Monday, August 29, 2011

John Fowles: from Wormholes

I'm slowly working my way through John Fowles' collection of personal essays, literary criticism, memoirs, and other writings. The following are quotations from an essay "I Write Therefore I Am," which he wrote in 1964.

In January of 1963 I decided to leave work. I can't imagine myself as a professional writer. Writing has always been with me a semireligious occupation, by which I certainly don't mean that I regard it with pious awe, but rather that I can't regard it simply as a craft, a job. I know when I am writing well that I am writing with more than the sum of my acquired knowledge, skill, and experience; with something from outside myself.

Inspiration, the muse experience, is like telepathy. Nowadays one hardly dares to say that inexplicable phenomena exist for fear of being kicked in the balls by the positivists and the behaviorists and the other hyperscientists. But there is a metatechnics that needs investigation.

I don't think of myself as "giving up work to be a writer." I'm giving up work to, at last, be.

To a career man, I suppose, the decision would seem lunatic, perhaps even courageous. But a bank vault is secure; an atomic shelter is secure; death is secure. Security is one of the prison walls of the affluent society; even since the pax Romana, being safe has been an unhealthy mega-European obsession

Back in 1964, anyway, he probably would be considered a bit of a romantic--writing as a form of being, inspiration coming from somewhere else, outside himself; disdain for the positivists and "hyperscientists. I could see him getting along comfortably with Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, LeFanu, Blackwood, or M. R. James.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Weather Report

Tucson, Arizona

3:26 MST

Temperature: 108 F

Humidity: 14%

Heat Index: 105 F

Vendor of bright fans
Carrying his pack of breeze . . .
Suffocating heat!
-- Shiki --

It may be a dry heat, but it's still hot.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Michel de Montaigne: on Montaigne

The following quotation is from Montaigne's Introduction to the first edition of his Essays.

"To the Reader"

This is an honest book, reader. It gives you to know, at this outset, that I have proposed to myself only an intimate and private end; I have not considered what would be serviceable for you or for my renown; my powers are not equal to such a design. I have devoted these pages to the particular pleasure of my kinsmen and friends; to the end that, when they have lost me (which they must do ere long), they may find herein some touches of my qualities and moods, and that, by this means, they may cherish more completely and more vividly the knowledge thy have had of me. Had I purposed to see public favour, I should have better adorned myself, and presented myself in a studied attitude. I desire to be seen in my simple, natural, everyday guise, without effort and artifice; for it is my own self that I portray. My imperfections will be seen herein to the life, and my personal nature, so far as respect for the public has permitted this. I assure you that, had I been living among those nations which are said still to dwell under the benign license of the primal laws of nature, I should very readily have painted myself quite completely, and quite naked. Since, reader, I am thus, myself, the subject of my book, it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on so trivial and empty a matter.

So, farewell. From Montaigne this first March, 1580.

Montaigne says elsewhere that he knows that others hold different opinions, but he has no intention of convincing or converting others to his way of thinking. He is simply telling the reader what he himself thinks.

So, here is Montaigne on his subject: Montaigne

My purpose is to pass quietly and not laboriously what remains to me of life. There is nothing I care to weary my brains about, not even learning, however great its value. In books I seek only to give myself pleasure by worthy entertainment; or, if I study, I then seek only the learning which treats of the knowledge of myself and which instructs me how to die well and to live well.

. . . . .

If I meet with any difficulties, I do not bite my nails over them; I give them up, after attacking them once or twice. If I sat down to them, I should waste myself and my time; for I have a nimble wit. What I do not see at the first attack I see even less by persisting about it. I do nothing without animation; an continuation and too earnest effort confuse my judgement, dispirit and weary it.

. . . . .

If this book wearies me, I take up another; and I give myself to it only at times when the irksomeness of doing nothing begins to lay hold upon me. I care little for new books because the old ones seem to me fuller and stronger; nor for those in Greek, because my judgement can not do its work with imperfect and unskilled comprehension

Michel de Montaigne
February 28, 1533 -- September 13, 1592
"On Books"
from The Essays of Montaigne

The last sentence of the quotation refers to Montaigne's imperfect knowledge of Greek rather than to any imperfections that may be in the books themselves.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


One of the poet's favorite or at least one of the most frequent themes is death. I think Emily Dickinson wrote several hundred poems on that theme. I suspect that probably every poet of some fame has written at least one or more on death. And, their treatment of death is as varied as they themselves are. Here is one I just discovered that dates back to about 1900 B. C., over four thousand years ago.

Death is Before Me Today

Death is before me today
like health to the sick
like leaving the bedroom after sickness.

Death is before me today
like the odor of myrrh
like sitting under a cloth on a day of wind.

Death is before me today
like the odor of lotus
like sitting down on the shore of drunkenness.

Death is before me today
like the end of the rain
like a man's home-coming after the wars abroad.

Death is before me today
like the sky when it clears
like a man's wish to see home after numberless years of captivity.

-- anon --
c. 1900 B. C.
W. S. Merwin, trans
World Poetry
Katharine Washburn & John B. Major, Editors

The anonymous poet's view is that death is just returning home after a long absence. Taoists say something very similar: we come out of the Void, are here for awhile, and then return to the Void.

But, there's Dylan Thomas, whom I think would not agree.

(from) Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

. . . . .

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Come. bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And Emily Dickinson?

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste —
And I had put away
My labor — and my leisure too,
For His Civility.

We passed the School where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —

Or rather — He passed Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill —
For only Gossamer, my Gown —
My Tippet — only Tulle —

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground

Since then — ‘tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity.

I think she and the anonymous Egyptian poet would agree.

And the haiku poets of Japan

A saddening world:
Flowers whose sweet blooms must fall . . .
As we too, alas . . .
-- Issa --


Leaf alone, fluttering
Alas, leaf alone, fluttering . . .
Floating down the wind.
-- anon --


I have known lovers . . .
Cherry-bloom . . . the nightingale . . .
I will sleep content.
-- anon --


If they ask for me
Say: he had some business
In another world
-- Sukan --

Traditionally, haiku poets would, if they were able, write one last haiku, which then became their death song. Ideally it would express their feelings about their impending death.

As for me, well, death is in the future for all of us. It approaches at its own speed and will meet us at its own choosing. There's no need, though, to rush forward to greet it. It will come. Perhaps between now and that day, I may agree with the anonymous Egyptian poet or Emily Dickinson.

But not today.

The haiku are from
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Peter Beilenson, trans.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ray Bradbury: August 22, 1920,

Spoiler Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and events.

Here are three short tales by Ray Bradbury, whose birthday we celebrate today. I had read only one of them before, “The Crowd,” and possibly I might even have seen a TV dramatization of it. When I think of the story, an image comes to mind. The camera, if that’s what it is, is on the ground facing up and one can see faces all around, just as if one were lying on the ground with a crowd gathered about. The other two stories are new to me, but also enjoyable, if one can take a touch of horror along with some greed.
“The Coffin”
Charles Braling was old. His brother Richard was younger. Charles was rich, and almost everything he did made him richer. Richard was poor, except for what Charles gave him. Everything Richard did had been a failure. Charles was dying; he had perhaps only several weeks to live. That was why he was in such a hurry to complete his latest invention—“The Braling Economy Casket.” Richard wasn’t dying, which meant there were two reasons for him to be happy: one was that he wasn’t dying and the other was that Charles was. In spite of their many differences, the two brothers did share something—a mutual hatred.
Richard, along with greed, possessed one more characteristic: curiosity. Curiosity may not always be fatal, but it’s certainly much deadlier when paired off with greed. That was why, when Charles died, he ignored Charles’ last wish, to be buried in his special casket, which he had finished minutes before he died. Richard wanted to find out just what this coffin could do. Perhaps it might be marketable. It was his brother’s idea after all, and those had been remarkably profitable. So, he called the funeral parlor, and gave his orders: “Ordinary casket . . . No funeral service. Put him in a pine coffin. He would have preferred it that way—simple. Good-by.”
Now, Richard thought, to find out about the coffin. It was approximately twelve feet long, with a central open section about six feet in length. It had two covered sections, one at the head and one at the foot, each about three feet in length. The casket lid was transparent at the head position. The casket was also extraordinarily wide, perhaps three feet wide on each side of the central chamber for the body. Richard could see no openings or hatches or buttons or any way of getting inside those compartments, at least from the outside. So, he decided to get in the casket and test it. There were ventilating holes around the sides, and just to be safe, he told the gardener to come upstairs in about fifteen minutes to make sure all was well.
So, he crawled inside and looked around. He could see nothing that would give him access to the compartments. Suddenly the lid slammed shut and locked. He panicked at first, but then relaxed. There was enough air in the casket, along with the ventilating holes, and the gardener would soon be along. He might as well relax.
Then . . .
“The music began to play.
It seemed to come from somewhere inside the head of the coffin. It was green music. Organ music, very slow and melancholy, typical of Gothic arches and long black tapers. It smelled of earth and whispers. It echoed high between stone walls. It was so sad that one almost cried listening to it. It was music of potted plants and crimson and blue stained-glass windows. It was late sun at twilight and a cold wind blowing. It was a dawn with only fog and a faraway fog horn moaning.
. . . . .
The sermon began.
The organ music subsided and a gentle voice said:
‘We are gathered together, those who loved and those who knew the deceased, to give him our homage and our due—‘
‘Charlie, bless you, that’s your voice!’ Richard was delighted. ‘A mechanical funeral, by God. Organ music and lecture. And Charlie giving his own oration for himself!’
The voice continued:
“We who knew and loved him are grieved at the passing of Richard Braling.”
Richard thought he had misheard the voice. That should have been Charles Braling.
And then Richard found out just how complete the funerary arrangements were that Charles had built into the Braling Economy Casket.
I felt a bit sorry for Richard, for after all, he hadn’t really done anything that wrong. But, if he had followed Charles’s wishes, and if he hadn't been so greedy and curious, none of this would have happened.

“The Crowd”
I had read this story long ago and, as I mentioned earlier, may even have seen a dramatized version of it. It’s a quiet little story based on observable facts, something we have all seen, but, as far as I know, only Ray Bradbury wondered about it and gave us this little gem. We’ve all seen this: an accident happens and a crowd forms. Where did all these people come from? Who were they? The sidewalks and entrances may have been empty before, but let an accident happen and a crowd forms.
Mr. Spallner had been in an accident—lots of noise, tumbling motions, and then silence.
‘The crowd came running. Faintly, where he lay, he heard them running. He could tell their ages and their sizes by the sound of their numerous feet over the summer grass and on the lined pavement, and over the asphalt street; and picking through cluttered bricks to where his car hung half into the night sky, still spinning its wheels with a senseless centrifuge.
. . . .
Where the crowd came from he didn’t know. He struggled to remain aware and then the crowd faces hemmed in upon him, hung over like the large glowing leaves of down bent trees. There were a ring of shifting, compressing changing faces over him, looking down, looking down, reading the time of his life or death by his face, making his face into a moon-dial, where the moon cast a shadow from his nose out upon his cheek to tell the time of breathing or not breathing any more ever.”

Several weeks later, Spallner was released from the hospital and eventually returns to his office. While talking with a colleague, he hears the sound of a crash from the street below.
“Spallner walked to the window. He was very cold and as he stood there, he looked at his watch, at the small minute hand. One two three four five seconds – people running—eight nine ten eleven twelve – from all over, people came running –fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen seconds – more people, more cars, more horns blowing. Curiously distant, Spallner looked upon the scene as an explosion in reverse, the fragments of the detonation sucked back to the point of implosion. Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one seconds and the crowd was there, Spallner made a gesture down at them, wordless.
The crowd had gathered so fast.”

Spallner becomes obsessed with the crowd. He searches old newspaper for pictures of accidents and begins to see that some of the faces in the photographs of the crowds went back decades, seemingly without aging. He detects patterns of appearances of faces in the crowds. Some faces appeared in only one photograph, but others showed again and again. And some of the accident victims died because somebody in the crowd had moved them before an ambulance arrived on the scene. Was that deliberate, Spallner wondered?
Spallner gathers his evidence and decides to take it to the police. Perhaps they might make something of it. But, he never makes to the police station.
“He was rather shocked, but not surprised, somehow, when the truck came rolling out of an alley straight at him. He was just congratulating himself on his keen sense of observation and talking out what he would say to the police in his mind, when the truck smashed into his car.
. . . . .
The crowd was there. . .
He hadn’t felt much at the impact, his spine was hurt. He didn’t dare move. . .
Someone said, ‘Give me a hand. We’ll roll him over and lift him into a more comfortable position. . .”

Lucky Spallner. Thanks to his curiosity and his keen sense of observation, he is now going to get the answers to all his questions about The Crowd.


The Scythe
This is a horror story, about a man who has just hit bottom, and thinks that it can’t get worse. He should have talked to my grandmother, a cheerful soul; one of her favorite sayings was “Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.” I guess that was meant to cheer us up, but somehow it never quite succeeded.
Drew Erickson was out of work, out of money, and out of gas. That he was also lost didn’t make much difference since he couldn’t go anywhere even if he did know where to go. With him were his wife Molly and their two children.
Off in the distance he could see a golden wheat field, ripe enough for the scythe. And, beyond that, a small farmhouse. Hoping for help, trading work for food and perhaps shelter, he went to the farmhouse. He got no answer when he knocked and called, so he went in. He found the occupant upstairs in the bedroom.
“The paper lay open on the pillow beside the old man’s head. It was meant to be read. Maybe a request for burial, or to call a relative. Drew scowled over the words, moving his pale, dry lips.
To him who stands beside me at my death bed:
Being of sound mind, and alone in the world as it has been decreed, I, John Buhr, do give and bequeath this farm, with all pertaining to it, to the man who is to come. Whatever his name or origin shall be, it will not matter. The farm is his, and the wheat; the scythe, and the task ordained thereto. Let him take them freely, and without question – and remember that I, John Buhr, am only the giver, not the ordainer. To which I set my hand and seal this third day of April, 1938.
[Signed] John Buhr, Kyrie eleison!

A scythe leaned on the wall beside the bed. “Words were scratched on the blade: Who wields me – wields the world!”
Their luck had changed: food in the refrigerator, shelter, a bull and several cows, and a farm that was theirs.
Several days later, Drew decides to go to work. The wheat needs cutting. He went out with the scythe. At the end of the day, he was puzzled. The golden wheat he cut down began immediately to rot and disintegrate as he watched it. Secondly, it was a huge field but only a small portion was ripe for cutting, a portion that he could do in one day. On the second day, he could see green shoots already springing up where he had cut down the ripe stalks, and another portion of wheat that had been green yesterday was now ripe for cutting.
Eventually Drew tries to stop cutting the wheat for it rotted away too quickly to be harvested. Cutting the wheat, therefore, was a waste of time. But, when he tried to stop, he felt some force working on him, forcing him eventually to go out there.
While cutting a ripe section of wheat one day, he swore he could hear his mother’s voice cry out as he cut a stalk. He became convinced that he had killed his mother. And the rest of the wheat? Were they also people. He sent off a telegram and got word several days later that his mother had died, approximately at the same time he had cut that stalk.
Drew now understood the meaning of the words on the scythe; he was Death. The true horror of what he was doing struck home when he encountered stalks that he knew were his wife Molly and his two children.
Spoiler Warning: I reveal the ending of the story at this point.

“And then, sobbing wildly, he rose above the grain again and again and hewed to the left and right and to left and to right and to left and to right. Over and over and over! Slicing out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, over and over, swearing, laughing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling in the sun with a singing whistle! Down!
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo.
The blade swung insanely.
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet.
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling.
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night…
And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he can no longer cares what he does to the world.
. . . . .
“Once in awhile during the long years a jalopy gets off the main highway, pulls up steaming in front of the charred ruin of a little white house at the end of the dirt road, to ask instructions from the farmer they see just beyond, the one who works insanely, wildly, without ever stopping, night and day, in the endless fields of wheat.
But they got no help and no answer. The farmer in the field is too busy, even after all these year; too busy slashing and chopping the green wheat instead of the ripe.
And Drew Erickson moves on with his scythe, with the light of a blind suns and a look of white fire in his never-sleeping eyes, on and on and on . . . ”

I wonder: is it more comforting, after reading the daily headlines and studying the history of the human race, to think that what we do is caused by madmen, rather than by sane, ordinary people.
A thought just occurred to me. Could Drew be symbolic of weapons makers and inventors or creators of weapons--possibly nuclear weapons?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Gold Coast

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast (TGC) is one of the three novels in what was first called "The Orange County" trilogy, but is now being marketed as "The Three Californias." However, I still prefer my title, "The California Troika." The three novels are set in Orange County, California, at approximately the middle of the 21st century. However, they do not overlap because Robinson has postulated three widely differing futures for Orange County. It is, therefore, an alternate universe series, of a very unique kind.

I have already posted on another of the three novels--The Wild Shore (TWS), .which was a "What if" novel--one that answers the question what if there was a nuclear attack on the US? What would life be like for the survivors in Orange County some half century later?

The Gold Coast belongs to the “If this goes on” category, for it postulates the continuation of the Cold War along with massive urban population growth for Orange County, which is now a center for the military-industrial complex. Much of the industry in Orange County now consists of defense contractors, corporations whose existence depends upon gaining contracts for military weapons. The novel is an extrapolation of Orange County in the 80s when it was written.

The third novel, Pacific Edge, is a “What if” novel and is, in comparison to these two, pure fantasy. I will go into that in more detail in a later post.

While the two novels occupy widely varying universes, Robinson appears to have created a very broad pattern, at least for these two novels. The main character is a young male, Jim McPherson. In TGC he is about a decade older than the main character (Hank Fletcher) is in TWS. Physically McPherson is older; however, he still is a teenager for he hasn’t grown up yet. McPherson is still “finding himself.” He has two part-time jobs, one as a data entry clerk and the other a part-time instructor at a night school.

A second commonality is the importance of the relationship between the young man and his father, though the relationships are quite different. Jim McPherson’s father, Dennis, is an engineer who works for a defense contractor. A significant part of the story concerns the father’s problems at work, both with the work itself and his immediate supervisor, whose goal is getting the task done, regardless of whatever harm this might do to his subordinates.

The father has a dream: the weapons system (reminds me a bit of Pres. Reagan’s Star Wars System) he is now working on could eliminate the need for nuclear weapons. It might not completely eliminate war, but at least it will remove a possible nuclear holocaust that both threatens and sustains the volatile political world situation. As it is, the US is now involved in “Open wars in Indonesia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Thailand” and “Covert wars in Pakistan, Turkey, South Korea, and Belgium.”

Dennis McPherson’s job and employer are two of the reasons for the estrangement between Jim and his father. Jim is vaguely opposed to the war and therefore opposed to his father’s work. Dennis is unhappy with his son whom he feels hasn’t grown up yet, even though he was graduated from high school a decade ago. He also feels he’s being used by Jim as Jim only comes around when he wants a free meal and he needs his father to work on his car.

Both novels begin with digging into the past. In TWS, Hank and his friends, one night, go to a graveyard, hoping to dig up some coffins and find something valuable that they could use for bargaining at the local swap meet. In TGC, Jim and his friends dig up a parking lot, which covered the foundation of a school, hoping to find some relics of the past. In both cases, they are discovered and are forced to leave without finding anything valuable.

In both novels, there is an old man named Tom. Tom is an important character in TWS as he is one of the few sources of information about the world before the nuclear holocaust. In TGC, Tom is Jim’s uncle who plays a very minor role in the novel. However, he too is a source of information (occasionally) of what Orange County was like half a century ago.

One of the strongest parts of the novel is Robinson’s creation of a culture that is recognizable today, with some major differences, of course. If one were to describe Jim’s life, one couldn’t go too far wrong by bringing back the old cliché: “Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” One of Jim’s friends is Sandy, who is an independent drug designer. What I find interesting is that his drugs are taken with an eyedropper and deposited directly on the eye. I guess this makes for a quicker absorption as it goes directly into the brain and also more efficient as less of the drug is lost along the way. Another friend is Tashi, who lives in a tent on a roof and tends his own rooftop garden. He fixes computers and other electronic devices.

The controlling technology in this world is TV. Nobody in the late 80s could have foreseen the development of the mobile phone and its impact on society. TV in TGC has supplanted reality. Jim, at a party, having accidentally hit himself on his head and under the influence of Sandy’s latest creation, has gotten himself involved in a ping-pong game with the local champion and is playing way over his head, making spectacular volleys and saves. The game gains the interest of the other partygoers who eventually leave the room the game is being played in for the adjoining room where they can watch it on CCTV. All of Jim’s friends, including Jim, have their places wired for CCTV so they can see what’s going on in any room from any room in the place. They would much rather watch the game on a TV screen than watch it directly.

Another incident demonstrating the superiority of life on a monitor over a flesh-and-blood presence occurs shortly after the ping-pong game. Jim hooks up with Virginia, and they leave the party for her place for sex. They arrive at her place:

Virginia flips on the lights, turns on the video system. Eight little cameras mounted high on the walls track them with IR sensors, and two big sets of screens on the side walls show Virginia undressing, from both front and back. Jim finds the images arousing indeed . . . They maneuver into positions where they can both see a wall of screens.

. . . . .

her face is in exquisite profile . . . and her breasts . . . well it’s almost enough to distract him from the screens. . .

The screens flicker and go blank. Glassy gray-green nothingness.

Virginia jumps off Jim . . . Angrily she punches the buttons of the control panel over by the light switches.

She can’t get the system to work. Sex is no longer interesting in itself, but only as performance.

Fortunately Jim comes to the rescue. He moves a large mirror into the room so that now they can see their reflections. They resume, finding the mirrors a bit kinky as the two couples stare back at each other.

The Plot: Jim becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life and decides to become actively involved with a group that opposes the military-industrial complex. He begins with slapping posters around the mall and eventually gets involved with sabotaging the defense contractors. Eventually the group decides to attack Laguna Space Research (LSR), the company that Jim’s father works for.

Then it gets complicated and several plot lines converge. The next target is LSR. Since the group attacks installations only at night and only where there are no guards, many companies are putting guards in places they never were before. Surprisingly, LSR suddenly removes the guards from the site where Dennis McPherson is developing his super-weapon. The attack on LSR is set up. Sandy, who also occasionally deals as well as develops drugs, had to dump overboard a shipment of drugs along the coast where LSR is situated. He is told by those who ordered and paid for the drugs that he’s got to go back this night because the police and DEA will be distracted by an attack on LSR.

OVERALL COMMENTS: a complex tale with multiple themes—fathers and sons, the generation gap, the military-industrial complex, the effects of technology on those embedded in it, knowingly or otherwise. Recommended for those looking for a complex tale set in the near future that has some disturbing similarities to our own. Again, it makes no difference which of the three--The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, or Pacific Edge--you read first.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Joseph Wood Krutch: more from Baja California

Once again Joseph Wood Krutch opposes the more traditional attitude and, I must admit, makes some interesting points while doing so.

Too long a view in either time or space makes people miss a great deal that is close at hand, and it is my experience that those who are quickly bored in the country are usually those who lack "the microscopic eye," those to whom "nature" means only "scenery," and "scenery" means only "views." Charles Lamb once declared that he would not much care if he never saw another mountain, and, while I would not by any means go so far, I think I know what he meant. To know nature only that way is like knowing a city only by its skyline. To feel the life of either city or country, one must be actually in it, aware of the excitement and variety of individual lives. People are often blamed because they cannot see the wood for the trees, but that does not seem to me so bad as not seeing trees for the wood.

Several Eastern philosophies talk about mindfulness, which, roughly speaking, means living in the present. Too many people, according to Buddhists and Taoists, spend too much time going over the past and worrying about the future. Instead, we should focus on the present, we should live now, and we should be aware of what we are now doing and where we are now.

"When eating a peach, eat the peach."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Something to think about:


Like students of art who walk around a great statue, seeing parts and aspects of it from each position, but never the whole work, we must walk mentally around time, using a variety of approaches, a pandemonium of metaphor. No insight or association, however outlandish or contradictory, should be forbidden us; the only thing forbidden should be to stand still and say, "This is it."

-- Charles Grudin --
from Time and the Art of Living

Sometimes I understand Grudin and sometimes I don't. This is one of those "don't" times.

I know what a statue is, and I know what the students are walking around, but what do students of time "walk mentally around"?

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLV

Quatrain XLV is one of those rare quatrains that disappear after the first edition. So far, I think only one other quatrain was dropped completely and never returned.

First Edition: Quatrain XLV

"But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee."

The first two lines of this quatrain echoes two earlier quatrains, IX and XXVI, in which the poet/narrator invites the reader to leave all this behind:

Quatrain IX:
"But come with old Khayyam, and leave the Lot
Of Kaikobad and Kaikhosru forgot:"

Quatrain XXVI:
"Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To Talk; . . ."

I don't remember whether this pattern shows up in later quatrains, but I wouldn't be surprised. It has been used by other poets for one can find it among English Renaissance poetry and contemporary poetry as well. T. S. Eliot begins "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with Let us go then, you and I. It's meant to draw the reader into the poem and to the way of the narrator's thinking.

The narrator wants the reader to leave this unpleasant place where the Wise wrangle and to let be the quarrel of the Universe, and although he refers to the quarrel of the universe, I suspect he really means the wrangling of the Wise and their quarrel about the nature of the universe.

The last two lines are rather strange, and I wonder if these lines are the cause of this quatrain's disappearance in later editions.

And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee."

"Hubbub" refers back to "wrangle" and "quarrel." "Coucht" is an archaic term, one of whose meanings is "to lie in ambush or concealment: lurk," and this seems to fit the idea of hiding away from the fuss in a corner, unnoticed, one could hope.

The last line, however, suggests something more than a simple attempting to avoid notice or to escape the wrangling--"Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee." To me, this implies striking back in some way at those who are making a game of thee--playing with thee for amusement or entertainment-- or perhaps making light of what happens or being amused by it. We should not take what happens to us too seriously--it is all a game. Perhaps Shakespeare is saying the same thing here:
"All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts."
This monologue, from As You Like It--Act II, scene 7, ends with "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." And, we see this echoed in the last line of Quatrain XXIII, "Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!"

We are actors playing many roles--with many entrances and many exits--and even though we may die, there will be more plays and more roles and more games.

The question is, of course, is just who is making a Game of thee. Is it God? And, if so, the last line certainly doesn't encourage us to take God's plan seriously, if it makes a Game of thee, a work of entertainment.

Another meaning of game is an activity with specified rules and regulations and a way of determining a winner. Are we involved in this sort of Game?

Or should we simply take another cup of wine and leave all this wrangling behind us.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Something to think about:

The mass of people believe their judgements to be their own. They get very offended when it is suggested that they have actually received them ready-made from others and have simply been puppets of popular opinion all their lives. They speak in the current jargon and dress in the latest fashion--not from any personal sense of style but just to fit in. And these servile imitators actually believe they are self-determining. How ridiculous! This is an incurable sickness because people are convinced that they are not suffering from it. It is a universal madness, because everyone is infected. It is, therefore, a complete waste of time for me to try to return people to their own intrinsic instincts. Oh Well!

-- Chuang Tzu --
from Taoist Wisdom
Timothy Freke, editor and trans.

Chuang Tzu seems to believe that this is a universal trait, that all people are this way. I think there are many who simply follow the crowd, but it's hard to distinguish between those who are just trying to fit in and those who have reached the same conclusions on their own. How does one know which is which?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Otomo no Yakamochi (718?--785 AD): a lament

I think I've said this before, but just in case I haven't, I'm always surprised as I read poems and stories from various cultures and times at the universality of certain themes. It's almost as if these were part of our DNA. In how many stories and poems that you have read have the themes of the following poem appeared? The shortness of life? The transitoriness of all around us? Nature as an exemplar?

A lament on the ephemerality of life

The life a man leads
is but a transient affair:
so it has been said
through all the generations
since the ancient time
when heaven and earth began.
Observed from afar
on the broad plain of heaven,
the radiant moon
sometimes waxes, sometimes wanes;
so, too, with treetops
in the foot-wearying hills:
when springtime arrives
they glow with blossom's beauty,
and in the autumn
their leaves of many colors
are touched by dew and frost
and scatter before the wind.
The life of a man
seems to be no different.
The pink flush of youth
fades from the complexion,
the raven tresses,
black as leopard-flower seeds,
take on a new hue;
the morning smile dies at dusk.
I am powerless
to hold back the tears that fall
like a flooding rain
when I think of man's transience,
of how he declines
with changes invisible
as a blowing wind,
with changes unremitting
as the flow of a river.


It is precisely
because all is transient
that even mute trees
put forth blossoms in springtime
and in autumn shed brown leaves.

When I contemplate
the brevity of man's life,
I am indifferent
to worldly things: how many
are the days I spend in thought!

-- Otomo no Yakamochi --

from Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology
Steven D. Carter, trans.

This poem was written some twelve hundred years ago in a different culture, but I don't think one needs a degree in literature to understand it completely.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Loren Eiseley: from The Immense Journey

One of Loren Eiseley's recurring themes is that evolution has not stopped with us. Some evolutionists appear to resemble creationists in this: they have replaced the dictum that God has created us as the pinnacle of Its creation with Evolution has brought us forward as Its supreme achievement. The following is a quotation from the essay "The Snout" in The Immense Journey. The Snout is Eiseley's nickname for the creature who lived in water but was also able to travel for a short distance on land to reach another pond.

We teach the past, we see farther backward into time than any race before us, but we stop at the present, or, at best, we project far into the future idealized versions of ourselves. All that long way behind us we see, perhaps inevitably, through human eyes alone. We see ourselves as the culmination and the end, and if we do indeed consider our passing, we think that sunlight will go with us and the earth be dark. We are the end. For us continents rose and fell, for us the waters and the air were mastered, for us the great living web has pulsated an grown more intricate.

To deny this, a man once told me, is to deny God. This puzzled me. I went back along the pathway to the marsh. I went, not in the past, not by the bones of dead things, not down the lost roadway of the Snout. I went instead in daylight, in the Now, to see if the door was still there, and to see what things passed through.

I found that the same experiments were brewing, that up out of that ancient well, fins were still scrambling toward the sunlight. They were small things, and which of them presaged the future I could not say. I saw only the they were many and that they had solved the oxygen death in many marvelous ways, not always ours.

I found that there were modern fishes who breathed air, not through a lung but through their stomachs or through strange chambers where their gills should be, or breathing as the Snout once breathed. I found that some crawled in the fields at nightfall pursuing insects, or slept on the grass by pond sides and who drowned, if kept under water, as men themselves might drown.

. . . . . . .

Perpetually, now, we search and bicker and disagree. The eternal form eludes us -- the shape we conceive as ours. Perhaps the old road through the marsh should tell us. We are one of 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

I remember reading once a commentary on Eiseley in which he was characterized as morose, depressing, pessimistic, etc. I have read much in Eiseley and disagree. The above quotation suggests, instead, an optimistic view of life.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Combination Plate 19: An Announcement

To those, if any, who have been patiently awaiting me to finish Combination Plate 19, my apologies. I hadn't realized that it has been a month since I posted the first commentaries.

It's done.

I have just added a brief commentary on Fred Saberhagen's Changeling Earth, an SF novel, and a nonreview of Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines.

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLIV

While it may not look like it, Quatrain XLIV is the sixth and final quatrain in a series that refers to the grape or to wine. This may not have been clear in the first edition, but FitzGerald made a change to the previous quatrain in the second edition, that also appears in the fifth edition, which makes it much clearer.

First Edition: Quatrain XLIV

The mighty Mahmud, the victorious Lord,
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters and slays with his enchanted Sword.

Second Edition: Quatrain LXII

The mighty Mahmud, Allah-breathing Lord,
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters before him with his whirlwind Sword.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LX

The mighty Mahmud, Allah-breathing Lord,
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters before him with his whirlwind Sword.

FitzGerald has introduced some interesting changes in the Second Edition, all of which are carried through to the Fifth Edition. As far as I can tell, the Second and Fifth Editions are identical, so whatever differences there may be were inserted in the Second Edition.

In the First Edition, the first line ends with "the victorious Lord," which has been changed to "Allah-breathing Lord." The change, of course, introduces Allah. Mahmud is the "Allah-breathing Lord." In Greek, for example, the word for breath and spirit is the same. In
English, we have several words that have "spir' as a core: "respiration" and "inspiration." "Respiration," of course, refers to breathing, while a theological definition of "inspiration" is "a special influence of a divinity on the minds of human beings."

I see the change as follows: in the first quatrain, the poet gives credit to Mahmud alone--"the victorious Lord"--he is victorious, with no reference to any other person or agency. In subsequent quatrains, Mahmud is inspired by Allah and not only inspired, but so filled with Allah that his breath is infused with Allah.

I think this also influenced FitzGerald's decision to change "his enchanted sword" to "his whirlwind sword" in the Second Edition. "Enchanted" suggests magic, a fantasy, or a fairy tale, while "whirlwind" evokes a more physical or real world, and, also, the relationship of wind and breath. In addition, "whirlwind" also evokes God, for God and "whirlwind" appear together in the Bible in several places, one being in "The Book of Job," where God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind.

Finally, "Scatters and slays" in the First Edition becomes simply "Scatters" in the Second and also the Fifth Edition. I think this reflects FitzGerald's decision to remove it from the realm of fantasy, for one can never really slay the " black Horde/Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul." At best, one can scatter or drive them away, but they always return.

While there are numerous Mahmuds in history, one note I came across said this Mahmud (971-1030 AD) is the one who conquered and ruled what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North-West India.

What has all this to do with grapes and wine? Well, Mahmud scatters "all the misbelieving and black Horde/Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul." This doesn't sound like the foes of a physical conqueror; instead these are the foes of the spiritual self, the soul.

If we think back to the previous quatrain, Quatrain XLIII, we read that the grape can transmute "Life's leaden Metal into Gold." In other words, the grape can change our lives from dull lead to Gold--the grape can improve our lives. The problem is that the last line of Quatrain XLIII , the First Edition,

"The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life's leaden Metal into Gold transmute."

ends with a period, which suggests the end of the thought. It breaks the theme off at this point, leaving Quatrain XLIV hanging by itself. In the Second Edition of the previous quatrain, FitzGerald, possibly having recognized the problem, ends the quatrain with a colon, which tells the reader that what follows is in some way related to what precedes the colon.

"The sovereign Alchemist that in a trice
Life's leaden metal into Gold transmute:"

The colon in the Second and Fifth Editions, therefore, ties the two quatrains together, so that the two are clearly linked.

The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The sovereign Alchemist that in a trice
Life's leaden metal into Gold transmute:

The mighty Mahmud, Allah-breathing Lord,
That all the misbelieving and black Horde
Of Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul
Scatters before him with his whirlwind Sword.

Now we see that the Grape that confutes the jarring Sects, that transmutes life's dullness into gold, is also a conqueror of the "Fears and Sorrows that infest the Soul." This colon also relates back to the first colon in the quatrain, so that the Grape is now described in three ways: its logic that confutes the jarring sects, its alchemical ability to transmute life's dullness into Gold, and its spiritual power to scatter the soul's fears and sorrows.

This quatrain is one that those who argue for an interpretation of grape and wine into the more theologically acceptable forms of grace or Allah's aid can point to. I can see it either way, although I must still argue that seeing the grape and wine simply as grape and wine is far more consistent with the previous quatrains.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Serendipity: Nietzsche

Quotations taken from Human, All-Too-Human

The sleep of virtue. When virtue has slept, she will get up more refreshed.

I guess a little sinnin' is good for you, at least according to Nietzsche. But, I wonder--are people really more virtuous after engaging in an sinful escapade, or two, or three, or . . .?

Untranslatable. It is neither the best nor the worst in a book that is untranslatable.

I included this because I don't understand why he thinks this should be so.

Thoughts in a poem. The poet presents his thoughts festively, on the carriage of rhythm: usually because they could not walk.

I've often thought the same about many contemporary music groups: those with the spectacular light shows, colored smoke, strange costumes and hairstyles, and bizarre behavior usually are trying to hide that they are, at best, mediocre performers and/or singers. I guess they hope the audience won't notice how truly bad they really are.

All quotations from Human, All-Too-Human are taken from The Portable Nietzsche, translations by Walter Kaufmann.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kenko: Essays in Idleness

Kenko (approx. 1283-1350) is a Japanese Buddhist priest. Kenko was a low-ranking member of the imperial court, but for some unknown reason he left the court.

Essays in Idleness seems to have been written between 1330-1332, after he left the court. The oldest surviving text dates back to 1431, about a century after Kenko composed the 243 short essays that comprise the work. It seems as though it was never published during his lifetime.

It is desirable that a man's face and figure be of excelling beauty. I could sit forever with a man, provided that what he said did not grate on my ears, that he had charm, and that he did not talk very much. What an unpleasant experience it is when someone you have supposed to be quite distinguished reveals his true, inferior nature. A man's social position and looks are likely to be determined at birth, but why should not a man's mind go from wisdom to greater wisdom if it is so disposed? What a shame it is when men of excellent appearance and character prove helplessly inept in social encounters with their inferiors in both position and appearance, solely because they are badly educated.

A familiarity with orthodox scholarship,* the ability to compose poetry and prose in Chinese, a knowledge of Japanese poetry and music are all desirable, and if a man can serve as a model to others in matters of precedent and court ceremony, he is truly impressive. The mark of an excellent man is that he writes easily in an acceptable hand, sings agreeably and in tune, and, though appearing reluctant to accept when wine is pressed on him, is not a teetotaler.
(emphasis mine)

-- Kenko --
from Chapter 1
Essays in Idleness

* A note by the translator, Donald Keene
"Scholarship in the Confucian sense -- learning useful in governing a country or of intrinsic moral value."'

An interesting description of "the excellent man" from 14th century Japan. It reminds me somewhat of the European ideal courtier or the Renaissance man.

While he begins with the physical, he then moves quickly to the inner resources of the individual and later suggests that one can't do too much about one's social position or physical appearance, but a good education is something the person can do something about.

I enjoyed his initial comments about a person with physical charm, who didn't say things that grated (content or sound?) on one's ears and who "did not talk very much."

My favorite part is the last sentence--"The mark of an excellent man is that he writes easily in an acceptable hand, sings agreeably and in tune, and, though appearing reluctant to accept when wine is pressed on him, is not a teetotaler.

Would you like to see someone like this in the hallowed halls of Congress or state legislatures or various governors' mansions or the White House?