Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Flowers: One at a time, please

Being in a contrary mood this morning, I thought I would post something contrary.   


One flower at a time, please
however small the face.

Two flowers are one flower
too many, a distraction.

Three flowers in a vase begin
to be a little noisy. 

Like cocktail conversation,
everybody talking.

A crowd of flowers is a crowd
of flatterers (forgive me).

One flower at a time.  I want
to hear what it is saying.

-- Robert Francis --
from Art and Nature
Kate Farrell, Editor

Any comments? 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: Too simple to be profound?

It often happens that while reading a story or a novel or an essay, which is moderately interesting, the author will say something that stops me immediately.  I go back, read it again, meditate a bit, and move on. Yet, even as I move on, that statement or comment will remain in the background.  And it will remain with me for several days or even longer.  Such is the following brief comment or analogy by Robert Louis Stevenson in one of his essays:

Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .

Robert Louis Stevenson
"A Gossip on Romance"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays

There are innumerable essays, theses, books on the nature of fiction and its popularity or the reason for its existence.  I think a collection could easily take up several very large bookcases.  I have read a number of essays and have several books gathering dust in my TBR bookcase which I will get to, probably, one of these days. But, Stevenson's brief comment--Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child .  .  .  so resonates with me that I may never get to those dusty books awaiting me.

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."  We read this in the King James Version of Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, and it seems to fit.  Many adults put away those childish things, one of which is play, and they become very serious and solemn; life becomes a grim struggle.

But, this isn't true of all, for some (and that includes me), have exchanged that childish play for fiction.  A child at play is lost somewhere in there, and that child is thoroughly wrapped up in the game, whatever it may be.  The child is now on a different plane of existence.    How different is this from when I settle down with a book and travel off to far planets or to the future?  or work out how someone managed to murder a thoroughly nasty character and escape from a locked room?  or follow the destinies of a young man or a young woman who struggles to become a mature adult and not just a carbon copy of the neighbors? 

As a child, the call to "come out and play" was an invitation to another world; as adults, some of us have substituted "Once upon a time.  .  ."

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Eric Hoffer: More! More! More! More!

No. 22

"MORE!" is as effective a revolutionary slogan as was ever invented by doctrinaires of discontent.  The American, who cannot learn to want what he has, is a permanent revolutionary.  He glories in change, has faith in that which he has not yet, and is ready to give his life for it. 

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind and other Aphorisms 

Frankly I have some doubt about part of the following assertion:

He glories in change, has faith in that which he has not yet, and is ready to give his life for it. 

I agree that we have faith in that which we don't have and might give up our lives to gain it, depending, of course, upon what it is we think we don't have and must have, but I do think Hoffer goes a bit overboard here.

What I most disagree with is that part about glorying in change.  This may be true for some Americans, but based on how I read the papers and listen to politicians, there appears to be a very large portion of the American populace who do NOT glory in change, but fear it instead.  They glory in stasis and fear any change and are much more likely to give their lives to maintain a static existence or even return to a mythical Golden Age (and what's worse, are ready to give the lives of others also).

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Robert Frost's commemorative poem: Edward Thomas March 3, 1878--April 9, 1917

Sadly, Edward Thomas is another of those artists, from many countries, whose artistic life was cut short during the Great War.  He enlisted in the army in 1915 and was sent to France as an artillery officer at the end of January 1917.   Thomas was at a forward observation post when he was killed.

I posted a sample of his poetry on June 8, 2014 and Dec. 23, 2013 and prose on March 20, 2015.   Robert Frost, a friend and mentor, published the following poem in 1923 in his collection, New Hampshire

To E. T.

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you.

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained--
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet shell's embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge, and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you--the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?
 -- Robert Frost --

"E.T. . . .British essayist Edward Thomas . . ., a close friend of Frost's in England, began writing poetry with Frost's encouragement.   He joined the army in 1915, the year that Frost returned to the United States.   Several of Thomas's poems were published pseudonomously  from 1915 to 1917 and Frost succeeded in having a collection of Thomas's poems published in America."
from "Notes"
Robert Frost:  Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays
Richard Poirier and  Mark Richardson, Editors

Following is one of Thomas's last poems, written on December 24, 1916, while in England at home with his family.

Out in the dark

Out in the dark over the snow
The fallow fawns invisible go
With the fallow doe;
And the winds blow
Fast as the stars are slow.

Stealthily the dark haunts round
And, when a lamp goes, without sound
At a swifter bound
Then the swiftest hound,
Arrives, and all else is drowned,

And star and I and wind and deer
Are in the dark together, -- near,
Yet far, -- and fear
Drums on my ear
In that sage company drear.

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

 -- Edward Thomas --
The "Notes" regarding this poem in Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems suggest that Thomas Hardy's poem, "The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House," may have been influenced by Thomas's poem.  As Hardy is another favorite of mine, I must take a look at his poem.  It's intriguing to find Thomas as sort of a link between Frost and Hardy, both favorite poets of mine.   And, that "If" at the end sounds a note of ambiguity that is reminiscent of  both Hardy and Frost.
You will be seeing more of Edward Thomas's poetry here in the future.  If you haven't read anything by him yet, I would recommend you take a look.   And, thanks again to Stephen Pentz at "First Known When Lost" for introducing Thomas to me. 

It's a remarkable poem, considering it was written some four months before his death, and he knew he would be sent to France within the month.  Is it prophetic?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXIV

Another in a series of posts regarding quatrains that Edward FitzGerald added when he published the Second Edition of The Rubaiyat.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXIV

I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must,
Scared by some After-reckoning ta'en on trust,
     Or lured with Hope of some Diviner Drink,
When the frail Cup is crumbled into Dust! 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXII
I must abjure the Balm of Life, I must,
Scared by some After-reckoning ta'en on trust,
     Or lured with Hope of some Diviner Drink,
To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust! 

The first three lines of the two are identical, and the only modification appears in the last line where we read

Second Edition:  "When the frail Cup is crumbled into Dust!"
Fifth Edition:      "To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust!"

The "Cup" and its fate is a reference to other quatrains in which the Potter is seen fashioning cups out of clay, much as the Creator created humans out of dust or clay and at the end will return to their original state.  In yet another quatrain, a cup remarks that if filled with wine, it might return to life again.

Is there a difference, perhaps even a subtle difference, between the two versions?
It seems to me that in the Second Edition, there is the hope that after death, there might be "some Diviner Drink," with no reference to the body.  The last line in the Fifth Edition suggests something quite different, or so it seems to me:

". . .some Diviner Drink,
To fill the Cup--when crumbled into Dust!"

This seems to say that the "Diviner Drink" will fill the "Cup" after death, possibly a reference to the resurrection of the body after death, a belief that Moslems hold, as do Christians, and Jews, as far as I can tell. 

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain in which the Poet defends drinking wine by arguing that it's God's creation, which cannot, therefore, be evil.  In this quatrain, he points out that the ban against alcohol is really based on "trust," or faith that either one might be punished or rewarded in an after-life.  Of course, the Poet has already made the point in previous quatrains that nobody really knows what happens after death, that nobody has ever returned to tell us, and that all such theories are just guesses based on nothing substantial.

The Poet's attitude about the virtues of drinking wine are expressed quite clearly and openly, once again, when he refers to it as "the Balm of Life," something which is comforting.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kenko's advice


"A man who has determined to take the Great Step should leave unresolved all plans for disposing of urgent or worrisome business.

Some men think, 'I'll wait a bit longer, until I take care of his matter,' or 'I might as well dispose of that business first,' or 'People will surely laugh at me if I leave such and such as it stands.  I'll arrange things now so that there won't be any future criticism,' or 'I've managed to survive all these years.  I'll wait till that matter is cleared up.  It won't take long.  I mustn't be hasty.'  But if you think in such terms the day for taking the Great Step will never come, for you will keep discovering more and more unavoidable problems, and there will never be a time when you run out of unfinished business.

My observation of people leads me to conclude, generally speaking, that even people with some degree of intelligence are likely to go through life supposing they have ample time before them.  But would a man fleeing because a fire has broken out in his neighborhood say to the fire, 'Wait a moment, please!'?  To save his life, a man will run away, indifferent to shame, abandoning his possessions.  Is a man's life any more likely to wait for him?  Death attacks faster than fire or water, and is harder to escape.  When its hour comes, can you refuse to give up your aged parents, your little children, your duty to your master, your affections for others, because they are hard to abandon."

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


Kenko's advice is universal; don't stall around but take that Great Step, whatever it might be.  One should always act when the enthusiasm is high. The second paragraph contains Kenko's reasoning:  if the individual delays to resolve some issues or handle some problems, there's a good chance the person will never take the Great Step. If the individual waits to solve some problem, then a new one will arise which must also be solved and so on.  As Kenko writes, " But if you think in such terms the day for taking the Great Step will never come, for you will keep discovering more and more unavoidable problems, and there will never be a time when you run out of unfinished business."  Therefore, don't delay, do it now.

The third paragraph expresses a very common theme--one probably known, again universally, and expressed in most of the world's religions.  We don't know the time of our death--it may be the next minute, the next hour, the next day or week or year or decade.  So, again, don't wait, act now before it's too late.

Do you think it remarkable that advice given in the 14th century Japan by a Buddhist monk is so relevant today?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker

I suspect Olaf Stapledon is one of those SF authors more celebrated than read.  His language is dense, and the vocabulary is considerably above the 10th grade level of most Americans.  His diction can be formal and imposing.  Reading his best known work, Last and First Men, is like reading an abridged historical account of the human race.  That being said, the sheer sweep of Stapledon's imagination is sufficient to overcome those difficulties.

However, I am not going to comment on Last and First Men but on a more accessible work, Star Maker.  In this work, Stapledon does provide us with characters and some dialogue.  It is much closer to a traditional novel than is Last and First Men. It is a quest novel, in which the major character journeys in search of the answer to the ultimate or perennial question--what is this all about?  After having read the work, or actually part way through it, I got the idea that Stapledon was strongly influenced by Dante's Divine Comedy when he wrote Star Maker.

The subject matter is essentially the same, and both narrators are undergoing a crisis which initiates their journeys.

Midway life's journey I was made aware
   That I had strayed into a dark forest,
   And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
   This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
   At thought of it strikes now into my beast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.

-- Dante --
Inferno, Canto 1, ll 1-7
The Portable Dante,  
Laurence Binyon, translator

Star Maker begins--

One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out onto the hill..  .    .

. . . there was bitterness.  And bitterness not only invaded us from the world;  it welled up also within our own magic circle.  For horror at our futility, at our own unreality, and not only at the world's delirium, had driven me out onto the hill. 

-- Olaf Stapledon --
Star Maker.  page 1.

It is at this point that the voyage of discovery begins for both narrators.  Both find mentors or guides.  Dante is guided by Virgil, while the Canine species philosopher acts as companion and guide to the anonymous narrator.   While Dante experiences a wide variety of behaviors from various individuals, both wise and foolish, Stapledon's narrator visits a variety of species which exhibit, like individuals, cultural patterns that are wise or foolish or a mix.  And, at the end of their journeys, Dante and Stapledon's narrator meet the Creator. 

Both works provide the reader with three levels, explicitly in Dante's work, of course, and implied in Stapledon's novel.  The first level would include Dante's Inferno, whose inhabitants' behavior has condemned them to eternal torment, and in the Star Maker, the narrator visits those species that will never achieve contact with the Star Maker and are doomed to a miserable extinction.   The second level includes Purgatorio and those species that have survived their mistakes, and now the individuals in Purgatorio and those species in Star Maker are on their way to achieving contact with the Creator/Star Maker some time in the future. The third and desired level would be Paradiso and those species that have achieved the ultimate goal: direct contact with the Creator/Star Maker.

At the end, after finally meeting the Star Maker, Stapledon cleverly sidesteps the issue as to which of the various creation myths promulgated by religions is "true" by  showing that all are true, for the Englishman (as the anonymous narrator refers to himself) recounts many of the creations of the Star Maker that he experienced in the encounter. Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnosticism show up in various guises throughout.

Stapledon also includes every scientific theory  promulgated (as well as a few he made up, I suspect) about the creation of the universe.   Some, I think, he made up were later seized upon by cosmologists.  To be sure of  this, I'd have to research just when these theories appeared. 

The novel is heavy going, not only because of the content--ideas, theories, philosophy, speculations--but also because of the style, which is mostly narrative and has very little dialogue throughout.

Again, I find the imaginative sweep of the novel to be worth the effort of working one's way through a work that is not an easy few hours' read.

Recommended for those looking for something radically different, unlike anything published today. In fact, I doubt it could be published today, unless it was self-published.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Edward Thomas: Birdsong

I had just learned of Edward Thomas a few years ago, thanks to Stephen Pentz, at his blog, First Known When Lost  (see sidebar for link).  Consequently I knew little of him except for his poetry.  According to the brief biography, he was already known for his many fine essays, critiques, and writings in natural history, when he met Robert Frost in 1914 who encouraged Thomas to write poetry.  Thomas took his advice and had produced many fine poems when, unfortunately, he was killed in action in WWI in 1917.

Therefore, I was surprised to find him in Nature Writing: The English Tradition, another of the unexpected authors in that anthology whom I had known from other genres.  The following comes from the excerpt found in that anthology, and I can see why Frost had encouraged him to write poetry.

"At the lower margin of the wood the overhanging branches form blue caves, and out of these emerge the songs of many hidden birds.  I know that there are bland melodious blackbirds of easy musing voices, robins whose earnest song, though full of passion, is but a fragment that has burst through a more passionate silence, hedge-sparrows of liquid confiding monotone, brisk acid wrens, chaffinches and yellowhammers saying always the same thing ( a dear but courtly praise of the coming season), larks building spires above spires into the sky, thrushes of infinite variety that talk and talk of a thousand things, never thinking, always talking of the moment, exclaiming, scolding, cheering, flattering, coaxing, challenging, with merry-hearted, bold voices that must have been the same in the morning of the world when the forest trees lay, or leaned, or hung, where they fell.  Yet I can distinguish neither blackbird, nor robin, nor hedge-sparrow, nor any one voice.  All are blent into one seething stream of song.  It is one song, not many.  It is the spirit that sings.  Mixed with them is the myriad stir of unborn things, of leaf and blade and flower, many silences of heart and root of tree, voices of hope and growth, of love that will be satisfied though it leap upon the swords of life." 

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
from The South Country
Excerpt comes from Nature Writing, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder 

What do you think?  Is there something "poetic" about the above excerpt?  Was Frost being perceptive?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Nature Writing: The Tradition in English

Robert Finch and John Elder, Editors
Nature Writing:  The Tradition in English
1100+ pages
131 authors and 157 selections

I came across this by chance while browsing the local library catalog.  It's actually the second edition.  The first edition was titled The Norton Book of Nature Writing and was published in 1990.  This is an expanded version which was published in 2002.  It's a large volume, as you can see, and unfortunately there are eight holds on the only copy the local library possesses.  My plan is to read it until I have to return it and then immediately put it on hold again, and hope I will see it again sometime this year. As there is only one copy, there's a good chance it will go "missing."

The range of authors is extensive, beginning with the Englishman Gilbert White (1729--1793) and ending with Janisse Ray  (b. 1962) of the United States.  The selections by Gilbert White were first published in 1789 while the selection by Janisse Ray came out in 1999, which is about right since this volume was published in 2002.

Many of the names are familiar:  Loren Eiseley, Joseph Wood Krutch (two of my favorite all-time writers), John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, N. Scott Momaday,  and Edward Abbey are among those I thought might be included.  However, there were others whose names I recognized, but I didn't expect them to be in here as I was familiar with them from other genres.

I wasn't aware of the prose works of the following poets:  Edward Thomas, Walt Whitman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I was surprised to find a number of contributors whom I know through their fictional works: W. H. Hudson, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Steinbeck, as well as a number of others.  In addition, there are some whose names I have run across but have yet to read anything by them, or if I have, it is lost:  Aldo Leopard, Ernest Thompson Seton, Edwin Way Teale, Peter Matthiessen, and Barry Lopez are among those I'm looking forward to getting at least a brief exposure to their works.

For the most part though, a  majority of the names are unfamiliar, so this will a two-fold exploratory expedition.  First, I will be exploring a variety of subjects covered in the selections, and second, I will be exploring the world of nature writing, or what used to be called natural history, if I'm not mistaken.

Even though my TBR list is impossibly long right now, I expect to add a few more names.  One will be Aldo Leopold whose excerpt from A Sand County Almanac interested me.

Well, I'm now at page 416 and the book is due today,  March 16.  Eight people are waiting for this the only copy.  I will return it and go back on the waiting list and expect to see it again in five or six months, if it doesn't go "missing" before then.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Second Edition, Quatrain LXIII

The following is another of the quatrains Edward FitzGerald introduced into his Second Edition of the Rubaiyat and remained through all subsequent editions.   

Second Edition, Quatrain LXIII

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
      A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse--why, then, Who set it there?

Fifth Edition, Quatrain LXI

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
      A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse--why, then, Who set it there?

I see no differences between the Second and the Fifth Editions.

This is probably one of the quatrains that caused Khayyam to be attacked and reviled as a heretic and destined for eternal damnation by religious authorities.  Wine, of course, was forbidden the faithful as the handiwork of Satan, and, in this quatrain, Khayyam not only defends drinking wine and calls it "A Blessing" but insists God, not Satan, created it.

If Allah created everything, that must include grape vines, so how could that be bad or evil?  Would God create something evil?  I have read attempts to defend Khayyam from the charges of heresy by insisting that he really didn't mean wine at all.  When Khayyam refers to wine, he really means God's grace!  What is never explained is why Khayyam didn't simply refer to God's grace and, instead, substituted something forbidden, something condemned as evil for God's grace.

There are some quatrains where this interpretation could work, but there are too many where it makes no sense at all.  And in this quatrain, it doesn't even come close to being reasonable for I don't see how one could argue that Khayyam really meant God's grace.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: "The Philosophy of Umbrellas"

Robert Louis Stevenson
"The Philosophy of Umbrellas"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays

I stumbled across an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson some time ago which surprised me.  I was most familiar with his fiction and wasn't aware that he had also written a number of essays.  I searched around and found a collection of a number of his essays, The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays.  "The Lantern-Bearers" was the essay that I had encountered, so I decided to invest some money and, now, some time in the book.  My tentative plan is to work my way slowly through the book and occasionally report on an essay that strikes me fancy.  It turns out that this, the very first essay in the collection, is one that does so.  The following is the first paragraph of the essay.

"It is wonderful to think what a turn has been given to our whole Society by the fact that we live under the sign of Aquarius, -- that our climate is essentially wet.  A mere arbitrary distinction, like the walking-swords of yore, might have remained the symbol of foresight and respectability, had not the raw mists and dropping showers of our island pointed the inclination of Society to another exponent of those virtues.  A ribbon of the Legion of Honour or a string of medals may prove a person's courage; a title may prove his birth; a professorial chair his study and acquirement; but it is the habitual carriage of the umbrella that is the stamp of Respectability.  The umbrella has become the acknowledged index of social position."

While reading this I couldn't help but think of the Avenger's John Steed, the epitome of respectability, even though he is a secret agent.   The leather-clad Mrs. Peel presents a somewhat different image.

The remainder of the essay follows along the course set by the  first paragraph--a mock solemnity with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  Stevenson tells us that Robinson Crusoe, instead of rigging up a belfry and "a mimicry of church-bells," shows that "Crusoe was rather a moralist than a pietist, and his leaf-umbrella is as fine an example of the civilised mind striving to express itself under adverse circumstances as we have ever met with."

However, Stevenson also warns us that the umbrella isn't an infallible sign of one's civilized or respectable status for "...alas! even the umbrella is no certain criterion.  The falsity  and the folly of the human race  have degraded that graceful symbol to the ends of dishonesty.  .  .(some umbrellas) from certain prudential motives, are chosen directly opposite to the person's disposition.  A mendacious umbrella is a sign of great moral degradation . . . Might it not be said of the bearers of these inappropriate umbrellas that they go about the streets 'with a lie in their right hand?'

All in all, "The Philosophy of Umbrellas" is a fine, worthy, and instructive effort with which to begin this assemblage of reflections on the human condition.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Theodore Sturgeon: "Helix the Cat"

Theodore Sturgeon (1918--1985)
"Helix the Cat"   a short story
from The Ultimate Egoist:  Volume 1, The Complete Stories

This is one of Theodore Sturgeon's short stories, one that I hadn't read before.  As usual, it's a bit quirky, as most of his tales are. It is an early story, written in 1939 and rejected at that time and finally published in 1979.  Why? I don't know.  I think it's a delightful little tale with an interesting cast.

It's a first person narrative, and it takes place in the home of Pete Tronti, the narrator.  Pete has a small lab at his place, and that's the cause of what happens in the story.  Most of the story happens there.

Another character in the cast is Helix.  Pete tells us, "Ah, he was a cat.  A big black tom, with a white throat and white mittens, and a tail twice as long as that of an ordinary cat.  He carried it in a graceful spiral--three complete turns--and hence his name.  He could sit on one end of that tail and take two turns around his head with the other.  Ah, he was a cat."

The third character is a soul, the soul of a dead man, Wallace Gregory, and he, or actually his soul, turns up because he was trying to escape from Them, the Soul Eaters!  This is why we find Pete in his lab, apparently talking to an empty bottle.

To be brief, Pete has invented a new type of glass and has just completed making a bottle of  it.  It is a flexible glass that bounces when dropped, and it has other properties, as Pete unfortunately discovers.  Wallace, or his soul,  explains that when a person dies, the soul leaves the body, and this is when They, the Soul Eaters, enter the scene.  They eat the souls of dead humans, but not all dead humans.  Something happens to the souls of people who know they are about to die.  Wallace doesn't know what--maybe grow a protective cover or something.  Any way, They don't go after the souls of those who had known they were about to die.

Wallace explains that he didn't know he was about to die, and therefore his soul didn't have enough time to get protected.  They were about to grab him when he spotted Pete's latest invention and somehow realized that the glass bottle would protect him, so he dived into the bottle.  As long as he stays inside the bottle, he will be safe from Them.  Perhaps some time in the future, he will find a human who is willing to die and let Wallace occupy the now empty body.

All goes well until Wallace gets bored.  The thought of spending an eternity in a bottle doesn't excite him any more than it excited the various djinn or genies we hear about in various tales.  He is getting desperate trapped there. But, he has an idea.  He tells Pete that by making some appropriate changes, he could occupy the body of a small animal, such as a dog or a . . . cat.

Pete looks at Helix and is horrified.  " 'You 're being emotional,' said Wally scornfully.  'If you've got any sense of values at all, there'll be no choice.  You can save my immortal soul by sacrificing the life of a cat.  Not many men have  that sort of an opportunity, especially at that price.' "

Pete makes his choice, and sadly, he makes the wrong one.  He's somewhat appeased when Wally tells him that Helix's soul is in no danger from Them.  His soul will just leave and go where animal souls go.  And, since Wally's soul is in telepathic communication with Pete's soul, Helix is unaware of Wally's existence and therefore, Wally's plans for him.

Wally modifies Helix (souls can do all sorts of things that they can't do while in a live body), so that eventually Helix is able to talk and read and write, and now it's time for the Great Transformation.

But, things did not progress as planned, by anybody. This should have been expected since deception was a part of the plan and that never bodes well.  In fact, everybody involved was deceiving somebody--the double-cross was SOP in the Great Transformation.  Another complication is that several of the cast knew things that the other members didn't know that they knew, but they didn't know everything.  The outcome, once again, disproved that old adage, because, let's face facts,  "what you don't know CAN hurt you."

But it did show, as usual, that another old adage is true:

 "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
       (and cats and souls and Them)
   Gang aft a-gley."

However, the situation ended, and contrary to Shakespeare, it did not end well.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Rubaiyat, Second Edition: Quatrain LIX

This is another in a series of brief posts about quatrains that Edward FitzGerald added to the second edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and included, perhaps in a modified form, in the fifth edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LIX

Ah, but my Computations, People say,
Have squared the Year to human compass, eh?
     If so, by striking from the Calendar
Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.

 Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LVII
Ah, but my Computations, People say,
Reduced the Year to better reckoning?--Nay
      'Twas only striking from the Calendar
Unborn To-morrow, and  dead Yesterday.

FitzGerald made no changes to the first and fourth lines of this quatrain, but made several to the second and third lines that clarify his intentions.  "If so"  in the second edition suggests that the poet has doubts about what people say, but if they were right, then it was the result of removing
                .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   from the Calendar
                Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.

He changes that If so to 'Twas, which removes the doubt and replaces it with the dismissive 'Twas.  In other words, he did what people say, but it really wasn't that important or significant.

Not knowing Persian, I don't know if the pun? joke? in the second line of the second edition was Khayyam's or was introduced by FitzGerald, whom many critics have accused of taking considerable liberties in his rendering of the Rubaiyat, or simply another example of over-reading on my part.  "Compass" has several meanings:  one refers to a tool that makes circles while another refers to an area of human understanding,  The year is frequently referred to as cyclic, so he could be saying that the people say that he squared the  circle, an exceptional feat indeed. 

In the fifth edition, he changes that to simply stating that they claimed he had     Reduced the Year to better reckoning.  Regardless of his reaction, what had he to do with the calendar?  In  the Introduction to my copy of the Rubaiyat, we are told that Khayyam was a highly respected astronomer, so much so that "(w)hen the Malik Shah determined to reform the calendar, Omar was one of the eight learned men employed to do it. . ."

What I get from quatrain is that he manages to fit those changes in the calendar into one of the prevailing themes of the Rubaiyat: only the present exists, for yesterday is dead and to-morrow is yet unborn.  Longfellow would agree here,  for in his poem  " A Psalm of Life,"  he tells us    

                                 "Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
                                   Let the dead Past bury its  dead!
                                   Act,--act in the living Present!"

To be brief, this quatrain holds forth once again on the theme that living in the present is really all that we can do, for it is all that we actually have.  

Introduction to text
No editor listed
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald
Garden City Books, Garden City, NY              

Friday, February 26, 2016

N. Scott Momaday: "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

In their own way, poems teach the reader.  Frequently they teach the reader something about the reader, sometimes about the subject of the poem, and sometimes about poetry itself.  Some poems are relatively straightforward in that one can get an idea of what the poem is about early on and finds no surprises when one reaches the end.  Others?  Sometimes one has an idea of the poem and suddenly one line changes the way one views the poem and frequently forces one to go back and read it again.  Robert Frost does that, regularly, and so regularly that I now read his poems and wait for the turn near the end. 

This is one of those poems that at the end suddenly produces a surprise. It is by N. Scott Momaday, and  I thought I knew what the poem was about, but that line near the end changed my view of the poem.

The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

I am a feather on the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs in the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star 
I am the cold of the dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter on the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of a young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things

You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems

What do you think?  Is there a line that changed your idea about the poem?  Did you go back and read it again?  Do you think this is a major or a minor change?   Does it add something or take away something or does it really make no difference to you? 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Emily Dickinson: "Frequently the woods are pink--"

This poem, reflecting the change of seasons, is one of the most accessible and understandable of her poems,  at least it is for me.  Of course, it appears to be an early one, possibly composed as early as 1858, according to the editor, Thomas H. Johnson, which may account for its unusual straightforwardness.


Frequently the woods are pink --
Frequently are brown.
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.
Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see --
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be --
And the Earth -- they tell me --
On its Axis turned!
Wonderful rotation!
By but twelve performed!  

-- Emily Dickinson --
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Friday, February 19, 2016

Favorite DVDs viewed during 2015

Following are some of the DVDs that I watched during 2015.  Since I don't watch TV, I have considerable time now to read and to watch films in the evening.  Some of the DVDs I have viewed were originally TV shows that are now available at the local public library or on Netflix.  While I might be a year or more behind the world on the TV shows, I figure I've actually gained time by not having to watch the commercials, whether they are marketing products or politicians.


Foyle's War,  S8.
A great mystery series set in England first during WWII and then during the Cold War.  It's one of few "must watch" shows on TV.  It's BBC, naturally.

Another great TV series from BBC--featuring Agatha Christies's Miss Marple.  I re-watched all of the Jane Marple episodes this year (with Joan Hickson naturally) and consider this one to be the best of a great series.

Murder on the Orient Express:  (two versions)
This, of course, is based on Agatha Christie's novel of the same name.  I watched the 1974 version and the recent (sorta) BBC version with David Suchet as Poirot. The two versions are quite different.  The 1974 version has a cast list that almost empties out Hollywood and is much lighter in tone.   It is the longer of the two versions, so it includes more of the story than the BBC version.  The BBC version is much darker and shorter, so the questioning sessions of the suspects are shortened or eliminated.
Watch both.

This film is based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein, "All You Zombies."  I have no idea of the relevance of the title to the story, so don't ask me.  It is very close to Heinlein's story, but it is set in a frame that has nothing to do with Heinlein's tale.  However, the core of the main character's machinations through the use of time travel remains the same.  All I will say is that the story, and therefore the film, plays games with the paradoxes of time travel to an extent almost unique in SF.  The myth of the Ouroboros has come alive.

The Hound of the Baskervilles:
In a rut here.  It's the BBC dramatization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's best known Sherlock Holmes' novel, with Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke  (naturally).
Again, I spent time re-watching many of the Brett versions during the past year and consider this to be the best of a great series.  I have a few more to go, so there may be another one listed for 2016.

This is another one I've watched before and decided it was time for another viewing.  It's based on Stanislaw Lem's enigmatic novel of the same name.  It's an SF First Contact novel and film, but calling that doesn't do it justice.  It's one of those films that needs and rewards several viewings.  It's the version directed by A. Tarkovsky.  There's another version out, and I will look around for it.

The Dirty Dozen:
A great fantasy war film that stars Lee Marvin, one of my favorites, along with Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown.  George Jaeckel, Richard Kennedy, and a host of other familiar names.  Sheer fun.  This is at least my second and probably my third viewing.  I think the cast enjoyed making the film as much as viewers enjoyed watching it.

In Harm's Way:
Another WWII film set in the Pacific this time, rather than in Europe.  It features John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Carroll O'Connor, George Kennedy (again), and a host of other familiar names.  Great fun.  And, no, it's not a guilty pleasure film, for I see no reason for feeling guilty about watching it.  It's probably my third? fourth? viewing, and it won't be my last.

To Have and Have Not:
WWII again--the first film starring Bogart and Bacall.  That says it all.  Again, I've seen this one several times before and most likely will chalk up one or more viewings.

Another re-watching.  Special effects says it all.  I watched the sequel, but I think they made a mistake when they moved closer to matching the real world and lost that startling digital effect.  


Glass: A Portrait of  Philip Glass in Twelve Parts:
A documentary on the minimalist composer Philip Glass--a very well-done  film on Glass and his compositions through the years.  Major problem is that it's too short,  as the good ones always seem to be.

Into Great  Silence:
Life in a French Carthusian monastery--hypnotic, with images doing the talking.
It took sixteen ears for the German filmmaker Philip Groning to get permission to make the film, with certain conditions:  no narration, no artificial lighting,  and no crew.  If one knows nothing about the Carthusian order, then a little research would be useful prior to viewing the film.  The film is two hours and forty-nine minutes long, but it didn't seem that long to me.

History of World Literature:
A Teaching Company Production: a series of lectures on world literature which includes Asian, European, African, South American literatures.  It inspired me to read The Dream of the Red Chamber (aka The Story of the Stone) last year.  And, this year I will dust off my copy of The Tale of Genji.  Again too short.

Comparative Religion:
Another Teaching Company Production.  The title says it all--a comparison of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism--their differences and similarities.

Dark Energy:Dark Matter--
Yet another Teaching Company Production-cosmologists have come to the conclusion that estimates of the visible matter in the universe indicate there isn't enough to explain the makeup of the universe. So, they postulate a form of energy and a type of matter that are invisible in order to explain the composition of the universe and its increasing rate of expansion.

The Three Tenors: The Original Concert in Rome:
Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras singing individually and together great arias and popular songs.  A feast for the ears.  The human voice at its best.
The first of several concerts.

The Seville Concert: John Williams
Great music for the guitar played by one of the best guitarists in the world.  The visuals aren't bad either.

It must be significant that seven of the ten favorite dramas (not including documentaries) were actually a second or third or even a fourth viewing last year.  What does this say about the more recent productions?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Kim Stanley Robinson: Aurora

Kim Stanley Robinson

This will, no doubt, show up on  my Favorite SF Novels List for 2016, as it's hard to believe more than ten novels will appear in the next ten months that are superior.  Of course, it is Kim Stanley Robinson, who is one of my top SF writers just practicing his art. And, art it is. 

Aurora tells the story of the voyage of a generation ship that is headed toward Tau Ceti, with several thousand humans aboard.  The novel begins when the ship approaches Tau Ceti, some one hundred and sixty years, and seven generations, after it left Earth.  Their mission is to plant a self-sustaining colony on one of the moons, which they have named Aurora,  in the Tau Ceti solar system

While others may disagree with me, the generation ship is actually the main character.  I think this way because the main plot involves the necessity of the survival of the generation ship, with a subplot about the slow growth of consciousness or self-awareness in a machine-based intelligence.  In addition, the ship's AI is the narrator of the novel.

The humans in the ship have two main problems to resolve: one is the survival of the ship, which is slowly breaking down after one hundred and sixty plus years and the other is the need to maintain control over the human population which has known no other life than that confined to the ship.  If the humans can't live together relatively harmoniously, then all are doomed.  This turns out to be one of the many crises faced by the colonists, and it is resolved in a rather surprising (and potentially frightening) manner. 

Kim Stanley Robinson must have done an incredible amount of research into the physical creation of the generation ship, along with the possible threats to the integrity of the ship from various chemical, biological, and mechanical sources.
 He has also created a number of separate habitats, or biomes, each with its own climate, soil, and life forms.  Part of the problem facing the ship's crew is maintaining those biomes, for they contain a myriad of living organisms, which must work together as they do here on Earth.  And, those organisms are not static--they do evolve over time and not necessarily at the same rate, which poses additional problems.

Robinson also speculates on the psychological and emotional effects of life within a closed environment.  Moreover, he asks a moral or ethical question I have never encountered in any generation ship story before, and to be honest, I have never asked this question myself.  The first generation are volunteers, but the second? third? and so on.  They were never asked whether they wanted to live this way.  Is this a form of child abuse?

Rather surprisingly for an SF novel, near the end of the work one of the human colonists gives a speech in which he insists we will never be able to  leave the solar system and successfully plant human colonies elsewhere, even in our own galaxy, much less anywhere else.  He maintains this is impossible and provides a very strong argument in support.  The opposing argument relies mainly on emotional issues.

This may be true today, but in the future?  I was reminded of  Clarke's First Law:  "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."  There are also numerous examples of scientists who first declared that it was impossible for a ship to leave the planet and others who argued we could never even reach the moon,  much less land on it.

What is Robinson doing here?  Is he really arguing against space travel and the possibility of living on other planets?  This seems strange considering that his Mars trilogy, "RGB Mars" goes into such great detail about terraforming Mars.  I wonder if, however, he is really arguing with a theme that seems prevalent in many SF stories today--that we have ruined Earth and our only hope is to go somewhere else.  Perhaps Robinson is really saying that we should be concerned now with protecting the environment so that future generations won't have to leave in order for the human race to survive.

This is a must-read for all who see SF as something more than sheer and mere entertainment.  There are ideas here to think about, which is true of all of Kim Stanley Robinson's works. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Eric Hoffer and dragons and devils

Eric Hoffer has a unique perspective on the interrelationships among devils, dragons, and humans.  At least, it is unique as far as I'm concerned.  I hadn't really read or heard anything like the inter-workings of the three as described by Hoffer.


"Man made God in his own image.  In whose image did he make the devil?  The devil with hoofs, tail, and horns is obviously a beast masquerading as a man.  Does he, then, personify nature?  Is there a confrontation--God and man on one side, the devil and nature on the other?

It is significant that where men live in awe of nature and see it as inexorable and inscrutable fate, nature is personified not in a devil but in a dragon.  The dragon is a composite of the fearsome strengths and uncanny faculties of the animal world.  Any piecing-together  of parts of various animals result in something like a dragon.  Vasari tells how the young Leonardo da Vinci, wanting to point something that would frighten everybody, brought to his room every sort of living creature he could lay his hands on and set out to paint a composite animal.  "He produced an animal so horrible and fearful that it seemed to  poison the air with its fiery breath.  This he represented coming out of some dark broken rocks, with venom issuing from its jaws, fire from its eyes, and smoke from its nostrils.  A monstrous and horrible thing indeed."  In the course of time the dragon came to embody the menace and mystery of the whole nonhuman cosmos.  "The dragon," says Kakuzo Akakuro, "unfolds himself in the storm clouds, he washes his mane in the blackness of the seething whirlpool.  His claws are in the forks of lightning, and his scales begin to glisten in the bark of rainswept pine trees.  His voice is heard in the hurricane."   Since societies awed by nature tend to equate power with nature, they will invest omnipotent individuals--emperors, despots, warriors, sorcerers, etc. -- with the attributes of the dragon.  Thus, unlike the devil, the dragon is a man masquerading as a beast.

The dragon is infinitely more ancient than the devil.  The earliest representation of the dragon is the painting of the sorcerer in the cave of Trois Freres.  This  Late Paleolithic painting presents a sorcerer decked out as a composite animal with horns of a reindeer, the ears, of a wolf, the eyes of an owl, the paws of a bear, and the tail of a horse.

The devil is coetaneous with Jehovah, the God who is not nature but its creator.  It was the feat of the ancient Hebrews that though without an advanced technology they lost their awe of nature, and saw it as man's task to "subdue the earth."  And once man, backed by Jehovah or a potent technology, assumes a cocky attitude toward nature, the devil comes upon the scene and takes the place of the dragon.  The devil personifies not the nature that is around us but the nature  that is within us--the infinitely ferocious and cunning prehuman creature that is still with us, sealed in the subconscious cellars of the psyche.

Outside the Occident, where nature has the upper hand, the dragon is still supreme, but the Occident proper is the domain of the devil.

It is of interest that at his first appearance in the Garden of Eden, before clothes were invented, the devil came undisguised, and contrived the fall of man from a paradisaical existence.  Nowadays the devil is decked out in the latest fashion, and quotes the latest scriptures.

We of the present are vividly aware that the slaying of the dragon is the opening act in a protracted, desperate contest with the devil.  The triumphs of the scientist and the technologist are setting the stage for the psychiatrist and policemen.  We also know that we can cope with the devil only by using the tension between that which is most human and nonhuman in us to stretch souls in a creative effort."
-- Eric Hoffer --
Reflections on the Human Condition

Any thoughts?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Favorite mystery novels read in 2015

The following is a list of my favorite mystery novels that I read in 2015.  All but one of the authors were already on my search list and these most recent reads kept them there.  There are others on my search list, of course, but I either didn't have time to read one by them last year or found that, while they were interesting enough to keep the author on my list for another read, they didn't make the top ten list.  I added several authors to my search list this year, but only one was intriguing enough to make this list.

Barbara Nadel                  Body Count
Police procedural set in contemporary Turkey

Michael Stanley               A Death in the Family
Police procedural set in contemporary Botswana

Steven Saylor                   Wrath of the Furies
PI series set in first century BC Rome

Peter Robinson                 In the Dark Places
                                          Children of the Revolution
Police procedural set in contemporary England

Eliot Pattison                    Soul of the Fire
ex-Chinese police officer solves crimes in contemporary Tibet

Karin Fossum                  The Drowned Boy   
                                  The Murder of Harriet Krohn
Police procedural set in contemporary Norway

Henning Mankell             The Troubled Man
Police procedural set in contemporary Sweden

P. D. James                       Reread all of her novels
Police procedural set in contemporary England

C. J. Sansom                    Lamentation
Talented Amateur
A lawyer solves crimes in England during the reign of Henry VIII

Charles Todd                   A Fine Summer's Day
 Police procedural set in post WWI England

The following is an author that I added to my search list in 2015.

Ben Winters                    The Last Policeman
Police procedural set in contemporary New Hampshire set against the background of an impending catasrophe:  a meteor is going to hit the Earth in about six months. It's the first book in a trilogy.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LV

This quatrain is thematically linked with the previous quatrain and several of the following quatrains with its recommendation that wine is the best solution to the quandaries presented by our existence here.


Oh, plagued no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow's tangle to itself resign,
    And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine. 


Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow's tangle to the winds resign,
    And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.

One of the changes made between the Second and the Fifth Editions occurs early in the first line where "Oh, plagued" becomes "Perplext," where, instead of being bothered by the "Human of Divine," one is now confused by it.  The second change takes place in the second line where the "To-morrow's tangle" is left to itself in the Second Edition and in the Fifth it is left to the winds.  Since the winds will simply blow it away, that suggests the problem is insolvable whereas if it's left to itself, that hints that it may resolve itself.

In both quatrains the poet advises to leave the tangle be, although with differing consequences, and instead to become enamored of wine, the ultimate solution to all tangles, be they human or divine.