Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thomas Hardy: "Afterwards"

Here is another gem of Thomas Hardy's that I just discovered recently while browsing through the collection of his poems. 


When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
   And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
   "He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
    The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
    "To him this must have  been a familiar sight."

If I pass through some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
   When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
    But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."

If, when hearing that I have  been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
    Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
    "He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
     And a crossing breeze  cuts a pause in is outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's  boom,  
     "He hears it not now, but used to notice such things."?

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

This, at first, struck me as an unusual poem for Hardy, but, of course, I'm familiar with so few of his thousand or so poems that this may not be that unusual.   When I first read it, I immediately thought of Emily Dickinson, who has a number of poems supposedly expressing ideas after having died.  She also has a large number of poems, over seven hundred I think, so I'm familiar with only a relatively few of them.

That was my first impression, but after rereading it, it became clear that the narrator was only speculating on how he might be remembered after death, not that he had actually died and was now wondering about how others would remember him.  What the poem does give us is a picture of the concerns of the narrator while he was alive, and those concerns are not, to me anyway, the expected ones.  If Dickinson, however, expresses the narrator's concerns in a poem of hers, I'm not aware of it. 

I see no concern here for his "place" in history or his "place" in literature.  Instead of a concern for an intellectual understanding of him, it focuses on his absorption in the real world about him.   I wonder what those who insist that art is, along with children, a symptom of the artists' or the parents' hope for immortality will think of the narrator of this poem.

The poem does reflect, also, one of Hardy's strengths as a novelist and a poet--his sense of place and the creatures that inhabit it.  His concerns are for those natural elements that we all see and experience, but we are so used to them that they are invisible.  But this is clearly not true for Hardy, for the natural world is so important in his poetry and in his fictions, that to remove them would leave a large gap in his poetry or his fictions.

In addition, I find his language to be straightforward and almost blunt.  And as always, there is that sense of honesty in that he simply says what he believes.

The narrator here asks a question that most of us, at one time or another, have asked, but he adds a unique qualification, "Do they remember the right things about me?" 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXX

This quatrain responds to the previous quatrain in which the human body was referred to as a "Clay suburb."

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXX

But that is but a Tent wherein may rest
A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest;
     The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash
Strikes, and prepares it for another Guest.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XLV
'Tis but a Tent where takes his one day rest
A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest;
     The Sultan rises, and the dark Ferrash
Strikes, and prepares it for another Guest.

The only difference between the Second and the Fifth editions occurs in the first line, which FitzGerald seems to modify to make it flow more easily and to eliminate that double "but."  This is one of the rare occasions in which I like the second version more than the first.

The body is now a tent which the occupant leaves behind, just as the soul presumably leaves the body behind at death.  Since the body is composed of clay or dust or ash, it will be used again and again in the future.   We are here for a short time only and then must move on to make room for "another Guest."

The Ferrash has pitched the tent (the body) and now it strikes it: "the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD,"  as we read in the KJV, Job 1:21.

Note:  Ferrash:  Servant, tent-pitcher.
Definition found in the glossary of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, "Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black:  Roslyn, N. Y.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Minute Meditation

At one point in his stay in the Sierras, John Muir got a job on a sheep ranch.  This resulted in the following observation, which may or may not be profound.  And, even if it isn't profound, I had to stop and think about it.  And smile also.

"Aside from mere money profit one would rather herd wolves than sheep."

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

A question, as I reviewed the above, suddenly popped up:  Which would be easier?

Herding wolves or herding cats?  

Or--more fun?

A chuckle this time.

Hmmmm, methinks the summer heat is getting to me.   

Friday, August 19, 2016

Joseph Wood Krutch: drawing the line, sorta, kinda

Joseph Wood Krutch
The Twelve Seasons

This summer I have been looking again at Paramecia and Lacrimaria and Opalina, as well as at the flora amidst which they live.  But I do not know what kind of relation I have with them or just how I feel toward them.  I marvel and I admire.  They are beautiful.  They are, quite literally, lovely.  But in what sense do or can I love them?  After I have peered for a while at a drop of water, I wipe it off with a piece of tissue and put it into a wastebasket.  I should not be telling the truth if I said that I feel much compunction at such wanton killing.  Why don't I? Is it simply because responsibility cannot bridge the gap of that discontinuity established by nothing but size?  Do I, like my woman friend, doubt that the protozoa are real?

-- Joseph Wood Krutch --
from  "July" in The Twelve Seasons

Paramecia, Lacrimaria, and Opalina are organisms visible only with the aid of a microscope.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Joseph Wood Krutch: Where to draw the line. . .

Joseph Wood Krutch
The Twelve Seasons

Joseph Wood Krutch poses an interesting question, one which I had never really directly asked myself but had only thought briefly about it and then put it off for the future.

Krutch had just given a visitor the opportunity to look at a drop of water through his microscope.  After viewing the various critters swimming around in the drop, the visitor asked if they were real.  Krutch feels that the question really had a deeper meaning which the visitor was unable to express:

. . .whether or not acceptance of the microcosm as "real" means an obligation to expand still further the limits of that fellowship of living creatures which man has tended more and more to acknowledge.  We, or at least many of us, no long treat horses and dogs and cats ruthlessly.  We accept to some extent their right to live and to escape unnecessary suffering.  But where does our fellowship and our responsibility draw the line?    Most would probably agree that the refusal, recommended by the poet, to step wantonly upon even a worm is carrying things pretty far.  "We are all in this together";  does that include the paramecium too?  But if, to use Donne's now almost too familiar metaphor, a man is not an island but part of a continent, and if (to go one step farther) that continent is the continent, not merely of mankind, but of all living things; if, in a word, we feel even now an impulse to rescue a squirrel from a cat, shall we also come in time to turn away in horror when the hydra clasps a water flea?  If not, then at what point do we call a halt?  Am I being "sentimental" when I rescue the squirrel, or am I being "brutal" when I stop on the caterpillar?

-- Joseph Wood Krutch --
from "July" in The Twelve Seasons

I don't have any answers myself,  but I guess I'm prejudiced or biased in favor of furry mammals, and also consider whales, dolphins, and all of our mammalian sea cousins as within the limits of that fellowship of living creatures. Feathered creatures are also within that fellowship.    But, the others that share this planet?
Life is rare in the universe or so it seems, so, shouldn't all forms be equally valued?  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Jonh Muir: some thoughts on graveyards

You . . . are with Nature in the grand old forest graveyard, so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead rather than with the lazy, disorderly living.

Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life.  The rippling of the living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord's most favored abodes of life and light.

On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death.  Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the archenemy of life.

. . . How assiduously Nature seeks to remedy these labored art blunders.  She corrodes the iron and marble, and gradually levels the hill which is always heaped up, as if a sufficiently heavy quantity of clods could not be laid upon the dead.  Arching grasses come one by one; seeds come flying on downy wings, silent as fate, to give life's dearest beauty for the ashes of art; and strong evergreen arms laden with ferns and tillandsia drapery are spread over all--Life at work everywhere, obliterating all memory of the confusion of man.

All quotations come from  John Muir: His Own Words.  

His sentiments definitely would not be in tune with Halloween, would they?  But, of course, he's mainly speaking of daytime here.   I wonder if anyone else has expressed similar sentiments about graveyards. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Thea von Harbou: Metropolis--First Impressions

Thea von Harbou
Silent with some text

First Impressions

This is my first reading of the novel, although I have seen various versions of the film, which, in my estimation, is one of the all-time great films.  The most recent viewing was of the reconstructed two hour and twenty-eight minute film.  It's one of the few DVDs that I now own.   While it's been a few years since I last saw the film, I had a strange reaction when I began the novel. I immediately flashed back to the film, for the tone or atmosphere of the novel was very similar to the film, or so I thought.  This may be because von Harbou wrote the screenplay for the film.

Both the novel and the film struck me as being rather formal, almost theatrical.  It's been awhile, as I said, since I've seen the film, but looking back now, I think it was much closer to being a play filmed on stage rather than a film with its greater freedom and flexibility.  This may make sense for a film, but a novel?

The beginning of the novel: 

Chapter I

Now the rumbling of the great organ swelled to a roar, pressing, like a rising giant, against the vaulted ceiling, to burst through it.

Freder bent his head backwards, his wide-open, burning  eyes stared unseeingly upward.  His hands formed music from the chaos of the notes; struggling with the vibration of the sound and stirring him to his innermost depths.  

.  .  .  .  .

Above him, the vault of heaven in "lapis lazuli;"  hovering  therein, the twelve-fold mystery, the Signs of the Zodiac in gold.  Set higher above them, the seven crowned ones:  the planets.  High above all a silver-shining bevy of stars: the universe.

Wouldn't this be a great opening for a silent film?  It's perhaps a bit overblown by today's standards, but it works, or at least it worked for me. 

Overall, I found the novel strange.  As I began reading, I immediately flashed back to the film.  I've never before ever felt that the novel and the film were so perfectly matched in tone or ambiance or whatever.

It's dated, of course, but that just makes it seem more alien.  This is not my world, even though it's depiction of a society that consisted solely of bosses and workers could be seen as a socio-economic allegory of  today--the 1% who control everything versus the rest of us.  There are also various religious elements in the story, as well as a reference to a Japanese pleasure quarter in Edo (it really exists). 

The following are just first impressions and are presented only for discussion, revision, or even elimination and really need a serious rereading on my part. 

Is this the story of an Oedipal conflict between Father and Son?

How accurate a depiction is this of actual Marxist practice?   Marxists talk of class warfare between capitalists and the workers, represented in the novel by the bosses (the head) and the workers (the hands).   However, in the real world there is a middle class.  What happened to them?

Is this a type of Jekyll and Hyde novel featuring the virtuous, virginal Maria and her evil seductive android double--a virgin and whore dichotomy?  Other examples of the double would be Dostoyevsky's novella "The Double" and Poe's "William Wilson."

A reread sometime in the near future is a must. 

I will do a blog post on the film, eventually, but it will take awhile because I'm still floundering around about the novel,  as you can tell from my comments above.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Minute Meditation

Wish I had learned this long ago, and now I wish I could remember this in time.

Wisdom is knowing when to stop speaking .  .  .

-- Chuang Tzu --
from Taoist Wisdom:  Daily Teachings from the Taoist Sages

Friday, August 5, 2016

Thomas Hardy: "The Subalterns" and "Hap"

Who's in charge here?

The Subalterns

"Poor wanderer," said the leaden sky,
      "I fain would lighten thee,
But there are laws in force on high
       Which say it must not be."

--"I would not freeze thee, shorn one," cried
      The North, "knew I but how
To warm my breath, to slack my stride;
       But I am ruled as thou."

--"To-morrow I attack thee, wight,"
      Said Sickness.  "Yet I swear
I bear thy little ark no spite,
        But am bid enter there."

--"Come hither, Son," I heard Death say:
       "I did not will a grave
Should end thy pilgrimage to-day,
         But I, too, am a slave!"

We smiled upon each other then,
       And life to me had less
Of that fell look it wore ere when
        They owned their passiveness.

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

I had to think of another, later poem by Hardy, "Hap"  in which he seems to express the same feeling but comes to a different conclusion as to the real situation.


If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
The thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,

And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan...
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

From a previous blog post, I wrote the following:

Hardy begins by saying that he could bear his sufferings if they were caused by a vengeful god, similar, I suppose, to those frequently preached about on TV or in various pulpits. He could endure and even die more easily, strengthened by his anger over his unjust pains and miseries, especially if all was caused by something more powerful than he.

However, Hardy concludes otherwise--"But not so"--that there is no vengeful god behind it all, for what happens is the result of "Crass Casuality" and "dicing Time," that it all happens by chance. There is no grand design or a plan behind it all, for "These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown/Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain."


In "Hap,"  an earlier poem,  he states that he would find it more endurable if he thought a more powerful being had caused those ills upon us, but he concludes 

"These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
  Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain."

In other words, pure chance determines that pain and happiness come randomly and not by a plan of some higher power.  Chance rules the universe.

In "The Subalterns," a later poem,  he discovers that, while all the things that bedevil our existence down here come at us not of their own wish,  they are commanded by something far more powerful than they are.  Death insists they are "slaves."  The narrator smiles when he hears this, for they are commanded by a higher power.  "Subalterns" are those who simply follow orders, therefore, there must be something issuing those orders.  Consequently, something must have a plan.
On the other hand, just to confuse the situation a bit, I will place Robert Frost's little poem, "Design" on the table for consideration.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

--  Robert Frost --

Does Robert Frost agree with Hardy, and, if so, with which Hardy?  Is Chance or Design in charge here?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Minute Meditation

No. 63

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe...

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

There's an Eastern flavor to this comment, isn't there? 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXIX

The following is another quatrain FitzGerald added to the Second Edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXIX

Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,
And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,
    Is't not a Shame--is't not a Shame for him
So long in this Clay suburb to abide!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XLIV

Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,
And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,
    Were't not a Shame--were't not a Shame for him
In this Clay carcase crippled to abide?

The first two lines are identical.  The changes appear in the third and fourth lines. The third line poses the most problems:  the change from   "Is't" to "Were't."  Since I have never encountered these contractions before, I went searching and found that "Is't" most likely means "is it."  I found several different possibilities for "Were't" and finally concluded that the contraction stands for "were it"  which fits best when considering that it replaced "is't."  The most significant change in the fourth line is the replacement of "suburb" by "carcase," which brings out a much clearer reference to the body, especially when one considers Biblical references to clay and dust.

I think the overall theme is that the soul is trapped in the body, that it could be much freer without the body.  It comes across much stronger in the Fifth edition when the poet/narrator tells us that the soul is within a "carcase crippled to abide."  This, of course, is in line with Christian and Islamic beliefs about the existence of the soul after death, and it's glorious future, if it is destined for heaven.

There, of course, is a gentle irony here when one sees how hard those who believe in a glorious afterlife struggle so hard to remain here in our "crippled" existence, as hard, as far as I can tell, as any atheist or agnostic, in fact. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Leconte de Lisle: "The Jaguar's Dream"

Here's one of those poems that grabbed me, and I had to keep coming back to read it.

The Jaguar's Dream

Lianas in bright bloom hang from mahogany shade,
Motionless where the air is languorous
And buzzing with summer flies.  Brushing the moss,
They curl into cradles clutched by the emerald quetzal, swayed
Wildly by monkeys, spun with the yellow spider's silver floss.
Here the bull-killer, slayer of stallions, tired,
Moves among dead tree-stumps moist and soft as sponge,
Implicit violence in his measured tread.
Pelt shimmering with each muscle's plunge,
While from his bay-wide muzzle, drooping with thirst,
A clipped, harsh, rattled breathing shocks
Huge lizards from their sun-trance to a burst
Of chrome-green sparkling over shadowed rocks;
And there where the dark wood blots the sun,
He sprawls across a lichened stone,
Licks satin paws to a lustrous sheen,
Flutters the sleep-heavy lids of gold eyes down
And, as the ghost of his waking force
Twitches his tail and ripples along each side,
He dreams that by some orchard's water course
He leaps and digs his dripping  claws
Into a bellowing bull's flesh-swollen hide.

Charles-Marie Rene' Lecontede Lisle  (1818-1894)
from World Poetry:  An Anthology of Verse
from Antiquity to Our Time  
trans. James Lasdon

I don't know what this poem means or if it is symbolic or metaphorical or allegorical.  It's inner, hidden, deeper meaning escapes me.  It must be the imagery here that attracts meA picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but I doubt if a thousand pictures could accomplish, for me anyway, what these few words some how manage to do.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Minute Meditation

Many moons ago when I was in grad school, a professor went on a rant attacking John Gardner and his "obsolete" views.  I was so intrigued that I got the book.  I was instantly converted.  One of my regrets is that I never went back and thanked that professor for introducing me to John Gardner. I've also read several of his novels. If you are looking for something different, try John Gardner.

"In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue -- by reason and by banging the table -- for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be.

.   .   .   .   .   .

The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.  It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us."

-- John Gardner --
from On Moral Fiction

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The Minister's Black Veil"

Nathaniel Hawthorne:  "The Minister's Black Veil"

I'm sure most people have either read the story or are at least familiar with the basic story line.  Parson Hooper appears one Sunday morning wearing a black veil:  Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. The effect on the congregation was one of amazement and not a little fear:  "I don't like it," muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meetinghouse.  "He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face." 

The sermon he delivered that day was clearly related to the black veil:  The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. 

Hooper's black veil is supposed to serve as a reminder to all who see him of the secret sins they are hiding from others.   I think most of us are very well aware of those dark secrets we hide from others, so I don't understand why Parson Hooper feels it necessary to make himself a reminder of that.   What purpose does it serve to remind us of our own sins and also that others have their own hidden sins?

Doesn't this make us wonder about our friends and loved ones and strangers?  How does this increase Christian charity to towards others?  Doesn't this rather make us suspicious of others?  Doesn't this increase our mistrust of others?   He certainly found himself the object of fear among all who encountered him.  He persisted in this behavior and wouldn't even allow his betrothed to see him without the veil, thereby ending their engagement.

I am puzzled by this story.  Does Hawthorne mean for us to admire Parson Hooper or is he another example of excessive religious zeal, similar to the Salem witch trials in which one of Hawthorne's ancestors played a prominent role?


Friday, July 22, 2016

Basho: just a brief post on a haiku

The following are two translations of a haiku by Basho that caught my attention. The reversal is what made me stop and consider it.

No. 7

rabbit-ear iris
how much it looks like
its image in water

-- Basho --
from Basho: The Complete Haiku
Trans.  Jane Reichold

No. 6

blue flag irises
        looking just like their images
                in the water

-- Basho --
from Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
Trans. David Landis Barnhill

It is so common to read how closely the reflection in the water resembled the object that the reversal made me stop and think.  This is one of those moments when words fail, which makes it a rare haiku. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Minute Meditation

"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, 'Mother, what was war?'"

-- Eve Merriam, poet and writer (1916-1992) --

Has this ever been better said?

Will this dream ever come true?

What little I know of human history makes me pessimistic.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Jane Austen's EMMA; a brief personal reaction

Jane Austen

This is probably my fourth? fifth? reading of Emma.  I am now in midst of my regular rereading of Austen's works, but I probably won't post extensively on them, mainly because I can't step back sufficiently to comment coherently.  But, occasionally a thought may strike me, as it has just recently while reading Pride and Prejudice.  This will be a much, much shorter post, just an odd thought.

In the spirit of the novel, here's a riddle (well, maybe not a riddle):

Mr. Knightly (George) got the wife he wanted, but she was not the best wife for him.

Frank Churchill got the wife he wanted, but she wasn't the wife he deserved.

Emma Woodhouse got the husband she wanted, but he wasn't the husband she deserved.

Jane Fairfax got the husband she wanted, but he was not the best husband for her.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Minute Meditation

 It seems as though humans, world-wide, have always regarded mountains as special places.  So many cultures placed the residences of their gods and goddesses on mountain tops.  And, how many prophets, sages, and poets have retreated to the mountains, either for a short time or for a lifetime?

Here's a brief reaction to a day in the Sierras from a writer whom I have just belatedly discovered.  

Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where.  Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars.  This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.

-- John Muir --
from  My First Summer in the Sierra

I like that last line:  This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality. There is no past, no future, just the ever-present now, just being there.  

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Alfred Bester's Masterpiece: The Stars My Destination, Pt. 2

Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination

Some random disconnected passing thoughts:

I have read that the original title was Tiger! Tiger! but was changed for some reason.  The title possibly may have come from the first line of Blake's poem, "The Tiger."

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I know many who prefer the original title, but I, of course, have the opposite view.  The only title I knew for decades was The Stars My Destination, so it's become part of it for me.   On the other hand,  Tiger! Tiger! does fit Gully Foyle, for it is much more closely related to Gully and to the story line,  because, if Gully is  nothing else, he is a predator.  And, then there's that tattoo. 

I read and enjoyed the Prologue to TSMD for several reasons. One is that it provided information helpful to the story, and the second reason is its opening paragraph, which struck me as being somewhat familiar.  I have reformatted it.  Does anyone else think this is remotely familiar to something else?

"This was a golden age,
                       a time of high adventure,
                       rich living, and hard dying.  .  .
but nobody thought so. 

This was a future
                      of fortune and theft,
                      pillage and rapine,
                      culture and vice.  .  .
but nobody admitted it.

This was an age
                      of extremes,
                      a fascinating century of freaks.  .  .
but nobody loved it."

This, however, is how it appeared in the book:

"This was a golden age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying.  .  . but nobody thought so.  This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice.  .  . but nobody admitted it.  This was an age of extremes, . . . a fascinating century of freaks.  .  . but nobody loved it."

And there's even an interesting short story buried there--the discovery of jaunting.  

Pyre, a horrific weapon,  becomes an important issue in the story, as there is a solar system-wide war going on at this time.  Foyle knows the location of Pyre and therefore becomes a person of great interest to the Earth government.  A pyre is also a funeral ritual, a traditional way of honoring a leader or important person in some societies.  Is this weapon signifying the death of the present human civilization?

Another mythic element that seems relevant is the myth of the Phoenix, a long-lived bird that is the only one of its kind.  Every thousand or more years the Phoenix in its nest bursts into flames and arises reborn out of the ashes.  Foyle is trapped at the end when the Pyre is set off and as he attempts to escape, makes a discovery that transforms him into being able to jaunte at a new level.  And humanity will be transformed from a species limited to the solar system to ultimately a galactic civilization. Both Gully and humanity, in one sense, are reborn.  

It's a great story, one that rewards rereading, which I do every couple of years regularly.  It's permanently in my TBR bookcase.  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Alfred Bester's Masterpiece: The Stars My Destination, Pt. 1

Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination

 It's been often said that character development is rather weak in SF, as science and technology and problem-solving tend to be the central focus.  One very early exception to this is Gully Foyle, the  main character in The Stars My Destination (TSMD).  When I first read TSMD, I was amazed to find someone who emerged  from the crowd.  He is now my No. 1 Most Unforgettable SF Character.  As an early discarded title suggests, he can best be described as a predator.  There are also several other characters who could carry a novel of their own.  Some of which are mentioned later.  

 It's a classic whose literary roots now go back almost two centuries:  the revenge tale of Edmund Dantes, The Count of Monte Cristo.   Both Dantes and Foyle were trapped, and both manage to escape with considerable wealth which they use to remake themselves--from a fishing boat captain to a Count and from a lowly merchant seaman to one of the elite,  Foyle of Foyle.  And, both have the same goal, revenge on those who trapped them and, ironically, enriched them.

But, before Gully became a revenge-driven predator, he was a cypher, mostly just existing.  The following is a picture of his character as reflected "in the official Merchant Marine records.


"FOYLE, GULLIVER------AS-128/127:006

EDUCATION:                      NONE
SKILLS                                 NONE
MERITS                                NONE


A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition.  Energies at minimum.  The stereotype Common Man.  Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key.  Not recommended for promotion.  Has reached a dead end."


In the beginning Foyle was a non-entity, barely conscious of himself as a human being.  The psychological profile said it would take a shock to awaken Foyle to be able to function at somewhere near his potential.  The shock appeared--being abandoned to die by the sister-ship Vorga.  Whatever else was missing in Foyle's personality, self preservation was obviously functioning.   Once he manages to escape,  he changes from a non-entity to a brutal but intelligent individual driven solely by revenge.  

Significant characters in the novel;

Peter Yang-Yeovil (Yin-Yang?): the  Spy master who is a direct ancestor of Mencius (a real historical person who was the most famous follower of Confucius--confusion about dates, but could be as early as 385 BC and lived as late as 289 BC).

Saul Dagenham: the radioactive security chief

Robin: the jaunte and social graces teacher, who refuses to become his Romance Instructor

Jiz: frustrated by the restrictions placed on women and turns to crime to gain her freedom, a precursor of numerous female thieves, assassins,  and bodyguards found in later cyberpunk novels.

Olivia: the Ice Princess, bored by her luxurious but restricted life who engages in various illegal business ventures. 

I found it frustrating to encounter these people so seldom.

I think the creation of Gully Foyle is TSMD's greatest strength. Encountering him back in the 50s was a shock in comparison to the relatively bland and cardboard characters usually found in most SF stories, and in spite of the past 60 years of development of characterization in SF, I consider Gully to still be one of the strongest characters in SF. 

Probably the weakest aspect of the novel would be the culture created by jaunting--I think it's a bit thin--it reminds me of many rock-and-roll performances--lots of bright lights, smoke, noise, but a bit thin on substance or quality.
While his world isn't as fully developed as Dune, for example, it still comes alive as an hectic, neon-lit, flashing world.   My copy is around 250 pages and it would take a lot larger work to really develop the culture to some depth.  However, it is fun to read and Bester's satiric eye has nailed the future aristocracy quite well. 

Bester has included a number of mythic elements in this work.  Gully can be seen as a dying and resurrecting god in one sense, for he does come back after being marooned in space and left to die by another ship, even though it belonged to the same company.  He then engages on a quest, not for a Holy Grail but for a far more human reason--revenge.

To be continued