Monday, July 26, 2010

Something to think about

From China, France, and Israel

When things fully flourish they begin to decline.
At midday the sun begins to set.
When the moon is done waxing it starts to wane.
When happiness ends, sadness begins.

-- Lao Tzu --


The world is but a perpetual see-saw. Everything goes incessantly up and down--the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt--both with the universal motion and with their own. Constancy itself is nothing but a more sluggish movement.

-- Michel de Montaigne --


All our efforts are temporary. They borrow from preexisting forces, ride the current of natural events, and disappear according to the dictates of the situation. It is best to realize the transitory nature of things and work with it. Understanding world's ephemeral nature can be the biggest advantage of all.

-- Deng Ming-Dao --


Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities;
all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour
which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth forever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,
and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north;
it whirleth about continually,
and the wind returneth again accord to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.

-- Ecclesiastes --

Do you find this attitude depressing?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXIX

Quatrain XXIX is the third in a series of four linked quatrains: XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, and XXX.

First Edition: Quatrain XXIX

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing,
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

Second Edition: Quatrain XXXII

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing,
Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXIX

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing,
Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

FitzGerald made minimal changes which, surprisingly, go in the opposite direction of some that he has made so far. In the past, he has occasionally changed the capitalization of words from upper case to lower case. Here he does the opposite: He changes the lower case "w' in "why." "whence," and "whither" in the First Edition to the upper case "W" in the Second Edition. The Fifth Edition is identical to the Second, including the substitution of a semicolon at the end of the second line for the comma in the First Edition.

Perhaps he wishes to emphasize those words; if not, I can't come up with another plausible explanation. Those are significant words for the theme of this linked set of quatrains. FitzGerald brings forward from the last quatrain the reference to water and wind and also ignorance. In the last quatrain he said he had no answers except that he comes like water and goes like the wind.

In this quatrain he further defines this Seed of Wisdom, or perhaps better defined as the Seed of Ignorance, that he sowed among the wise. FitzGerald uses three terms here very precisely.

Whence means "from where"
Whither means "to where"
Willy-nilly means "willingly or not willingly"

In the previous quatrain, he tells us that all he knows is that he comes like water and goes like wind. In this quatrain, he now tells us that he doesn't know why he is here, that he doesn't know where he came from, and that he doesn't know where he is going when he leaves. Moreover, he has no choice in being here: he is here, willingly or not, and he eventually will leave, willingly or not.

The Taoists make a similar point for they say that all things come from Tao and return to Tao, but just what the Tao is nobody knows. Other terms sometimes used are the Void or emptiness. Furthermore, even to give it a name is misleading , for names suggest that we know something about what is being named, and we know nothing about the Tao, and therefore we know nothing about where we came from and where we are going.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Something to think about

In Ursula Le Guin's novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, the human inhabitants of the planet Gethen have apparently been subjects in a long ago experiment. The results are as follows. The Gethens have roughly a 26 day sexual cycle: for around 22-3 days they are effectively asexual. They are neither male nor female. Sometime around the 22nd day they begin to undergo changes which will result in becoming a sexual being--either male or female--for about 2-3 days. This period is known as kemmer.

The significant effect of this is that the inhabitants, therefore, have no real sense of being male or female as we do. They are just people and treat each other as such. They only perceive each other as males and females during the 2 or 3 days of kemmer. This has repercussions in behavior, possibly even threatening to non-Gethenians.

In a report, one observer notes that--

The First Mobile [first ambassador] , if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

What do you think of the above statement?

Do we always see each other and treat each other as a male or as a female, even though the signals may be indirect or even if unnoticed consciously?

Would it be so terrible to be "respected and judged only as a human being" and not as either a male or a female? Would this be "an appalling experience"?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mircea Eliade: youth without youth

Mircea Eliade was born in Romania in 1907 and died in Chicago, Illinois, in 1986. He is described as a journalist, an historian of religion, a philosopher, an essayist, and a writer of short stories and novels. I knew him first from his various philosophical and religious works: The Myth of the Eternal Return, Myth and Reality, and The Sacred and the Profane, all of which I found thought-provoking and interesting. Eliade has also been blessed with extremely competent translators. All three works are on my list of books to be reread.

I was therefore surprised to find he also wrote fiction. I was enlightened when I was browsing a list of recommended films on Netflix. One of the films mentioned was Youth Without Youth. The plot was interesting, but what was most intriguing was that it was based on a novel by Mircea Eliade. I did watch the film, and I have just finished reading the novel. I'll save the film, perhaps, for another post.

Dominic Matei is an aging academic, over 70, and beginning to be forgetful. One night, during an extremely localized thunderstorm, he is struck by lightning and burned over 100% of his body. He not only survives the lightning bolt and its consequences, but his body regenerates to that of a man in his early 30s. His hair turns dark and he grows a new set of teeth. His memory becomes far better than it ever was: he now remembers everything that happened to him, everything that he has studied and learned. However, these memories no longer seem to belong to him. In addition, he has only to read a few paragraphs of a work to know what is in the rest of the work.

Yet, in spite of these super-abilities, Matei doesn't come across as a superman, or at least not as a typical superman that is found elsewhere. Matei spends the years following his rejuvenation in hiding. All he really wants is to be left alone so he can finish his great work on the origin of language and society.

Eliade's treatment of Matei brings in echoes of other works. For example, before the accident, Matei begins to lose hope about finishing his great work: "the more time passed the more clearly he understood that he would never be able to to finish his one and only book, his life's work. He awoke one morning with the taste of ashes in his mouth. He was approaching age sixty, and he had finished nothing of all all that he had begun." In George Eliot's masterwork, Middlemarch, the Reverend Casaubon has also spent his entire life on his great work on the origins of myth, and near the end of his life, he begins to realize that he has spent his entire life preparing to write a book that he will never finish, or perhaps even begin.

Matei, after the lighting bolt, discovers that he has a double. It is not a double in the sense of Dostoyevsky's double or Edgar Allan Poe's double--one that the character sees as existing outside of himself and acting independently. This double is another consciousness that he and only he can hear. It too occupies his brain, or so it seems. Only when Matei sleeps does this consciousness take control and act. In the morning, Matei can guess at what went on during the night through his dreams. What's intriguing is that Youth without Youth was published in 1979, only three years after Julian Jaynes published his controversial work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which Jaynes postulates a similar condition for a major part, if not all, of humanity. Thousands of years ago, this was interpreted as the voice of god, while today it is seen as an auditory hallucination.

Other elements in the story include a discussion of Plato's theory that learning is simply remembering what we have always known, an escape from the Nazis who are interested in Matei's super human abilities, and an excursion by one woman into past lives who aids Matei in his search for the ur-language. This, too, has its drawbacks, forcing Matei to halt the project.

The Ending: well, if you feel that you have come full circle on the last page, you are correct. Borges has a short work in which a man in front of a firing squad is given a year to finish his play. Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story about a Confederate sympathizer who "escapes," for a short time anyway, being hanged from the Owl Creek Bridge.

Overall Rating: a strange, quirky novel that requires several more readings. If this commentary seems fragmented or disjointed to you, I agree with you. I don't feel that I have a grasp of the work, but I did want to let others know about this work.

I shall also have to begin looking for his other works of fiction.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Robert Silverberg (ed): Far Horizons

Robert Silverberg (ed): Far Horizons


Ursula K. Le Guin: "Old Music and the Slave Women"
(the Hainish and Ekumen series)

Joe Haldeman: "A Separate War" (the Forever Series)

Orson Scott Card: "Investment Counselor" (the Ender series)

David Brin: "Temptation"
(The Uplift Universe)

Robert Silverberg: "Getting to Know the Dragon" (Roma Eterna series)

Dan Simmons: " Orphans of the Helix" (the Hyperion Cantos)

Nancy Kress: "Sleeping Dogs" (the Sleepless)

Frederik Pohl: "The Boy Who Would Live Forever"
(the Gateway series)

Gregory Benford: "A Hunger for the Infinite" (the Galactic Center series)

Anne McCaffrey: "The Ship That Returned" (the Ship that Sang series)

Greg Bear: "The Way of All Ghosts" (the Way)

I just finished reading a interesting collection of short stories, or perhaps novella would be a better description. The collection is Far Horizons, edited by Robert Silverberg. It contains eleven stories, all written specifically for this collection which came out in 1999. In his introduction,
Silverberg writes

"What I have done in Far Horizons is to gather together most of today's foremost practitioners of the evolutionary science-fiction series and ask them to write a short story or novelette that explores some aspect of their famous series that they did not find a way of dealing with in the books themselves."

Unfortunately, some of the writers Silverberg would like to have included had died while others told him "that they had already said all they wanted to say. . ."

Silverberg defines "the evolutionary science-fiction series" as "the kind that carries the reader through an evolutionary progression of concept and (sometimes) insight into character." I guess it's a series in which the characters and the plot evolve over time, and in some cases the ending could never have been predicted from the first novel. Greg Benford's incredible "Galactic Center" series is a perfect example of this. One more point is that this is the type of series that should best be read in sequence.

The "template series," on the other hand, features a number of stories which are set in the same universe and which do not demonstrate any particular or significant change or development. Each work stands alone, even though set in a shared universe. In a template series, it usually makes little difference in the order in which the stories are read. I would guess that Andre Norton's "Witch World series" would be considered a template series in which there are a number of novels set on that planet, each of which is relatively independent of the others and shows little, if any at all, forward progression of plot or character.

Each of the eleven stories in Far Horizons is preceded by a 1-3 page introduction by the author. These very helpful introductions include a brief summary of the series and, usually, the place occupied by the short story within that series , and in some cases, the history behind the particular story.

For example, Joe Haldeman writes that people had always asked him about a sequel to The Forever War
(TFW), and he had always insisted that "the book is complete. . .But someday [he] would write a novella about what happened to the characters later in life."

So, he gladly accepted Silverberg's offer to write that novella for the collection. However, shortly after beginning to write the novella, he found he was writing the sequel that he said he would never write. So, he turned that into a proposal for a novel and sent it off. It was eventually published as Forever Free.

William Mandella and Marygay Potter are the two main characters in TFW and are separated in the last part of the novel, presumably forever. However, the two are almost miraculously reunited at the very end. This story, "A Separate War," tells of what happened to Marygay during the period of her separation from William, and as Haldeman writes, "it also serves as a sort of foreshadowing of the new novel."

Ursula K. Le Guin: "Old Music and the Slave Women" (The Hainish and Ekumen series)

Ursula K. Le Guin's "Old Music and the Slave Women" is set in her Ekumen universe, which includes her earlier "Hainish" novels, Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions.
After the earth humans (descendants of the Hainish) and Hainish meet, a league is set up, the Ekumen. The novels set in this period are The Left Hand of Darkness (one of my top ten favorite SF novels), The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest, and Four Ways to Forgiveness.

In the fourth book, Four Ways to Forgiveness, Le Guin introduces two new worlds, Werel and Yeowe, recently contacted by the Ekumen. Werel is a slave planet, in which a slave revolt is initiated as a result of the contact by the Ekumen. This story tells of one incident during that rebellion in which the intelligence officer for the Ekumen does something very stupid.


Orson Scott Card: "Investment Counselor" (The Ender Series)

To quote Card, "During the three thousand years between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead . . . he somehow acquired a computer-based companion named Jane, who is second only to Ender in importance in the last three books of the series. The story now before you is an account of how they met." Fortunately for the human race, Jane is benevolent, as is Ender.


David Brin: "Temptation" (The Uplift Universe)

This story tells of events following Brin's second novel in the Uplift universe, Startide Rising. When the earth exploratory vessel Streaker takes off in a desperate attempt to escape the alien fleet, a number of dolphins are left behind on the planet Kithrip. This story doesn't just fill in the gap of what happened to them after being left behind, but it also provides a significant development that could affect the entire structure of the present political situation. Unfortunately, not having read any of the novels beyond the third one, I don't know whether anything ever came of this encounter on Kithrip.


Robert Silverberg: "Getting to Know the Dragon" (Roma Eterna series)

I hadn't known of this series before getting this collection. It's an alternate universe tale in which Silverberg's premise is that Moses never led the Hebrews out of Egypt. The Exodus never happened and therefore the Hebrews never settled in Palestine. Consequently Jesus of Nazareth did not exist and the Roman Empire remained pagan. The history of this world is generally the same until the 4th century (our time frame). The division between the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire therefore were strictly political, without any religious connotations. The quarrels were therefore reconcilable and the Roman Empire flourished.

The present story is set in 2503, by Imperial Time reckoning (1750 A. D.) and "fills in a gap in the series by depicting the Empire late in the Second Decadence, when the Emperor Demetrius II is about to come to the throne."

It looks like an interesting series, one that I think I may do some looking around for.


Dan Simmons: "Orphans of the Helix" (The Hyperion Cantos series"

This story appears to be set after the conclusion of the four books in the Cantos. An exploratory and colonizing ship, the Helix, encounters a group of humans and aliens who are under attack by a device that visits their home periodically and gathers up large quantities of whatever they need from that particular site, including people.

The Helix discovers that this may not be a deliberate attack by another race, but a means of survival by a race with minimal resources. The material the device brings back may be necessary for their survival. Therefore, destroying the harvesting device may result in the destruction of a race of beings. Continued depredations by the harvesting device, though, will result in the deaths of many beings. This is the dilemma faced by the people of the Helix.

Nancy Kress: "Sleeping Dogs" (The Sleepless)

This story is set in the same universe as Beggars in Spain, wherein genetic manipulation has permitted parents to specify the characteristics of their unborn offspring. The most radical changes are those that create the Sleepless, those who never sleep, thus giving them an extra 8 or more hours of consciousness.

"Sleeping Dogs" doesn't move the plot forward, but simply tells a story about one of the unexpected side effects of genetic manipulation on dogs. In this case, the dogs are modified to be sleepless and therefor make the perfect guard dogs. Unfortunately for Carol Ann's family, there's a problem with the modified dogs. The dogs were purchased for breeding purposes and intended to better the family's precarious financial situation. What they soon learn is that the dogs can not be trusted and they kill Carol Ann's sister. The story is Carol Ann's attempt to avenge her sister's death under the old Biblical adage--an eye for an eye. . .


Frederik Pohl: "The Boy Who Would Live Forever" (the Gateway Series)

Stan, who has dreamed for years of getting to Gateway and becoming unbelievably wealthy (or so his dreams went) finally gets sufficient funds to make the trip. Shortly after he arrives, and after only one trip, the guidance programs have been translated and the exploration missions are no longer necessary. The Gateway Project has been terminated.

But--not completely. Robinette Broadhead, the main character in the first and several subsequent "Gateway" novels has discovered where the Heechee have fled, to a dark hole. A five person ship is being outfitted to follow the Heechee into their lair. Stan, who hasn't given up on his dreams, volunteers to be one of the five.

This story seems to be a wrapup. The mystery behind Gateway has been the Heechee: who were they and why did they go and where did they go. This story and the last novel in the series seems to answer all the questions.


Gregory Benford: "A Hunger for the Infinite" (the Galactic Center series)

The "Galactic Center" series focuses on the conflict between the mechs, a machine society/ culture? directed by highly intelligent AIs, and all organic life, especially sentient beings, which the mechs see as their greatest enemy.

This story tells of an attempt by the Mantis (a recurring character in the last four of the six novels in the series) to gain a fuller and deeper understanding of the way organic beings think. One of the mysteries which the Mantis and all the higher intelligences of the mech civilization can not crack is that of art. The Mantis' attempts at creating art are rejected universally by all humans who have viewed them. Not only do the humans reject them, the humans are disgusted and sickened by the Mantis' artistic endeavors for they consist of horrific blends of semi-live humans and mechanical parts.

The Mantis decides to try a radical experiment. He downloads part of his consciousness into a human embryo to become an observer. The theory is that the observer will then learn what it is to be human (an organic sentient life form) which will allow it to grasp the meaning and significance of art. Its plan fails, but not for the obvious reasons. It shows the gap between the mech AI-based intelligence and the organic thinking based on intelligence and emotions.

I've always been curious about the Mantis, and this story provides some interesting information about it.


Anne McCaffrey: "The Ship That Returned" (the Ship that Sang series)

In The Ship That Sang" we are introduced to Helva, the human intelligence that operates the ship. She is part of the ship, and the ship is an integral part of her. We meet her first partner, Jennan Sahir Silan, the "brawn" of the partnership, and her grief at his death, and her search for a new partner. She finally finds Niall Parollan. Subsequent novels tell of their adventures.

"The Ship That Returned" is the story of Helva who, in several ways, has now made a full circle. Niall Parollan, her long-time partner, has just died, and once again, she is on her way to begin another search for a compatible brawn at Central Administration on Regulus. However, before she gets to Regulus, she discovers a fleet of Kolnari on route to Ravel, obviously planning on raiding the planet and destroying as much as possible. Ironically it was on a mission to aid Ravel that her first partner, Jennan, was killed.

First, she sends off a warning to the nearest Administration base. She then goes to Ravel to warn the inhabitants of the horrors on the way to their planet. The inhabitants, however, seem unconcerned and respond to her warnings with reassurances that all will be well. Then the Kolnari arrive.


Greg Bear: "The Way of All Ghosts" (The Way series)

This story is part of the series that includes Eon, Eternity, and Legacy. Bear, in the inroduction, tells us --

"The Way, an artificial universe fifty kilometers in diameter and infinitely long, was created by the human inhabitants of an asteroid starship called Thistledown. They had become bored with their seemingly endless journey between the stars: the Way, with its potential of openings to other times and other universes, made reaching their destination unnecessary."

However, other beings discovered the Way, the Jart, and the humans barely held them at bay, for a time anyway. "The Way of All Ghosts" is the story of one of those exploratory expeditions to a world accessible by the Way. It also is a story about Olmy Ap Sennen, shortly after his first reincarnation. He is destined to "become a living myth, be forgotten, rediscovered, and made myth again. So many stories have been told of Olmy that history and myth intertwine."

Overall Rating: I would rate Benford's story the most interesting, followed by Le Guin and Brin. There really isn't a bad story among the rest, and considering the lineup of writers, one really wouldn't expect to find one.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Henry David Thoreau: July 12, 1817-- May 6, 1862

One most frequently encounters quotations from Thoreau's most well-known work Walden, so I thought that I would provide something that's rarely given--one of his poems. This is one that's a bit ironic, almost with a touch of Robert Frost about it, or so it seems to me.

I knew a man by sight

I knew a man by sight,
A blameless wight,
Who. for a year or more,
Had daily passed my door,
Yet converse none had had with him.

I met him in a lane,
Him and his cane,
About three miles from home,
Where I had chanced to roam,
And volumes stared at him, and he at me.

In a more distant place
I glimpsed his face,
And bowed instinctively,
Starting he bowed to me,
Bowed simultaneously, and passed along.

Next, in a foreign land
I grasped his hand,
And had a social chat,
About this thing and that,
As I had known him well a thousand years.

Late in a wilderness
I shared his mess,
For he had hardships seen,
And I a wanderer been;
He was my bosom friend, and I was his.
And as, methinks, shall all,
Both great and small,
That ever lived on earth,
Early or late their birth,
Stranger and foe, one day each other know

I wonder if this is true. I also wonder just what Thoreau meant by the last five lines: Will all, "stranger and foe, one day each other know"?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Loren Eiseley: Sept . 3, 1907--July 9, 1977

From Loren Eiseley's essay "The Judgment of the Birds"

On the maps of the old voyageurs it is called "Mauvaises Terres," the evil lands, and slurred a little with the passage through many minds, it has come down to us anglicized as the Badlands. The soft shuffle of moccasins has passed through its canyons on the grim business of war and flight, but the last of those slight disturbances of immemorial silences died out almost a century ago. The land, if one can call it a land, is a waste as lifeless as that valley in which lie the kings of Egypt. Like the Valley of the Kings, it is a mausoleum, a place of dry bones in what once was a place of life. Now it has silences as deep as those in the moon's airless chasms.

Nothing grows among its pinnacles; there is no shade except under great toadstools of sandstone whose bases have been eaten to the shape of wine glasses by the wind. Everything is flaking, cracking, disintegrating, wearing away in the long, imperceptible weather of time. The ash of ancient volcanic outbursts still sterilizes its soil, and its colors in that waste are the colors that flame in the lonely sunsets on dead planets. Men come there but rarely, and for one purpose only, the collection of bones.

It was a late hour on a cold, wind-bitten autumn day when I climbed a great hill spined like a dinosaur's back and tried to take my bearings. The tumbled waste fell away in waves in all directions. Blue air was darkening into purple along the bases of the hills. I shifted my knapsack, heavy with the petrified bones of long-vanished creatures, and studied my compass. I wanted to be out of there by nightfall, and already the sun was going sullenly down in the west.

It was then that I saw the flight coming on. It was moving like a little close-knit body of black specks that danced and darted and closed again. It was pouring from the north and heading toward me with the undeviating relentlessness of a compass needle. It streamed through the shadows rising out of monstrous gorges. It rushed over towering pinnacles in the red light of the sun, or momentarily sank from sight within their shade. Across that desert of eroding clay and wind-worn stone they came with a faint wild twittering that filled all the air about me as those tiny living bullets hurtled past into the night.

It may not strike you as a marvel. It would not, perhaps, unless you stood in the middle of a dead world at sunset, but that was where I stood. Fifty million years lay under my feet, fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light travelling on the farther edge of space. The chemicals of all that vanished age lay about me in the ground. Around me still lay the shearing molars of dead titanotheres, the delicate sabers of soft-stepping cats, the hollow sockets that had held the eyes of many a strange, outmoded beast. Those eyes had looked out upon a world as real as ours; dark, savage brains had roamed and roared their challenges into the steaming night.

Now they were still here, or, put it as you will, the chemicals that made them were here about me in the ground. The carbon that had driven them ran blackly in the eroding stone. The stain of iron was in the clays. The iron did not remember the blood it had once moved within, the phosphorus had forgot the savage brain. The little individual moment had ebbed from all those strange combinations of chemicals as it would ebb from our living bodies into the sinks and runnels of oncoming time.

I had lifted up a fistful of that ground. I held it while that wild flight of south-bound warblers hurtled over me into the oncoming dark. There went phosphorus, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings. Alone on a dead planet I watched that incredible miracle speeding past. It ran by some true compass over field and waste land. It cried its individual ecstasies into the air until the gullies rang. It swerved like a single body, it knew itself and, lonely, it bunched close in the racing darkness, its individual entities feeling about them the rising night. And so, crying to each other their identity, they passed away out of my view.

I dropped my fistful of earth. I heard it roll inanimate back into the gully at the base of the hill: iron, carbon, the chemicals of life. Like men from those wild tribes who had haunted these hills before me seeking visions, I made my sign to the great darkness. It was not a mocking sign, and I was not mocked. As I walked into my camp late that night, one man, rousing from his blankets beside the fire, asked sleepily, "What did you see?"

"I think, a miracle," I said softly, but I said it to myself. Behind me that vast waste began to glow under the rising moon.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Something to think about

It is no weakness for the wisest man

To learn when he is wrong, know when to yield.

So, on the margin of a flooded river

Trees bending to the torrent live unbroken,

While those that strain against it are snapped off.

A sailor has to tack and slacken sheets

Before the gale, or find himsel capsized . . . .

Let not your first thought be your only thought.

Think if there cannot be some other way

- Sophocles - from Antigone

Only fools are certain and immovable.

- Montaigne -

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXVIII

This is the second quatrain in what I see as a linked series of four quatrains. In Quatrain XXVII, the narrator tells us that he listened to the Doctors and Saints, but learned nothing from them. In this quatrain, we now learn that he taught them something.

First Edition: Quatrain XXVIII

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd--
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."

Second Edition: Quatrain XXXI

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand wrought to make it grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd--
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXVIII

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd--
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."

I could find only minor changes among the three versions. Lines 1, 2, and 4 are identical, with the only changes occurring in the second line.

First Edition: And with my own hand labour'd it to grow;
Second Edition: And with my own hand wrought to make it grow;
Fifth Edition: And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;

The First Edition's "labour'd it to grow" becomes "wrought to make it grow." I guess the second version flows a bit more smoothly than the first. I'm not sure why he changed it from "my" to "mine" except perhaps for a bit of internal rhyme when "my own hand" becomes "mine own hand."

Instead of learning from the wise, the young narrator teaches them. I don't know if this is a coincidence or an interpolation by FitzGerald, for this reminds me of the incident in Luke, Chapter 2, when Christ as young child was found in the temple and "all that heard him were astonished by his wisdom and his answers." And the "Seed of Wisdom" also has echoes in the Gospels, for several times we find that Christ uses the analogy of a seed and his words.

His "Harvest" suggests the transitoriness of life, for he comes like water and goes like the wind. Both are natural forces and while a river flows and the wind blows, it is never the same wind and water. He also comes and eventually will go, for he is of this world and subject to its laws. And, others will come after him and take their turn here, before they too will go on, for this is not a unchanging situation that is being depicted, but one that is filled with movement and change.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Franz Kafka: July 3, 1883--June 3, 1924

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide of completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Thus opens one of the most famous short stories in Western Literature. If millions have read it, I suspect that many more millions know about the story--about a man who wakes one morning and finds he's been turned into a gigantic insect. Aside from the obvious questions about its meaning and themes, I have a minor one.

At the beginning of the story, Gregor Samsa is the sole support of his family, which includes his parents and sister. His father went bankrupt, and Gregor has been working long and hard to not only support his family but also to pay off his father's debts. His father, crushed by his failure, does little except sit around and read the newspaper, sometimes out loud to Gregor's mother and sister. They seldom leave the house and entertain rarely.

The family's financial status has now become very serious. Gregor can no longer support them. There are sufficient funds available to keep them for about a year, but after that, some source of income must be arranged.

At the end of the story, Gregor has died. The father has thrown off his lethargy and found a job, as has also Gregor's mother and sister. All three now are working. They have found a smaller apartment, one more suitable for the three of them. They even take a trip into the countryside together, something they haven't done in a long time.

And Gregor's sister? The parents noticed--

their daughter's increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of the recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had blossomed into a pretty girl with a good figure . . . And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.

Considering the behavior of Gregor's family at the beginning of the story, when they relied on him as their sole support, and their new enthusiasm and energy at the end of the story, when he has died, I keep asking myself the following question:

Is Gregor Samsa the victim or the villain of the story?