Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lin Yutang: "Earthbound" conclusion

"The situation then is this: man wants to live, but he still must live upon the earth.

. . . .

"Any good practical philosophy must start out with the recognition of our having a body. It is high time that some among us made the straight admission that we are animals, an admission which is inevitable since the establishment of the basic truth of the Darwinian theory and the great progress of biology, especially bio-chemistry. It was very unfortunate that our teachers and philosophers belong to the so-called intellectual class, with a characteristic professional pride of intellect. The men of the spirit were as proud of the spirit as the shoemaker is proud of leather. Sometimes even the spirit was not sufficiently remote and abstract and they had to use the words, 'essence' or 'soul' or 'idea,' writing the with capital letters to frighten us. The human body was distilled in this scholastic machine into a spirit, and the spirit was further concentrated into a kind of essence, forgetting that even alcoholic drinks must have a 'body'--mixed with plain water--if they are to be palatable at all. And we poor laymen were supposed to drink that concentrated quintessence of spirit. The over-emphasis on the spirit was fatal. It made us war with our natural instincts, and my chief criticism is that it made a whole and rounded view of human nature impossible. It proceeded also from an inadequate knowledge of biology and psychology, and of the place of the senses, emotions and, above all, instincts in our life. Man is made of flesh and spirit both, and it should be philosophy's business to see that the mind and body live harmoniously together, that there be a reconciliation between the two."

-- Lin Yutang --
from The Importance of Living

We are not ghosts in the machine, a soul trapped in a sinful or evil body, as so many religious traditions insist. We are both body and soul (whatever that term may mean to you) and we should accept this. As long as we cannot accept this, any sort of true lasting harmony will be impossible.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lin Yutang: "Earthbound" part 2

"The situation, then, is this: man wants to live, but he still must live upon this earth.

. . . . .

For we are of the earth, earth-born and earth-bound. There is nothing to be unhappy about the fact that we are, as it were, delivered upon this beautiful earth as its transient guests. Even if it were a dark dungeon, we still would have to make the best of it; it would be ungrateful of us not to do so when we have, instead of a dungeon, such a beautiful earth to live on for a good part of a century. Sometimes we get too ambitious and disdain the humble and yet generous earth. Yet a sentiment for this Mother Earth, a feeling of true affection and attachment, one must have for this temporary abode of our body and spirit, if we are to have a sense of spiritual harmony.

We have to have, therefore, a kind of animal skepticism as well as animal faith, taking this earthly life largely as it is. And we have to retain the wholeness of nature that we see in Thoreau who felt himself kin to the sod and partook largely of its dull patience, in winter expecting the sun of spring, who in his cheapest moments was apt to think that it was not his business to be "seeking the spirit," but as much the spirit's business to seek him, and whose happiness, as he described, was a good deal like that of the wood-chucks. The earth, after all, is real, as the heaven is unreal; how fortunate is man that he is born between the real earth and the unreal heaven!"

(to be concluded)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lin Yutang: "Earthbound"

The following excerpt doesn't really describe too many people in this country, does it? Or at least, it's not the way I hear people talking today--attempting to show how they are the real Americans.

"The situation then is this: man wants to live, but he still must live upon this earth. All questions of living in heaven must be brushed aside. Let not the spirit take wings and soar to the abode of the gods and forget the earth. Are we not, mortals, condemned to die? The span of life vouchsafed us, threescore and ten, is short enough, if the spirit gets too haughty and wants to live forever, but on the other hand, it is also long enough, if the spirit is a little humble. One can learn such a lot and enjoy such a lot in seventy years, and three generations is a long, long time to see human follies and acquire human wisdom. Anyone who is wise and has lived long enough to witness the changes of fashion and morals and politics through the rise an fall of three generations should be perfectly satisfied to rise from his seat and go away saying, "It was a good show,' when the curtain falls."

(To be continued)

-- Lin Yutang --
from The Importance of Living

Suppose a person who followed this sort of philosophy were to run for public office. I wonder what that person's speeches would be like. What would this person do in a debate?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

P. D. James: Death Comes to Pemberley

P. D. James: Death comes to Pemberley, a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (P&P)

Normally I ignore sequels to classics, but P. D. James is one of my favorite mystery writers. Many of her novels feature a large house, either occupied for centuries by the family or possibly long since turned to other uses: a nursing school, a laboratory, or even a publishing house. As the largest estate in the county, Pemberley would be a perfect setting for one of her stories. In addition, in an interview James said that her favorite author was Austen and she thought that, if Austen were alive today, she would be writing mysteries. So, I had to break a long-standing tradition and, at least, start it.

The novel opens with a prologue summarizing the significant events and introducing the major characters in Pride and Prejudice. James then brings us up-to-date, for six years have passed since the end of what is probably Austen's most popular novel. We are told that Elizabeth and Darcy have two children and that Elizabeth's younger sister Mary is also married to the rector of a nearby parish. Kitty is still at home, the only one left and likely to remain unmarried. Mr. Bennet is a frequent visitor at Pemberley, while Mrs. Bennet is less so. Darcy, while having become more patient and tolerant over time, does have his limits.

It is Friday, October 14, 1803, the day before the most important social event of the year in the neighborhood of Pemberley, Lady Anne's ball, the annual ball held in honor of Darcy's mother. Elizabeth has spent the day planning and preparing for the event with the aid of the inestimable Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper whom she had met on her first visit to Pemberley with the Gardiners.

Now late in the evening, Elizabeth, Darcy, the Bingleys (who had arrived a short time ago), Col. Fitzwilliam, and Henry Alveston are gathered together after dinner. Alveston is the only one who needs an introduction to readers of P&P. He is a rising young attorney who has become an increasingly regular visitor to Pemberley, and it is fairly obvious what the source of attraction is. In fact, it is that same attraction that causes Col Fitzwilliam considerable discomfort.

Georgiana, Darcy's sister, is now of a marriageable age: she is attractive and an heiress of a considerable fortune, and she is no longer the shy, quiet young girl we had known. Six years of associating with Elizabeth may have contributed somewhat to that. For some time now, both Fitzwilliam and Alveston have attempted to engage her affections. While Georgiana has not yet made her choice, Elizabeth feels that Col. Fitzwilliam will be disappointed.

It is then that death comes to Pemberley, or at least a madly driven coach carrying an hysterical Lydia arrives at the front door. All she can do is cry out almost incoherently that her beloved Wickham is dead, murdered. After questioning the more rational coach driver, Darcy and the others discover that Wickham and Lydia were going through their usual routine. Darcy has forbidden Wickham's presence at Pemberley; therefore, Lydia is never invited. However, the usual procedure is that Lydia arrives unannounced with luggage while the carriage immediately proceeds onward with Wickham to the nearest inn, where he stays while Lydia enjoys the amenities of Pemberley.

Lydia has come for Lady Anne's ball and will leave after the ball is over. But, this time Lydia and Wickham were accompanied by Wickham's good and possibly only friend, Captain Denny. However, shortly after entering the woods surrounding Pemberley, Denny and Wickham quarrel, with the result that Denny left the coach. Wickham then follows him into the trees. Shortly afterwards, a shot is heard. Lydia becomes hysterical, and the coach driver, unarmed, decides it would be best to go for help and also take Lydia out of any possible danger.

Upon hearing the coachman's story, Darcy, Fitzwilliam, and Alveston decide to go back to the spot where the driver left off the two men. They were reluctant to interfere in a private quarrel, but the report of shots being fired persuaded them to to investigate. After stumbling about in the forest for some time, they are about to leave when they come across a clearing in which a body is stretched out on the ground. Kneeling before the body and covered in blood is Wickham, who cries out upon seeing him that this was his fault. Capt. Denny is dead. The result is that Wickham is arrested, and a coroner's jury decides there is sufficient evidence for a trial.

What follows is NOT a contemporary mystery. James is too wise for that. We do not see Elizabeth and Darcy chasing around the countryside searching for clues, following up leads, and interrogating witnesses and suspects. That is left for the authorities and Wickham's expensive defense attorney (you can guess who pays for him).

In the first place, neither Elizabeth nor Darcy have any experience in detecting nor would they have even considered taking such actions. Secondly, Darcy is prohibited from taking any part in the case for Wickham is his brother-in-law. Darcy is one of three magistrates for the county. If he were to get involved and Wickham released, then there would be a suspicion of favoritism. On the other hand, it was also known that Wickham in some way had earned Darcy's enmity, so if it was decided that Wickham be held over for trial, there might be a suspicion that Darcy had had his revenge. They had to separate themselves from any direct involvement in the case.

Much of the time in the novel is spent with secondary characters--various servants and their familes, Wickham, Col. Fitzwilliam, and even Mrs. Younge, whom readers may recognize as the governess who allowed Wickham to almost carry Georgiana off in P&P, the cause of Darcy's intense dislike of Wickham. It is "downstairs," to borrow the title of a popular TV show, where the facts of Capt. Denny's murder are to be found. And, not surprisingly, it is Wickham who is the cause, directly or indirectly.

This is not a contemporary murder mystery. Instead, it resembles much more closely a mystery novel written during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The solution comes through coincidental meetings, a deathbed confession, various letters, and a last minute frantic journey with important information that, if it arrives in time, could affect the outcome of Wickham's trial. It is not Jane Austen, but it does read like, at least to me anyway, like a mystery that might have been written in Austen's time.

James makes no attempt to imitate Austen's style; instead she gives the reader prose that is a bit more formal. Nor does she attempt to recreate Lizzie as Austen would have done. Elizabeth is no longer Lizzie, the young lady with the sharp tongue. She is now in her late twenties, the mother of two children, a wife, and the mistress of the largest estate in the area. She has a position to fill and has matured in the intervening six years.

James has inserted into the novel, which is mostly serious (murder is a serious business), some subtle bits of humour and an occasional sharp observation of her own. For example, at one point we read the following: And would she herself have married Darcy had he been a penniless curate or a struggling attorney? It was hard to envisage Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley as either, but honesty compelled an answer. Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.

Readers should also be alert to references to people who are mentioned but never make an appearance in the novel. Wickham at one point had been employed as a personal secretary to Sir William Elliot. He was fired six months later, possibly because of Miss Elliot's concern regarding Lydia's open flirting with Sir William, and also perhaps when she grew bored with Wickham's own attempts at flirting with her.

While I won't discuss the ending in any great detail, I should add that the final solution involved (surprise, surprise) considerable expense once again to Darcy, and the aid of Mr. and Mrs. Knightly of Donwell Abbey and her close friend, Mrs. Harriet Martin.

The novel ends, as do all of Austen's novels, with a final summary, some comments about the future, and a conversation between our hero and heroine regarding their own sometimes rocky relationship before it resulted in perfect happiness.

When I first decided to read Death Comes to Pemberley, I went to the library and borrowed a copy. However, about one-third of the way through, I visited Clues Unlimited, Tucson's local mystery bookstore. I figured I'd be reading it again, and I wanted my own copy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, "The Mystery"

This poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar expresses one of the basic tenets of Taoism: we know not where we come from and we know not where we go. In the West, much blood has been spilled by various religious groups because of differences in doctrine about our ultimate destination. Perhaps if they had been less dogmatic about their beliefs, fewer people would have died in vain.

The Mystery

I was not; now I am -- a few days hence
I shall not be; I fain would look before
And after, but can neither do; some Power
Or lack of power says "no" to all I would.
I stand upon a wide and sunless plain,
Nor chart nor steel to guide my steps aright.
Whene'er, overcoming fear, I date to move,
I grope without direction and by chance.
Some feign to hear a voice and feel a hand
That draws them ever upward thro' that gloom.
But I --I hear no voice and touch no hand,
Tho' oft thro' silence infinite I list,
And strain my hearing to supernal sounds;
Tho' oft thro' fearful darkness do I reach,
And stretch my hand to find that other hand.
I question of th' eternal bending skies
That seem to neighbor with the novice earth;
But they roll on, and daily shut their eyes
On me, as I one day shall do on them,
And tell me not the secret that I ask.

Another reason why this poem caught my eye is that recently I had just posted some comments about Quatrain LII from FitzGerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I thought it might be interesting to quote that quatrain. People from different cultures and times still seem to think alike.

First Edition: Quatrain LII

And that inverted bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help--for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou and I.

And while I was reading that Quatrain, yet another came to mind:

First Edition: Quatrain XXXIII

Then to the rolling Heav'n I cried,
Asking, "What Lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?
And--"A blind Understanding!" Heav'n replied.

It seems as though there are two ways of dealing with this mystery. One is to grasp desperately at one "truth" which others have claimed to know, and to struggle constantly with those who think differently. The other is to accept that we really can't know, but must go on anyway. I prefer the second way.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Joseph Wood Krutch, more thougts on Joy

J0seph Wood Krutch in his Baja California and the Geography of Hope expresses some unusual ideas, (well, they are unusual today) on joy and its presence in nature. Obviously this is not a scientific view of nature, for when was the last time anyone heard a scientist say anything about joy in nature--that would be unscientific. But, fortunately, Krutch is not a scientist and therefore he can see this in nature--in plants and animals.

Joy is the one thing of which indisputably the healthy animal, and even the healthy plant, gives us an example. And we need them to remind us that beauty and joy can come of their own accord when we let them. The geranium on the tenement window and the orchid in the florist's shop, the poodle on the leash and the goldfish in the bowl, are better than nothing. In the consciousness of the city-dweller, they ought to play a part no less essential than that of the sleek chrome chair and the reproductions of Braque and Miro.

[in Baja California] I have, literally, God's plenty. Everything reminds me that man is an incident in nature rather than, as one comes to suppose in the city, that the natural is, at most, an incident, surviving precariously in a man-made world. If I do on my own a little of that peeping and botanizing which Wordsworth scorned, I think that I profit less from what I learn about nature than I do from what I should prefer to call the example she sets me--the example, I mean, of confidence, of serenity, and, above all, of joy. In the city, perhaps especially in the city of today, one may pass whole weeks without meeting a single joyous person or seeing a single joyous thing. One may meet laughter there, and wit--sometimes, perhaps, a fragment of wisdom. These are all good things which I would not willingly do without. But joyousness, as distinguished from diversion and amusement and recreation, is so rare that a whole philosophy has been developed to make a virtue out of its absence.

This world, we are told, is a terrible place, and it is wicked not to be almost continuously aware of the fact. Diversion in limited quantities is permissible as a temporary relaxation, but moral indignation should be the staple of any human life, properly spent. Yet it seems to me that Joy and Love, increasingly fading from human experience, are the two most important things in the world, and that if one must be indignant about something, the fact that they are so rare is the thing most worth of indignation.

-- Joseph Wood Krutch --
from Baja California and the Geography of Hope

I wonder what would happen if one of the candidates in the primaries being held this Spring of 2012 should begin to criticize The System today because of its limited, materialistic view, that there is something more important than economics and religious prohibitions and struggles for world domination. Just suppose that that candidate began to argue that our outlook on life (and not merely just a particular religious doctrine) and that our relationship to the world we live in is just as important, if not more so, than economics and social controls and world preeminence.

I think that person would labelled a nut. What could be more important than jobs and proper religious behavior and world domination?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Patricia Highsmith and the Talented Mr. Ripleys

The title is somewhat misleading for Patricia Highsmith is directly responsible for only one talented Mr. Ripley--the one found in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first of five novels about his adventures. She is only indirectly responsible for the Ripleys found in the two films based on the first novel: a French version (1960) starring Alain Delon, which is titled Plein Soleil or Purple Noon, as it is in English, (no, I don't understand the choice of the title) and the Hollywood 1999 version titled more appropriately, The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Math Damon.

Spoiler Warning: I will reveal significant plot elements and endings.

In Highsmith's novel, Tom Ripley is sent to Italy by Dickie Greenleaf's father to persuade Dickie Greenleaf to return to the US. A similar theme is found in an earlier novel by Henry James' The Ambassador. Both ultimately fail, but that's the only similarity found in the two novels. Highsmith's ambassador, in contrast to James' Streuther, is a sociopath who fastens himself on his victims and lives the good life as long as he can, at their expense, of course.

Ripley is a complex character who alternates between cold "survival at any cost" behaviors and internal ruminations about how unfair people are and he is able, therefore, to justify himself by blaming everybody else for his actions. After all --what else could he do?-- he asks himself, as he murders two people: one who is about to send him packing, thereby eliminating Ripley's access to the good life, and one who is going to reveal his identity to the police, for Ripley has, by now, assumed the identity of and, most significantly, the fortune of Dickie Greenleaf.

After murdering Dickie, Ripley assumes his identity, and this part of the novel is the most complex and somewhat confusing. Ripley actually is forced to live as both Ripley and Greenleaf as he attempts to conceal his true identity, whichever that is at that particular moment. The police get involved when the body of Freddie is discovered. Freddie was last seen being helped into his car by Greenleaf (Ripley) and therefore is of interest to the police. Secondly, Tom Ripley seems to have disappeared, and the police are now also interested in what Greenleaf (Ripley) knows about him.

Ripley thus has to reappear as himself and remove that suspicion. But, in so doing, Greenleaf must temporarily disappear, which intensifies the police's interest even more. Ripley then has to re-establish Greenleaf's existence, and the plot becomes convoluted as Ripley hustles back and forth between Italy and France, sometimes as Ripley and sometimes as Greeleaf, frequently meeting people who know him as Ripley or Greenleaf. How Highsmith (or Ripley) keeps it all straight, I have no idea.

Two events that happen near the end push the plot beyond credibility. One involves Greenleaf's rings which Ripley wanted and therefore stupidly took from Greenleaf's body. When they are accidentally discovered by Marge, Greenleaf's fiance, Tom's excuse that Greenleaf gave them to him and that he simply forgot he had them is weak. Tom then suddenly remembers that Greenleaf had given him a letter to hold for awhile which he also has forgotten about until now. In the letter, "Dickie" hints at guilt for somethings he has done and declares Tom Ripley to be his heir. I was sure that the police and a private detective hired by Mr. Greenleaf would find both 'lapses" of memory too much to accept. However, I was wrong, and I find these events to be the weakest parts of the novel.

Frankly, I find Tom Ripley an unpleasant character, but Highsmith has created such a fascinating picture of him, that I read on, hoping that he does get caught in the end. Since four more novels about his adventures exist, one can guess the outcome of this novel. I don't know if I will read all four, but I certainly shall read the last one, in hopes that he will get caught in the end.

In the French film, Purple Noon, we see a different Tom Ripley, a highly efficient and coolly professional con man, who has no doubts about what must be done. Alain Delon plays him as the manipulating parasite who always comes out ahead with little or no qualms about his actions, including two murders. The film rearranges, drops, and adds plot elements in order to convey this image of Ripley. Moreover, the homoerotic elements strongly hinted at in the novel are gone. Ripley is definitely heterosexual in the film, which is rather doubtful in Higsmith's Ripley.

Another significant change involves the fake will: in this film "Greenleaf" leaves everything to Marge, his fiance. Ripley then returns as himself and courts Marge. She falls in love with him and, in this way, he will enjoy Greenleaf's fortune after all and, moreover, has turned suspicion from himself regarding Greenleaf's disappearance. However, good must prevail and evil punished at the end, so Highsmith's ending is changed and Tom is found out, just as he is beginning once again to live the good life, as Marge's lover.

In the 1999 version, with Matt Damon as Ripley, we see a very different Ripley, one much closer to Highsmith's Ripley than to Delon's supremely confident and competent Ripley. Damon's Ripley is a more complex individual who appears to be lonely and desires some companionship, much as does Highsmith's Ripley. He is hurt by the taunts and insults of Dickie and some of Dickie's friends. Moreover, the homoerotic elements are back and, in fact, more clearly brought out than the novel does.

There is also an attempt to soften Ripley's character. When Ripley murders Dickie in the novel and in the French version, we see little guilt in Ripley. It is something that has to be done if Ripley is to live as he desires. However, we are given a different Ripley in the Matt Damon version. Ripley only strikes out at Dickie after being told he is being cast off and after considerable taunting about his homosexuality. Finally Ripley strikes out and hits Dickie with an oar. Seeing Dickie fall, bleeding, to the bottom of the boat, Ripley drops the oar, and with a shocked look on his face, kneels down to help Dickie. Dickie then recovers and attacks Ripley who then kills him in "self-defense."

In this version, Dickie/Tom leaves an ambiguous suicide note about guilt and so forth and ends by saying Ripley is his best friend and he owes much to Ripley's help. There is no will in the note, but Greenleaf's father interprets the note as a suggestion to him and therefore tells Ripley that he will turn over half of Dickie's money to him.

Another modification involves the rings incident. Marge, who accidentally finds the rings, doesn't believe Ripley's story and is convinced that Ripley killed Dickie. Tom is about to kill her also, but a friend appears before Ripley can make a move and she survives, bu she is not believed.

Tom, at the end, when it appears that all is well, is forced to kill again. Since it is on a cruise ship, there is no place to hide, nor can he run anywhere. In addition, on the ship is a woman who knows him as Dickie Greenleaf. The last scene is of Ripley sitting alone in his cabin which can be interpreted as his realization that all is over--he has failed.

Earlier I had mentioned my problems with two incidents that occur near the end of the novel: the one involving the rings and Dickie's forged will. In the novel, he is successful in both endeavors. However, it seems as though there are some agree with me. In the French version, Ripley is successful in explaining away his possession of the rings, but he makes Marge the one who inherits Dickie's money, and not himself, as it is in the novel. In the later 1999 version, Marge does not believe Ripley's story about the rings, and Ripley forges only an ambiguous suicide note in which he says Ripley was a great friend: there is no will at all.

Summary Comments: I enjoyed the novel, and if I already didn't have so many books at home to read, I would go on and read the remaining four novels in the series. However, I definitely will read the last one: Ripley Under Water. That sounds ominous, but . . .

I found both films to be very enjoyable, but, surprisingly, the later Hollywood version with Matt Damon as Ripley is closer to the novel than is the French version with Alain Delon. In addition. Damon's Ripley, although softened a bit, is still closer to the complex Ripley in the novel than is Delon's. If I had to choose one to view again, I would, at least now, select the Damon version.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Loren Eiseley: humanization and evolution

In discussions about evolution, usually three factors are brought in as the selective forces behind the development of species: climatic, geological, and competition for survival needs. Loren Eiseley here suggests that there may be a fourth factor in the evolution of the human species.

"Although there is still much that we do not understand, it is likely that the selective forces working upon the humanization of man lay essentially in the nature of the sociocultural world itself. Man, in other words, once he had "crossed over" into this new invisible environment, was being as rigorously selected for survival within it as the first fish that waddled up the shore on its fins. I have said that the new world was "invisible." I do so advisedly. It lay, not so much in his surroundings as in man's brain, in his way of looking at the world around him and at the social environment he was beginning to create in his tiny human groupings.

He was becoming something the world had never seen before--a dream animal--living at least partially within a secret universe of his own creation and sharing that secret universe in his head with other, similar heads. Symbolic communication had begun. Man had escaped out of the eternal present of the animal world into a knowledge of past and future. The unseen gods, the powers behind the world of phenomenal appearance, began to stalk through his dreams.

Nature, one might say, through the powers of this mind, grossly superstitious though it might be in its naive examination of wind and water, was beginning to reach out into the dark behind itself. Nature was beginning to evade its own limitations in the shape of this strange, dreaming and observant brain. It was a weird multiheaded universe, going on, unseen and immaterial save as its thoughts smoldered in the eyes of hunters huddled by night fires, or were translated into pictures upon cave walls, or were expressed in the trappings of myth or ritual. The Eden of this eternal present that the animal world had known for ages was shattered at least. Through the human mind, time and darkness, good and evil, would enter and possess the world."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Immense Journey

I wonder what Loren Eiseley would say about cyberspace: is it a further development of the "invisible world," the universe inside the brain, or is it something entirely new? Since Eiseley frequently maintained that evolution had not stopped, he might well speculate about the effect that life in cyberspace could have on the evolution of the human species in the future. I wish I could ask him.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Russell Hoban: The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz

The opening paragraph:

There were no lions any more. There had been lions once. Sometimes in the shimmer of the heat on the plains the motion of their running still flickered on the dry wind -- tawny, great, and quickly gone. Sometimes the honey-colored moon shivered to the silence of a ghost-roar on the rising air.

Russell Hoban is a difficult writer for me to write about. The reason is simple: he's one of my favorite writers and I find it hard to step back from his works and get beyond expressing simple admiration. "Quirky" is an overused adjective when applied to Hoban's works, but I can't find a better one. Many of his novels deal with rather ordinary people in rather ordinary situations, but there's always something a bit strange or odd floating about. This novel is an excellent example.

Jachin-Boaz is a mapmaker, and a good one. He has a map store which is highly respected by those who want or need maps. On the other hand, his domestic situation is less happy. The fire has gone out of his relationship with his wife, and his son, Boaz-Jachin, best described as a lout, considers himself both omniscient and infallible--there are some young ones like that, I've heard. Boaz-Jachin considers himself superior to his parents and when that opinion is threatened, he resorts to insults and sneers.

For example. Jachin-Boaz has, over the years, created a beautiful map, filled with everything he's learned from travelers and explorers. He will leave the map to his son--his legacy. He shows to map to his son and says that it's the result not only of the long years of his experience but also the lives of many others who have contributed to it. Everything possible has been included in the map. When Boaz-Jachin sees the map, however, he can't admit that, so he asks where the lions are, implying that the map is incomplete. Now, lions used to exist long ago but have long since disappeared around there. Boaz-Jachin just can't admit the value of his father's work.

Several months later, Jachin-Boaz leaves on a trip. This is not unusual for he often does this when doing research on maps, but this time he doesn't return. What is there for him to return to--an indifferent wife and a sneering son. He leaves a note: "I have gone to look for a lion." Boaz-Jachin now discovers that one must work for money, and now he is trapped behind the counter of the map store.

Boaz-Jachin decides that he too will find a lion, but he doesn't have to go far to find one. A three-hour bus trip will take him to a small town outside of which are the ruins of an old palace, and on the walls are images of men and lions and chariots. He goes to the ruin and finds:

Carved in the brownish stone was a lion with two arrows in his spine, leaping up at the king's chariot from behind, biting the tall chariot wheel, dying on the spears of the king and the king's spearmen. The horses galloped on, the beard of the calm-faced king was carefully curled, the king looked straight out over the back of the chariot, over the lion biting the wheel and dying on his spear. With both front paws the lion clung to the turning wheel that pulled him up on to the spears. His teeth were in the wheel, his muzzle was wrinkled back from his teeth, his brows were drawn together in a frown, his eyes were looking straight out from the shadow of his brows. There was no expression on the king's face. He was looking over the lion and beyond him.

I think I've seen this somewhere; at least it seems familiar. This is a link to a page with similar hunting scenes that have been found on the walls of palace ruins: http://tinyurl.com7szfe73.

He creates a copy of the scene and then slowly modifies it. Finally all that is left is the lion: the king, the chariot, the arrows, and spears are gone. It is no longer a defeated and dying lion.

Jachin-Boaz meanwhile has found a home in another city. He is living with Gretel, a young woman who is not indifferent to him. There is no sneering son. He now works in a bookstore, where the knowledge he gained in making maps allows him to recommend books of all sorts to the customers. His only regret now, a slight one, but real, is that there were times when his son wanted to help with the maps, but he would never let him. Perhaps . . .

Now, it's Boaz-Jachin who is restless, for it is the young man who should leave home and have adventures, and instead, he is trapped here in the map store while his father is out having Boaz-Jachin's adventures. Since his mother has now found someone to comfort her in her loss, Boaz-Jachin decides to find his father. After all, Jachin-Boaz has the map, and it's his legacy.

Meanwhile, life has become a bit strange for Jachin-Boaz. He is haunted--by a lion. It's a lion that only he can see. Others sometimes glimpse something indistinct, but only he can see the lion. It stalks him as he goes to and from work. He buys meat and throws it to the lion, hoping to appease it, but after quickly downing the bribe, the lion is back after him, and it's getting closer every day. Once his arm is mauled by the lion, and he has to go for medical treatment.

Where does the lion come from and why is it haunting him? Why can't anyone else see it? It could be Boaz-Jachin's lion, the one that his drawing freed from the spears and the arrows. But how could this happen and why is it after him?

The novel is a split narrative, between Jachin-Boaz and Boaz-Jachin, and their encounters with the lion is the link that joins the father and the son. As is frequently found in Hoban's novels, especially his later ones, the people and the situation are relatively mundane, but there's frequently a bit of magic there that releases them from the ordinary. Whatever the outcome of their adventures, they are changed by them. Perhaps that's Hoban's point: there's always magic in life, one just has to see it.

Overall Recommendation: Looking for a short novel that's well-written and a bit quirky--turn to the first page of The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LII

This quatrain is part of a series that focuses on the helplessness of humanity. We are all just puppets, moved here and there, by the Puppet Master, whose intentions are unknown to us. Even the sky above us cannot help us for it too is helpless.

First Edition: Quatrain LII

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help--for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXVIII

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help--for It
As impotently rolls as you or I.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXXII

And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help--for It
As impotently moves as you or I.

FitzGerald made mostly minor changes over the five editions. He substituted "you" for "thou" in the second and fifth editions. Another change occurred in the fifth edition when he replaced "we call" with "they call." I'm not sure why he did this, for it distances somewhat the reader from the quatrain. It's not we who call the Bowl the Sky but they, someone else.

The other change was in the last line when he replaced "Rolls impotently on as Thou or I." with "As impotently rolls as you or I" in the second and fifth editions. FitzGerald then made one more alteration when he substituted "moves" for "rolls" in the fifth edition. "Moves" is vague in comparison to "rolls," and it is a far weaker verb, in my estimation. "Rolls" has an inevitability about it, something unstoppable once started, but where it is going and what started it is unknown, for it too is controlled by the Player. I think FitzGerald should have left it as it was in the first edition.

It's a common image in painting, sculpture, and literature: the defiant shaking fists at the heavens or the supplicant pleading for help from the heavens. The Poet here tells us that either is a waste of time for It has no more power than do we.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

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

Some short early poems by Langston Hughes.


Does a jazz band ever sob?
They say a jazz band's gay.
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the wan night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz band sob
When the little dawn was grey.

The night is over, and the fantasy world created by music must retreat before the harsh reality of the coming day. What do the jazz players face during the day that elicits a sob before they gather again to enter that fantasy world?

"vulgar dancers"-- Does he mean "vulgar" in the modern sense of coarse, crude, or uncouth, or in the earlier sense of common or ordinary?

Winter Moon

How thin and sharp is the moon tonight!
How thin and sharp and ghostly white
Is the slim curved crook of the moon tonight!

A scythe? -- the implement frequently depicted as being carried by Death, the Grim Reaper.

Dream Variations

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me--
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

the white day of activity, furious and frenzied, and the dark night of rest and tenderness.
But--both are only dreams.