Thursday, December 27, 2012

Loren Eiseley: Darwin's Century

Actually, the full title of this book by Loren Eiseley is Darwin's Century:  Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It.  The most significant word is "Men" which spells outs Eiseley's thesis that there were many threads in the tapestry of the development of evolution.  Darwin's book, The Origin of Species, published in 1859, did not appear in a vacuum, but was the culmination of several centuries of theorizing and debating the origin of  the various types of plants and animals found on this planet. Eiseley does not present a defense or a detailed explanation of evolution: that is not his purpose here but rather to spell out the various forerunners and then the defenders of evolution against various attacks made against it.

Eiseley begins with the early theories about the creation of life including that from The Bible in Genesis and hints of a evolutionary process by various thinkers, including those from Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.  Eiseley points out the irony that the Great Chain of Being, created by Christian thinkers, which was designed to demonstrate the completeness of God's creation by presenting creatures in an ascending sequence from the lowliest creatures at the "bottom level of creation" to humans at the top.  Evolutionists later borrowed this scheme and used it for their own purposes.  Eiseley then discusses many thinkers and theorists  who had put forth their own small piece of the puzzle: Lamarck, Linnaeus, and Malthus, among numerous others.

Eiseley then brings in one of the most important works for the further development of  evolutionary theory; Charles Lyell,  whose incredibly influential Principles of Geology,  first published in 1834, argued for a much much longer time span for the existence of the earth than the six thousand years many Christian theologians and thinkers had postulated based on their study of the Old Testament.  Now, with many millions of years to work in, random selection now had the time available to be effective.

Darwin's seminal work, The Origin of Species, does not, as Eiseley argues, appear out of a vacuum.  Rather it draws together many differing threads and ideas, all viewed by Darwin through a perspective gained by his voyage on the Beagle which visited various parts of the world, especially South America, where both new animals and plants appeared along with many that were to be found in Europe and Africa.  This raised the question: why did some creatures, plants and animals, appear in the Old and New Worlds and why were there creatures unique only to the New World.

After the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin faced considerable opposition from both the Christian defenders of Genesis and from scientists of considerable repute.  He also gained the strong support of Alfred Lord Wallace, who also published a work on evolution shortly after Darwin, and Thomas Huxley, who became known as Darwin's Bulldog.  His grandson, Aldous Huxley, is the  author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception.   The opposition of the scientists was quelled by the discovery of Mendel's work on genetic inheritance and by a greater understanding of the sun.  Some scientists argued that the world couldn't have lasted millions of years because the sun would have consumed itself in much less time. This was caused by an inadequate appreciation of the sun and its processes.

The only weakness in Eiseley's work is his overly optimistic belief that the opposition to evolution has disappeared.  Darwin's Century was published in 1958, approximately a century after Darwin's Origin of Species, and at that time he could not foresee the rise of religious opposition once again to evolutionary theory to the point where a significant portion of the US population does not accept evolution nor any span of time longer than six thousand years of existence for the universe.  

Highly recommended for those interested in the early history of evolution and for those who just en;joy reading anything by Loren Eiseley (readers like me).

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Thomas Hardy: Two Christmas poems

Two Christmas poems by Hardy-- or rather I should say two very different Christmas poems by Hardy.  In spite of his reputation for gloom and despair, mostly fueled by his later novels, especially Tess and Jude, the second is just as typical of Hardy as is the first.

A Christmas Ghost-Story

South of the line, inland from far Durban, 
A mouldering soldier lies--your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray  bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by the Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred  liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died."

Christmas-eve 1899

-- Thomas Hardy --
from  The Works of Thomas Hardy


The rain-shafts splintered on me
   As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
   And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
   By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
   In handfuls by a sower.

A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
   "A merry Christmas, friend!"--
There rose a figure by me,
   Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp's who, breaking
   Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking 
   Toward the Casuals' gate. 

-- Thomas Hardy --
from  The Works of Thomas Hardy

After reading the second poem, I couldn't help but think of Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush," which I had already posted once before, but I think it deserves at least one reminder.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
…..When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
…..The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
…..Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
…..Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
…..The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
…..The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
…..Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
…..Seemed fervorless as I.

At once a voice arose among
…..The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
…..Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
…..In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
…..Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
…..Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
…..Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
…..His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
…..And I was unaware.

-- Thomas Hardy --

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Emily Dickinson: "Slant of light"


There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons--
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes--

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us--
We can find no scar,
but internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are--

None may teach it-- Any--
'Tis the Seal Despair--
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air--

When it comes, the Landscape listens--
Shadows-- hold their breath--
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death--

-- Emily Dickinson --
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Thomas H. Johnson, editor

This is one of the poems of Dickinson that I had to reread several times when I first read it, especially the first stanza, which I find one of the most engrossing  stanzas that she has written.   I know that "Slant of light," not from where I live now in Tucson, but in Chicago, where I grew up.  It had been a grey, overcast, dull day and suddenly, just before nightfall, the sun at the western horizon breaks through the clouds and lights all with a strange golden glow that does something to the back of my throat.

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us--
We can find no scar,
but internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are--

I can't explain it, and this rarely, if ever, happens with any other poem, even those most loved by me.  There is some quality to that light that is unique and disquieting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain LXVIII

This is the second of three linked quatrains that are related by his prophecy of his death and its aftermath.  The previous quatrain told of his grave while this one speaks of its effects on others.

First Edition:  Quatrain LXVIII

That ev'n my buried Ashes such a Snare
Of Perfume shall fling up into the Air,
   As not a True Believer passing by
But shall be overtaken unaware.

Second Edition:  Quatrain  C

Then ev'n my buried Ashes such a snare
Of Vintage shall fling up into the Air,
   As not a True-believer passing by
But shall be overtaken unaware.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XCII

That ev'n my buried Ashes such a snare
Of Vintage shall fling up into the Air
   As not a True-believer passing by
But shall be overtaken unaware.

Edward FitzGerald made only minor changes over the five editions.  One surprising one is that he reversed a change he had made in the second edition and restored the term he had used in the first edition--something he rarely does.  The first word of the first edition is "That" which he changed to "Then" in the second version.  By the fifth edition, he had changed his mind and brought back the "That."  I have no idea why he changed it  initially, nor why he went back to his initial wording.

The most noticeable change occurs in the second line.  In the first edition, the snare is of "Perfume" while the second and fifth versions have it as a snare of "Vintage."   I think the reason for the change is clear:  "Perfume" is far more obscure and it could be the odor of flowers in the Garden in which he is buried, while "Vintage" strongly suggests wine, a very common theme in the Rubaiyat.  It is the aroma of wine, which of course is forbidden to True Believers, that he thinks will enter their consciousness surreptitiously and perhaps tempt them.

I don't know whether this is true also of Moslems, but there is a tradition among some Christians that an especially saintly individual will receive a special sign of God's approval  after death.  Instead of the smell of the corruption of the body shortly after death, the body will have either no odor or the sweet odor of flowers or some sweet smell, a sign of that person's saintliness.  Dostoyevsky gives a dramatic example of this in Brothers Karamazov at the death of the revered Elder, Father Zossima.  The monks and townspeople at his funeral are shocked to discover that this tradition did not hold true, at least in the case of Father Zossima.

I wonder if the Poet/Narrator is being ironic here, substituting the odor of wine for that of saintliness.  In any case, it is appropriate that the quatrains now introduce the idea of death for we are coming close to the end of the First Edition of FitzGerald's treatment of the Rubaiyat.

A bit of trivia:  the inside cover of my text informs the reader that The Rubaiyat has been "rendered into verse" by Edward FitzGerald, not "translated,"  obviously taking into account that there is much here that is from FitzGerald and not necessarily from Omar Khayyam.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Robert Grudin: boredom's fast time and slow time


"Our sense of the slowness or speediness of time often depends on the size of the time-frame we happen to be considering.   It is possible, for example, for us to be simultaneously amazed at the slowness of minutes and the speediness of years.  Oddly enough, this pathetic double amazement bespeaks a single cause: our inability to make proper use of the present.  For although minutes spend in boredom or anxiety pass slowly, they nonetheless add up to years which are void of memory."

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

That's  why I usually carry a book with me whenever I'm out and around.  It's amazing how quickly time passes when I pick up a book and read while having to wait in line or for someone to appear.  Moreover, I also find I'm in a much better humor if I spent the time reading rather than fuming over having to wait.  Time always seems to pass quickly when I'm doing something, yet, when I look back, I find those days seem "longer" than those in which I did little or nothing.

Tiz a puzzlement.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lin Yutang: Spirit and Flesh, concl.

"A defense of the angels-without-bodies theory will be found to be most vague and unsatisfying.  Such a defender might say, 'Ah, yes, but in the world of spirit, we don't need such satisfactions.' 'But what instead have you got?'  Complete silence; or perhaps, 'Void--Peace--Calm.'  'What then do you gain by it?'  'Absence of work and pain and sorrow.' I admit such a heaven has a tremendous attraction to galley slav4es.  Such a negative ideal and conception of happiness is dangerously near to Buddhism and ultimately to be traced to Asia (Asia Minor, in this case) rather than Europe.

Such speculations are necessarily idle, but I may at least point out that the conception of a 'senseless spirit' is quite unwarranted, since we are coming more and more to feel that the universe itself is a sentient being.  Perhaps motion rather than standing still will be a characteristic of the spirit, and one of the pleasures of a  bodiless angel will be to revolve like a proton around a nucleus at the speed of twenty or thirty thousand revolutions a second.  There may be a keen delight in that, more fascinating than a ride on a Coney Island scenic railway.  It will certainly be a kind of sensation.  Or perhaps he bodiless angel will dart like light or cosmic rays in ethereal waves around curved space at the rate of 186,000 miles per second.  There must still be spiritual pigments for the angels to paint and enjoy some form of creation, ethereal vibrations for the angels to feel as tone and sound and color, and ethereal breeze to brush against the angels' cheeks.  Otherwise spirit itself would stagnate like water in a cesspool, or feel like men on a hot, suffocating summer afternoon  without a whiff of fresh air.  There must still be motion and emotion (in whatever form) if there is to be life; certainly not complete rest and insensitiveness."

-- Lin Yutang --
from The Importance of Living

Perhaps I'm wrong here, but I somehow get the idea that he doesn't take the idea of the possible existence of angels very seriously.  

"we are coming more and more to feel that the universe itself is a sentient being."

I'm not clear as to how seriously we are meant to take this statement.  Is he suggesting that this is just another idea similar to that of angels which is now coming to take the place of angels?

Or, is he suggesting that this may be a more rational idea which will prove that the existence of angels is untenable?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lin Yutang: Spirit and Flesh, Pt. 1

III.   Spirit and Flesh

"The most obvious fact which philosophers refuse to see is that we have a body.  Tired of seeing our mortal imperfections and our savage instincts and impulses, sometimes our preachers wish that we were made like angels, and yet we are at a total loss to imagine what the angels' life would be like.  We either give the angels a body and a shape like our own--except for a pair of wings--or we don't.  It is interesting that the general conception of an angel is still that of a human body with a pair of wings.  I sometimes thank that it is an advantage even for angels to have a body with the five senses.  If I were to be an angel, I should like to have a school-girl complexion, but how am I going to have a school-girl complexion without a skin?  I still should like to drink a glass of tomato juice or iced orange juice, but how am I going to appreciate iced orange juice without having thirst?  And how am I going to enjoy food, when I am incapable of hunger?  How would an angel paint without pigment, sing without the hearing of sounds, smell the fine morning air without a nose?  How would he enjoy the immense satisfaction of scratching an itch, if his skin doesn't itch?  And what a terrible loss in the capacity for happiness that would be!  Either we have to have bodies and have all our bodily wants satisfied, or else we are pure spirits and have not satisfactions at all.  All satisfactions imply want.

I sometimes think what a terrible punishment it would be for a ghost or an angel to have no body, to look at a stream of cool water and have no feet to plunge into it and get a delightful cooling sensation from it, to see a dish of Peking or Long Island duck and have no tongue to taste it, to see crumpets and have no teeth to chew them, to see the beloved faces of our dear ones and have no emotions to feel toward them.  Terribly sad it would be if we should one day return to this earth as ghosts and move silently into our children's bedroom, to see a child lying there in bed and have no hands to fondle him and no arms to clasp him, no chest for his warmth to penetrate to, no round hollow between cheek and shoulder for him to nestle against, and no ears to hear his voice."

-- Lin Yutang --
from The Importance of Living

(to be continued)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Nietzsche: on prohibitions

"Prohibitions without reasons: A prohibition, the reason for which we do not understand or admit, is almost a command not only for the stubborn but also for those who thirst for knowledge: one risks an experiment to find out why the prohibition was pronounced.  Moral prohibitions, like those of  the  Decalogue, are suitable only for an age of subjugated reason: now, such a prohibition as "Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt not commit adultery,"  presented without reasons, would have a harmful rather than a useful effect."

-- Nietzsche --
from The Wanderer and His Shadow
in  The Portable Nietzsche

I have to disagree with Nietzsche at one point for I think he was overly optimistic about the state of human reason.  He seemed to think that no longer could anyone simply issue a prohibition without adequate reasons and get people to obey.  Or, perhaps when Nietzsche was writing, this was true of the general population.  If so, then the situation has deteriorated for I see millions of people who simply follow orders about doing or not doing something simply because they were told to do so and without questioning the rationale for such orders.

But, some, no doubt, will argue that I'm wrong here because I don't accept someone saying "God said so" or "the government said so" or some "Leader said so" as being an adequate reason. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Loren Eiseley: Some short poems and a haiku by Roka

Footnote to Autumn

Old boulders in the autumn sun and wind,
Settling a little, leaning toward the light
As if to store its summer--these remain
The earth's last gesture in the falling night.

This then is age: It is to have been worked
By the forces of frost and the unloosing sun,
It is to bear such markings fine and proud
As speak of weathers that are long since done.

The second stanza:  could that refer to people?  I have seen photographs of people whose faces seem to tell the stories of their lives.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Night Snow

Is lovelier
Than snowflakes at midnight
Drifting out of the dark above the
-- Loren Eiseley --

I can remember winter nights in Chicago, looking out the window at the snow coming down in the light of the streetlight in front of our house. 

- - - - - - - - - - -

Old Wharf at Midnight

All decay sounds
The restless monotone
Of the sea at midnight creeping beneath
Old piers.

- - - - - - - - - - -

The Dark Reader

Old moons
these nights and years,
and moss on broken stones . . .
Who stoops by glow-worm lamps to read
your name?

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley

- - - - - - - - - - -

     Winter rain deepens
Lichened letters on the grave . . .
     And my old sadness
                 -- Roka --
from A Little Treasury of Haiku

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Kenko: "In all things I yearn for the past"


"In all things I yearn for the past.  Modern fashions seem to keep on growing more and more debased.  I find that even among the splendid pieces of furniture built by our master cabinetmakers, those in the old forms are the most pleasing.  And as for writing letters, surviving scraps from the past reveal how superb the phrasing used to be. The ordinary spoken language has also steadily coarsened.  People used to say "raise the carriage shafts" or "trim the lamp wick,"  but people today say "raise it" or "trim it."  When they should say, "Let the men of the palace staff stand forth!" they say, "Torches!  Let's have some light!"  Instead of calling the place where the lectures on the Sutra of the Gold Light are delivered before the emperor "the Hall of the Imperial Lecture," they shorten it to "the Lecture Hall," a deplorable corruption, an old gentleman complained."

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness

Sound familiar?  This was written sometime between 1330 and 1332 AD in Japan--almost seven centuries ago in a different culture.   I don't think human nature has changed much over the hundreds of thousands of years we've been around.  Oh, for the good ol' days.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain LXVII

Having finished a linked series of quatrains focusing on the relationship between the Potter/Creator and the pots/creatures, we now move to a series of four quatrains that concentrate on wine.  Again, while there are those who attempt to interpret Khayyam's references to wine as being a symbol of God's grace, these quatrains, as do many of the previous references, pose serious problems for them.  While some can be construed in a religious sense, all four most consistently suggest that Khayyam meant wine to be simply wine.  You can see for yourself.

First Edition:  Quatrain LXVII

Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
    And in a Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt,
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XCVIII

Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
    And lay me, shrouded in the living Leaf,
By some not unfrequented Garden-side.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XCI

Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash the Body whence the Life has died,
    And lay me, shrouded in the living Leaf,
By some not unfrequented Garden-side.

Only one change was made in the first two lines:  "my Body" in the first and second editions becomes "the Body" in the fifth edition.  The change seems to make it more impersonal, more disconnected.  At first it was his "Body," but now it's "the Body."   He no longer owns? the Body or is connected to it, but he now sees it as something separate from him, something that exists alone.

While this is not a change, for it remains the same throughout the three versions listed, I wonder about the wording: "the Life has died."  Living creatures die.  We do not usually say, at least not in my experience, that life dies.  We say life leaves or departs or even flees the body, but I've never heard anyone else say or write that life dies.  Curious wording.

Most of the changes in this quatrain occur in the third and fourth lines.  While the words have changed, the sense, though,  seems to remain much the same: he is to be wrapped in a sheet made of  plant leaves and buried in a Garden.  In the first version, he continued the reference to the grape by requesting that he be wrapped in a "Vine-leaf." In the second and fifth edition, that becomes a "living Leaf,"  which makes a possible reference to the vine more ambiguous.  Does the "living Leaf" refer to a "Vine-leaf," or will leaves from any plant be satisfactory?

Another change occurs in the last line where the "sweet Garden-side"  becomes "some not unfrequented Garden-side."  The Garden no longer has to be sweet, but it must  be one that is visited regularly.  What seems contradictory here is that in the fifth version, he no longer refers to "my Body" but "the Body."  But, he still requests that he (his body) be wrapped in plant leaves and buried in a Garden.  He seemingly has regained ownership of the Body in the third and fourth lines.  Or, perhaps he never meant to suggest the separation of himself from his Body, and I'm guilty of over-reading here (something to meditate on).

My copy Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, published by Garden City Books, includes the following anecdote in the brief discussion of the  life of Omar Khayyam, pp.27-40.

"Khwajah Nizami of Samarkand, who was one of his pupils, relates the following story: "I often used to hold conversations with my teacher, Omar Khayyam,  in a garden;  and one day he said to me, "My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses over it."  I wondered at the words he spake, but I knew that his were no idle words.  Years after, when I chanced to revisit Naishapur, I went to his final
resting-place, and lo! it was just outside a garden, and trees laden with fruit stretched their boughs over the garden wall, and dropped their flowers upon his tomb, so that the stone was hidden under them.'"

As it is in the Rubaiyat, so it came to pass:  Omar Khayyam  was buried in that garden-side. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Eric Hoffer: the central task of education


"The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people.  The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together.

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future.  The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."

-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

I agree here with Hoffer, but I also think that he neglected a significant number of  people:  those who actively reject being even a member of the learned.  These refuse to learn anything that conflicts with their ancient prejudices and tranquilizing dogmas and insist on  remaining locked in past centuries, not just years or decades.

I wonder which of the three is most characteristic of  the people of the United States.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Carl Sandburg: Phizzog

Carl Sandburg in one of his lighter moments--or perhaps rueful might be more appropriate?


This face you got,
This here phizzog you carry around,
You never picked it out for yourself,
       at all, at all--did you?
This here phizzog--somebody handed it
       to you--am I right?
Somebody said, "Here's yours, now go see
       what you can do with it."
Somebody slipped it to you and it was like
       a package marked:
"No goods exchanged after being taken away"--
This face you got.

-- Carl Sandburg --

Some are winners, some losers.  I guess the best I can say about my prize is that I'm glad I'm on the inside looking out.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Prometheus: a prequel or a remake or both?

When I settled down with the DVD of Prometheus, I didn't know what to expect.  I had heard or read a few vague comments that suggested it was a film worth watching.  So, I settled back in my recliner to find out whether it really was worth watching.

The actors were convincing in their roles, the special effects were good, the dialogue was considerably better than silly, and the plot was interesting,  but I felt as the end approached that the film really didn't break any new ground.  I felt it had all been done before, which may be unfair to the film, to some extent, because I've watched many SF films over the decades.  It wasn't until the very end of the film that I finally caught on.  I'm slow that way, partially because I get involved in the film or book or whatever and don't step back to take a good analytical look at it until I've finished, or until something jumps out at me. Frequently I have to watch or read it again to get beyond enjoying it or being bored by it.   This time it was the ending that did it..

Unfortunately there's no way I can talk about this film without revealing plot details and the ending.


As I mentioned above, the ending finally gave me the clue.  I then did some research and talked to some knowledgeable friends and got confirmation.  I'm probably the last person in the Known Universe to find this out: Prometheus is a prequel, the first of three actually, to the superb SF/Horror film, Alien, with Sigourney Weaver. I finally caught on when the critter that popped out of the giant's body at the end was the monster with the pointy head and the most frightening set of jaws in filmdom.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced there was more to Prometheus than simply being a prequel.  It was the initial familiarity that I experienced long before I caught on to the relationship with Alien that got me thinking.  I eventually came up with the following chart:

Alien  (A) :            Ridley Scott

Prometheus  (P) :  Ridley Scott

Set Designer:
A    H. R. Giger

P    H. R. Giger

Film's Initiating Event::
A.   Spaceship Nostromo receives message interpreted as an SOS which later turns out to be a warning to all ships to avoid this planet.

P.  Archeologists discover a drawing or illustration that is found in many cultures world wide--what appears   to be a giant pointing at several stars. The pattern of stars is identical regardless of the time and place.  This is interpreted as an invitation to go there, but it could as easily have been a warning to stay away.

A:  uninhabited planet with an apparently deserted alien spaceship.

P.   uninhabited planet with an apparently deserted alien spaceship.

The Alien Ship:
A.  appears to be a cargo ship

P.  appears to be a cargo ship

Exploration of the Ship
A.  It becomes clear the ship is not uninhabited but is occupied by dangerous creatures 

P.   It becomes clear the ship is not uninhabited but is occupied by dangerous creatures.

The Android/Robot:
A  One of the crew members is an android who is responsible for bringing a creature on board ship and is directly responsible for the death of one of the crew.

One of the crew members is an android who is responsible for bringing a creature on board ship and is directly responsible for the death of one of the crew.

The Android/Robot:
A.   The android attempts to kill Ripley (the Sigourney  Weaver character)  but fails.

P    The android attempts to kill  Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (the Noomi Repace character) but fails.

The Android/Robot's Head: 
A.  In a struggle, the android is decapitated, and we see the android's head on the floor, still able to function.

P.   In a struggle, the android is decapitated, and we see the android's head on the floor, still able to function.

The Crew:
A  The crew members of the ship Nostromo are killed, leaving Ripley, a woman, as the sole survivor (plus the ship's cat, of course.)

P   The crew members of the ship Prometheus are killed, leaving Shaw, a woman, as sole survivor, along with the android's head.

The Escape:
A.   Ripley attempts to escape in the ship's emergency pod, but finds the creature already there.

P    Shaw attempts to escape in the ship's emergency pod, but finds the creature already there.

The Ending:
A   Ripley with ship's cat gets in the deepsleep capsule and heads for nearest Terran outpost.

P    Shaw, with the android's head,  finds another alien ship and they?  head for the home planet of the giants, leaving the critter from Alien alone on the planet, awaiting the arrival of the Nostromo?  She also sets up a warning signal, telling them to stay away.  This is the signal that draws the Nostromo to the planet. 

What do you think?   

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain LXVI

This is the last in a series of  linked quatrains that focus on the Creator/Potter relationship with comments by the pots or vessels expressing a variety of opinions as to the nature of that relationship.  It is appropriate, therefore, that this quatrain takes place at the end of Ramadan, the holiest time of the year for Moslems.

First Edition: Quatrain.LXVI

So while the Vessels one by one were speaking,
One spied the little Crescent all were seeking:
     And then they jogg'd each other,  "Brother, Brother!
Hark to the Porter's Shoulder-knot a creaking!"

 Second Edition:XCVII

So while the Vessels one by one were speaking,
One spied the little Crescent all were seeking:
     And then they jogg'd each other,  "Brother, Brother!
Now for the Porter's shoulder-knot a-creaking!"

 Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XC

So while the Vessels one by one were speaking,
The little Moon looked in that all were seeking:
     And then they jogg'd each other,  "Brother, Brother!
Now for the Porter's shoulder-knot a-creaking!"

 FitzGerald made only minor changes from the First through the Second to the Fifth Editions.  The first, third, and fourth lines are almost identical except for the minor changes of changing some upper case letters to lower case and the substitution of "Now for the Porter's shoulder-knot.  .  ." for "Hark to the Porter's Shoulder-knot .  .  ."

In the second line Fitzgerald rearranged the sequence from "One spied the little Crescent all were seeking:"--to  "The little Moon looked in that all were seeking." as well as substituting "The little Moon" for "the little Crescent."  The change of wording adds some ambiguity for a crescent is much more specific than a little moon and is far more precise considering its relationship to Ramadan.

The change also changes focus in the quatrain.  In the first edition, the focus is solely on the pots whereas the rearrangement in the second and fifth versions  interrupts that.  The focus is on the pots in the first, third, and fourth lines, while it shifts to the Moon in the second line.  The change of wording in the fourth line isn't significant for both versions suggest the pots are waiting for the sound of the Porter's shoulder-knot.  The Porter is the one who will bring the food and drink for the banquet to celebrate the end of Ramadan, as signified by the appearance of the crescent.

I read somewhere (unfortunately I can't find it again) that the Porter will be bringing a tray of food and drink for the end of the fast.  Since the tray will be very heavy, it will be supported by straps that are attached at one end to the tray and at the other end are wrapped  around the Porter's shoulders, thus the creaking of the shoulder-knot. 

 From the Wikipedia entry on Ramadan:

"The Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Fitr ("festivity of breaking the fast"), sometimes spelled in English as Eid al-Fitr, marks the end of Ramadan and the beginning of the next lunar month called Shawwal in Arabic. This first day of the following month is declared after another crescent new moon has been sighted or the completion of 30 days of fasting if no visual sighting is possible due to weather conditions. This first day of Shawwal is called Eid ul-Fitr. Eid Ul-Fitr may also be a reference towards the festive nature of having endured the month of fasting successfully and returning to the more natural disposition (fitra) of being able to eat, drink and resume intimacy with spouses during the day."

The "little Crescent" in the quatrain signifies the end of Ramadan, the end of thirty days of daylight fasting.  Ramadan is also the time for meditation on Allah and one's relationship to Allah, which is represented by the linked quatrains focusing on the vessels' or pots' commentaries on the Potter and their relationship to him.  It seems appropriate, therefore, to end the discussion with the Eid ul-Fitr ("festivity of breaking the fast."

Simon J. Ortiz: Small Things Today

Small Things Today
 at my Hesperus Camp

Had a tortilla with some honey
at midafternoon.  It was good.
Wished I had some chili.

Smell of apples, wet fields;
in back of the blue tent
is a box of last season's
Animas Valley apples; soon,
it will be another Fall.

Wind blows, shakes the tarp,
water falls to the ground.
The sound of water splashing.

Several hours ago, watched
a woodpecker watching me.
We both moved our heads
with funny jerks.

Rex and his sad, dog eyes.

Somebody looking around in a field,
looking for lost things.

Notice bean sprouts growing.
They're very pale and nude.

Rex doesn't like chicken livers,
but gizzards are okay.

-- Simon J. Ortiz --
from Woven Stone

Small things, little things, all sorts of unconnected things, but now linked together. I wonder how many of these small things he would have noticed if someone else had been there with him.  Sometimes others are a distraction.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eric Hoffer: desires and self-esteem

"It is strange how the moment we have reason to be dissatisfied with ourselves we are set upon by a pack of insistent clamorous desires. Is desire somehow an expression of the centrifugal force that tears and pulls us away from an undesirable self?  A gain in self-esteem usually reduces the pull of the appetites, while a crisis in self-esteem is likely to cause of a weakening or a complete breakdown of self-discipline.

Asceticism is sometimes a deliberate effort to reverse a reaction in the chemistry of our soul: by suppressing desire we try to rebuild and bolster self-esteem."

"To believe that if we could but have this or that we would be happy is to suppress the realization that the cause of our unhappiness is in our inadequate and blemished selves.  Excessive desire is thus a means of suppressing our sense of worthlessness."

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

In times of a personal crisis or emotional distress, how many people turn to binge eating or shopping sprees or becoming angry with those around them? Is it to distract themselves from the real problem or perhaps a misdirected way of regaining control in some way:  I can eat or I can shop or I can strike out at others when I want. Could this also be a basis for an obsessive interest in collecting objects or idolizing film stars,  athletes,  TV series,  politicians?

Is this a way of regaining self-esteem?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Thomas Hardy: Architectural Masks

I have The Wordsworth Poetry Library edition of Thomas Hardy's poetry, The Works of Thomas Hardy, which contains all of his poetry.  Every so often I take it down and browse through it, seeing what pops what.  I'm invariably surprised by the wide variety of his poetry, some somewhat dour, some cheerful, but all thoughtful.  This is one I just came across, one I don't remember having read before.

Architectural Masks
There is a house with ivied walls,
And mullioned windows worn and old,
And the long dwellers in those halls
Have souls that know but sordid calls,
          And daily dote on gold.

In blazing brick and plated show
Not far away a "villa" gleams,
And here a family few may know,
With book and pencil, viol and bow,
           Lead inner lives of dreams.

The philosophic passers say,
"See that old mansion mossed and fair,
Poetic souls therein are they:
And O that gaudy box!  Away,
            You vulgar people there."

Hardy was trained as an architect and worked for about five years for an architectural firm.  I wonder if any of his experiences as an architect are reflected above. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Gracian--talking about oneself

No. 117

"Never talk about yourself.  For you either praise, which is vanity, or you reproach, which is poor spirit, in both instances evincing a guilty heart in the speaker, which gives pain to the listener:  if it is to be avoid in private life, it is to be shunned even more in public office, where you speak to the crowd, and where you at once pass as a fool if you but give the semblance of it.  A similar weakness of mind lies in speech about those present, because of the danger of foundering on either of two rocks, that of overappreciation or that of depreciation." 

Baltasar Gracian
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
trans. Martin Fischer

Seems somehow rather appropriate right now, or so I believe.

Friday, October 26, 2012

G. K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday

I haven't read much by G. K. Chesterton, save for a number of his Father Brown mysteries.  Therefore, I was expecting an espionage tale with a rather traditional flavor.  The cover of the copy I read had a blurb by Kingsley Amis:  "The most thrilling book I have ever read."   Well, that wasn't exactly what I got when I began reading.

It's a farce, a satire, with a distinct flavor of  Monty Python.  I am also reminded of Joseph Conrad's satiric The Secret Agent, in which the anarchists are depicted as a fairly harmless and silly bunch of parlor terrorists, all except for the Professor, of course   What is curious is that Conrad's The Secret Agent was published in 1907, a year earlier than the publishing date of 1908 for Chesterton's novel.

A satire, even perhaps a farce, for how else could one characterize Chesterton's spy novel in which the head of the British Secret Police conducts his interviews in a darkened room so those who work for him don't know who he is?  In contrast, the evil anarchists are out in the open, holding their meetings out on a balcony where anyone can see and hear them.  Moreover,  the head of the anarchists,  Sunday ( the seven members of the Council identify themselves as days of the week) wears a white suit, and everybody knows who he is.   A Central Anarchist Council?   Organized anarchists? 

Gabriel Syme is recruited for the British Secret Police.  He is the perfect foil for what follows because he is serious about his new occupation and concerned about the harm the anarchists might do.  He's also very naive, foolishly naive, and a perfect picture of the stereotyped noble Englishman.   His task is to infiltrate the anarchists, discover their plans, and report his findings without revealing his true identity.  However, he carries his identification as a member of the secret police with him, just in case he has to identify himself.

In order to be admitted into an anarchist meeting, he has to promise to the anarchist he meets that he won't reveal anything he learns at the meeting to the police.  He manages to get himself elected to the Council and is known as  Thursday.  However, after the meeting he finds himself in a quandary.  He has infiltrated the Central Anarchist Council and is now aware of a plot to kill the Czar and the French President who will be meeting in a few days. But, since he has promised he won't reveal what he knows to the police, he decides that he can't warn the authorities for that would be going back on his word, and to a true Englishman,  his  word is a sacred bond. Consequently, he decides he must stop the assassination on his own.

What follows is farcical.  Those whom he believes are enemies turn out to be friends, while those he believed to support him, turn out to be enemies, for awhile anyway.  After a while, he doubts himself, as to which side he's on.

He and several fellow officers go to France in order to prevent the assassination.  It turns into a pursuit of  Sunday, the head of the anarchists,  for reasons I won't divulge here.  It would only spoil the fun. It is at this point that I wonder if Chesterton is an ancestor in some way of  Monty Python.  After a bewildering series of chases and escapes in which numerous factions change sides several times, everybody eventually returns to England for the ending, if one chooses to call it that.

The pursuit through France and England included boats, horses, buggies, automobiles, an elephant, and an hot air balloon.  Since the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903, travel by aircraft wasn't feasible yet, otherwise I'm sure Chesterton would have included that in the mix (mess?) also.

Highly recommended if you are looking for something to read that shouldn't be taken too seriously (or at least I think so).  On  the other hand, a second reading may cause me to change my mind about that. 

Read and enjoy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wallace Stevens: "The Reader"

I may have mentioned this before, but I will say it again:  Wallace Stevens is an acquired taste, at least that's how I see him.  I can't say he's one of my favorite poets, but every so often I have to browse through my copy of a collection of  his poems,  The Pa/m at the End of the Mind.  So far most of his poems puzzle me to the extent I'm not even sure that I'm getting the overt sense of them, much less anything deeper.  But, once in awhile I encounter one of his quirky ones that strikes a chord somewhere.  Here's the most recent example, and it's an autumn poem also:

The Reader

All night I sat reading a book,
Sat reading as if in a book
Of somber pages.

It was autumn and falling stars
Covered the shrivelled forms
Crouched in the moonlight.

No lamp was burning as I read,
A voice was mumbling, "Everything
Falls back to coldness,

Even the musky muscadines,
The melons, the vermilion pears
Of the leafless garden."

The somber pages bore no print
Except the trace of burning stars
In the frosty heaven.

-- Wallace Stevens --

Falls back to coldness,

Even the musky muscadines,
The melons, the vermilion pears
Of the leafless garden."

 Stevens doesn't seem to be celebrating a rich harvest here, as many autumn poems do.   This is a more somber poem.  He might be contemplating autumn as the prelude to winter and death.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The House of the Dead

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested in 1849 for  being a member of the Petrashevky Circle and sentenced to death.  Granted a last second reprieve (he was about to be executed when the order arrived at the place of execution) he was sentenced to serve time at the prison camp in Omsk, Siberia.  He was released in 1854 and was fortunate to be given permission to return to St. Petersburg.  Without this permission, he would have spent the rest of his life in a town in Siberia, the fate of his "narrator" in the novel.

Perhaps to distance himself as far as possible from the story, Dostoyevsky has adopted the convention of an "editor" who is given a manuscript written by Goryanchikov, a former inmate of a convict prison in Siberia.  This manuscript, of course, is a first person narrative, which gives  the reader the sense of immediacy and the feel of actually being present in the prison.  The only other prison story that I have read so far that made me feel I was there was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  I recommend reading them together for an fascinating comparison of the Siberian prison camp under the tzars and  under the commissars.  Frankly I prefer the tzars' prison, for as beastly as life was then, it was still far more humane than under the commissars.

The narrator,  Goryanchikov,  was not a political prisoner as was Dostoyevsky, but like Dostoyevsky he was a nobleman.  He was in prison for killing his wife out of jealousy.   We never learn much about the details for Goryanchikov seems to want to put his former life behind him and seldom thinks about it.  His narrative is about his life in prison, including his reactions to this new and horrifying way of living and the people he meets there.  While there is some parts that focus on the prison staff--guards, administrators, doctors-- most of the narrative concentrates on his fellow prisoners.

Goryanchikov discovered shortly after arriving that he was hated by the majority of the convicts for he was a nobleman.  It wasn't personal; it was class hatred that set him apart.  And, it lasted, he reports, for his entire stay in prison, although it did ease off somewhat near the end of his sentence.  Some of the convicts even wished him well as he finished his sentence and was released.

The structure of the work is mostly chronological and follows a very logical plan.  The first days are treated in considerable detail, with the first weeks, then months, and the first year are dealt with in some detail, while the following years are given in less detail.  Significant events are covered in the latter parts of the narrative, such as his stay in the hospital.  The narrator also spends more time reflecting on issues brought up by his  experiences in prison:  the ideal prison administrator, the different types of guards, the psychological effects of whippings and beatings, the various personalities of his fellow convicts.

This is psychologically well-grounded as we all are far more observant when we are put into a new situation, and details are far more noticeable for their novelty.  As we become familiar with the situation, the novelty dissipates, which now gives us the freedom to step back and gain a larger perspective about our environment.  Moreover, prison life tends to be monotonous with most variety being provided by the convicts themselves and their interactions with each other.  After awhile this furnishes the only novelty in prison as prisoners leave, are transferred, or die and new ones arrive. Occasionally, a new administrator appears or a new guard or staff member arrives, which results in some minor changes, but for the most part, it will be the convicts themselves who provide whatever variety there is.

I found it a fascinating account of a horrifying situation and can only marvel at the adaptability of humans who can survive here.

Highly recommended--and as I mentioned above, this should be read along with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LXV

This is the seventh in a series of linked quatrains that take place in a potter's shop in which the pots attempt to discuss the nature of the Potter/Creator and their relationship to Him.  This one, though,  is a bit different from the others that have preceded it.

First Edition:  Quatrain LXV

Then said another with a long-drawn Sigh,
"My Clay with long oblivion is gone dry:
     But, fill me with the old familiar Juice,
Methinks I might recover by-and-by!"

 Second Edition:  Quatrain XCVI

"Well," said another, "Whoso will, let try,
My Clay with long oblivion is gone dry:
    But fill me with the old familiar Juice,
Methinks I might recover by-and-by!"

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXXIX

"Well," murmur'd one, "Let whoso make or buy,
My Clay with long oblivion is gone dry:
    But fill me with the old familiar Juice,
Methinks I might recover by-and-by!"

The second, third, and fourth lines of the three editions are identical, except for a comma in the first version that was dropped in the second edition and does not reappear in the fifth edition.  "But" in the first edition is an interjection and the removal of the comma changes it into a conjunction, a change in usage that doesn't seriously affect the sense of the line.

The major changes occur in the first line when "another" is replaced by "one."   The "another" joins the speaker with the others for it is "another" in a series of speakers.  In the fifth edition, "one" separates it from the others to the extent that it is one that speaks and not necessarily one in a series.  In fact, while it is one in a series of speakers, it separates itself  from the others by what it says. While the others attempt to analyze their relationship to the Potter and their likely fates, this one is more concerned with the present.  It is dry and it needs wine, "the old familiar Juice," to help it recover.

This, of course, fits in perfectly with a previous theme brought out by the Poet/Narrator, that of the uselessness of the attempts to answer the universal questions:  How did I get here?  Where did I come from and where am I going?  What is the nature of the Universe?  Is there a Creator and what is the relationship between us?  Previously the Poet/Narrator had listened to saints and sages and wise men but had learned nothing and thereby decided that enjoyment of life was the only sensible course of action. 

In this linked series, various pots had attempted to answer the same questions with the same result: ignorance for they don't know the answers.  Now, one pot has decided that the only course was filling oneself up with wine, "the old familiar Juice."  The Poet/Narrator has used the pots to recreate once again his theme that we don't know and therefore should make the best of it.

This quatrain can also be seen somewhat differently if one favors a religious interpretation.  This pot may be speaking of a loss of faith and is praying to the Creator for that "old familiar Juice" which could be seen as God's grace to restore its faith.   However, that "by-and-by" at the end of the line suggests there's no real hurry.  This reminds me of the famous line from The Confessions of St. Augustine: "God, give me chastity and continence - but not just now."  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Robert Grudin: space-time perception


"We cannot project space-time into psychological experience without profound changes in perception and comprehension.  By fiat of four-dimensionality, "what" becomes "what/when,"  "who" becomes "who/when,"  "you" and "I" and everything undergo similar transformations.  A challenging idea, implying that identities and relationships are always in motion; that attempts to codify them in static, absolute terms are at very best relative and approximate.  To some observers this might suggest absolute relativism, loss of identity, chaos.  But this extreme hypothesis seems to be true neither in science nor in human affairs.  Things may change;  but they change at characteristic rates and in characteristic ways, recognizable and natural.  We search for character, value, truth, not so much like pilgrims seeking a marble shrine, as like listeners perceiving, in different musical instruments at different times, recurring themes and rhythms.  Thus a kind of stability-- perhaps the only real stability--exists in space-time, and our ability to recognize this mobile truth bears the same proportion to normal common sense as physics bears to solid geometry."  

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

An interesting concept.  When I think of a person or object, I shouldn't see this person or object as static and concrete, but I should perceive them as being in motion and liable to change.  My perception of them would then include the notion of change, of some sort of flux.  How would this change my relationship to them?   What would be the effect on me of actually seeing them this way?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Immersion: Wendell Berry and Loren Eiseley

"I have been walking in the woods, and have lain down on the ground to rest.  It is the middle of October, and around me, all through the woods, the leaves are quietly sifting down.  The newly fallen leaves make a dry, comfortable bed, and I lie easy, coming to rest within myself as I seem to do nowadays only when I am in the woods. 

And now a leaf, spiraling down in wild flight, lands on my shirt at about the third button below the collar.  At first I am bemused and mystified by the coincidence--that the leaf should have been so hung, weighted and shaped, so ready to fall, so nudged loose and slanted by the breeze, as to fall where I, by the same delicacy of circumstance, happened to be lying.  The event, among all its ramifying causes and considerations, and finally its mysteries, begins to take on the magnitude of history.  Portent begins to dwell in it.

And suddenly I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground.  Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay.  Other leaves fall.  My body begins its long shudder into humus.  I feel my subtstance escape me, carried into the mold  by beetles and worms.  Days, winds, seasons pass over me as I sink under the leaves.  For a time only sight is left me, a passive awareness of the sky overhead, birds crossing, the mazed interreaching of the treetops, the leaves falling--and then that , too, sinks away.  It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace.

When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world." 

--  Wendell Berry --
from Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season
edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch
Skylight Paths Publishing

Loren Eiseley has been walking for many hours and has come to the Platte River in Nebraska, which stretches from the Rockies to the Missouri and then to the Gulf of Mexico. He is hot and dry and dusty. The River is cold yet inviting and only a few inches deep in most places, but still there are dangerous holes and quicksands. He is alone and he can't swim and he is afraid of water as the result of a childhood incident. Yet, the sight of the River stirs him "with a new idea. I was going to float."

"I thought of all this, standing quietly in the water, feeling the sand shifting away under my toes. Then I lay back in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off. The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent. It was then that I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea. I was streaming over ancient sea beds thrust aloft where giant reptiles had once sported; I was wearing down the face of time and trundling cloud-wreathed ranges into oblivion. I touched my margins with the delicacy of a crayfish's antennae, and felt great fishes glide about their work.

I drifted by stranded timber cut by beaver in mountain fastnesses; I slid over shallows that had buried the broken axles of prairie schooners and the mired bones of mammoth. I was streaming alive through the hot and working ferment of the sun, or oozing secretively through shady thickets. I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water, the slimy jellies that under the enormous magnification of the sun writhe and whip upward as great barbeled fish mouths, or sink indistinctly back into the murk out of which they arose. Turtle and fish and the pinpoint chirpings of individual frogs are all watery projections, concentrations--as man himself is a concentration--of that indescribable and liquid brew which is compounded in varying proportions of salt and sun and time. It has appearances, but at its heart lies water, and as I was finally edged gently against a sand bar and dropped like any log, I tottered as I arose. I knew once more the body's revolt against emergence into the harsh and unsupporting air, its reluctance to break contact with that mother element which still, at this late point in time, shelters and brings into being nine tenths of everything alive."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Immense Journey

While the circumstances are different, and the ideas and the tones are different, the experiences, I think, are the same--the loss of self into the world about.  Berry's is about the ultimate end of all of us--death--and he concludes that "It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace."  Eiseley's theme is about the unity of all--water, life, the continent.  He recapitulates in a way the emergence of life out of non-life.  

I've had only three experiences that could be considered somewhat similar, although the overall tone was one of an overwhelming sense of peace and unity.  The first time was while I was driving along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  I had been there for several hours and had made several stops at various viewpoints along the road.  I had a tape in the player and it was playing one of Beethoven's symphonies when I was filled with a sense of peace and belonging?  The feeling is indescribable.  The second occurred years later, when I was returning from another trip to the Grand Canyon and I was driving south from Prescott, Arizona when it happened again, and this time I was listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  There seems to be a pattern here:  the Grand Canyon, driving, and Beethoven.

The third and last time was, again, years later when I was driving through the upper part of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  The road wound among the peaks with a deep valley to one side and around each corner was another spectacular vista.  This time I was playing a tape of Beethoven's 6th Symphony.  


I'm hoping for a fourth, but .  .  .  

And you?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Eric Hoffer: some thoughts on play


"Man is a luxury-loving animal.  Take away play, fancies, and luxuries, and you will turn man into a dull, sluggish creature, barely energetic enough to obtain a bare subsistence. A society  becomes stagnant when its people are too rational or too serious to be tempted by baubles."

I don't I've ever met a society or a group of people who are too rational, but I know I've met those who are too serious, who believe that the only worthwhile activity is making money, and who assign value on the basis of whether it is profitable.  If they can't make a profit on it, it has no value.  They may play golf but only because one can make profitable contacts out on the greens.

"To be aware how fruitful the playful mood can be is to be immune to the propaganda of the alienated, which extols resentment as a fuel of achievement."


"It is a juvenile notion that a society needs a lofty purpose and a shining vision to achieve much.  Both in the marketplace and on the battlefield men who set their hearts on toys have often displayed unequaled initiative and drive.  And one must be ignorant of the creative process to look for a close correspondence between motive and achievement in the world of thought and imagination."

-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

Hoffer is not alone when he speaks of the importance of fun and play.  For a similar point of view, go to two posts on  Lin Yutang, one dated October 10, 2011 and another on June 6, 2011.

 Is fiction play?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Loren Eiseley: "Wind Child"


They have just found where Monarch butterflies go
                                                                  in autumn
those red-gold drifters edged in black
that blow like leaves but never         
                              quite coming to rest,
always fluttering  
                              a little out of reach,
over the next house, or just making it
                                     above the hedge
flickering evasively through the last sunlight,
                                       the attrition tremendous,
                                       thousands die,
blown to sea, lost to children, lost to enemies but
                                            beating, beating on,
speed fourteen miles an hour on a three-thousand mile
                                                                             course to Mexico.
                          Where is the compass?
                              We don't know.
                          How did the habit start?
                               We don't know.
                         Why do the insects gather
                                 in great clumps on trees
                                 in the Sierra Madre?
                              We don't know.
They are individualists.  They fly alone.  Who wouldn't
                                                                     in autumn
like to rock and waver southward like an everblowing leaf
             over and through forests and hedges,
                       float in the glades             
                          sip the last nectar?
What a way to go, you make it, or you don't, or the winds
                         snatch you away.
Fly Monarchs and then, if your wings are not too old and frayed,
start the long road back in the spring.  Nature is
                                                 prodigal in numbers
prodigal of her milkweed children (did they learn to travel
                                                        from milkweed down?)
But I was overlooked, am really not human,
              would be first a tiger-striped caterpillar
              and then a Monarch, elusive, flickering, solitary
blowing on storms and beating, always beating
                        to go somewhere else, to another flower.
               Over the fence then.  Out of humanity.
                           I am a wind child.   

-- Loren Eiseley --
from Another Kind of Autumn

This, to me, is the most evocative part of the poem.  I can close my eyes and see them, remember them doing exactly this.  I don't know if they were Monarchs, but I do remember butterflies fluttering over rooftops and then barely clearing a low hedge, pausing briefly at a blossom or a brightly colored shirt on a clothesline, and then moving on, always moving on.   It is hard to believe that they are hardy enough to make a journey of thousands of miles and then some able to come back several seasons later. .

those red-gold drifters edged in black
that blow like leaves but never         
                              quite coming to rest,
always fluttering  
                              a little out of reach,
over the next house, or just making it
                                     above the hedge
flickering evasively through the last sunlight,

Shakespeare has Hamlet at one point say "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."--even such an ordinary, commonplace creature as a butterfly is a marvel, once we look closely at it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain LXIV

This is the sixth in a  series of linked quatrains, all playing with the theme of the Potter/Creator, in which the pots reassure themselves that the unpleasant tales they've heard about the Potter can't possibly be true.

First Edition: Quatrain LXIV

Said one--"Folks of a surly Tapster tell,
And daub his Visage with the Smoke of Hell;
     They talk of some strict Testing of us--Pish!
He's a Good Fellow, and 'twill all be well."

Second Edition:   Quatrain XCV

Said one--"Folks of a surly Master tell,
And daub his Visage with the Smoke of Hell;
     They talk of some sharp Trial of us--Pish!
He's a Good Fellow, and 'twill all be well."

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXXXVIII

"Why," said another, "Some there are who tell
Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
    The luckless Pots he marr'd in making--Pish!
He's a Good Fellow, and 'twill all be well."

It seems clear that they are speaking of the Creator as seen by Christians, Jews, and Moslems.  The references to hell and testing clearly suggest the teachings of those religions.  Our life here on Earth is a test, and those who fail the test are destined for eternal punishment.  All three quatrains agree on this point, and all three dismiss this possibility with the identical last line:  "He's a Good Fellow, and 'twill all be well."

However, there are some interesting, if not intriguing, differences among the three quatrains.  The Potter/Creator is called "a surly Tapster" in the first edition, which carries the hint of one who dispenses alcohol--a Tapster. This fits in well with the numerous references to wine in previous quatrains.   In the second version, the "surly Tapster" becomes a "surly Master,"  a distinctly different person here.  A Master is one who controls others while a Tapster simply provides drinks upon demand.  There's much more of a sense of control in the second edition. In the fifth edition, it is neither a Tapster nor a Master, but a more generic "one who threatens."

One more difference is that in the first and second editions, the Potter's face is daubed with "the Smoke of Hell,"  which suggests a strong physical connection to Hell.  One cannot be covered with smoke unless one comes in contact with it.  However, in the fifth edition, that connection disappears for the Potter now becomes one who will toss the "marr'd pots" into hell.

What is also significant is that the pot does not claim to be speaking from personal experience, but telling us of what others say.  This echoes earlier quatrains in which the Poet/Narrator tells us that many speak of what is to come after death, but none have ever come back to speak from their own experience.  And, the Poet/Narrator dismisses what they have to say in a number of quatrains wherein he tells us repeatedly that we know not where we came from and we know not our destination, if there is one.

In the first edition, the pot speaks of "Testing," a process designed to determine what qualities we posses, or lack, perhaps.  This "Testing" becomes "a sharp Trial" in the second version, which, in addition to a sense of testing, carries legal or judicial implications.  A "Trial" is reserved for those who are charged with some crime.  Just as all in the first edition will face a test, all in the second seemingly will be on trial for some misdeed.

The fifth edition, though, recalls an earlier quatrain, specifically LXIII of the first edition, XCIII of the second, and LXXXVI  of the fifth, in which a "pot of a more ungainly make" suggests that its flaws are the result of the potter's shaking hand and not the fault of the pot.   If the pot is not perfect, then who is at fault?  Could the Potter be responsible for the pot's flaws and if so, is it fair that the pot, therefore,  be punished?   In one sense, the pot is a victim of a less than perfect Potter.  Moreover, in the fifth edition, the sense of  a test or a trial conducted by "a surly Tapster" or "Master" disappears completely and is replaced by "one who threatens he will toss to Hell/ The luckless Pots he marr'd in making."  These are not pots who have failed a test, but "luckless Pots he marr'd in making."

In the fourth line of the quatrain, the pot reassures the others in all three versions by dismissing those threats of hell by insisting "He's a Good Fellow, and 'twill all be well."  This is not the angry, vengeful Creator of the Old Testament, but a more congenial Creator, "a Good Fellow"  and therefore, " 'twill all be well."

Of course, this more reassuring and comforting view of the Potter/Creator has no more substance or supporting evidence than do the claims that are being dismissed.   The "surly Tapster" and the "Good Fellow"  are simply speculations about the unknown, with a tinge of wishful thinking attached to the latter view. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wendell Berry: a path and a road

Wendell Berry (born August 5, 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky)  is an American man of letters, academic, a cultural and an economic critic, and farmer.  He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays.  He is also an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of  The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012.  (This information comes from the Wikipedia entry on Wendell Berry)

"The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one.  A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.  It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.  As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape.  It is not destructive.  It is the perfect adaptation,  through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.  A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape.  Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste.  Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible go go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge;  its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort.  It is destructive, seeking to removal or destroy all obstacles in its way.  The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography."
--  Wendell Berry --
from "A Native Hill"
The quotation is included in Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season
Edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch

I wonder if my life has been a path or a road.  If it's been a path in places, it's probably more the result of laziness than of reasoned choice.

I would like to meet someone sometime who has knowingly chosen a path and not a road.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fall Equinox: Autumnal Haiku

A bright autumn moon .  .  .
In the shadow of each grass
      An insect chirping
    -- Buson --

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

                                               Supper in autumn .  .  .
                                     The light through an open door
                                                 From a setting sun
                                                            -- Chora --

                                Jagged candle-flame .  .  .
                            The very shape of autumn sifts             
                                  Through the shutters 
                                         --  Raizan --

Nights are getting cold .  .  .
   Not a single insect now
        Attacks the candle
                  -- Shiki --

                                Swallows flying south .  .  .
                           My house too of sticks and paper
                                   Only a stopping place
                                             -- Kyorai --

                                                           All the world is cold   .  .  .
                                                        My fishing-line is trembling
                                                              in the autumn wind
                                                                       --  Buson --

                             White autumn moon .  .  .
                           Black-branch shadow-patterns
                                      Printed on the mats
                                                 -- Kikaku --

     First white snow of fall
Just enough to bend the leaves
      Of faded daffodils
                    -- Basho --

All haiku come from
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Edited and translated by Peter Beilenson

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain LXIII

This is the fifth in a series of linked quatrains which focus on the rationalizations of the pots about the character and possible behavior of the unknown Potter.  However this quatrain is a bit different as it actually seems to question the skill of the Potter.

First Edition: Quatrain LXIII

None answer'd this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
       "They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"

Second Edition: Quatrain XCIII

None answer'd this; but after silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
       "They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXXVI

After a momentary silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;
   "They sneer at me for leaning all awry:
What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"

The first line of the first and second editions are the same, except for the substitution of the lower case "s" in the second edition.  The fifth edition does show a change in wording though.  The first line is now "After a momentary silence spake"  instead of "None answer'd this; but after silence spake."  In the first two stanzas, it is clear that none of the pots had an answer to the pot in Quatrain LXII who insisted that even "a peevish Boy" wouldn't destroy a cup in a rage. That none answered him is ambiguous for it could be that they all agreed or that none wished to disillusion him. The issue is avoided in the fifth edition, for there is just acknowledgement that there was "a momentary silence" before the next one spoke up and no suggestion that there might be an answer..  

The second line shows only one significant change:  "A Vessel" in the first edition becomes "Some Vessel" in the second and fifth editions.  The "A Vessel" strikes me a being more specific:  it was "a vessel" of ungainly make, which seems fairly definite to me,  whereas "Some Vessel" seems somewhat vague, almost arbitrary..

The third and fourth lines are the same for all three editions, with changes only in punctuation as the third line shifts from a semi-colon to a colon in the fifth edition.  The semi-colon suggests separate but related ideas, whereas the colon indicates that what follows the colon in some way is an explanation or elucidation of the statement that preceded the colon.  The shaky hand of the Potter is responsible for his less than upright stance.  This might be seen as symbolic of a less than upright moral stance also.

The point here is that the Potter shares responsibility if its creations are less than perfect, and if the Potter does share some responsibility, then the pots should not bear the brunt of punishment for flaws which aren't' their fault, or at least not wholly their fault..
.    .