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