (the date of the two plane crashes) and possibly can turn into plane.   The old man then asks him if he could land the plane a little bit differently, a little bit harder and that he "be thrown out but the rest of you okay?"
The narrator answers, "I'll see what I can do."

The old man "gazed back down the road at the mountains and the sea that could not be seen beyond the mountains and a continent beyond the sea. 'That's a good day you're talking about.' 
      'The best.'
      ' And a good hour and a good second.'
      'Really, nothing better.'"

Death is inevitable, but there are good deaths and bad deaths.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Gregory Benford: Anomalies

Gregory Benford
Anomalies
a collection of short stories (1975-2012)

The following are three of the short stories found in Gregory Benford's latest short story collection, Anomalies.  The stories focus on a wide variety of topics, from wormholes to AIs to string theory.  I will post brief reviews of the other stories in the collection over the next few weeks.


"A Worm in the Well"


Claire, the pilot/owner of an independent freighter,  is deep in debt, so much so that she about to lose the freighter to her creditors.  She more or less controls the ship with the aid of Erma, a wisecracking AI.  Erma knows that she really runs the ship.

Claire takes on a high-paying but dangerous job--dropping down into the sun's corona to take photos of a wormhole that has suddenly appeared.  The scientific community is seriously bothered by the appearance of a wormhole so close to the sun and need the photos and other data gathered by her close encounter by the sun in order to determine what the dangers are.

Once there, however, she decides to do a career change from "nature photographer" to a "bring 'em back alive" hunter.  The photos and data still won't bring in enough money to pay off all of her debts, but capturing and bringing back a wormhole, something that has never been done before, will give the scientists an unparalleled opportunity to study and even experiment with a wormhole.  Claire figures that she can negotiate a much bigger fee.  Erma, of course, has her doubts.

The story naturally is heavy on the science, but the information is handled very nicely in the arguments (discussions) between Claire and Erma.



"The Worm Turns"
It's several years later and Claire and Erma are still broke and about to lose the ship again.   This time they are forced to take on a hazardous job: it's either that or lose the ship.  Since Claire transported the wormhole away from the sun, earth scientists have meddled with it and enlarged it.  It now is more likely to be dangerous to anything in the neighborhood, the solar system for example.

Claire's task is now to fly through the wormhole, check out the other side, and then report back.   However, life (or a wormhole)  is never that simple, so life gets exciting again.  And, what she finds at the other end is something neither she nor Erma nor the scientists expected. 


"The Semisent"
In literary criticism, a Bildungsroman,[a] novel of formation, novel of education, or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, and in which, therefore, character change is extremely important (from the Wikipedia entry on Bildungsroman).

What's unusual about this short story is that it's a bildungsrom or coming-of-age story, not about a human being but an AI.  The AI begins as a small box and by the end of the story it has evolved into a tall distinguished gentleman with sorrowful blue eyes.  And there's also a human involved.



Monday, October 13, 2014

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain VIII, 2nd Edition

Some months ago I finished a series of posts on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as translated by Edward FitzGerald.  I went through all 75 quatrains from the First Edition and included matching quatrains from the Second and Fifth Editions.  However, while the First Edition has seventy-five quatrains, the Second Edition has one hundred and ten quatrains and the Fifth has one hundred and one.   Therefore there are at least twenty-five quatrains which I have so far ignored.

I am going to do something about those ignored quatrains now.  Over the next several months? years? I will quote and briefly discuss those missing quatrains.  Actually, it's just an excuse to once again open the pages of a favorite work.

So, what follows are the missing quatrains from the Second Edition and the equivalent quatrains from the Fifth Edition.  These did not appear, as far as I can tell, in the First Edition.


Second Edition: Quatrain VIII

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run, 
      The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.



Fifth Edition:  Quatrain VIII


Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run, 
      The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one. 


As you can see, the two versions are identical: he made no changes to this quatrain. 

Naishapur and Babylon were important cities in antiquity but now are of little importance.  For recent significance, if one is looking for that,  Naishapur can claim to be the birthplace of Omar Khayyam.

The theme is a common one in the Rubaiyat, that in the slow passage of time, the dissolution of all things moves onward relentlessly, regardless of whether life is sweet or bitter.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Maltese Falcon: Three film versions

A classic example of Hollywood's ongoing struggle to be creative, imaginative, and original is the remake. A great film comes out, or at least one that does very well at the box office, and in a frenzy of creative energy, remakes appear, or, if not remakes, then at least a host of films that strongly resemble their progenitor. In most cases, therefore, the remake is a pale copy of the original. Only rarely does the opposite occur: the remake is actually the superior version. I am aware of only two cases in which this has happened. However, I'm sure that this has happened more often; I'm just not aware of them, and I would appreciate hearing about other examples.



The two cases I'm familiar with and have viewed are the two versions of Gaslight (see my post of August 26, 2008) and the three versions of The Maltese Falcon. The Maltese Falcon has long been a favorite of mine, so I was surprised and intrigued when I recently discovered the two previous attempts at film versions of Dashiell Hammet's fine novel. The two earlier versions are The Maltese Falcon which came out in 1931 and Satan Met a Lady, which appeared in 1936. The classic or best known version with Humphrey Bogart appeared in 1941.






Satan Met a Lady is quite different from the other versions for it is a comedic adaptation of Hammett's novel. Most of the basic plot elements are present, although in a modified form. The black bird becomes a ram's horn, specifically the horn Roland the Brave finally sounded to bring back Charlemagne, although too late to save him and the rear guard from annihilation. (See Le Chanson de Roland, an epic poem of some 4000 words written probably around the early 12 century.) The horn is, of course, stuffed with jewels. Along with various plot element changes, the characters were renamed:



Actor Character Hammett's character



Warren William -- Ted Shane (Sam Spade)
Bette Davis -- Valerie Purvis (Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O'Shaughnessy
Alison Skipworth -- Madame Barabbas (Casper Gutman)
Marie Wilson -- Miss Murgatroyd (Effie)
Porter Hall -- Milton Ames (Miles Archer)
Arthur Treacher  -- Anthony Travers (Joel Cairo?)
Maynard Holmes -- Kenneth (Wilmer Cook--young gunman)



Imdb.com gives the complete cast for those who are interested.



The film opens with Ted Shane being kicked out of a small town. He then returns to rejoin his former partner Milton Ames. The Woman appears, and the plot loosely follows the novel, more or less, mostly less. Although I watched the movie last week, I've forgotten most of it.



Warren William makes Shane a bit of a dunderhead, always tripping over his own feet, metaphorically speaking. Bette Davis clearly is the Class Act as Valerie Purvis. She is too strong for the rest of the cast. Alison Skipworth's Madame Barabbas was also quite good. I wonder if Greenstreet had watched her performance. Marie Wilson played Effie as a ditsy blond, much like her later roles as the ditsy blond in several Dean Martin--Jerry Lewis comedies. Maynard Holmes' Kenneth (the young gunsel) becomes a schoolyard bully who spends considerable time scowling and whining.



The title isn't as weird as it sounds, for Hammett in the first paragraph of the novel describes Spade:



"Sam Spade's jaw was long and bony; his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down--from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan." So, the satan met a lady.









The 1931 version, the first version, plays it straight. As far as I could tell, the only significant plot difference between it and the 1941 version is the ending. The 1931 version kept Hammett's original ending in which Wilmer kills Gutman. Aside from that, there are only a few differences between it and the Classic 1941 version. The secondary characters seem to have less onscreen time in comparison to the Classic version. This perhaps may partially be the cause for what I see as the most significant difference between the two.



It's hard to describe the difference, but the closest I can come to it is to say that the characters in the first version were thin in comparison to those in 1941. They seemed to be surface characters only while the characters in the 1941 film had depth to them. Moreover, the choice of Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade is bewildering. Why it was decided to cast someone who appears to be the Latin lover--Ramon Navarro or Valentino--is beyond me. Perhaps that type of leading man was the rage at that time.



Cortez is not convincing as Spade. For example, when Ruth Wonderly is doing her helpless heroine bit, Cortez has this big wide grin on him--this is all fun and games. Bogart, on the other hand, has just the slightest grin, and it's not an all fun and games grin. It is a tired, cynical grin; he has been lied to by his clients in the past and it always made his job harder, and now he's hearing more lies again.



And again, when Cortez explains to Wonderly at the end why he's going to turn her in to the police, it seemed to be just someone reading lines. Bogart looks directly and her, and then turns away, looks down at the floor because he can't face her. He may be in love with her, but other considerations are more important--loyalty to a dead partner being one of them.



The same holds true for the rest of the cast: there really is no comparison between Greenstreet, Lorre, and Elisha Cook and their counterparts in the 1931 version. The dialogue and the encounters among them are similar, but the difference is between real people and one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.



There's always the debate as to whether it's the director or the cast that's most important. Would Roy Del Ruth, director of the 1931 film, have produced the same film if he had the 1941 cast? What would John Huston have done with the 1931 cast? Intriguing questions. I don't have an answer, except the perhaps too obvious suggestion that it is the combination of director and cast that creates a forgettable film in 1931 and a classic some ten years later.



Overall Rating: Have some fun and see all three. Read the novel too.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Robert Frost: "Misgiving"

An Autumn Poem----


Misgiving

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

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

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

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

-- Robert Frost --



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


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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Judex: a film

Judex, a French language film
Black-and-white, English subtitles
Directed by Georges Franju
1963


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Simon Ortiz: Hawk

Hawk

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

straightens then suddenly
overhead,
directly above us,
the pines.

This man, he knows
what he is doing.

-- Simon Ortiz --
from Woven Stone


What would it be like to fly like this hawk? 

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Kenko: an anecdote, with a point?

No. 45

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

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness


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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lu Hsun/ Lu Xun: A Madman's Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


From the flyleaf of Selected Stories of Lu Hsun:

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

Monday, September 1, 2014

N. Scott Momaday: The Bear

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

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

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

-- N. Scott Momaday --


The Bear

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Eric Hoffer: on total commitment

No. 54

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

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

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

   

Friday, August 22, 2014

Eric Hoffer: some thoughts on freedom

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

No. 55

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


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



No. 56

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

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

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

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

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

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




Quotations are from
Eric Hoffer
Reflections on the Human Condition

Monday, August 18, 2014

Han shan or Cold Mountain: a poem

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

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


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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Baltasar Gracian: the necessity for the coverup

No. 126

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

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


I think the core of the paragraph is the following:


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

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

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


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Henry Beard: the anonymous old English epic--Beocat

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


Grendel's Dog

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

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


 Henry Beard
from Poetry for Cats


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Robert Grudin: the loss of the past

III.2

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

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



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

-- Edward Thomas --


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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Otomo no Tabito: a suggestion for the wise

44.

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


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


Works for me. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

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

Colin Wilson
The Philosopher's Stone



                                             PART ONE

                                The Quest of the Absolute

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

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


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


                                                        --------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Eric Hoffer: quiet confidence and noisy insecurity

No. 11

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

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


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