Thursday, September 30, 2010

Something to think about

People who make moral compromises in order to achieve good ends find that their compromises irrevocably alter the ends achieved. Thus they learn that, in a world of process, it is method rather than goal which carries the burden of moral value; that in the final analysis nothing should be mistaken either for a means or for an end. Other people, who adhere to righteous action with no regard for the consequences, are equally off the mark; these people mistake method itself for an end and act as though in a vacuum of time.

Robert Grudin
Time and the Art of Living

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXXII

First Edition: Quatrain XXXII

There was a Door to which I found no KEY:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seem'd--and then no more of THEE and ME.

Second Edition: Quatrain XXXV

There was the Door to which I found no KEY:
There was the Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There was--and then no more of THEE and ME.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXXII

There was the Door to which I found no KEY:
There was the Veil through which I could not see:
Some little talk awhile of ME and THEE
There was--and then no more of THEE and ME.

The changes seem to affect the tone more, rather than the meaning of the quatrain. What changes were made occurred in the second edition and remained to the end. The fifth edition is, as far as I can tell, identical to the second edition, except for one change: in the second line, the word "past" in the first and second editions becomes "through" in the fifth. Perhaps FitzGerald felt that "through" was more idiomatic in context than "past." Seeing "through" a veil is more common than seeing "past" a veil.

The two changes that occurred between the first and second editions consist of changing the indefinite article "a" preceding "Door" and "Veil" to the definite "the." The somewhat vague "There was a Door" and "There was a Veil" now becomes a more specific and perhaps a more concrete "There was the Door" and "There was the Veil." The other change is the substitution of "There was" in the second and fifth editions for "There seem'd" in the first. I would guess that he wanted a stronger statement. "There seem'd" suggests that there might have been some talk, but "There was" makes it a definite statement: there was talk. There is no room for doubt now.

Doors have appeared in earlier quatrains. For example, in Quatrain III, those who stand before the Tavern Door impatiently shout for the door to be open, for it is closed and time is short. In Quatrain XVI, the "Doorways are alternate Night and Day," and therefore open to all. They also are Life and Death. Quatrain XXVII also features an open door, but one of no significance for the narrator enters and leaves by the same Door, having learned nothing. The Door in XXXII, though, is closed and the narrator has yet to find the Key.

Equally frustrating is the Veil which blocks his vision. The "Door" and the "Veil" in this quatrain suggest that there are things we are not meant to know. But, sound comes through and it appears as though the talk was of us, but then there was "no more of THEE and ME." Is this a suggestion that we owe our existence to those talking behind that Door, and that once we are no longer a topic of conversation, we no longer exist?

Again, the poet's insistence on our ignorance about the perennial questions comes across rather strongly. All we know is that we are here for awhile and that shortly we will be gone, not knowing where we came from nor where we will go nor even why we are here. This is all very different from those today who have all the answers, even to what is in their deity's mind and even what their deity is going to do next. Neither Khayyam nor FitzGerald have made such claims.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

T. S. Eliot: Sept. 26, 1888--Jan. 4, 1965

I realize that it's a bit early for T. S. Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi," but the Magi were probably on their journey by the time September rolled around. This is, of course, a slightly different version of the arduous journey undertaken by the Magi. Normally we don't see them until Christmas Eve when they appear in their glorious robes and crowns, presenting gifts to the Christ child. Eliot's poem, on the contrary, is a narrative by one of them, and frankly, he sounds much like any traveler who's had the misfortune of traveling too long in strange lands, especially if it isn't on a guided tour.

In the first part, we hear complaints that have been made by many travelers: miserable weather, poor or inadequate transportation, unfriendly local inhabitants, and exorbitant prices. All this made them homesick and wishing they had never left.

The Journey of the Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

In the second part, as they draw close to their destination, they see signs but don't realize the significance of them, for only those who came after would recognize them. The three trees on the hill suggest the three crosses of the Crucifixion set against a darkening sky at Calvary. The while horse was an early symbol for the second coming of Christ at the end of all days for, according to the Book of Revelation, Christ will appear riding a white horse.
At the inn, they find some people dicing for pieces of silver, an echo, perhaps, not only of the price Judas received for his betrayal, but also of the soldiers dicing for Christ's robe at the foot of the Cross.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

The narrator now sums it all up by saying he would do it again, but what they gained from it was not what they expected. They were present at the "Birth," but it was a strange birth for it also meant death for their religious traditions, for their old ways. They returned but they had changed for they were "
no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/ With an alien people clutching their gods." In truth, he felt that he "should be glad of another death."

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The last few lines reminds me of another poem, one by Oscar Wilde:

Santa Decca

The Gods are dead: no longer do we bring
To grey-eyed Pallas crowns of olive-leaves!
Demeter's child no more hath tithe of sheaves,
And in the noon the careless shepherds sing,

For Pan is dead, and all the wantoning

By secret glade and devious haunt is o'er:
Young Hylas seeks the water-springs no more;
Great Pan is dead, and Mary's son is King.
And yet--perchance in this sea-tranced isle,
Chewing the bitter fruit of memory,
Some God lies hidden in the asphodel.
Ah Love! if such there be, then it were well
For us to fly his anger; nay, but see
The leaves are stirring: let us watch awhile.

I don't think Eliot would agree with Wilde's last six lines. I suspect that he would say the victory of Mary's son was complete . . . but then again, Eliot is a poet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fall Equinox

Today is the First Day of Autumn, although it's a bit hard believing that here in Tucson where the temperatures are still in the high 90s and low 100s. But, just in case someone is reading this who lives where autumn has arrived, I thought I would post a few autumnal poems.

Now in sad autumn
As I take my darkening path . . .
A solitary bird

-- Basho --

Summer begins to have the look
Peruser of enchanting Book
Reluctantly but sure perceives
A gain upon the backward leaves--

Autumn begins to be inferred
By millinery of the cloud
Or deeper color in the shawl
That wraps the everlasting hill.

The eye begins its avarice
A meditation chastens speech
Some Dyer of a distant tree
Resumes his gaudy industry.

Conclusion is the course of All
At most to be perennial
And then elude stability
Recalls to immortality.

-- Emily Dickinson --

In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above,
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

-- Robert Frost --

The calling bell
Travels the curling mist-ways . . .
Autumn morning

-- Basho --

The haiku are from--
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Trans. Peter Beilenson
Avenel Books

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Something to think about

Some people claim that self-sufficiency is a myth. A person is a social animal, they declare; people cannot successfully live outside of some community. But that is not the correct way to understand true self-sufficiency. What we are referring to is a supreme sense of connection with oneself and the cosmos around oneself. This doesn't preclude community with others, but it does prevent the excesses and shortcomings that occur when society is one's only source of union.

Deng Ming-Dao
365 Tao: Daily Meditations
p. 262

Is there a state of self-sufficiency as Deng Ming-Dao postulates? I guess, according to the way I understand his definition, that one doesn't have to be a hermit or a social isolate to be self-sufficient. If so, then that person would appear to be part of the community. If that's true, then how would I know when I meet one who is self-sufficient?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Basho: Sept. 15?, 1644--Nov. 28, 1694

While there are no records that gives us the exact date Basho was born, Jane Reichhold, editor and translator of Basho: The Complete Haiku, writes that "[a]s with many births, his has become a matter of legend, giving him the birth date of the autumn full moon, or September 15." Sometimes, legends can be truer than truth, and in Basho's case, the first full moon in autumn is a good date.

I had a book titled The Haiku Masters, and surprisingly, it did not include any by Basho. The editor explained that the haiku masters were those considered to be among the greatest of poets. Basho is not considered a master: he is The Haiku Poet. So, rather than write about Basho, I think it's best just to provide a few samples of his poetry.

Basho's Four Seasons:


April's air stirs in
Willow-leaves . . . a butterfly
Floats and balances


Lonely silence
A single cicada's cry
Sinking into stone


A solitary
Crow on a bare branch--
Autumn evening


the sea darkening,
the wild duck's call
faintly white

Spring poem:
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Avenel Books
Peter Beilenson, trans.

Summer and autumn poems:
The Sound of Water
Shambhala Centaur Editions
Sam Hamill, trans.

Winter poem:
Basho's Haiku
SUNY Press
David Landis Barnhill, trans.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Combination Plate 16

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and endings

Fred Saberhagen: Octagon, an SF novel

A Walk in the Sun
, film

Albert Sanchez Pinol: Cold Skin, a novel

Robert Silverberg: A Time of Changes, an SF novel

Breakfast at Tiffany's, a film


Fred Saberhagen: Octagon, an SF novel

Octagon was first published in 1981, and it shows its age when the plot concentrates on computers. References to such "super" computers as the Cray 4 and desktop versions such as the TRS-80 bring back long forgotten memories. The plot involves a war game in which a computer is used to handle the bookkeeping. Participants in the game mail postcards or letters
with their latest moves to the game headquarters and await responses from their opponents, also by mail. This is pre-email, of course, and shortly before the growth of the BBS network (electronic bulletin board system), which died shortly after the Internet emerged. The name of the company that runs the war game is Berserker Inc., an obvious reference to Saberhagen's own well-known series about the organic life-hating killing machines.

Prior to the beginning of the novel, two friends, Bob Gregory and Henry Brahmaguptra, had worked together in developing a computer network system by which computers in many different locations could communicate and interact. Fearing that this system might someday fall under the control of either a hostile country or a future dictatorial government, they built in a "back door" which would allow them or someone they designated to regain complete control of the network or even shut it down if that seemed necessary.

Opening the "back door" required two passwords, one for each of them, and since neither knew the other's password, they had to agree that the situation was serious enough to need their intervention. Unfortunately, political differences between Henry, the "bleeding heart" liberal, and Bob, the "reactionary redneck," resulted in their eventual estrangement. Now, it seems that someone has gained control of the system, and each suspects the other of unwisely sharing
the password with others (the far left or the far right), which would give partial control of the system. And, along with records mysteriously disappearing or false records appearing, someone or something is murdering participants in that war game.

Saberhagen's novel clearly is tied to the events and the atmosphere of the time in which it was written. The increasing use of computers in everyday life and the first appearance of the personal desktop computer in the late 70s and early 80s (I think I got my first Trash 80 clone in 1981) provide the background for the novel. In addition, fears regarding the control of our lives through computers was becoming stronger, with not only individuals or governments assuming control, but also the possibility of computer AIs developing and becoming a threat on their own. Kubrick and Asimov's 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and popularized the idea of sentient but malfunctioning computers as a potential threat to humanity. Saberhagen's novel is another version of this theme for, in this story, an AI has been unknowingly created. Unfortunately, it has adopted the rules of the war game as its perspective on reality: enemies were to be eliminated.

Trivia: Henry Brahmaguptra's last name is almost the same as that of India's most famous astronomer and mathematician of the past, Brahmagupta, who lived from 598 to 665 AD. I doubt that this is a coincidence.

Overall Reaction: interesting tale from an historical perspective about the growth of fear of the new electro-mechanical Frankenstein's monster, along with trends concerning the growth of the personal computer into everyday life. In addition, there's an interesting climatic battle scene at the end featuring metal monsters on both sides.


A Walk in the Sun, a film

A Walk in the Sun is a WWII film that came out in 1945 and is adapted from a novel by Harry Brown. The novel was published as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1944. The film follows the actions of the Lee platoon of the Texas Division on the first day of the Allied invasion of Italy at Salerno in 1943. Their mission is to capture a farmhouse about six miles inland and then destroy the nearby bridge.

This is not a typical wartime propaganda film starring a big name who engages in superhuman heroics in the defense of the freedom-loving peoples of the world against an enemy notable mainly for its stupidity, brutality, and cowardice. The film illustrates the common saying about war being moments of terror midst hours of boredom and tedium. Once the platoon gets off the beach and inland, most of the time is spent walking and talking and griping, as the men get to know each other and become a unit. However, there is a war going on and the platoon has several encounters with the enemy before they get to the farmhouse.

Once such encounter is with a German mechanized reconnaissance patrol. The US platoon defeats the patrol, but not because of any super heroics but because the Germans were unaware of the American unit in the area and so were taken by surprise. In addition, the Germans were outnumbered. Careful planning, the element of surprise, discipline, and superior numbers were the significant elements, and it was clear that if the situation had been reversed, the Germans would have come out ahead. The victory had its costs as several were wounded, and
in spite of the platoon's mantra, "Nobody Dies,"some do die. In addition, they had to use up all of the shells for their bazooka. This plays a role in the upcoming battle for the farmhouse. This isn't a 'Hollywood" platoon with unlimited ammunition. It has only what the men can carry with them.

Eventually, the farmhouse is taken and the bridge is destroyed. It's not a major victory that will win the war, but just one small action that will hinder the German attempt to bring up reinforcements to this area. This, therefore, allows the Allies to safely land more troops and material so that they can engage the Germans with a greater chance of defeating them when a major battle does occur. It is the combined results of small engagements, such as this one, that set the tone for the coming battles.

It's an all male cast, with not even the usual obligatory flashbacks to scenes back home of wives and girl friends and parents. Part of the fun of the film was spotting familiar faces among the soldiers: Dana Andrews (probably the star, if one needs one), Lloyd Bridges, Richard Conte, John Ireland, Sterling Holloway, Huntz Hall, Steve Brodie, and Burgess Meredith as the narrator.

Overall Reaction: a more realistic war film about WWII than most of those that I have seen. Superheroes are fun, but in the real world it's the average person who is forced to get the job done--the clerks,
the mail carriers, the junior executives, the teachers, the welders--none of whom have superhuman powers.


Albert Sanchez Pinol: Cold Skin, a novel
translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan

A young man (unnamed) has arrived on a small island near the Antarctic Circle to take on a job as a weatherman for a year. He is to record the intensity, the direction, and the frequency of the winds there. The captain of the ship that has brought him is in a hurry to leave. Consequently, when the weatherman who has just completed his yearlong tour is not there to greet them, they go to look for him. He is nowhere to be found. The lighthouse keeper, who is the other inhabitant of the island, knows nothing.

The captain is puzzled, but he must leave. The young man settles in. He has taken this job because of the isolation. He also sees it as an opportunity to educate himself, so he has brought along numerous books and writing materials.

This is what I had read about the book before I borrowed it from the library. It sounded like a mystery to me and the premise was intriguing. Where was the previous weatherman? Was the lighthouse keeper responsible for his disappearance? Was there someone else on the island? It wasn't long before I realized I had wandered into the universe of a different genre--the horror story. The first night, swarms of humanoid creatures swarm ashore and attack his house. Fortunately, his house is sturdy and he is armed.

This short novel, somewhat less than 200 pages, is one of the strangest novels that I've recently read. Who are the creatures? Why do they relentlessly attack, night after night, regardless of their losses? Did they kill the missing weatherman? What is the lighthouse keeper's role in all this? Why is the lighthouse keeper reluctant to join forces with him against the creatures? And, what is the lighthouse keeper's relationship with what appears to be one of the female creatures?

By day, the young man struggles to find the answers to these questions, while at night he struggles to defend himself against the persistent attacks of the creatures. When he eventually forces the lighthouse keeper to allow him to move into the lighthouse (a much sturdier and more easily defensible structure), his questions still go unanswered. He also finds himself strangely attracted to the humanoid

The ending is a shocker, or at least, it was for me. I didn't see it coming, although other, more perceptive readers might. At the end, he does get some of the answers, but not all.

Overall Reaction: not a pleasant story, but one that drew me in and I had to stay with it until the end. Would I reread it? I think so, for it would be a different story then, and I'm curious about what it would be like at a second reading.


Robert Silverberg: A Time of Changes
Winner of the Nebula Award for Best SF Novel of 1971
Hugo Nominee for 1972

The novel begins with a very traditional series of events. Centuries in the future, humankind has colonized a number of planets. On one of them, Borthan, the people have created a society where the self is despised. It is considered obscene to use the pronouns "I" or "me" or "my." Instead of saying "I would like to . . .," the people of Borthan say "One would like to. . ." Talking about oneself is forbidden and eventually would result in social ostracism. Extremists would go one step further and say "Doing . . . is pleasurable" which eliminates any reference to an individual.

There are two exceptions to this rule. Apparently the founders of Borthan recognized that complete self-containment would be unhealthy, so they created the drainers and the custom of bondkin. Drainers were those who would listen to anyone without judging and keep secret whatever they were told, similar to the seal of the confessional in the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly after a child was born, the parents would arrange with other families to develop a relationship with a male and a female child of the same age. These would then be the child's bondbrother and bondsister. Only with one's bondbrother and bondsister could one reveal oneself, could one be truly open with another person.

Kinnal Darival is the son of the ruler of Sala. Unfortunately he is a younger son. It is strange but true that, on Borthan, younger sons of rulers do quite well until the father dies and the oldest brother takes the throne. At this point, the life expectancy of younger brothers suddenly drops to something less than a year. However, another strange fact is that the life expectancy of younger brothers suddenly increases to that of the normal population once that younger brother has traveled to a foreign country. Taking account of these statistics, Kinnal Darival leaves Salla several months after his brother has assumed the throne.

Darival, after several adventures, arrives in the province of Manneran. With the help of a relative, he gains a government position and within a decade or so, he has managed to become highly respected and powerful. He has wealth, power, prestige, and an advantageous if not a happy marriage. He then meets and becomes friendly with an Earthman, Schweiz, a merchant.

Schweiz attempts to break through the cultural walls that isolate each inhabitant on Borthan. He finds a listener in Darival. Eventually Schweiz tells him of a drug that will break through the social isolation and actually allow those who have taken the drug to share each other's consciousness for a short time. They take the drug and Darival decides that this must be shared with others. He and Schweiz travel to Sumara, the source of the drug, and bring back a large quantity. Darival then begins to convert others and soon a significant number of people are taking the drug.

The ruling powers however see this as a threat, and Darival is forced to flee once again. He returns to his home province of Sala, where his brother agrees to let him live, as long as he does not attempt to introduce the drug. Darival eventually finds this impossible, and at the end of the story is captured by his brother's troops. Darival's consolation is that he has written his story down and gotten it out to friends, who will spread the good word to others.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel was published in 1971. I'm sure this is just a coincidence, but during the 60s and early 70s, psychologist Timothy Leary became very prominent through his research on LSD. Like Darival, he was highly regarded in his profession. Like Darival he preached the use of a mind/consciousness expanding drug which would provide
emotional and spiritual benefits. Leary also had to travel to a foreign country, Mexico, at first to acquire the mind expanding drug. And, eventually Leary lost his position in academia and was harassed by the authorities. Leary at one point had various prison terms adding up to 90+ years and actually spent some time in prison. President Nixon once described Leary as "the most dangerous man in America."

Overall Reaction: As I mentioned earlier, the novel began as a traditional adventure tale but then became as much if not more of a novel of ideas than of an action-oriented story. It's the story of a highly successful, wealthy, and powerful man who eventually went to war with his culture. As with so many who have radical ideas, he won't be around to see the results of his actions.

Another issue here is the efficacy of the drug. While it does break down the barriers between the minds of those using the drugs, does it produce any lasting changes after the drug wears off. The same question was asked of LSD which reportedly produced the same consciousness expanding results in a few hours as did years of meditation or of a mystical experience of some inexplicable nature. In short, were there any long-lasting beneficial changes to those who took LSD?


Breakfast at Tiffany's, a film, probably labeled a romantic comedy

The Plot: can a young girl from a small Texas town find happiness in New York City? I should probably define happiness as Holly Golightly, our heroine, sees it. Actually Jane Austen, many years ago, said it better than I ever could: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Holly is looking for that single man in possession of a good fortune who will want her as his wife. Holly isn't being totally mercenary here, for she has a brother, Fred, who is getting out of the army shortly. He's a bit slow, she tells one and all, so she has to be responsible for him.

Given this inane plot, one could only wonder why the film was so popular. What does it have going for it that would have viewers ignore the silliness?

Well . . . It has the following going for it:

Cat, who plays the cat in the film with to the utmost, Cat is the epitome of catness--self-centered, determined to get its own way, always being around when it's not wanted and seldom being around when it is.

The Theme Music: words and music by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini respectively. "Moon River" was extremely popular and one couldn't turn on the radio without hearing it at least once or twice a day. For days afterward I kept humming or hearing it.

George Peppard: a handsome, young male with lots of white teeth. What was needed for the role was a handsome, young male with lots of white teeth: he was available. He was there when necessary and not there when not needed.

Patricia Neal: her great but too seldom seen portrayal of Mrs. Failenson, the society matron whose boytoy, George Peppard, lived in the apartment above Holly's. Her acceptance of being dumped by George for a younger woman was a classic--rueful to some extent, but as she left, one knew that she was already thinking about his replacement, and that wouldn't be an impossible task, either--just call central casting.

But, most of all, what the film really has going for it is Audry Hepburn.

Overall Reaction: It stars Audrey Hepburn; what else needs be said?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Something to think about

From India:

Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do, give it to what you do or fail to do.

-- The Dhammapada --

Eknath Easwaran: editor and translator

From China:

When you see a worthy person,
endeavor to emulate him.

When you see an unworthy person,
then examine your inner self

-- Confucius --

From Israel:

3. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

The Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 7

Several very short and simple suggestions.

Do you think, all quibbling aside, that, if people really began to think about and act upon these simple suggestions, it would change the daily headlines in some way?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Loren Eiseley: September 3, 1907--July 9, 1977

Perhaps more than any other writer, Loren Eiseley has impressed upon me certain truths about evolution that are both fascinating and frustrating. They aren't new or startling, but he made me grasp them as no other writer had before.

Evolution is not a thing, first of all. I can't hold it in my hand; evolution, instead, is a description of a type of interaction between living creatures and their environment, especially changes in the environment which result in adaptations by some living creatures which then affect the environment in new ways. And so the process continues. The web of life may be a cliche, but what else can one call it.

That's the second point Eiseley has impressed on me. The process continues. I have seen numerous charts that purport to show the evolutionary line that begins with the smallest and earliest living creatures on the one hand and which stretch across the millions of years to finally end with the human species. That's the problem: it doesn't end with the human species. We may be one of the latest, but we aren't the last. Eiseley makes the point again and again in his essays, in his own quiet way, with a story here and a small observation there, and in this way he has convinced me of this. And, that's the frustrating part, as Eiseley notes time and again.

On an expedition in one of the northern plains states, he uncovers a small skull, that of an early ancestor of a rodent. In an essay titled "The Slit," Eiseley says to himself that "the creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?" That's the frustrating part.

Several pages later in the same essay, Eiseley further develops the point when he observes that "We cannot know all that has happened in the past, or the reason for all of these events, any more than we can with surety discern what lies ahead. We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can, but we cannot in one lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all that we hunger to know."

In an essay titled "The Snout," Eiseley, in spite of the ultimate futility of our dreams to know all, goes on to say "It gives one a feeling of confidence to see nature still busy with experiments, still dynamic, and not through nor satisfied because a Devonian fish managed to end as a two-legged character with a straw hat. There are other things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat. It pays to know this. It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past. The only thing that doesn't pay is to be sure of man's own part in it."

However, not everyone shares Eiseley's enthusiasm. Eiseley tells of a conversation he had with a friend, a member of the Explorers Club, who had just returned from a trek through northern Australia.

"'They fell out of the trees,' he said. 'Like rain. And into the boat.'

'Uh?' I said, noncommittally.

'They did so,' he protested, 'and they were hard to catch.'

'Really--' I said.

'We were pushing a dugout up one of the tidal creeks in northern Australia and going fast when smacko we jam this mangrove bush and the things came tumbling down.

'What were they doing sitting up there in bunches? I ask you. It's no place for a fish. Besides that they had a way of sidling off with those popeyes trained on you. I never liked it. Somebody out to keep any eye on them.'

'Why?' I asked.

'I don't know why,' he said impatiently, running a rough, square hand through his hair and wrinkling his forehead. 'I just mean they make you feel that way, is all. A fish belongs in the water. It ought to stay here--just we live on land in houses. Things ought to know their place and stay in it, but those fish have got a way of sidling off. As though they had mental reservations and weren't keeping any contracts. See what I mean?'"

Later, still in the same essay, "The Snout", Eiseley sums up neatly: "The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back to the water. There are things still coming ashore. . . . . . . There lies the hope of life. The old ways are exploited and remain, but new things come, new senses try the unfamiliar air. There are small scuttlings and splashings in the dark, and out of it come the first croaking, illiterate voices of the things to be, just as man once croaked and dreamed darkly in that tiny vesicular forebrain. . . We are one of the many appearances of the thing called Life; we are not its perfect image, for it has no image except Life, and life is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time."

The quotations are from several essays contained in the first book I read by Loren Eiseley--The Immense Journey. It is one of my "Desert Island" books.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXXI

First Edition: Quatrain XXXI

Up from Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel'd by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.

Second Edition: Quatrain XXXIV

Up from Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate;
And many Knots unravel'd by the Road;
But not the Master-Knot of Human Fate.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXXI

Up from Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate;
And many a Knot unravel'd by the Road;
But not the Master-Knot of Human Fate.

FitzGerald made few changes to this quatrain over the five editions. One change has the comma at the end of the second line in the first edition become a semi-colon in the second and fifth editions. He might have made the change to strengthen the break between the second and third lines or perhaps to make it clearer that the first clause ends with "sate" and not go on to the third line.

"Many Knots" in the third line of the first and second edition becomes "many a Knot" in the fifth. Perhaps FitzGerald felt that "many a Knot" flowed more smoothly than "many Knots," which does seem a bit abrupt in comparison.

The most noticeable change occurs in the last line. FitzGerald changes the last line of the first edition from "But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate" to "But not the Master-Knot of Human Fate" in both the second and fifth editions. Up to this point, I think I have usually preferred the first version when he made changes, but this time I have to go with the change. The "Master Knot of Human Fate" seems more succinct and tight in comparison to wordier and looser "Knot of Human Death and Fate."

In this quatrain, as in others we have read so far, the Poet refers to a journey. Earlier journeys consisted of a visit to the wise and the holy and to the journey of life from an unknown source to an unknown goal. And in this journey, when the Poet symbolically leaves Earth for a trip to the planets, again we see this failure to unravel the "Knot of Human Fate."

The reference to the Knots that were unravel'd along the way make me wonder if this journey also refers to life. Saturn has various guises in numerous mythologies from that part of the globe. In some, Saturn is the god of the harvest, and some early Roman writers look back to Saturn's reign as a Golden Age. In others, Saturn is sometimes seen as Chronos, the god of time. In Gustav Holst's composition The Planets, Saturn is called The Bringer of Old Age. The Poet may see himself as an old man, who has solved his share of problems along the way, but not "the Master-Knot of Human Fate."

The Seventh Gate may reflect some Greek influence as Thebes had seven gates, and the seventh was called Saturn. Perhaps the Knot may be an echo of the story of Alexander the Great's solution to the problem of the Gordian Knot, which he also failed to unravel. Instead he cut it with a sword, which didn't solve the problem but reflected his inability to solve it.

Khayyam was an astronomer so he was well versed in the cosmological theories of the time. The two major theories proposed the geocentric universe, in which the earth was the center of the universe and all bodies revolved around it, and the heliocentric universe, in which the sun was the center of the universe and everything revolved around it. Both had been spelled out in Greece during the pre-Christian era, but during Khayyam's lifetime and, in fact, for about another five hundred years after Khayyam, the geocentric theory was the most popular one.

Philosophers had, long before Khayyam, devised the theory of the seven celestial spheres, in which Saturn was considered to be in the seventh sphere. In Dante's Paradiso, Saturn is depicted as the seventh level. According to the Wikipedia entry, during the Middle ages, "Christian and Muslim philosophers modified Ptolemy's system of the seven spheres to include an unmoved outermost region, the empyrean heaven, which came to be identified as the dwelling place of God and all the elect."

In this quatrain, it seems as though the Poet has accepted the geocentric theory, with Earth as the centre, and that he journeyed out among the spheres until he reached the seventh and final sphere that is accessible to one still living. In spite of the great distance he had traveled, and the years he has lived, the Poet tells us that he still has no answer to the ultimate question of Human Fate.