Thursday, March 31, 2011

John Donne: 1572--March 31, 1631

One of the common themes of Elizabethan and Renaissance love poetry was the unfaithfulness of the opposite sex. Many poems by male poets bewailed the heartbreak caused by the unfaithful woman. Woman were just not to be trusted. While we don't have as much poetry from women, we do find the same themes about the unfaithfulness of men.

John Donne has his share of this type of poetry, but one of his makes me wonder whether this might be more of a stock topic than a real problem. The following poem wanders down the same path as the traditional poems do, until the twist at the end. I had to go back and reread it, just to be sure I hadn't misinterpreted it. And then, I went back and reread the complete poem, this time knowing where it was going. It's a great poem--

Womans constancy

Now thou hast lov'd me one whole day.
To morrow when thou leav'st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then Antedate some new made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons, which we were?
Or, that oathes made in reverentiall feare
Of Love, and his wrath, any may foreswear?
Or, as true deaths, true marriages untie,
So lovers contracts, images of those,
Binde but till sleep, deaths image, them unloose?
Or your owne end to Justifie,
For having purpos'd change, and falsehood; you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vaine lunatique, against these scapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to doe,
For by to morrow, I may thinke so too.

A great first line,
as well as that last one.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life

Some Christian sects seem to take a gloomy view of life: the earth is a source of sin and corruption and a trap for the good Christian. I suspect those groups either never read the following or ignore it. There's also an interesting comment about the rich.

"Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him; for it is his portion.

Every man also to whom God has given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labor: this is the the gift of God."

Ecclesiastes 5: 18-19

I suppose I will be told that I am misinterpreting this and have it all wrong.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Robert Frost: March 26, 1874 --Jan 29, 1963

While browsing through Frost's Collected Poems, this poem jumped out at me. It was an interesting poem in its own right, it reminded me of another of Frost's poems, and it seemed to make an interesting match to a poem by Wallace Stevens that I had just posted several days ago. So, here is one of Frost's lesser known poems:

Good Hours

I had for my winter evening walk--
No one at all with whom to talk,
But I had the cottages in a row
Up to their shining eyes in snow.

And I thought I had the folk within:
I had the sound of a violin,
I had a glimpse through curtain laces
O youthful forms and youthful faces.

I had such company outward bound
I went till there were no cottages found.
I turned and repented, but coming back
I saw no window but that was black.

Over the snow my creaking feet
Disturbed the slumbering village street
Like profanation, by your leave,
At ten o'clock of a winter eve.

-- Robert Frost --

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock

The houses are haunted
By white nightgowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

-- Wallace Stevens --

Both are set at ten o'clock in the evening. I wonder why that's such a popular hour. And in both poems, it appears as though the narrator is out walking along the city street.

Is the mood of the two walkers similar?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Brian Aldiss' "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" --a short story

"Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" is an intriguing short story by Brian Aldiss for several reasons. First, it's an interesting story in its own right. Second, it has a very interesting Biblical tie-in, and third, it's the basis for Steven Spielberg's SF film, A. I.: Artificial Intelligence. I will focus on the short story now and leave the film for the next post. There's a lot to say about the film, so I don't want to end up with a monstrous post.

Aldiss' story is split into two narrative lines. One is of Henry Swinton, Managing Director of Synthank, who gives a speech at an elaborate luncheon for the company directors, to celebrate the launching of its new product, an intelligent robot.

The second narrative line takes place at Henry Swinton's home, where his wife and his son, three-year-old David, are having problems communicating with each other. Neither seems to be able to get through to the other, which leads to considerable frustration for both.

Spoiler Warning: I will bring up significant plot elements and discuss the ending.

The narrator lets the reader know a few paragraphs into the story just what Monica's feelings are.

"She had tried hard to love him."

She is not a cruel or abusive mother; she just can't love him the way a mother should, or at least the way Monica thinks she should. On the other hand, David finds it impossible to talk to her and attempts to express his feelings by writing to her. He finds that impossible also, and fears that she won't even be able to understand what he has written.

Although Aldiss tends to be a bit ambiguous, the answer to the puzzle is revealed at the end. Monica ecstatically greets Henry when he comes home. They have received a letter from the Ministry of Population. After four years of waiting, they have been granted their greatest wish: they have received permission to have a child. The population is so great that parents have to gain government permission to have a child. Now, they can finally have a child. What is David?

The following conversation comes immediately afterwards:

"'What do we do about them?' Henry asked.

'Teddy's no trouble. He works well.' [Teddy is a walking, talking synthetic toy, in the shape of a teddy bear.]

'Is David malfunctioning?'

'His verbal communication-center is still giving trouble. I think he'll have to go back to the factory again.'

'Okay. We'll see how he does before the baby's born.'"

David is also a super-toy, just like Teddy, and while Aldiss does not spell this out, David appears to be a substitute for a real flesh-and-blood child. Considering the difficulties in communication and the narrator's initial remark that Monica tried hard to love him, I think that once David goes back to the factory, the Winstons will leave him there. Once the desired child has arrived, a substitute becomes a burden, especially if it isn't really appreciated. Even if David remains, he won't be their son, but a super-toy perhaps for their projected child.

This tale, I believe, echoes the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. Both Abraham and Sarah are very old, long past the usual childbearing age, yet God has promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great people.

Sarah, despairing of having a child, tells Abraham to go with her servant, Hagar, and get a child. Abraham does and Sarah immediately repents of what she has done. She is cruel to Hagar and God has to intervene, both to tell Hagar to stay and to tell Sarah that she should not mistreat Hagar and to have faith for she shall have a child. Hagar stays and gives birth to Ishmael. Shortly afterwards, Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Determined that her son Isaac shall be Abraham's only heir, she tells Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. Again, a substitute child becomes inconvenient and unwanted.

God == Ministry of Population

Abraham == Henry Swinton

Sarah == Monica Swinton

Abraham and Hagar == Ishmael

Abraham and Sarah == Isaac

Henry Swinton and the company that manufactures super-toys == David
Henry and Monica == their potential child

Aldiss' story provides the basis for the first part of Steven Spielberg's film, A. I. : Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg then moves to a different story for the inspiration of the second part of the film, that of Pinocchio, the story of a wooden puppet who went on a quest hoping to find the Blue Fairy who can turn him into what he most desperately wants to be, a real human boy. But, that's a different post.


A comment by Chimpsky, see below, pointed out something I had missed in the story--the irony that not only the flowers in the
garden but also the many of the features of the house are also artificial or an illusion, and this is considered normal by both the husband and the wife. The only exception is the boy, whom she tried to love but couldn't. I wonder if this is a holdover from the Frankenstein's Monster theme, in which our creations one day might destroy us.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Robert Grudin and Yasunari Kawabata

I find that while reading I frequently am reminded of something similar, sometimes from another book or sometimes from a film. In this case, I was reading from Robert Grudin's book of aphorisms, Time and the Art of Living, and it brought up something from a novel by Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country.

"1.1 In a railroad car at nightfall, when the natural light outside has diminished until it is even with the artificial light inside, the passenger facing forward sees in his window two images at once: the dim landscape rushing toward him out of a pit of darkness, and the interior of the car, reflected with its more or less motionless occupants. At this hour most passengers unconsciously give allegiance to one of these two polarities of vision; and the individual momentarily aware of both may be struck by the profound, almost tragic duality between outer and inner worlds, between the rush of experience and the immobility of awareness. The uneasy contrast implied by this image is to my mind one of the special marks of our condition, one of the tragic divorces between our lonely humanity and the pulse of nature."

Robert Grudin
from Time and the Art of Living

It is night, and Shimamura is on the train, headed for the hot springs and a rendezvous. His window has become a mirror in which he can see the reflections of the other passengers in the car superimposed upon the darkened scenery outside.

"In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one of the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl's face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it."

Yasunari Kawabata
from Snow Country

I find it interesting to see the way Grudin, a philosopher, and Kawabata, a novelist, make use of the same phenomenon. While both see this as a separation of the inner and the outer worlds, Kawabata also goes one step further and blends the two "into a sort of symbolic world not of this world," while Grudin sees it as a symbol "of the tragic divorces between our lonely humanity and the pulse of nature."

Are we "divorced" from nature? Is there no possibility of a reconciliation? Henry, in the last post about Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore seems to be connected to nature. Is this what Tom Barnard meant when he said that life was better now, after the war? Does it take a war and a return to a pre-industrial state to reconnect?

One last question: Is this reconnection or reconciliation a good thing?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Wild Shore (concl)

Spoiler Warning: the following will bring out some important plot elements and hints about the ending.

Sometimes I think it's harder for me to write about a work that I have greatly enjoyed reading than to write about one I didn't like as much or even disliked. I have to step back, get some distance from a work, before I can comment on it and go beyond a simple plot summary or gushing about how much I liked it. If I really like a work, it's because the writer has grabbed me and put me in some way into the story itself and I can't get an overall view. Another reason is that I fear my comments will suggest the story is uninteresting and therefore drive readers away.

To be brief, I finished The Wild Shore last week and have been putting off writing about it, just as I'm doing right now.

To the story

Robinson broke the story into four parts: the first being an accounting of the life of this small group who are trying make a life for themselves in an US that has been destroyed by a sneak attack. The people of Onofre are now living as their ancestors did several centuries ago. Power is mostly human and water. They are aware of electricity but have no way of generating it. The closest they can come are batteries, not the small kind but car batteries. Occasionally, scavengers (those who occupy the ruins of cities) find batteries that were never filled and therefore might be functional once they are filled. They have books that tell them of what was possible before the war, so they do have some idea of what can be accomplished. However, they lack the knowledge and the materials at present to do anything more than wish for what has been lost.

But, at the end of the first part, it became obvious that something was happening that was going to affect them. The people of Onofre are visited by two travelers from San Diego. Tom Barnard, the only one in Onofre who was alive before the war, is suspicious of them. Since the people of Onofre have no official leaders (they work by consensus when making decisions), there is no one to decide what they should do in this situation. At a meeting, Tom Barnard is selected to return with them to San Diego and find out what the Mayor has in mind.

In Part Two, we follow Henry (the seventeen-year-old narrator) and Tom to San Diego where they meet the Mayor and learn just what he has in mind. The Mayor is ready to go to war against the rest of the world. He wants to establish communication with the people in the Los Angeles area, and since Onofre is between the two, he wants them to help. As Tom explains again, he isn't a leader and all he can do is relate the Mayor's ideas to the people who will decide what they will do.

The trip back to Onofre is far more hazardous than it was going to San Diego. They go by boat and encounter one of the Japanese blockade ships. In the firefight that breaks out, Henry is separated from the others and barely makes it ashore, fearing that Tom and the others are dead. Fortunately all have survived, including Tom.

In Part Three, Henry and his friends make the usual mistake of teens: their parents and the other adults just don't understand the true situation, for the vote just barely went against going along with the Mayor's plans. The teens, wiser than the adults, decide to work secretly with the Mayor's men.

In Part Four, Henry and his friends discover, sadly, that adults aren't always wrong. They are betrayed by both the Mayor of San Diego and even several people of Onofre. This betrayal costs Henry several of his friends. However, the resulting fight also results in the Mayor's death, along with several members of his group. Since San Diego is now without a Mayor, an election takes place, and the party that was opposed to the Mayor's empire building dreams takes control. The people of Onofre no longer have to worry about San Diego, at least for awhile anyway. At least some good came out of the disaster.

When it's over, Henry has to learn to live with the knowledge that he was at least partially responsible for the death of one of his friends. None of the people of Onofre blame him, even his friend's father, but Henry does and he struggles to learn how to live with it.

The novel ends or rather doesn't end, for the people of Onofre suffer their losses and move on. It has become clear that they need to at least find out what the rest of the world is doing, so they plan to get a shortwave radio working, but just for listening, at least for the present. Another of the Onofreans has decided that it's time to try whaling again, especially since the whales visit their bay annually. The oil would be useful for lamps and lubricants and trading at the swap meet. And, Henry himself has suddenly noticed a young woman, one he's known all his life, but now she seems different in some way, and she seems to have noticed Henry also.

Henry may also turn out to be a writer, for the novel is his account of the events of that summer, the one "that would . . . change us." He's also a bit confused by Tom Barnard, and he's no longer quite so quick to accept everything Tom tells him. Tom, who almost died of pneumonia during the summer, decides to tell Henry the truth about life before the war, or at least as much of it as he can. On the one hand he talks about the scientific and medical advances, the rapid transportation, the use of electricity as power, but on the other hand, Henry points out to Tom that he has said that "the old time was awful, that we live better lives now than they ever did."

The last paragraph:

"As for me, the moon lays a mirrorflake road to the horizon. The snow on the beach melted yesterday, but it might as well be a beach of snow the way it looks in this light, against the edge of the black sea. Above the cliffs stand the dark hillsides of the valley, cupped, tilted to pour into the ocean. Onofre. This damp last page is nearly full. And my hand is getting cold--it's getting so stiff I can't make the letters, these words are all big and scrawling, taking up the last of the space, thank God. Oh be done with it. There's an owl, flitting over the river. I'll stay right here and fill another book."

Some times I wish Robinson had written a sequel to this work. What happened to Henry and the people of Onofre. What changes came about? Did they continue to live lives that Tom Barnard said were better than before the war?

How long will the blockade continue? Nothing is forever. The quarantine has gone on for decades already. How much longer could it continue? There were already almost regularly scheduled clandestine visits by "tourists" who paid large sums to come ashore for a short time and perhaps come back with a "souvenir." During Henry's trip back from San Diego, the ship he was traveling on was sunk by one of the Japanese blockade ships, and Henry was on board briefly. He met the captain of the ship and noticed that he was wearing a ring that was the type that graduating high school seniors used to wear before the war. The captain of the blockade ship obviously had some contact with those who were running the blockage. Did he regularly become blind, for a fee of course, to what was going on?

But, Robinson hasn't written a sequel so far, and perhaps he's wisest to leave it to the reader to continue the story.

Overall Rating: It's one of my five favorite post-holocaust novels.

Five stars on a scale of 0-5.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Wallace Stevens: "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock

I wouldn't say that Wallace Stevens is one of my favorite poets, but, to be honest, I really haven't read very many of his poems. So, it's more, possibly, the case of neglecting him, rather than disliking him. However, he seems a bit cerebral to me. But, I have found several of his poems that I do like. The following, "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" is one of them.

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock

The houses are haunted
By white nightgowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Uniformity here is the villain? Lack of imagination?

I like the opening lines

"The houses are haunted
By white nightgowns."

It's ironic that the houses are haunted by those who probably wouldn't dream of haunts. They are ghosts and ghosts are what remains of the dead. I guess the narrator feels that these people are dead in some way. Only the old sailor who has traveled much has interesting dreams.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Han-shan or Cold Mountain

Han-shan was a hermit poet who lived sometime during the late 8th century and early 9th century. No one is certain about his dates, just as no one knows his true name. He lived in a shallow cave on Cold Cliff and called himself after the mountain. According to the Wikipedia entry, after his death, "Lu Ch'iu-Yin, governor of T'ai Prefecture" gave an order to collect Han-shan's "poems written on bamboo, wood, stones, and cliffs — and also to collect those written on the walls of peoples' houses."

The collection I have of his poetry, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, is a bilingual edition and includes all of his surviving poetry, 307 poems to be exact. The poems are translated by Red Pine and are published by Copper Canyon Press.

His poems are short, for the most part, and many are directed to the reader. It gives me the feeling that Han-shan himself is speaking directly to me. It's almost a poetic FAQ for many of the poems are answers to questions people might ask him--Why are you a hermit? Why are you living in this cave? What is it like to live alone up here? Other poems are comments on social, political, and religious issues. I find it a fascinating glimpse into the mind of someone who lived over a thousand years ago and equally fascinating to discover that many of the issues he covers are still with us today.

This is the first poem in the collection:

Towering cliffs were the home I chose
bird trails beyond human tracks
what does my yard contain
white clouds clinging to dark rocks
every year I've lived here
I've seen the seasons change
all you owners of tripods and bells
what good are empty names

Han-shan seems unimpressed by conspicuous consumption and self-aggrandizement. I wonder if living where he does has contributed to his attitude. I've also read that his poems suggest a melding of Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. That may also have something to do with his disdain.

Note to the poem: "Tripods and bells were cast at great expense for use at sacrificial ceremonies, and the names of ancestors or the men who commissioned them were often carved on their surfaces. Empty names indeed."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Progress Report: 2011 New Year's Resolution

Perhaps I should title this Lack of Progress Report instead. I had resolved to reduce the number of books in my TBR bookcase by reading at least two a month for the coming year (and ultimately for the coming decade or two actually). Since we are now roughly at the middle of the third month, I should be finishing up the fifth book, that is if I were on schedule. As you can see from the sidebar, I've only finished two, and I'm over half way on Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore. I expect to finish that this coming week.

I have listed several books in the sidebar that I expect to pick up next. The listing is not in any particular order; it's mainly as inspiration grabs me. And, that's, no doubt, how I'll pick those I'll read next.

A friend, while talking about the Hesse's Siddhartha, said that he was going to read Hesse's Steppenwolf, so I moved that one up on the list. So, as soon as I finish Robinson's novel, I'll be back to Hesse again.

If anyone sees something in the list that looks interesting and would like to read it, let me know and I'll move it up on my list.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha, a novel

When I picked up Siddhartha, I expected to find a more or less fictionalized treatment of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who is also known as the Buddha. While there have been many Buddhas before and after Siddhartha, he is considered to be the Supreme Buddha of our age. However, as I got further into the work, I realized that Hesse was not doing exactly what I had expected.

Hesse's Siddhartha was the son of a king. He was the son of a Brahmin, which is high-caste, but not a ruling family. Moreover there was no mention of any miraculous event attached to his birth. I then decided that Hesse was writing a version of Siddhartha's life that was stripped of any miraculous episodes.

I had to change my opinion one more time as Siddhartha part way into the novel meets Gautama Buddha in a grove. I then realized that Hesse was creating a fictional Siddhartha, one who was not the historical Siddhartha. By doing it this way, Hesse has far more freedom to play with the character, without giving offense to anyone, and at the same time, he also keeps the character of the Buddha in the reader's mind.

Throughout the novel, Hesse keeps the miraculous out of Siddhartha's life. At one point in his early life, he becomes dissatisfied with his life. He does not see that either his father or any of the other Brahmins has achieved enlightenment, in spite of their pious behavior and strict performances of various rites and rituals.

He leaves his family to become a Samana, a wandering ascetic, wearing only rags, living out in the open, and eating only what kind-hearted people give him. Again, he recognizes the same truths after three years of this life: neither he nor any of the other Samanas, even those who have been a Samana for decades, are any closer to enlightenment than they were when they began.

At the time, he decides to break free of this life, he meets Gotama Buddha. He listens to Gotama, but rejects his teachings. What Gotama teaches may be right for Gotama, but he must learn for himself the Way to enlightenment.

Siddhartha, in one sense, is right. Buddha's teachings are not for him, but not because they aren't the right way, but because Siddhartha is not ready for them. For after having rejected Buddha's teachings, Buddha says: "You are clever, O Samana . . . you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness."

Siddhartha doesn't realize this, but he clearly expresses his unreadiness for Buddha's teachings as he watches the Buddha walk away. He says to himself: "I have never seen a man look and smile, sit and walk like that . . . I, also, would like to look and smile, sit and walk like that, so free, so worthy , so restrained, so candid, so childlike and mysterious. A man only looks and walks like that when he has conquered his Self. I also will conquer my Self." Conquering the Self is not the goal for him here; his goal is to look a certain way, to act a certain way--it is the surface appearances that he wishes to attain now.

Siddhartha then rejoins the world and enters business. He loses his spiritual way as he becomes wealthy, acquires a mistress, and fathers a son. However, many years later this too begins to pall and he again finds it necessary to leave. It is at this point that he again encounters the ferryman who had impressed him years ago and this time Siddhartha does not cross the river and go his way. He becomes the ferryman's assistant and learns to listen to the river.

Hesse's Siddhartha's closest equivalent in Christian literature would be Christian of Pilgrim's Progress, or so it seems to me. Both leave their homes and families, for the spiritual quest is a solitary one. However, one significant difference would be that Christian doesn't spend much time in Vanity Fair, whereas Siddhartha is trapped there for decades.

Overall Reaction: this is a novel of ideas, rather than of action. There is a pattern here: Siddhartha becomes dissatisfied, tries something new, is happy for awhile, then again becomes dissatisfied, and must move on. Hesse has made this a very ordinary life in that no miraculous events occur, nor does Siddhartha encounter any supernatural beings, benevolent or otherwise. The story is of life, suffering, joy, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, sins, and insight. It is a life that any dedicated spiritual searcher might live, with belief and hope as the only encouragement, for Hesse refuses to provide miracles.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXXVIII

Perhaps the bleakest quatrain of all--at least the bleakest one so far.

First Edition: Quatrain XXXVIII

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Starts for the Dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!

Second Edition: Quatrain XLIX

One Moment in Annihilation's Waste,
One Moment, of the Well of Life to taste--
The Stars are setting and the Caravan
Draws to the Dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XLVIII

A Moment's Halt--a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste--
And Lo!--the phantom Caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from--Oh, make haste!

This quatrain is somewhat unusual. So far, most quatrains have shown the most alterations between the first and second editions, while the third generally has been similar to the second. Here, the first and second editions have only a minor difference--the first word of the last line changes from "Starts" in the first edition to "Draws" in the second, while the fifth is quite different in wording and seems to be more comprehensible in some respects, or so it seems to me.

I think it's clear that the Poet says that life is a brief interlude, "A Moment's Halt," a night's stopover at a caravansary at an oasis. And when the short night is over, the caravan moves on again into the "the Dawn of Nothing" or the "Annihilation" from which it emerged. This is the reverse of the usual metaphor in which life is portrayed as merely a brief day between two everlasting nights. The controlling image here is the desert in which a well is the significant symbol for life amidst the desert waste, and it is typical for a caravan to stop overnight at one whenever possible. I think the changes in the fifth edition make this much clearer than it is in the first two editions.

If I remember correctly, there is a Norse tale that also employs the reversed metaphor of Life/Night and Death/Day. It is a winter night with a storm raging outside, but inside the great hall of the king, one finds light and warmth and drink and food and comradeship and boasts of great victories and laments of sad defeats. Then a bird enters at one end, flies the length of the great hall, and escapes into the night at the other end. A wise man says, "That is life, a brief moment of light and joy and then nothing once again."

One other change is that the Caravan becomes a "phantom Caravan" in the fifth edition. Are they ghosts traveling on eternally amidst the waste?

What is not clear to me is the sense of the last three words of all three versions: "Oh, make haste!" It almost seems as though the Poet is urging the caravan to make haste to begin the journey into Nothing once again. Is life so burdensome that one should be glad to be rid of it?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Something to think about

No. 2

A poignant dissatisfaction, whatever be its cause, is at bottom a dissatisfaction with ourselves. It is surprising how much hardship and humiliation a man will endure without bitterness when he has not the least doubt about his worth or when he is so integrated with others that he is not aware of a separate self

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

I wonder how true this is. Are we really most dissatisfied when we are dissatisfied with ourselves?

Can't we be dissatisfied or unhappy with a situation or a person and still be satisfied with ourselves?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tales of Times Now Past: stories from a medieval Japanese collection

Tales of Times Now Past: Sixty-two Stories from a Medieval Japanese Collection
Edited and translated by Marian Ury
Introduction by Marian Ury

From the wrapper overleaf:

"Tales of Times Past is a translation of sixty-two outstanding tales freshly selected from Konjaku monogatari shu, a Japanese anthology dating from the early twelfth century. The original work, unique in world literature, contains more than one thousand systematically arranged tales from India, China, and Japan. It is the most important example of a genre of collections of brief tales which, because of their informality and unpretentious style, were neglected by Japanese critics until recent years but which are now acknowledged to be among the most significant prose literature of premodern Japan. Konjaku in particular has aroused the enthusiasm of such leading twentieth-century writers as Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Tanizaki Jun'ichiro."

This thousand year-old collection was carefully and "systematically arranged," suggesting that literary organization is not something new. The work is divided into three major parts: stories from India, China, and Japan. Then, the stories from each country were organized into two subcategories for each country: stories about Buddha and Buddhists, which were then followed by secular tales from each country. In the section of tales from India, many are about Buddha and the miraculous events of his life and his teachings.

The stories about Buddhists are very similar to various collections of lives of the saints found in the Christian tradition. There are miraculous cures and rescues from robbers and demons as a result of a strong belief in Buddhism and/or prayers pleading for help. In addition are a number of stories of Buddhist monks who were punished for their greed or jealousy or lack of piety or rewarded for their strong faith and devotion to Buddha and Buddhist principles.

Many of the secular stories also have a strong religious tinge to them. One story tells of two brothers who traveled through a mountainous region, each carrying a large amount of gold. During the trip, the same thought occurred to both of them: "If I were to kill my brother, I could double the amount of gold I have." However neither acted upon the impulse. Coming to a river, once out of the mountains, the elder brother threw his gold into the river. When the younger brother asked him why he did that, the elder brother replied that he had an impulse to kill him, his only brother. He would never have thought that ordinarily so it had to be the gold that tempted him. That is why he threw it away. The younger brother said he had had the same idea and he also threw his gold in the river.

The moral of the story is: "People are robbed of their lives because of the cravings of the senses and incur bodily harm because of worldly good. he who possesses none and remains poor will have no cause for grief. And indeed, it is the craving for worldly goods that causes us" to be trapped in the cycle of birth and death, reincarnation.

While the tales are short, most are around two-three pages with a number being only one page long and a few as long as four or five pages, they are not all straightforward tales of simply praying to Buddha and being rewarded for one's piety. Many are more subtle or complex than that.

My favorite cautionary tale, less than a page long, is as follows:

"At a time now past, in China . . . there was a man of Ch'u whose name was Hou Ku. His father was unfilial and was angry with his own father for being slow to die.

Now, Hou Ku's father fashioned a litter and put his aged father in it. Hou ku's father and Hou Ku carried it on their shoulders deep into the mountains, abandoned the old man, and returned home. Hou Ku brought the litter back with him. His father saw it and said, 'What did you bring the litter back for?' Hou Ku answered, 'I have just learned that a son is one who puts his aged father in a litter and abandons him in the mountains. That means that when my own father is old I will put him in a litter and abandon him in the mountains. This will save me from having to make a new one.'

When his father heard this he thought, 'I myself will be abandoned when I am old,' and wild with anxiety he hurried back to the mountains to welcome his father back home. Thereafter, Hou Ku's father never stinted his filial care. This was due entirely to Hou Ku's scheme.

The whole world praises and admires Hou Ku beyond measure: one who saves his grandfather's life and causes his own father to be a filial son truly deserves to be called wise. So the tale's been told, and so it's been handed down."

(The note to this story says the theme of this story "is very popular, and versions of it can be found in the Indian and Japanese sections of Konjaku as well."

Another tale brings in Chuang Tzu, one of the early and most important figures in the development of Taoism. Once while traveling, he came across a huge old tree. When he asked why this tree was allowed to live to such a great age, the woodsman said, "I choose trees for cutting that are well formed and straight. This tree is gnarled and twisted. Since it is no good for anything, I have not cut it, and thus it has attained its great age."

A day later, "Chuang Tzu went to someone's house." The master of the house served him wine and discovered "there were no tidbits to accompany it." The master then ordered a servant to kill a goose. The servant asked him which goose should he kill, "The one that sings nicely, or the one that doesn't sing?" The master said, "Let the singing one live to sing, kill the one that doesn't sing and make it into tidbits."

"Thereupon Chuang Tzu said, 'The tree in the stand of timber I saw yesterday had been let live because it was useless. Today my host has spared the life of a goose because it has a talent. This proves that whether you live or die does not depend on whether you are wise or foolish; it is something that just comes about of itself. No can we deduce a rule that those who have talent will not die or that those who are useless will not die. The useless tree lives long, the goose that did not sing died at once. Such is life."

In the quotation from the overleaf, it was pointed out that several twentieth-century writers were "enthusiastic" about these tales, one of whom was Akutagawa Ryunosuke. He took a number of these stories and revised and expanded them. Two of these tales are the source for what might be his most famous short stories, "In a Grove," and "Rashomon."

Akira Kurosawa, one of my favorite film directors, then combined these two stories into one of the world's greatest films, Rashoman. As I had mentioned in an earlier post on Rashomon, the story doesn't end here. Hollywood did its own version and called it The Outrage, starring Paul Newman (the Mexican bandit), Claire Bloom, Laurence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson (the thief), and William Shatner (the minister)--not bad for a couple of twelfth-century short tales.

Each story has a moral attached to it, either one of moral goodness or piety for the Buddhist tales or one of practical or earthly wisdom for the secular tales. There are tales of rulers, both wise and not-so-wise, of dramatic escapes from demons, ghosts, robbers, and murderers, and of justly deserved (in most cases) rewards and punishments.

Overall: fascinating and brief (much too brief) glimpses into times now long past.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Wild Shore, Pt. 1

I have finally managed to get some reading done in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore, the first novel in what I call "The California Troika." But, now that I've started, it should flow quickly to the end.

I've now finished Part 1, "San Onofre." The story is possibly set in what is now San Onofre State Beach. The year is 2047, some 60? years since the war. It wasn't much of a war. The US was caught by a sneak attack--planted bombs--only a few survivors were left. Tom Barnard is the only one among the 20 some households that make up the settlement who remembers before the war. He is their sole repository of their history.

One of the continuing arguments at the local swap meet among the few who survived the war is the identity of the attacker. Some thought it was either the Russians or the Chinese, others the South Africans, some the French, and others the Vietnamese. Another debate is about whether the President of the US was right in refusing to retaliate. In a discussion that reminds me of Theodore Sturgeon's short story, "Thunder and Roses," Tom Barnard insists, in defense of President Eliot, that "'We were goners as soon as the bombs went off . . . Makes no difference what happened to the rest of the world. If Eliot had decided to push the button, that just would've killed more people and wrecked more countries. It wouldn't have done a thing for us. Besides, it wasn't the Russians or the Chinese that planted the bombs--.'"

Regardless of who did it, it was effective. Moreover, the rest of the world was not affected. Somehow there was an agreement among the nations of the world on two points: for future peace, the Americans must not be allowed to rebuild beyond a certain point and no one was to attempt to settle there. The West Coast was patrolled by the Japanese Navy to capture anyone who left (they were never seen again) and to prevent anyone from attempting to make landfall. At the beginning of the story, a bullet-riddled body washes ashore, apparently a Chinese who perhaps had attempted to run the blockade. They can only speculate.

This is not one of those post-holocaust novels filled with slavering mutants, zombies, or vampires who suddenly appear as the result of a nuclear war, nor is it that post-holocaust Edenic garden so beloved of some groups who believe Life would be Perfect if we could just get the Dang Government off our backs. It is a relatively realistic attempt to portray life where most of the inhabitants have died, and the infrastructure has been destroyed: no power, no water, no transportation (except for the original means of getting from one place to another--walking). There's no existential despair either ; the survivors are too busy surviving.

The first person narrator is Henry, a seventeen year old boy who is just beginning to get restless. There's a whole world out there about which he knows nothing. He and his friends have a lot of energy that isn't quite used up by the daily struggle to survive. The novel opens with an example of this:

"'It wouldn't really be graverobbing,' Nicolin was explaining. 'Just dig up a coffin and take the silver off the outside of it. Never open it up at all. Bury it again nice and proper--now what could be wrong with that? Those silver coffin handles are going to waste in the ground anyway.'

The five of us considered it.

. . . . .

Gabby Mendez tossed a pebble out at a gliding seagull. 'Just exactly how is that not graverobbing?' he demanded of Nocolin.

'It takes desecration of the body to make it graverobbing.' Nicolin winked at me; I was his partner in these sorts of things. 'We aren't going to do any such thing. No searching for cuff-links or belt buckles, no pulling off rings or dental work, nothing of the sort.'"

The swap meet was run on the barter system mostly, but silver was slowly becoming important as currency. The people of San Onofre, living in the hills just off the beach, found that fishing served several purposes: it provided a dependable supply of food, and the surplus could be dried and traded at the swap meet for whatever they lacked.

"Part One" of the novel focuses for the most part on the lives of the people clustered around the San Onofre River, as Henry experiences it. It is hard work, but there are the good times also, and Henry is the optimistic sort.

"As I turned up the south path towards the little cabin that my pa and I shared, the smells of pine and sea salt raked the insides of my nose and made me drunk with hunger, and happily I imagined chips of silver the size of a dozen dimes. It occurred to me that my friends and I were for the very first time in our lives actually going to do what we had so often boastfully planned to do--and at the thought I felt a thrilling shiver of anticipation. I leaped from root to root in the trail: we were invading the territory of the scavengers, venturing north into the ruins of Orange County."

But, nothing stays the same. Near the end of Part One, two strangers appear. They have come up from San Diego. The Mayor of San Diego has ideas and plans:

Lee, one of the two strangers, tells them that "'We've been working on the rails north of Oceanside for a few weeks now. . .The Mayor of San Diego has organized a bunch of work forces of various sorts, and our job is to establish better travel routes to the surrounding towns . . . And since the Mayor began organizing things, we've accomplished a good deal. The settlements are pretty well scattered, but we have a train system between them that works well. All handcars, you understand, although we do have generators providing a good supply of electricity back home. There's a weekly swap meet, and a fishing fleet, and a militia--all manner of things there weren't before.'"

They are there as sort of ambassadors. The Mayor would like to establish communication as far north as the Los Angeles basin, and they would like the permission and the cooperation of the San Onofre people. Part One ends with Tom Barnard and Henry going down to San Diego to meet with the Mayor. Henry is excited, for he is leaving San Onofre for the first time in his life and going to a place that has maybe 2000 people and electricity, but Tom is somewhat suspicious about what really is on the Mayor's mind.

End of Part One