Sunday, June 27, 2010

Shirley Jackson: "The Lottery"

Warning: I will reveal significant plot elements and the ending.

One of my favorite short stories is "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). It is a deceptively simple and straightforward tale. This small village holds an annual lottery, and the reader wonders just what the point is as the procedure is spelled out in some detail. However, when the winner is announced, the reader begins to understand that something just isn't right here; all is not what it seems. The winner, Tessie Hutchinson, objects loudly that the procedure wasn't fair, that her husband Bill was rushed and didn't have the chance to pick the slip he wanted. It should be done over again. Her complaints are ignored, and, instead of getting money or a valuable prize, she is stoned to death by the townspeople, and her own children take part. Now, all is clear. This is a horror story. The shock ending provides the point.

The town is obviously filled with monsters in the guise of typical rural Americans in a small village who engage in this horrific ritual every year. The title is clearly ironic for the winner of the lottery does not get a prize but a death sentence, just the reverse of what one would expect from winning a lottery.

Or, so it seems at first glance.

If one looks a bit closer, though, one realizes that the title is most apt. She did win a prize: an opportunity to die for her people, an opportunity for a meaningful death, something not granted to everyone. Among the ancient Romans, we read in one of Horace's Odes that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. In English that translates roughly as "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." In the Bible, we read "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man shall lay down his life for his friends" (John 15: 13). Tessie actually died so that her friends may live. Is this not the same justification we use for sending young people off to war? We even have a memorial to The Unknown Soldier.

I was going to post this commentary about a week or so ago, but after glancing at the calendar, I decided to wait for today, June 27th. Why? Well, the story opens as follows:

"The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day: the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green."

The lottery takes place on June 27th. Why did Jackson decide to begin the story on June 27th. I don't think it was a random choice, for June 27th in the ancient Roman calendar is Initium Aestatis. It is the Roman festival of the beginning of summer. We ourselves noted the first day of summer several days ago at the Summer Solstice--the longest day of the year. The Vernal Equinox (the first day of Spring) and the Summer Solstice are or were important days for ancient agricultural civilizations. On those days, many held rituals or religious ceremonies designed to please the gods of agriculture or nature in order to ensure a good harvest.

The size of the harvest was extremely important for these peoples. A good harvest provided sufficient food to survive the long dead seasons of late Autumn and Winter that follow. A poor harvest--many of the old and the weak and the sickly probably would not survive. The first colonists in New England suffered many deaths that first winter because of inadequate food.

Many of those rituals included sacrifices to the gods; frequently they were human sacrifices, for in what other way could a group show its devotion to its gods than by sacrificing one of its own. Those who were sacrificed were giving up their lives for their people.

Jackson provides other clues to the tie between Tessie's fate and rituals designed to ensure a good harvest.

One of the characters remarks that "over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

"Old Man Warner snorted. 'Pack of crazy fools,' he said. 'Listening to the young folk, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while.   Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery . . ."

And later, Mrs Adams remarks: "Some places have already quit lotteries."

Old Man Warner provides valuable information here. First, this village isn't an aberration for there's at least one other village that holds a lottery. Mrs. Adams tells us that some have quit already, and in the first paragraph of the story, the narrator tells us that there were some towns that had so many people that the lottery lasted for two days.

Secondly he also provides a link to the harvest with his recollection of the old saying about the June lottery and the ripening corn in his reaction to the comment about giving up the lottery. He also grumps on and suggests that without the lottery they'd all "be eating stewed chickweed and acorns," thus again suggesting a link between the lottery and the harvest. Without the lottery, they would be reduced to living off chickweed and acorns. Since chickweed and acorns aren't harvested crops but are gathered wherever found, this would hint at a way of life prior to the agricultural stage--hunting and gathering for example. His reference to living in caves also indicates a pre-agricultural society.

Some of the names that Jackson gives her characters are suggestive. For example, the M. C., or perhaps he would have been the high priest in earlier days, is named Summers, a very apt name for one conducting a festival held on the first day of summer. Summer's assistant is Mr. Graves, another appropriate name if one considers the outcome of the lottery. The only name given extra notice, and it happens in the second paragraph is "Delacroix." I think that's French for "of the cross," another significant reference when one thinks about sacrifices for the good of the people.

In the drawing, the first man is Adams (Adam?) and it ends with Zanini--from A to Z. In the Bible, the prophets had a very specific role and that was to warn the Israelites of the dangers of straying from the rules laid out for them by the Lord. In "The Lottery," we have Old Man Warner forewarning the people of the dangers of dropping the lottery.

For me, the true horror of the story is that the people go through this ritual every year and no longer know why. Tessie's death has no meaning, no significance for them any more. It has been lost along with most of the ritual, for the narrator tells us that "at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the had had been allowed lapse. There had been, also, a ritual salute . . ."

I think that Jackson has told a story about the slow death of an ancient ritual that had meaning when it first began--the survival of the people.  Over the generations, most of it has been lost, all except the sacrifice of one for the many. The story, after several readings, now seems to me to be a much richer and even darker story than it first appeared to be.

I have one more thought about the story, but I'm still kicking it around and haven't come to any definite conclusion yet. Jackson published her story in 1948, just a few years after the Nuremberg Trials held in 1945-6. In the trials, the German defendants who had taken part in the horrors of those concentration camps insisted they were not responsible, that they were just following orders. Is Jackson's story a commentary on what happened in the concentration camps in Germany?

Any thoughts here?

Overall Rating: a story that has stayed with me for years and gets deeper each time I read it.

Paul Laurence Dunbar: June 27, 1872--Feb 9, 1906

This is the poem that gave Maya Angelou the title for her poem and the first part of her autobiography--I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar.


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

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

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

- Paul Laurence Dunbar -

The last stanza reminds me of something I read in Frederick Douglass' autobiography, but I'm unable to find it at present for the exact quote. Douglass writes that those who defend slavery often state that slaves really are happier being slaves and that one proof of this is that they are always singing. To the contrary, Douglass writes that the songs they sang were really prayers for freedom and release and were "not a carol of joy or glee."

In this poem, I think Dunbar speaks for all who feel trapped or enslaved.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Combination Plate 15

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the endings.

Anthony Boucher: The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, a mystery novel

Avatar: an SF Film

Brian M. Stableford: The Paradise Game, an SF novel

Martha Grimes: The Black Cat, a mystery novel


Anthony Boucher
The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars, a mystery novel
Type: accidental detectives (I guess)
Setting: Hollywood in the late 1930s

I first encountered Anthony Boucher as an SF writer. He had written a novel, I think, and numerous short stories, and hundreds? of columns as a critic and commentator, as well as being one of the founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well editor of several anthologies of SF.

So, when I ran across this novel, I had to get it. First, I was curious about Boucher as a mystery writer, and second, I'm a fan of Sherlock Holmes from way back. I recognized the name, The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), in the title as having appeared in several of the Holmes stories. The BSI are a group of street urchins who occasionally worked for Holmes. Since they were children and ignored by adults, they could go anywhere and not be noticed. Holmes used them for information-gathering and for keeping track of some individuals when Holmes wanted to keep of.
The Baker Street Irregulars is also a real group, comprised of admirers of Holmes, one of whose members was Anthony Boucher.

Consequently, I did a little digging myself. and I was surprised, therefore, when I discovered that he was even more well known in the mystery genre as a writer, editor, and critic.
The annual Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention is named in his honor as are the wards given out at that convention for the best mystery writing during the previous year--the Anthony Awards.

In the novel, Holmes does not appear, except indirectly as the star of a new film. Metropolis Pictures has decided to make a film of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." In a letter to the film company, the BSI can only applaud this decision to bring their hero to the screen once again, but, on the other hand, they are incensed that the "responsible task of transferring this adventure to the screen has been entrusted to the typewriter of Stephen Worth." Worth writes mysteries, but of the "hard-boiled" kind and also "has many times expressed in public print his contempt for the exploits of Holmes and his desire 'to show up that cocky bastard for what he is.'"

The studio invites the BSI to come to Hollywood and act as expert consultants for the film Five do take advantage of the offer (none of whom, of course, are real members of the BSI). They have barely arrived and settled in when Stephen Worth is murdered. They, naturally, are among the chief suspects and decide that their only course is to solve the case themselves. This is when the fun begins.

As each of the five go out on their investigation, they encounters strange people and events, each with an unique adventure of their own. However, the adventures are not that unique, for Boucher has taken five of the Holmes cases and skillfully adapted them to the mean streets of Hollywood and surrounding environment during the 40s. False clues and leads only add to the fun and confusion, before the mystery is solved to everybody's satisfaction.

While this novel is straight fiction, Boucher hasn't forgotten the other half of his life--the SF half. While there are no SF elements in the story, the SF reader familiar with Boucher's stories will recognize some of the characters.

One is Maureen O'Breen, the company's chief publicist. Her younger brother is Fergus O'Breen, a private investigator who appears in a number of Boucher's SF stories. He specilizes in cases that have an SF flavor--time travel, ESP, werewolves, magic. Sometimes his clients come to him, and in other cases, Lt. Jackson, a member of the LAPD, brings him in as a consultant whenever there appears to be something unusual or bizarre about the case. In fact, she says she would recommend bringing him in but says that he's out of town on a case right now.

The other is Lt. Jackson himself, who gets involved with Worth, and finds himself lumped with the other suspects, or so the suspects think. In his postion, Jackson obviously can't take part in the official police investigation, so he joins up with the BSI and Maureen O'Breen in their unofficial investigation.

Did I solve the mystery early on? No. I spotted some clues, but I got so involved in picking out the references to Sherlock Holmes, that I just went along for the ride.

Overall Rating: good solid mystery, enlivened with all sorts of stuff from the Holmes stories, including various incidents, cases, and codes. It's an enjoyable, lighthearted read.


Avatar (2009)

I guess that the latest SF film to be highly publicized and talked about is the recent Avatar. What few negative comments I've seen or read were mostly in the political vein. But since I'm not one to bow down or even bow my head in the presence of companies or corporations, the "message" of the film didn't bother me. Frankly, the message wasn't a shocker for I was already aware that companies or corporations, as well as individuals, groups, and governments, do stray from the paths of righteousness now and then and therefore can legitimately be cast as villains.

I didn't see it at the theatre but on a DVD at home. Even on the small screen, though, it is a very good film, as far as the special effects are concerned. I haven't seen any of its competitors, but I thought that it probably earned the three Oscars that it picked up--for art direction, cinematography, and visual effects. At least, I haven't heard anybody suggest another film that was more deserving. However, I didn't find anything that could be considered innovative as far as ideas or concepts in the film, though, and I guess the judges felt the same way.

Jake Sully is a paraplegic (a marine injured in battle) who is sent to an alien planet to become part of a contact team working for a large corporation. Since the planet is inhospitable to humans, avatars (androids) have been developed. In this case the avatars are copies of the indigenous people,
of the planet, the Na'vi. The minds of humans can be placed in the avatars and can control them. In this way, Sully's injuries are bypassed. He and the others in the contact team are supposed to study the Na'vi and convince them to allow the corporation to exploit the planet's resources.

Jake and the others realize that the corporation has no intention of recognizing the rights of the Na'vi. If the Na'vi don't get out of the corporation's way, then they will be exterminated. The contact team then sides with the Na'vi, and open warfare is the result. The corporation has a trained and heavily armed military force, complete with tanks, while the Na'vi are armed with spears and bows and arrows. The Na'vi are on the verge of defeat when the planet itself decides to play a role, and the corporation's military forces are ultimately defeated.

The acting was acceptable, except for Sigourney Weaver who was excellent as Dr. Grace Augustine.

Overall Rating: an enjoyable film.


Brian M. Stableford: The Paradise Game, (1974)

A week or so ago, I was rummaging through my TBR bookcase when I came across this novel. I hadn't read anything by Stableford in at least a decade or two, so I decided to rectify that omission. It somehow seemed a bit familiar as I got deeper into the novel.

Grainger is the pilot of a starship, The Hooded Swan. It has set down on an alien planet, Pharos. Grainger's boss, Titus Charlot, has come here to act as an observer and, if necessary, a mediator between two contending groups. One is the Caradoc Corporation, which intends to exploit the planet and turn it into a paradise for humans. A second group is here to make sure that the rights of the indigenous inhabitants are protected. At the end of his stay, Charlot will make a report which will include his recommendations for the future of the planet and its inhabitants.

Grainger and Charlot soon realize that the Caradoc Corporation isn't in the least concerned about the indigenous population and hadn't even bothered to report their existence. The natives were just going to have to get out of Caradoc's way or Caradoc was going to solve the problem in its own way. It had a large battleship in orbit around the planet with a few thousand troops in full battle gear and heavily armed.

Caradoc's military forces are brought down, but before they have a chance to go into action, two people die and numerous others, including many of the troops, become ill, some with minor ailments while others are bedridden. In a sense, the planet is defending itself.

The scientific staff discover some very strange things about this planet. First of all, none of the native plants and animals seem to die. Secondly, there are no young; everything is a mature specimen, from the plants to the sentient natives of Pharos. Plants get their nourishment from the sun and soil, while the animals feed off the sap of the trees. Nothing eats anything or anybody else. However, while digging to build foundations for Caradoc's planned city, several fossils were found, with teeth and claws. This planet wasn't always this way. Something intervened in the normal evolutionary process to create the present situation.

The two humans who died were involved the death of another. Those who couldn't control their anger or hostility got sick. Those who were able to remain calm and stable didn't get sick. The fittest, on this planet anyway, meant those who were without anger or hostility or were at least able to control it successfully.

The medical researchers find a way to cure the humans (all were infected). Since their illness was contagious, it is clear that humans could not come here without putting the galactic human civilization at risk. What would civilization be like if people couldn't kill one another without dying themselves shortly afterwards or even get angry or hostile? The planet was proscribed. The corporation was defeated by the planet itself. However, there were plenty of planets in the universe and the Caradoc Corporation moved on.

It seemed clear, from comments made throughout the novel, that Grainger, Charlot, and the Caradoc Corporation had previous conflicts. I had no problem following the events of this novel though. It wasn't until I glanced at the back cover that I discovered the following inscription:
"Star-Pilot Grainger: 4"--which suggests that this is the fourth book in the series.

Overall Rating: a decent read. I'm not going to rush out and look for others in the series, but if I do come across one or more in a used bookstore, I might grab it, if it isn't too expensive.


Martha Grimes
The Black Cat
Mystery novel--police procedural
Setting: London--contemporary

I've read most, if not all, of Martha Grimes' "Richard Jury of Scotland Yard" novels, so I have a fair idea of what to expect from the series, which now extends to 20+ works. They feature a tightly plotted mystery, some red herrings, a fair number of eccentric ensemble characters, mundane or realistic events, and a variety of villains. However, the times they are " achanging," to quote somebody or other.

In Old Wine Shades, one of her most recent novels, Grimes introduces something new, or new at least for her series-a telepathic cat and dog, who, ironically, belong to the villain, Harry Johnson. While they are unable to communicate with Jury, they do manage to help thwart Harry's plans. Unfortunately for Jury, Harry is one devious character, so he manages to escape the law at the end.

Dust, the novel that followed Old Wine Shades introduced two new elements to the adventures of Richard Jury. One was the recurring villain: Harry Johnson from the previously mentioned novel. Jury has decided that he will bring Harry to justice, so he continues to go to Harry's favorite wine pub and stay in touch, hoping Harry will make a mistake. Harry, of course, knows exactly what Jury is up to and is confident that he can avoid any trap Jury may set up.

The other new element in Dust is lust, at least it's new for Jury. A friend of Jury has calls him to say that he's found a body. It isn't in Jury's jurisdiction, but a friend is a friend. The police are called and take control. However, once Jury and the female police officer in charge of the investigation meet, control goes out the window. Whenever they are alone, with a few minutes free, off come the clothes, and what results can at best be called very enthusiastic and highly energetic sex. Grimes spares us the clinical details but does tell us that the two "meetings" that took place in Jury's apartment were hard on the furniture--several of which were turned into kindling. Jury's neighbors are also curious about the source of the loud noises emanating from Jury's apartment.

The Black Cat, the novel that immediately follows Dust, and also is the most recent of her Jury works, continues the trends noted above. Harry is still around, and Jury is still trying to trap him This time, Harry, again not directly involved in the investigation, decides to meddle a bit in order to embarrass Jury once again. The animal population has now increased to three cats and two dogs, of which two cats and one dog are telepathic. The dog and one of the cats were first introduced in Old Wine Shades, so they appear to be recurring characters. I wonder what will happen if Jury eventually does trap Harry. Will they move in with Jury? For now, though, they seem to be replacing the eccentric characters that Jury spent time with in the earlier novels.

Overall Comments: Grimes seems to be moving her Jury series out of the strict police procedural category and into the cozy cat crime-solving category, or at least a blend of the two. I wonder how far she's going to go with this.

Recommendation: if you are looking for a police procedural story with some whimsy involved, try her earlier novels. If you are looking for a series that seems to be in the midst of a change, read one of the novels I've mentioned above.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Something to think about

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant
(Egyptian), c. 1800 B. C.: "Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do." (May be the earliest version ever written.)

Mahabharata, c. 800 B. C.: "Deal with others as thou wouldst thyself be dealt with. Do nothing to thy neighbor which thou wouldst not have him to thee hereafter."

Dadistan-I dinik, Zend-Avesta. c. 700 B. C.: "That nature only is good when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self."

Undana Varga. c. 500 B. C.: "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself."

Confucius, 5th century B. C.: "Tuan-mu Tzv said, 'What I do not wish others to do unto me I also wish not to do unto others.' Do not do unto others what you would not they should do unto you."

Mo Tzu, 470-391 B. C.: "If people regarded other people's families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself."

Plato, c. 4th century B. C.: "May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me."

, c. 200 B. C.: "Ponder well the maxim: Never do to other persons what would pain thyself."

Hillel Ha-Babli, c. 30 B. C.: "Whatsoever thou wouldst that men should not do to thee, do not do
that to them. This is the whole law. The rest is only explanation."

Epictetus, c. A. D. 100: "What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others."

St. Luke, c. A. D. 75: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."

St. Matthew, A. D. 75: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."

Mohammed, 7th century A. D.: "Say not, if people are good to us, we will do good to them, and if people oppress us we will oppress them: but resolve that if people do good to you, you will do good to them, and if they oppress you, oppress them not again."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

John Cowper Powys: Three Fantasies

John Cowper Powys
Three Fantasies

I came across John Cowper Powys' Three Fantasies in a used bookstore. I had heard about him in grad school but had never read anything by him. The name was familiar, that's all. So, I pulled the book from the shelf and on the title page I saw "Stories by the Grandfather of magical realism."

Magical Realism? Grandfather?

There was an "Afterword" by Glen Cavaliero. It began--

"The preceding stories were written towards the end of John Cowper Powys' long life (1872-1963). They are the last in a series of nine short fantasies that could well be described as the juvenilia of his old age. Nothing even in his own fiction quite prepares us for their bizarre character. But it does Powys an injustice to dismiss the stories as the playthings of a literary senescence: he welcomed second childhood, delighting in his rapport with the very young, and in these final tales he wrote simply to please himself, liberated from the world of 'adult' journalism, reviewers and literary critics . . ."

That's tempting, especially when I noticed that the price was only $2.00. How could I turn down a book by the grandfather of magical realism? And, Cavaliero called the stories "bizarre." I have to agree. The first story was enough to convince me that I should go looking for the other six of his "nine short fantasies." To be precise, the first page is what really convinced me.

"Topsy-Turvy" is the first story in the book. It begins--

The Gray Armchair gazed across the little room at the Brown Armchair. They were in opposite corners; the grey one in the south corner and the brown one in the north corner of the room.

'Whirlwind and Whirlpool have left us quiet today,' said Mr Gray Armchair.

'I don't think it'll last long,' replied Mrs Brown Armchair. ' I seem to feel a certain motion of air coming in through the sides of the wind.'

'I hope,' said Mr Grey Armchair, 'that they won't carry Topsy away again. I don't at all like seeing her whirled down our little square and carried over the wall into the green field. And it must be awful for Turvy. I saw him make a queer jerk when it happened last time just as he was going to shut the door.'

Yes, the two armchairs are talking. And Topsy just happens to be a "picture of a Little Girls' Party" while Turvy is a "door-handle." Other characters who appear in the first part of the story are a hostile Rocking-Chair, the Book-Case, several books, the Carpet, the Bottom-Step, and two dolls who engage in a discussion as to why Big-Doll or Man-Doll refuses to ravish Little-Doll or Girl-Doll. He fears that the children, "their tiny dolls would become a great responsibility . . . [while] Little-Doll gave vent to several deep sighs."

The Rocking Chair plots with the Whirlpool and the Whirlwind to kidnap Topsy when Topsy and Turvy go out walking. They, however, escape to Another Dimension, which is a cloud-land where the clouds are sturdy enough to walk on. It seems to be Powys' conception of the Elysian Fields for there they meet a wide variety of historical figures, all of whom are engaged in discussing various topics. Dido and Aeneas discuss the relationship of humans to inanimate objects. Later they meet Dick Turpin, Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and various others. They return home at the same time that Girl-Doll gets her wish--she is going to have a baby.

"Abertackle" is the second story. It begin relatively realistically but around one-third of the way into the tale, it also gets bizarre.

The Abertackle folk were, it must be confessed, a queer lot. But then it must be remembered that Abertackle was itself a queer place; and queer places tend to breed queer people.
. . .

Visitors to the Go Peninsula [where Abertackle is located], whether tourists or business men, will always tell you that they like the people there very much and find them hospitable and friendly, but what they never tell you for some mysterious reason is why they leave the place so quickly and rarely ever return to it.

The first part of the tale consists of meeting various inhabitants who engage in small town gossip about each other and each other's foibles. Their names could easily belong in a Dicken's novel: Mr and Mrs Po, Mr Thrapplewait, Mr Willmop, Squire Neverbang and his friend Ooly-Fooly, and Titty Tinkle, to name a few. We then learn that the Po's son Gor has run off to London, and it is in London that life gets a bit strange.

Gor in his wanderings about London meets David Cox, the famous painter, who "was being carried through the air by a space-horse." He invites them to join him aboard the space-horse and they "went off round the world." What they don't know is that the horse is possessed by the Devil himself (the horns on the horse's head weren't noticed by either Cox or Gor). Sporadically throughout the novel the Devil would engage in various theological soliloquies, once about the death of God and whether he could resurrect God by himself. Others soon join Cox and Gor, and they eventually decide to explore the universe.

After various adventures, they decide to rule the universe and set up the members of their little party as King of the New State of Mankind ( Gor) while others become various functionaries.

The third tale is "Cataclysm." It opens--

In the little town of Riddle in the county of Squat in the west of Bumbledom there was a young man called Yok. He had just reached his seventeenth birthday . . . and told his sister, sitting across from him "I have now decided that I'll do it . . . I have decided,' he said quietly, 'to destroy the whole human race."

He has found a bag of dust that will instantly kill anyone who breathes it and Yok is now off to London to carry out his plan. While there, he hears about a group of vivisectionists who have discovered life on Venus and who plan to go there to capture subjects for their experiments. He borrows an airplane from his uncle and chases after them. He catches up with them on their journey to Venus and manages to destroy them with his dust. He also has picked up a few companions and they decide to travel about the universe. They have various bizarre adventures, as one might expect.

I've gone on long enough, I think, and I hope that I've given some idea of the strange and bizarre tales in the book. I may go looking for his more mundane fiction as well. From what I've read, Wolf Solent is considered to be his best work.

Overall Rating: As promised, they are bizarre tales, and I think they would make excellent animated films.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Edward FitzGerald: March 31, 1809--June 14, 1883

On this day, I thought it only appropriate to post the last two quatrains from the First Edition of his interpretation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Quatrain LXXIV

Ah, Moon of my Delight, who know'st no wane,
The Moon of Heav'n is rising once again:
How oft hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me--in vain!

Quatrain LXXV

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
When I made one--tun down an empty Glass!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXVII

Quatrain XXVII is the first in what I see as four linked quatrains--Quatrain XXVII through Quatrain XXX. This quatrain provides the setting for the next quatrain which then leads to punning and word swapping in the third and fourth quatrains in this linked series.

First Edition: Quatrain XXVII

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

Second Edition: Quatrain XXX

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXVII

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.

Only the slightest changes take place through the various editions. "Argument," which was capitalized in the first edition, now has a lower case "a" in the second and fifth editions. "Door" also lost its capital letter in the second and fifth editions. And, in the last line, the "as" of the first and second editions becomes "where" in the fifth version.

FitzGerald has changed the upper case first letter of nouns to lower case several times already, so this is nothing new. I can't think of any case so far in which he does the opposite--substitutes an upper case letter for the original lower case. The change from "as in" to "where in" seems, to me anyway, to rest on the expectation that "where in I went" appears more likely to occur than "as in I went." What is your thinking on this?

Khayyam presents himself as a student going from teacher to teacher, from reason (the Doctor) to holiness (the Saint), but all he ever heard were disputes "About it and about." Just what these arguments concerned is never really spelled out--just the vague "it" and eventually not even "it," but mostly motion around this vague "it." Khayyam here seems to be saying that not only were the answers of no help, but even the questions were unprofitable.

What did he learn from all this? That he "came out by the same door" that he had entered suggests it wasn't much: he was back where he started. This point has been made already in earlier quatrains--the inability of "Saints" and "Sages" and "the Wise" to provide answers for his questions. Neither reason nor sanctity seems give him what he is searching for--the answers to "life's persistent questions."

Monday, June 7, 2010

Something to think about

Shelley's irony is fascinating here and to capture it, one must read this poem twice. First, put yourself in Ozymandias' place and read the quotation on the pedestal from his point of view. Then, go back and read it as that traveller had seen it in midst of that desolation that surrounded that ''shattered visage."

Ozymandias of Egypt

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley --

Friday, June 4, 2010

Fata Morgana: a film by Werner Herzog

Fata Morgana is my nominee for the strangest film I've viewed this year. It came out in 1971, but I just recently noticed it and decided to give it a viewing. Werner Herzog is the director, and this is one of his earliest films: the third to be exact. In the commentary included on the DVD, Herzog said that this film contains many of the themes that he explored in greater detail in his later films. I watched the film twice; the second time with the commentary by Herzog. If you do watch the film, I highly recommend watching the commentary version at some point. It helps.

The title, Fata Morgana, is an Italian term that refers to an unusual and very complex type of mirage. It refers to Morgan le Fay, from the Arthurian cycle, and suggests the belief that the mirage is produced by witchcraft. Several mirages are presented throughout the film, some of which I didn't realize were mirages until it was pointed out during the viewing with the commentary turned on.

The film has no plot, at least not in the accepted sense of the term. In addition, Herzog states that this is not a documentary. I agree with him--at least, again, not a documentary in the usual sense. Herzog also insists that "there is a coherence there which is inexplicable but somehow there." Ultimately, I consider it unclassifiable. For the most part it is a series of short scenes and images shot in the northern Sahara Desert. The dialogue is almost non-existent, consisting of short voice-overs: readings from the Popol Vuh, which is the Mayan creation myth, and music ranging from classical ecclesiastical works to songs by Leonard Cohen.

Herzog says that initially it was to be an SF film. Aliens land on a planet and film what they see. This was to be a photojournal of their visit. However, he quickly dropped the idea and decided that he would just present the film images without the story.

The film has three parts: "Creation," "Paradise," and "The Golden Age." One commentary I read stated that on the surface, the titles appear ironic in contrast to the film images, but are not ironic at a deeper level. Unfortunately I am unable so far to get to that deeper level.

The film opens with an airport scene: we see a number of planes landing, each one getting more and more blurred and distorted as the day warms up.

Part I: Creation

As we hear a woman's voice reading the Mayan creation myth in German (English subtitles) we see images of the desert with buildings off in the distance, sand dunes, an oasis with palm trees, and huge storage tanks. Other scenes include a wrecked plane, an oil field perhaps burning off natural gas, and a flat landscape with sand and brush. One might almost call it a collage of images.

People occasionally appear in brief glimpses, but with no discernible purpose. Herzog commented that he couldn't communicate with them, so they were free to do what they wanted. Some just glanced at the camera and walked on. Others stood there and stared back. One man gestured with his hands, first pointing in one direction, then another, and then shrugged his shoulder and walked off.

I was startled when lush vegetation and once a beautiful waterfall appeared. These were not from the Sahara but scenes shot later in the Canary Islands. Again, the commentary was helpful here. However, there seemed to be no attempt to draw any conclusion from the juxtaposition of the barren scenery and the waterfall. It was up to the viewers, I guess, to make of it what they would or could.

Part II: Paradise

Again, a series of images that contrast with the usual concept of a Paradise. There are people again engaged in inexplicable, to me anyway, activity. A man and a woman approach the camera, both taking very short steps. He wears a coat that has many medals and begins speaking. There is no translation, and Herzog commented that they had no idea of what he was saying. During this segment Leonard Cohen sings two songs, one of which is "Suzanne." One scene is of a German researcher who is holding a monitor lizard that obviously fascinates him. He wears what appears to be swim or diving goggles. At one point a man appears holding a very worn and creased letter that is falling apart. He says, in German, that he is going back to rejoin his people in Germany. He got the letter over 25 years ago. Other images are of a Moslem cemetery, a military camp, and the site of a French test of a nuclear weapon.

Part III: The Golden Age

The most striking image in this section consists of a man and a woman on a small stage: she plays the piano and he sings and plays the drums and cymbals. He is singing in Spanish, but the sound quality is so bad I couldn't tell what language it is. The music and the movement of the two are so repetitive that I wonder if it is just one short clip of ten or fifteen seconds that has been repeatedly copied and spliced together. But, in spite of the repetition and monotonous tone, it is strangely compelling. Even now, almost a week after I watched the film, I can still recall that scene.

At one point, a voice intones that there "the landscape was as God commanded it to be." The scene was of a military camp. Another scene is of a huge unfinished factory building, only the structural girders have been installed. It is surrounded by desert; there is nothing, absolutely nothing to be seen for miles. Who built it? Why was it built there, in the middle of nowhere? Who was supposed to work there? Nobody knew anything about it.

Fata Morgana reminds me of a type of psychological test called a projective test: the Rorschach and the Thematic Apperception Test, for example. They consist of ambiguous images which the individual is supposed to interpret and say something about. What the person says about the images is supposed to reveal some aspects of that individual's personality.

Overall Rating: It's one that I put back in the queue for another viewing, perhaps next year. I'll leave it sit and percolate in my subconscious for awhile.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thomas Hardy: June 2, 1840--Jan. 11, 1928

In his prose and poetry, Thomas Hardy often celebrated the heroism of the individual's struggle to survive in an uncaring universe, but he seldom, if ever, glorifies the great human institutions--government, the church, war. In truth, he saw them as another enemy to fight against.

This poem is typical, I think.

(Southhampton Docks, October 1899)

While the far farewell music thins and fails,
And the broad bottoms rip the bearing brine--
All smalling slowly to the gray sea-line--
And each significant red smoke-shaft pales,

Keen sense of severance everywhere prevails,
Which shapes the late long tramp of mounting men
To seeming words that ask and ask again:
"How long, O striving Teutons, Slavs, and Gaels

Must your wroth reasonings trade on lives like these,
That are as puppets in a playing hand?--
When shall the saner softer polities
Whereof we dream, have sway in each proud land
and patriotism, grown Godlike, scorn to stand
Bondslave to realms, but circle earth and seas?"

I think that dream hasn't gotten any closer since Hardy wrote this poem. Frankly, I doubt that I will see it in my lifetime.