Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Walt Whitman: May 31, 1819 to March 26, 1892

From Song of Myself, Stanza 50

There is that in me--I do not know what it is--but I know it is in me.

Wrench'd and sweaty--calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep--I sleep long.

I do not know it--it is without name--it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.

Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.

Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters.

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death--it is form, union, plan-- it is eternal life--it is Happiness

From China, over 2000 years ago:

The Tao that can be told of
Is not the Absolute Tao;
The Names that cannot be given
Are not Absolute Names.

The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is the Mother of all Things.

From The Wisdom of Laotse (The Tao Te Ching)
Trans. Lin Yutang

Some ideas don't arise and die out; they linger, perhaps ignored for centuries, but they arise here and there sporadically. I think Laotse and Walt Whitman might well understand each other, far more than I can understand each. At best I get a glimpse of what they are hinting at, but only a glimpse, and also the feeling that I'm missing something here.

Whitman, of course, contradicts himself, as most do when they attempt to speak of that which cannot be spoken of. He says that there is something within him that is unknowable, save for its existence, and without name. And, then the last line:

It is not chaos or death--it is form, union, plan-- it is eternal life--it is Happiness.

Perhaps through writing about it, he is able to give it a name?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf

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

It’s been several decades since I last read Hesse’s Steppenwolf, so I was curious as to how well it would hold up and how I would understand it now, a half century later. At the end, I thought it still a very interesting and intriguing work, but my understanding of it now is quite different from what I understood the first time I read it. When I first read it, I saw it as a novel in isolation, something unique. Now, I see that Steppenwolf has its relatives; it does not exist in isolation.
Steppenwolf has essentially a two-part structure. Part One consists of defining Harry Haller’s personality, his conflicts, and his relationship to post-war society in Germany. Haller reveals himself and learns even more from a remarkable “free pamphlet” he is given —Treatise on the Steppenwolf: Not for Everybody.
In the second part, Harry meets the classic prostitute with a heart of gold who makes it her goal to teach Harry how to live and enjoy himself. Her lessons involve sex, drugs, and the fox trot. At the end, in the Magic Theater, Harry embarks on a trip of self-discovery with a rather unique goal—he is to learn to laugh.
Harry Haller can be seen in several different ways. One is that of the respected academic who is torn by conflicting feelings about himself and his relationship to society--a sense of isolation or alienation. Another would be that of a seeker who is searching for enlightenment. Yet, another would be that of a man undergoing a severe depression. One more might be what is called a “mid-life crisis” in pop psychology. The work would support any of these views, but the ending seems to support the second theory—that of the seeker searching for enlightenment, in a Buddhist sense, that is. This would give it ties to another work of his, Siddhartha, about which I posted a short commentary a short time ago.
Harry, though, sees himself as two conflicted beings: the respected academic and the Steppenwolf, the outsider, the free creature who is outside civilization. Frankly, however, Haller comes across, to me anyway, more like an wolf/dog who has run away, but who also clings to the outskirts of human society, fearing to enter, but unable to leave.
While reading it the second time, I was reminded throughout of several works which seemed, to me at least, to share common themes: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (1863), Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy ( 1872), and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1911). Steppenwolf was the latest of the four, first published in 1927.
I think Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy serves as a unifier of all three works. Nietzsche’s definition of the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies in human culture is exemplified by the three main characters: the German Gustave Aschenbach, the respected professor in Mann’s Death in Venice, the Russian underground man in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Harry Haller..
Nietzsche describes the Apollonian mind as possessing “that measured restraint, that freedom from the wilder emotions, that calm . . .” It is characterized by an intellectual, reasonable, temperate, and controlled life. The Dionysian is characterized as “chaos,” “a terror,” “blissful ecstasy,” or “intoxication,” “complete self-forgetfulness,” or ”union with nature.” It is the unpredictable, the irrational, the “uncivilized.” In other words, it is the two sides of human nature, antithetical but both necessary to art, to society and to culture—control and restraint civilization versus excess and extravagance and nature—the yin and yang of the Taoists.
The Notes from Underground has a structure that is similar to Steppenwolf. The first part consists of an extended passage in which the underground man (UM) reveals himself. He is a civil servant who has come into a small inheritance and has retired. He is an outsider with no friends or relatives. He lives in isolation. He sneers at society, but at the same time longs to join them, to be one of them, just as Harry mocks the bourgeoisie, but always lives among them and gains honor and respect as an academic.
In the second part, the UM forces himself upon some former student acquaintances who are giving a going-away party for one of the students. It is here we see, just as in Steppenwolf, the protagonist in action. The UM insists on attending the party, while mocking himself and eventually the others. He desires to be one with them, but actively works to make this impossible.
In the second part of Steppenwolf, Harry Haller meets Hermine who introduces him to a life of pleasure and sensuality drugs, music—especially dance music, alcohol, and sex—most of which Harry has sneered at in the past. Like the UM, Harry is immersed in society, but can’t really join them. Hermine is necessary to help him break out of his straitjacket, before he can move on.
The UM also meets a prostitute in the second part, but his encounter is quite the opposite of Harry’s. Where Harry is induced to join the pleasure seekers, the UM persuades Liza to escape from the life of a prostitute. However, when Liza appears at his apartment the next day, telling him that she wants to escape, he rejects her and sends her away.
Like Harry Haller, Thomas Mann’s Gustave Aschenbach is a respected academic. Unlike Haller, Aschenbach has dedicated his life to research and writing, with no contrary thoughts. Being a Steppenwolf is something Aschenbach has never considered throughout his life. However, at the beginning of Death in Venice, Aschenbach is tired, overworked, and sleeping badly. He decides to go for a walk, in hopes of reviving himself for another evening of productive work.
During the walk, he sees a traveler bearing a rucksack on his back, and this produces a most surprising emotional response: “the most surprising consciousness of a widening of inward barriers, a kind of vaulting unrest, a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes—a feeling so lively and so new, or at least so long ago outgrown and forgotten that he stood there rooted to the spot . . . a longing to travel. . . such suddenness and passion as to resemble a seizure . . .”
He ”imaged the marvels and terrors of the manifold earth. He saw. He beheld a landscape, a tropical marshland, beneath a reeking sky, steaming, monstrous, rank—a kind of primeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses, and alluvial channels. Hairy palm trunks rose near and far out of lush brakes of fern, out of bottoms of crass vegetation, fat, swollen, thick with incredible bloom. There were trees , misshapen as a dream . . .”
Nietzsche would recognize this as a Dionysian seizure, emerging from decades of a controlled life of mental activity. Unlike Haller though, Aschenbach has not led a tormented life of struggle between the two tendencies but had successfully suppressed that aspect of his personality. Now the desire to travel, actually more of an escape from his life of dedication to the intellect, has taken over and he flees to Venice. It is in Venice that he sees the Polish youth Tadzio and forgetting all restraint, becomes obsessed with him. Like Haller, he puts aside his Apollonian measured and controlled existence for the chaos and excesses of the Dionysian.
The three works conclude quite differently and, in fact, cover the possible spectrum of endings. The UM apparently is trapped in his self-induced isolation, with no exit seemingly possible. Aschenbach’s obsession ends in death. Haller really comes to no end in the work for he is now trapped in the Magic Theater.
“I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often the hell of my inner being.
One day I would be a better hand at this game. One day I would learn how to laugh.”
This has the flavor of the Buddhist belief that all are trapped within the endless cycle of birth and death until one becomes enlightened and now free to achieve the ultimate goal of existence—Nirvana. For Harry, the goal is to laugh the laugh of the immortals.
Is it coincidence that Harry Haller’s initials are HH, as are those of the author?
Overall Reaction: a remarkable book, which I now find richer and more thought-provoking than I found it the first time around, when it did not bring to mind the works of Nietzsche, Mann, and Dostoyevsky. No doubt there are other works that other readers can bring to mind while reading Steppenwolf.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Simon J. Ortiz: May 27, 1941--

Both poems come from

Simon Ortiz: Woven Stone
The University of Arizona Press, Tucson and London

The Dedication from the book:

For my children,
Raho Nez, Rainy Dawn, and Sara Marie,
and their children--
and their children's children henceforth:

The stories and poems come forth,
and I am only a voice telling them.
They are the true source themselves.
The language of them is the vision
by which we see out and in and all around.

Frequently duties require doing things one doesn't want to do, right now, but they must be done--even if one isn't sure of the goal or why it is obscure.

Evening Beach Walk

I don't really feel like walking
at first
but somehow feel I must
since I have come
this far
to this edge,
and so I walk.

The sun is going downwards
or rather one point changes to another,
and I know I am confronting
another horizon.

A dog comes sniffing at my knees
and I hold my hand to him,
and he sniffs, wags his tail
and trots away to join a young couple,
his friends, who smile as we meet.

I look many times as the sun sets
and I don't know why I can't see
clearly the horizon that I've imagined.
Maybe it's the clouds, the smog,
maybe it's the changing.

It's a duty with me,
I know, to find the horizon
and I keep on walking on the ocean's edge,
looking for things in the dim light

-- Simon J. Ortiz --

This is the poem that comes directly after "Evening Beach Walk." I wonder if there's a connection here.

A Patience Poem for the Child
That is Me

Be patient child,
be patient, quiet.
The rivers run into the center
of the earth
and around
revolve all things
and flow
into the center.
Be patient, child,

-- Simon J. Ortiz --

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hitomaro: a poem

I first read this several days ago, and now, every morning, I can't help but think of this poem.

Halting in front of it, I look
At the reflection which is in the depths
Of my clear mirror,
It gives me the impression of meeting
An unknown old gentleman

-- Hitomaro -- (c. 700 AD)
from The World's Best Poems
Mark van Doran and Garibaldi M. Lapolla, ed.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Memoriam: Langston Hughes Feb. 1, 1902--May 22, 1967

Afro-American Fragment

So long,
So far away
Is Africa.
Not even memories alive
Save those that history books create,
Save those that songs
Beat back into the blood--
Beat out of blood with words sad-sung
In strange un-Negro tongue--
So long,
So far away
Is Africa.

Subdued and time-lost
Are the drums--and yet
Through some vast mist of race
There comes this song
I do not understand,
This song of atavistic land,
Of bitter yearnings lost
Without a place--
So long,
So far away
Is Africa's
Dark face.

-- Langston Hughes --
from Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Something to think about

It always surprises me, I don't know why, when I find that some current attitudes have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Consider these two poems, one by Po Chu-i (772-846), and one by Su Tung-p'o (1036-1101).

Remembering Golden Bells

Ruined and ill,--a man of two score;
Pretty and guileless, --a girl of three.
Not a boy,--but still better than nothing:
To soothe one's feeling,--from time to time a kiss!
There came a day,--they suddenly took her from me;
Her soul's shadow wandered I know not where.
And when I remembered how just at the time she died
She lisped strange sounds, beginning to learn to talk,
Then I know that the ties of flesh and blood
Only bind us to a load of grief and sorrow.
At last, by thinking of the time before she was born,
By thought and reason I drove the pain away.
Since my heart forgot her, many days have passed
And three times winter has changed to spring.
This morning, for a little, the old grief came back,
Because, in the road, I met her foster-nurse.

-- Po Chu-i (772-846) --
trans. by Arthur Waley

The third line reminded me of an article I had read just recently about a potentially serious problem in China. Because of the stringent birth laws (one child per family), many families will kill female babies because they prefer to have a male child. A male child will be able to provide some support when they are no longer able to work, whereas a female child will marry into the husband's family, who will support his parents. There is a concern that this will translate into a severe imbalance in the near future, with males being in greater numbers than females. This will make it more difficult for males to set up their own households.

This father has a interesting philosophy regarding his son and his hopes for the boy's future.

On The Birth of His Son

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

-- Su Tung-p'o (1036-1101) --
trans. by Arthur Waley

This poem needs no comments from me.

Both poems come from
The World's Best Poems
Mark van Doren and Garibaldi M. Lapolla, ed.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Franz Kafka: "A Country Doctor"

Franz Kafka, "A Country Doctor," a short story.

It begins relatively sanely:

"I was in great perplexity; I had to start on an urgent journey; a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles off."

The situation? He had to get to a village ten miles away to treat a seriously ill patient, it was snowing heavily, his horse had died during the night from overwork, and he couldn't find anyone to loan him a horse. He does have a serious problem, but it doesn't sound strange or bizarre at all, at least not to me. But wait . . . This is Kafka!

I've read a number of Kafka's short stories (I find his novels almost unreadable) and some critical commentaries about them. Many refer to a "dreamlike" quality to them, and my immediate thought is that "nightmare" would be a more accurate term. However, I had to agree when I read "A Country Doctor." In fact, I will argue that this really is a dream, for there are too many elements in this story that are found typically in dreams to even consider it something happening in reality, even a bizarre reality that Kafka so frequently creates.

Spoiler Warning:

The first sign of a dream occurs immediately after the setting of the story. A stranger crawls out on his hands and knees of the abandoned pigsty. He is followed by "two horses, enormous creatures with powerful flanks, one after the other, their legs tucked close to their bodies, each well-shaped head lowered like a camel's, by sheer strength of buttocking squeezed out through the door hole which they filled entirely." The doctor does not seem surprised at this and immediately accepts the offer of the loan of the horses.

Does this seem possible, even in Kafka's admittedly bizarre world--that a horse would or even could crawl on all fours into a small pigsty? In a dream, this might happen, and the doctor's lack of surprise is typical of a dreamer's reaction to the outlandish events found in dreams.

What happens next is also commonly found in dreams: a quick change of scene. The doctor goes through his courtyard gate and is at the patient's farm, with no time passing, as if the two were adjacent and not ten miles apart. It seems that there is no travel time in dreams if one succeeds in going from one place to another.

He arrives at the farmhouse and discovers there's nothing wrong with the patient. He is about to leave when, again, the scene turns bizarre. The horses have somehow slipped loose from their halters and are standing at a open window, with their heads protruding into the room. They whinny loudly, and he discovers that the patient has a large wound near his hip. The village elders suddenly appear, and they and the family take his clothes off when the village choir appears and begins to sing:

"Strip his clothes off, then he'll heal us,
If he doesn't, kill him dead!
Only a doctor, only a doctor".

They pick him up and place him in the bed with the patient, and all leave the room. After reassuring the patient that all is well, the doctor gets out of bed, gathers up his bag and clothes, and without bothering to dress, he goes outside in the nude, in the midst of a blizzard. He mounts one of the horses and as is typical of a dream, or nightmare, when one wants to travel quickly, the exact opposite occurs.

"Gee up!' I [the doctor] said, but there was no galloping; slowly, like old men, we crawled through the snowy wastes; a long time echoed behind us the new but faulty song of the children:

'O be joyful, all you patients,
The doctor's laid in bed beside you!'

Never shall I reach home at this rate."

While Kafka is known for his bizarre tales, many of the elements here indicate that this really is a dream (nightmare, if you prefer). Looking at this as a dream, one might come up with some interesting interpretations of several of the elements. For example, the stranger and the horses are found in a pigsty. His servant girl laughs and says, "You never know what you are going to find in your own house." This, of course, is not true for the pig sty is a separate place. He doesn't know what is in there, just as we do not know what is in our unconscious minds. The unconscious is the repository of desires and needs, many of which we don't wish to acknowledge--disgusting things--the type of things suggested by a pig sty. Dreams supposedly are the manner in which the unconscious makes known these hidden needs and desires, although in a disguised way.

Numerous dream interpretation theories also include the belief that some characters found in dreams are actually disguised substitutes of the dreamer, engaging in activities that the dreamer finds distasteful or evil. As the doctor leaves his house, the stranger breaks into the house, and the doctor knows that he is going to attack the servant girl, "the pretty girl who had lived in my house for years almost without my noticing her." He "almost" didn't notice that she was a "pretty girl." I wonder if the stranger is acting out what the doctor has really wanted to do for a long time.

Later, at the patient's house, he, at first, couldn't find anything wrong, but then discovers a large wound near the hip. One of the most common ways of suggesting impotence is a reference to a wound near the hip or thigh. Is the patient another substitute for the doctor? Could the dreamer be having doubts about his sexuality? In addition are the strange events in the farmhouse where the doctor is stripped of his clothes and placed nude in the bed next to the patient, on the side where the wound is. That could suggest that the two are the same person.

I think there are enough clues in the tale to suggest that this really is a dream, but I must admit, though, that unless written confirmation by Kafka is found, there is no way of proving that the above interpretation has any validity. On the other hand, letting one's imagination run loose once in awhile can be fun. Stretching one's muscles is healthy; perhaps stretching one's mind is also.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Emily Dickinson: Dec 10, 1830--May 15, 1886, In Memoriam

Emily Dickinson lived only fifty-six years, and much of that time as a recluse. However, the almost 1800 poems that she wrote will keep her memory alive as long as someone still reads poetry.

Dickinson never used titles for her poems, which creates a problem for her editors. One solution has been to use the first line as a title. There is now a second solution, now that all of her poems have been collected into one volume--The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson--which is edited by Thomas H. Johnson. He has tried to order the poems chronologically and has numbered them. So, I will use the numbering system devised by Johnson. Readers trying to locate the poems in other collections should search on the first line of the poem.

Dickinson wrote a large number of poems that dealt with death, so I again thought it appropriate to post one of them today. This is one of her most anthologized poems.

No. 465

I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of the Storm--

The Eyes around--had wrong them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset--when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--

I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable--and then it was
There interposed a Fly--

With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--
Between the light--and me--
And then the Windows failed--and then
I could not see to see--

-- Emily Dickinson --

The last line has always intrigued me--"I could not see to see--" Why not simply "I could not see"?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Michel de Montaigne on prognostication

The following quotations are from Montaigne's Essays, specifically Chapter 11, "Of Prognostications."

And although there still remain among us certain methods of divination, by stars, by spirits, by ghosts, by dreams, and otherwise--a notable example of the senseless curiosity of our nature, occupying itself with future matters, as if it had not enough to do with digesting those at hand.

Montaigne then quotes Horace: As for those who understand the language of birds and learn more from the liver of a beast than from their own thought, they should be heard, rather than heeded.

Montaigne's next observations could be written today:

I see some who study and annotate their almanacs, and hold them up to us as authority about the things that are taking place. . . I think no better of them because I see them sometimes make a lucky hit. . . It may be added that no one keeps a record of their miscalculations, as they are of common occurrence and endless; and everyone ranks their true prognostics as remarkable, incredible, and prodigious.

I should greatly like to have beheld with my own eyes those two marvels--the book of Joachim, the Calabrian abbot who predicted all the Popes to come, their names and persons; and that of the Emperor Leo, who predicted the emperors and patriarchs of Greece. This I have seen with my own eyes, that, in times of public confusion, men amazed by what happens to them fall back, as into other forms of superstition, into seeking in the heavens the causes and past threatenings of their ill-fortune; and they are so strangely lucky at it in my time that they have convinced me that, inasmuch as it is an occupation for keen and idle minds, those who are trained to this subtle art of knotting and unknotting these signs would be capable of finding in any writings whatever they sought therein. But what above all helps them in this game is the obscure, ambiguous, and fantastic language of the prophetical jargon, to which those who use it give no clear sense, so that posterity may ascribe to it any meaning it pleases.

Interesting observations by Montaigne:

I think no better of them because I see them sometimes make a lucky hit. . . It may be added that no one keeps a record of their miscalculations, as they are of common occurrence and endless; and everyone ranks their true prognostics as remarkable, incredible, and prodigious.

and they are so strangely lucky at it in my time that they have convinced me that, inasmuch as it is an occupation for keen and idle minds, those who are trained to this subtle art of knotting and unknotting these signs would be capable of finding in any writings whatever they sought therein.

But what above all helps them in this game is the obscure, ambiguous, and fantastic language of the prophetical jargon, to which those who use it give no clear sense, so that posterity may ascribe to it any meaning it pleases.

Montaigne wrote this five centuries ago, Horace over two thousand years ago. I find it incomprehensible that the same minds are still with us, and with those believers come those who prey on them and profit from them.

I wonder how many are now claiming to have predicted the demise of Osama bin Laden.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Something to think about

No. 3

The source of man's creativeness is in his deficiencies; he compensates himself for what he lacks. He became Homo faber--a maker of weapons and tools--to compensate for his lack of specialized organs. He became Homo ludens--a player, tinkerer, and artist--to compensate for his lack of inborn skills. He became a speaking animal to compensate for his lack of the telepathic faculty by which animals communicate with east other. He became a thinker to compensate for the ineffectualness of his instincts.

Eric Hoffer
Reflections on the Human Condition

I'm not sure I can go along with all of this. I have some doubts about the telepathic faculty which he says animals have.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XL

This is the second quatrain in a set of six that refer in some way to either the grape or the vine. The other quatrains are XXIX, XLI, XLII, and XLIII.

The frequent references to wine seems strange since Moslems do not drink alcohol, or at least that's what I've always heard. Some commentators explain this by stating that Khayyam is not referring to wine or alcohol. Instead, he really means God's grace or something similar. In some quatrains, that could be a possible interpretation, but in others, I don't see how it's possible. It's something for the reader to puzzle over.

First Edition: Quatrain XL

You know, my Friends, how long since in my House
For a new Marriage I did make Carouse:
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

Second Edition: Quatrain LVII

You know, my Friends, how bravely in my House
For a new Marriage I did make Carouse;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LV

You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a Second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,
And took the daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

The changes all take place in the first two lines as the third and fourth lines are identical in all three editions.

In the first line, "long since" becomes "brave." "Long since" suggests time or duration, which can be appropriate when talking about actions. However, "brave" means "courageous," and that doesn't seem to fit too well. I checked on the meaning for "Carouse," and it clearly matches the sense of the quatrain for it means "boisterous, drunken, merrymaking"--which goes well with the themes of a marriage celebration and the Vine. But, some secondary meanings of "brave" are "colorful," "gay," "splendid," or "making a fine display." I think these adjectives are a better fit with boisterous, drunken, and merrymaking than courageous. The fifth edition is closest to the second, for the reference to brave remains, even though the word order is changed.

The second change occurs between the second edition and the fifth editions:

Second Edition: For a new Marriage I did make Carouse;

Fifth Edition: I made a Second Marriage in my house;

I think the most significant change is the substitution of "Second" in the fifth edition for "new" in both the first and second editions. I think the tone is different. "New" suggests something different, something fresh or novel--a fresh beginning. On the other hand, "second" is just the next in a series--first, second, third . . . I think it lacks that excitement or hope of a change found in "new."

The overall sense here is that of abandoning "barren reason," which refers back to the reference to "fruitful grape" in the previous quatrain. It's another statement of the narrator's conviction that logic and reason get one nowhere, as he has frequently argued in earlier quatrains.