Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thomas Hardy: The Darkling Thrush

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 --
December 31, 1900

 I know I've posted this poem before, but it so fits my mood today that I just had to post it again.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Drew Magary: The Postmortal

Drew Magary
The Postmortal

Drew Magary's  The Postmortal is probably the best SF novel that explores the theme of an extended life span that I've read in decades, if not ever.  It attempts to realistically depict the effects of the development of an anti-aging medical treatment on society.

A researcher accidentally discovers a gene that controls aging and eventually comes up with a treatment that shuts down the gene.  Those given the cure (as it is popularly known) immediately stop aging and remain at whatever physical state they were in when given the treatment.  It is not immortality.  They can still die from accidents, disease, etc., but they will remain physically the same for an unknown length of time.

The opening paragraph from the novel's introduction:

"A Note about the Text: From the Department of Containment United North American Territories

"In March 2090, a worker for the Department of Containment named Anton Vyrin was conducting a routine sweep of an abandoned collectivist  compound in rural Virginia when he stumbled upon an eighth-generation  wireless-enabled projected screening device (WEPS.8) that was still functional after charging.  Stored inside the device's hard drive was a digital library containing sixty years' worth of text files written by a man who went by the screen name John  Farrell."

.     .     .

"In its entirety,the collection contains thousands of entries and several hundred thousand words, but for the sake of brevity and general readability, they have been edited and abridged into what we believe constitutes an essential narrative, and incontrovertible evidence that the cure for aging must never again be legalized."

The four time periods of the novel:

1  Prohibition:  June 2019
The news about the cure had appeared three years ago.  The US government, along with other governments, put a temporary ban on its use, saying it wished to study the effects of a drug that would have such an almost unthinkable effect on society.  While it is officially banned, it is available for those are willing to search for it and willing to pay for it.

John Farrell, a lawyer. locates a doctor who will administer the treatment.  At the same time, violent protests break out by both the pro-cure groups and the pro-death groups.  Many doctors who administer the cure are killed.

2  Spread:  June 2029
Societal changes appear.  The number of marriages has dropped.  In the past, "until death do us part" usually meant maybe 40 or 50 years or less, whereas now it could mean centuries.  Divorce is still possible, but people don't marry expecting to divorce.

Farrell tells Sonia, who is pregnant and wants him to marry her that "I could commit to you if we knew our lives were definite.  But they aren't.  I have no earthly idea what's coming next, and I can't promise you that from now until the end of time I'll always be by your side.  Because I don't know.  And you can't promise that either because you don't know."

Farrell, still working for the same legal firm, has helped to set up a new type of marriage, a "cycle marriage."  It lasts for forty years with heavy penalties applied in case of divorce.   At the end of the forty years, the marriage dissolves, as agreed upon by both parties at the beginning.  They may apply for a new 40 year cycle, but this is rare.   Ceremonies and parties are now the standard when an individual takes the cure.  The in-place for this is the Fountain of Youth in Las Vegas. 

Opposition groups to the cure have developed a wide variety of tactics, ranging from use of the courts to those who throw lye into the eyes of those who have taken the cure, condemning them perhaps to centuries of being blind.  These extremists are known as trolls.

Some who have taken the cure now regret it.  Farrell's father is one who wishes he hadn't because he misses his wife and is convinced that he will see her in heaven, once he dies.  Now, he doesn't know when that reunion will be; it could be centuries.

3  Saturation: 2059
Forty years have passed since the introduction of the cure.  The effects of the cure are now widespread and becoming clear to all--just too many people around.   One problem that I hadn't considered was human fertility.  Prior to the cure, humans were fertile for roughly 40 years, plus or minus a few years depending on the individual.  Now, humans are able to have children for as long as they live, which may be centuries, excluding such causes as accident or disease.  It's becoming a very  crowded and hostile world.

Farrell is job-hunting.  He retired from his position at the law firm and partied for a decade or two, and now he's broke.  The job turns out to be an end specialist.  In the film Soylent Green, the character played by Edward G. Robinson, decides to end it all.  He goes to a government facility and assisted by the staff arranges for his death, surrounded by pictures and music of his choice.  In The Postmortal, the government has subcontracted this function to various independent firms (always doing their part to support small businesses).  On an assignment, Farrell and his partner visit the individual, make sure all the formalities and paperwork are in order, and then provide that person with an end to the cure.  Farrell insists he is only a clerk and is there to handle the legalities and paperwork:  his partner is the terminator.

Correction: 2079
Society is, essentially, at war with itself.  Farrell is still an end specialist, but he frequently works alone.  One of his tasks is to do a sweep.  He is given a territory, and his task is cover the area and find those who are suffering from sheep flu, which is invariably fatal.  He has two vials of medicine. One is free, the one that kills painlessly and quickly.  Those who have access to $5000 can buy the cure for sheep flu.  Most do not, otherwise they would have gotten it already.  Farrell no longer insists on being just a clerk: he has become a full-fledged end specialist.  Then he gets an assignment to kill a woman whose only crime is that she's old.

Interspersed among the narrative of Farrell's life, Magary has also provided news headlines and articles that provide a fascinating picture of the effect of the cure on society, its laws, its mores, and reactions of various people in the US, as well as some information about the rest of the world.

--The Vatican threatens cure seekers with excommunication.

--"I'm always gonna get my period."

--Cigarette sales are now at an all-time low.

--Sales of adult incontinence undergarments (you know them as Depends) have fallen 46 percent since 2016.

--Suicide bombings in the Middle East  are down nearly 70 percent over the past decade while nonsuicide bombings are up 220 percent.

--In an interview, Russian president Boris Solovyev vigorously denied numerous reports of police executing any Russian citizen over the cure age of fifty.

--Mia Burkhart is 44 years old with a cure age of 29.  She's divorced, and her two sons have gone off on their own.  She decides she wants another child to raise on her own and contacts the local sperm bank.  All goes well.  Emilia is a beautiful child, and Mia is supremely happy.

After the child is about 18 months old, neighbors, friends, and relatives begin to notice something strange:  Emily is not growing.  Concerned, they investigate to find that Emily has been given the cure at age ten months.  She will be a ten month infant for as long as she lives, which may be centuries.

--Two large cities in China have been hit by nuclear explosions.   The official government story is sabotage.  However, rumors persist that China has nuked two of its own cities as art of a radical population control program.

The above is only a small part of the novel.  There's so much more.

Overall Rating:  Read it.  It's the most underrated SF novel, or perhaps just novel, of the decade. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Edward Thomas: The Unknown Bird

I must admit I know little about Edward Thomas, except that he was a friend of Robert Frost, which definitely is a plus for him.  I was only exposed to him in the past few years because of Stephen Pentz whose blog is First Known When Lost.    His blog focuses on poetry and art that corresponds to or illuminates the poem(s) that he presents.  You can easily find his blog by checking the right side of this blog and moving down to the section that contains blogs I follow.   I would very highly recommend a visit to First Known When Lost, which happens to be the title of a poem by Edward Thomas.

I guess my way of going through a book of poetry is a bit unusual.  I can't start at page one and slowly work my way through the poems one-by-one.  Instead,  I skim through the poems, looking for one that jumps out at me.  I stop there and read it several times.  I then let it simmer in my unconscious for awhile and then go back to it.  Sometimes I can figure out why this one or that one moves me, but frequently I can't: it just grabs me.  This is the first one that jumped out at me.

The Unknown Bird

Three lovely notes he whistled, too softly to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened.  Was it but four years
Ago?  or five?  He never came again.

Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off --
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if the bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he traveled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded.  All the proof is -- I told men
What I had heard.

                            I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this.  I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart, and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference.  Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or the other, but if sad
'Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it.   But I cannot tell
If truly anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightaway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.

-- Edward Thomas --
The Annotated Collected Poems

"As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,"
"Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore."

Does this suggest some sort of mystical experience? No one else could hear the bird sing, nor could any naturalist identify it.

"bodiless sweet"

There, but not there?   Insubstantial?

Perhaps it is best to forget the analysis and to simply experience and enjoy the poem.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: The Last Quatrain

I've stalled around a bit in posting on this quatrain: it's the last one for all editions.  I started this project on September 26, 2008 and never realized that it would last for over five years.  In fact, I'm also surprised that I did finish it for I tend to lose interest when nearing the end and find reasons for not completing a project.

The second and third editions are longer, at least twenty-five quatrains longer, than the first edition.  I did not post on quatrains that first appeared in the second edition, but only those that appeared in the first edition.  I haven't decided yet what I will do with those ignored quatrains.  Perhaps some time in the future, I may post on those also.

But, here we are--the last quatrain.

First Edition: Quatrain LXXV 

And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one--turn down an empty Glass!

                        TAMAM SHUD

Second Edition:  Quatrain CX

And when Yourself with silver Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!


Fifth Edition:  Quatrain CI

And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!


Fitzgerald made only minor changes over the five editions, and most of them occurred in the first line.  In the first edition we see  "Thyself" which becomes the less poetic  "Yourself" in the second edition.  Also, "shining foot" is changed to "silver Foot" in the second edition.  "Silver" is much more specific in that it denotes a white foot more clearly than does "shining."

In the fifth edition, we find the most drastic change to the first line.  The references to her personal appearance disappear and she is named Saki.  In addition, we find a reference--"like her"-- to the previous quatrain where the Moon is depicted as shining down on those in the garden.  The tie to the previous quatrain is much stronger in this edition than in the earlier versions in which the quatrain began with "And," which also ties this quatrain to previous one.  In other words, he substitutes a direct reference for a conjunction.

The second, third, and fourth lines of the various editions are identical except for a change that occurs in the second edition, when "thy" becomes "your" to match a similar change in the first line.

The sense of the quatrain seems quite clear--remember me with an empty glass, which refers back to earlier quatrains concerning the scene in the pottery shop in which a pot suggests that filling it with wine might restore it.  However, there seems to be no possibility of that happening here, for death is the final emptying of the glass.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

12 Angry Men: three versions of this film

12 Angry Men, US Film  (1957)

This film appeared in the theaters in 1957 and, while a critical success, did not attract an audience and disappeared from the theaters.  Since then, however, it has steadily grown in critical estimation and audience appeal.

The plot is simple:  a young boy has been tried for killing his abusive father.  He claims he did not kill him.   The film opens with the judge's instructions to the jury, which then retires to the jury room.  The film then never leaves the jury room.  Once there, several of the jurors (this is 1957 so the jurors are all white males) are convinced it's an open-and-shut case and call for an immediate vote without having any discussion.  Several of the jurors are in a hurry:  one has tickets for a baseball game that night and another has to catch a flight for an important business meeting.  The vote comes out 11 for guilty and 1 not guilty.  The lone dissenting vote is cast by Henry Fonda's character, Juror 8.  When pressed for his reasons for voting "not guilty," he says he doesn't know whether the boy is innocent or guilty, but he does feel that, since a guilty verdict mandates execution, there should some discussion about the case.

"Beyond reasonable doubt"  is the troublesome criterion facing the jury.  A guilty verdict can only be rendered if the prosecution has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt, and this is the point that Juror 8 focuses on.  Is the evidence strong enough to move a person to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt.  If not, then they must render a verdict of not guilty.

The deliberation concentrates on the evidence.  Is it strong enough to convict him of murder, thus resulting in his execution?  Juror 8 and the other jurors spend considerable time discussing, attacking, defending, interpreting the evidence.  Occasionally a juror will say something that involves a personal issue as a way of making a point, but this is rare.  The issue is the evidence: is it strong enough to justify his execution?

Juror 8, the Henry Fonda character, is clearly the central character.  He is the leader of the gradually increasing group that argues for a "not guilty" verdict.  Juror 8 is a familiar character--strong, plain-spoken, confident, calm, measured, determined in behavior-- in other words, Henry Fonda as he has been seen in many roles.

It soon becomes clear that the evidence is only part of what moves many of the jurors to insist on a "guilty" verdict.  The other part, which emerges much more strongly as the evidence becomes more and more questionable, is prejudice; however, the target is never really specified.  It is always "them."  Typical references are "You know what they are like..."  I thought that was an interesting tactic as it allows the viewers to plug in whatever group is on the receiving end in their personal experience and doesn't limit the references to prejudice or bigotry aimed at any special group.  The optimistic viewpoint of the film seems to be that as the jurors become aware of their prejudices, they are more able to see clearly that the evidence is not strong enough to convict the boy. 

In spite of Perry Mason and countless other legal thrillers, finding the "real" murderer does not play a role here.  One of the jurors belligerently demands to know who killed the father if the boy didn't.  Juror 8 (Fonda) responds that the issue for them is determining the son's guilt and only that, nothing else. 

Overall Rating:  a superb film, the issues raised back in 1957 are still with us, but not brought out as clearly now as it was then.  The attitudes are still here, just more subtly put forward.

--highly recommended.

12,  Russian version  (2007)
While the basic idea of the film had not been changed, the Russian version contains much more about the back story of the way the boy and the Russian soldier met and how the soldier adopted the him.  Some of this was confusing, and I wonder if scenes had been left out.  In this version, the boy is a Chechen orphan who was adopted by a Russian soldier and brought to Moscow.  Contrary to the US film, there was no suggestion here that the father had been abusive. 

While watching the film, I felt that I was missing something.  Russians are good at burying unacceptable (to the government, regardless of the type it is) ideas and issues in their poetry, stories, and films that are critical of the official line of thinking in order to get them by the official censors.   I suspect that a Russian would have gotten much more out of the film then I did.

Juror 8, as in the US film, is the only one who voted "not guilty" in the first ballot taken shortly after retiring to the jury room.  However, he did not appear to play a strong role in what followed.  In fact, he was silent much of the time.  It was much more of a communal effort with various individuals taking control throughout the deliberations.  Again, I may have missed something here--something that suggested he was playing a central role but that in my ignorance of the Russian culture I missed the cues.

Another significant difference was the roles played by individual experience on the one hand and on the other hand  the focus on the evidence during the deliberations.  Jurors told stories about their experiences and past that did not appear in the US version and sometimes it was hard for me to see the relevance although they appeared to be significant to the other jurors.  There was discussion of the evidence, but it seemed to  play a lesser role here than it did in the US version.

Another difference between this film and the US version comes up briefly when Juror 8 is asked who else might be the murderer if the boy isn't.  Juror 8 responds that determining the boy's guilt is the issue, not the identity of the real killer.  However, one of the other jurors offers a theory as to whom the killer might be, but when asked where he got this information, he just smiles and refuses to answer.  This comment has an interesting effect at the end of the film, something which does not happen in the US version.

The issue of prejudice and bigotry was also raised in this film but again the treatment differed from the US version in that two groups were brought forward in the Russian film as the targets--Jews and Chechens.  Since the defendant was a Chechen, the relevance is obvious.  What escaped me though was that the first expression of prejudice was directed at the Jews.  Again, perhaps I'm missing something here.

Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, Hindi language version (1986)
In spite of the wretched subtitles, it seems clear that this version is very close to the US version.  Some minor changes have been made, but it is a very close remake.  I would guess that the US script had been translated into Hindi.   Then the subtitles had been created from the Hindi language script as I could frequently recognize dialogue from the US version. The sequence of events was also the same or at least as far as I could tell.

Juror 8, as in the US version, played the central role in the deliberations.  Again, while there were some personal issues and stories brought out, the focus for the most part was on the evidence as in the US film.  The problem of prejudice also appeared as a significant issue, but its treatment was almost identical to its handling in the US film.   No particular group, aside from vague references to the lower social classes--the poor and the destitute--was named. 

The question of who the real killer might be comes up also, but again it is handled the same way as in the US version.  The jury's concern is the guilt of the boy, not determining the identity of someone else who might be the killer.

I would recommend viewing all three versions; however, if you don't have that much time, then I would suggest seeing at least the US and the Russian versions, since the Hindi version is very close to the US film.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Europa Report: An SF film

Europa Report  (ER)    is one of the best SF films I've viewed in some time.  I actually hadn't heard much about it before I came across it somewhere.  It's too bad because it is far more interesting than many of the blockbuster SF films with a huge marketing budget.

It reminds me somewhat of another great SF film--2001: A Space Odyssey.  Both feature exploratory spaceships headed for Jupiter and much of the concluding action takes place there.  The difference is that ER focuses at the end on the events following the landing on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, while 2001 concludes in the vicinity of Jupiter.  Moreover, the ending of ER is much more in line with present day scientific findings. 

The design of the ships in both films is complex and not the typical cigar shapes found so often.  In addition, the photography has clearly been influenced by Kubrick's film, especially the frequent closeups of the cast in which bright lights are reflected off the space helmets or even on the bare skin of their faces.

The focus of the film is realism, an attempt to portray an actual exploratory journey to Europa to explore the possibility of life there.  The film incorporates the latest findings about Europa, especially the recent discovery that, although covered with ice, there is a strong possibility that there may be an ocean underneath the ice cover, much like the lake recently discovered under the ice in Antarctica.  NASA photographs have been seamlessly incorporated into the film which add to the realism of the film.  In addition, I don't recognize any of the cast members which eliminates the distractions caused by familiar faces.

If you are looking for a recent fact-based SF film about space exploration, take a good look at Europa Report--it won't disappoint you

Friday, November 29, 2013

More Autumn Haiku

The storm has moved on and the sun is now shining on Tucson. 

       Pebbles shining clear,
And clear six silent fish .  .  .
        Deep autumn water
                      --  Buson --

                                                  You turn and suddenly
                                        There in purpling autumn sky .  .  . 
                                                       White Fujiami!
                                                                 -- Onitsura --

     All the field hands
enjoy a noontime nap after
       the harvest moon
               -- Basho --

                                         The mountain grows darker,
                                      Taking the scarlet
                                            From the autumn leaves.
                                                              -- Buson --

  Entering autumn.
The painting of flowering plants
  A daily task.
                         -- Shiki --

Haiku 1 and 2
A Little Treasury of Haiku
trans. by Peter Beilenson

Haiku 3
The Sound of Water
trans. by Sam Hamill

Haiku 4
Silent Flowers
trans. by R. H. Blyth

Haiku 5
Haiku: a Hallmark Edition
trans. by R. H. Blyth

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Some autumn haiku

The first winter storm has settled down over Tucson for the past two days--temperatures in the low 50s--grey, gloomy overcast skies--rain, rain, rain.  .  .

Perhaps that explains the temper of these haiku.

         Deepen, drop, and die
Many-hued chrysanthemums .  .  .
         One black earth for all
                    -- Ryusui --

                                           Chilling autumn rain .  .  .
                                    The moon, too bright for showers,
                                              Slips from their fingers
                                                          -- Tokuku --

      Rainy-month, dripping
On and on as I lie abed .  .  .
          Ah, old man's memories!
                             -- Buson --

                                         Gray moor, unmarred
                                By any path .  .  . a single branch .  .  .
                                         A bird .  .  . November
                                                           -- Anon --

                On one riverbank
Sunbeams slanting down .  .  . but on
         The other .  .  . raindrops
                                  -- Buson --

When the sun comes out again, if ever, I'll post more cheerful haiku.

All haiku come from
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Avenel Books,  NY
translated by Peter Beilenson

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LXXIV

This is the next-to-the-last quatrain in all three editions.  The poet/narrator waxes philosophical as he contemplates his own end as he nears the end of the Rubaiyat.

First Edition:  Quatrain LXXIV

Ah, Moon of my Delight, who know'st no wane,
The Moon of Heav'n is rising once again:
    How oft hereafter rising shall she look
Through this same Garden after me--in vain!

Second Edition:  Quatrain CIX

But see!  The rising Moon of Heav'n again--
Looks for us, Sweet-heart, through the quivering Plane:
     How oft hereafter rising will she look
Among those leaves--for one of us in vain!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain C

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again--
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane,
    How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden--and for one in vain! 

The most significant changes occur in the first two lines of the quatrain.  In the first edition, the poet/narrator compares his love to the "Moon of Heav'n" and suggests that the "Moon of my Delight" is superior in that the heavenly moon waxes and wanes while his love never wanes.  This comparison disappears in the second edition and simply states that the Moon of Heav'n is rising.  His substitution of "Sweet-heart" for "Moon of my Delight"  just doesn't work for me. It is a lapse from the poetic diction found throughout the Rubaiyat.  And, in the fifth edition, any sense of personal feeling for the other disappears completely when "Sweet-heart" is replaced with "us"  which could signify a friend, someone nearby, or a lover.  The focus of the first two lines is now completely restricted to the "rising Moon."

The third and fourth lines, regardless of some changes, still asks how long the rising moon will look for them--eternity perhaps, or will they be forgotten soon.  The most significant change in these two lines refers to the object of search.  In the first stanza, the poet/narrator asks how long the Moon will search for him while in the second and fifth stanzas, he asks how long the Moon will search for one of them, thus suggesting that it might be him or his lover who will have died.

I would have to go with the first edition and then the fifth version as my favorites.  "Sweet-heart" in the second edition is so obtrusive that I reject it immediately.  In addition, the sense of this taking place in a Garden also disappears from the second edition.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Han Shan or Cold Mountain: life is short

Two poems by Han Shan on the transience of youth for Spring and Summer swiftly lead to Fall and Winter:

A moth-browed girl in town
how her pendants chime
teasing a parrot before the flowers
playing a lute beneath the moon
her singing echoes for months
thousands watch her briefest dance
but surely this won't last
the hibiscus can't bear cold

A fine young man on horseback
waves his whip at the willows
he can't imagine death
he builds no boat or ladder
the seasonal flowers are lovely
until the day they wither and fade
rock sugar and clarified butter
mean nothing when you're dead

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
Copper Canyon Press
trans. by Red Pine

The following notes are abstracted from the collection of poems
7.  -the young woman is probably a member of a traveling troupe of entertainers
     -the hibiscus is called "the cold-fearing flower" and dies at the first sign of fall
     -fall, of course, signifies the approach of winter, the season of death (my comment)

8.  -boat or ladder: Buddhists use the symbol of a boat for their spiritual discipline
     -ladder refers to the search of wandering Taoists to reach inaccessible places when looking for  plants to concoct their elixirs.
     -"Rock sugar and clarified butter (ghee) represent the taste of liberation, refined of all impurities."
     -In other words, after death it's too late to strive for enlightenment (my comment).

I think Shakespeare would agree:

"Golden lads and girls all must,
 As chimney-sweepers, all come to dust."

Cymbeline, Act IV,  Scene II

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Theodore Sturgeon: "The Other Celia"

This is one of those quiet little stories that Ted Sturgeon does so well.  The horror is understated and relates not to Celia, be she an alien or another sentient species in hiding on earth.  The only too human Slim is the source of the horror in this story.  Slim is the type of person who would tear off the wings of insects or birds. But, he wouldn't do it to cause pain or suffering; he would do it out of curiosity to see how a flying creature would react once it had lost its wings.  In fact, if someone told Slim he was hurting those creatures, he would be surprised.  That would never have occurred to him, and he would probably stop.

As you can see, Slim is not a very likable person.  He is a snoop and insensitive to the feelings of others.  At times his behavior crosses the line between normal and pathological curiosity.   When he was a child, his mother had to appear several times in Children's Court to explain that he wasn't dishonest, that he was just "curious."   While curiosity may be a good thing, it can be dangerous if not kept within reasonable limits. In this story we see a Slim whose curiosity leads him to meddle in another person's life and that meddling results in tragedy.

Slim lives in a boarding house.  At present he is on medical leave from his job.  He was attacked by a fellow employee who tried to bury a fourteen-inch crescent wrench in his skull.  Sturgeon does not tell us why the employee tried to do this, but I suspect he was upset by Slim's snooping.  Since most of the other tenants of the boarding house are at work, he finds this an excellent opportunity to engage in his favorite pastime--snooping.

"His current situation was therefore a near-paradise.  Flimsy doors stood in rows, barely sustaining vacuum upon aching vacuum of knowledge; and one by one they imploded at that nudge of the curiosity.  He touched nothing (or if he did, he replaced it carefully) and removed nothing, and within a week he knew Mrs. Koyper's roomers far better than she could, or cared to.  Each secret visit to the rooms gave him a starting point; subsequent ones taught him more.  He knew not only what these people had, but what they did, where, how much, for how much, and how often.  In almost every case, he knew why as well.

Almost every case.  Celia Sarton came."

He waited a few days to see what her schedule was.  Were there times he could enter her room and feel safe she would not return?   He found that she invariably would leave in the morning and return in the evening, just like the rest of the roomers.  Therefore he entered her room, but unexpectedly it was two days after he decided it was safe.  He kept forgetting about her.

He found nothing in the room to make her an individual--no photos of family or friends, no keepsakes, nothing that would make her stand out in his mind.  Several times he found himself leaving the room without looking around for anything: it was as if it was an empty room waiting for someone to enter it.

It was by accident that he discovered that there was something in the room that made her unique.  It appeared to be a second skin.  Slim had never seen anything like this before, and his curiosity was aroused as it had never been before.  So, he acted, not to harm her, but out of curiosity to see what she would do.  Thus the tragedy.

A great short story

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nikos Kazantzakis: The Greek Passion

Nikos Kazantzakis:  The Greek Passion
Simon and Schuster
Trans.  by Jonathan Griffen

Lycovrissi is a small Greek village that is under Turkish control.  Every seven years, the villagers put on the Passion Play, the story of the last days of Christ.  Six villagers are selected by the village  Elders to play the parts of Christ, Mary Magdalen,  the Apostles Peter, John, James, and Judas in next year's Play.  The story, then, depicts the changes undergone by these six villagers in the ensuing year,  as a result of being chosen for a part in the Passion Play.  And, they change in surprising, unpredictable, and disturbing ways.

The characters in the novel are numerous and come from all the various social and economic classes in the village.  They range from the Agha, the Turkish ruler of the small village, and his household,  to the village Elders to the small shopkeepers and farmers.  Also present, a thorn in the side of the Elders, are the Wanderers, the survivors of a small village destroyed in the ongoing conflict between the Turkish overlords and Greek freedom fighters.  They have been searching for some place to stay. But, led by Gregoris, the village priest, the Elders attempt to force the Wanderers to move on, in spite of their obvious physical weaknesses caused by months of wandering the countryside.

However, three of the villagers selected for the Passion Play--Manolios, Yannakos, and Kostandis, who play Christ, Peter, and James--defy  Grigoris and direct the wanderers to a place where they may at least rest for awhile, and perhaps attempt to rebuild their lives.  Other villagers give food and clothing.  This is the first of numerous incidents in which Manolios, Yannakos, and Kostandis openly challenge the village priest and the Elders as they attempt to act in accordance with the teachings of Christ.  In other words, they ask themselves, "What would Christ do in this situation?" 

The roles that the six villagers are to play in the Passion Play begin to affect them as they attempt to become worthy of the roles they were selected to play.  Unfortunately this also includes Panayotaros. who was chosen to be Judas because of his wild and uncontrolled behavior.   Irate, he decides that if they want a Judas, he will be one.  Actually he's closer to Satan as he goes about the village, spreading lies, creating dissension, and betraying confidences where and when it will do the most harm.

This novel may be disturbing to some readers.  At one point, one of the villagers chosen to be an Apostle, who is the son of one of the richest (and stingiest) men in the village, decides to take some of his father's surplus food and give it to the wanderers.  This suggests a frightening idea--those who have more than they need should share it with those who have less than they need.  The suggestion that Christ and the Apostles should think this way would seem to be heretical to many. 

Part way into the novel, it became clear that this was going to end tragically.  This is not a comfortable novel to read. 

 Overall Rating:  Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Joseph Wood Krutch on specialists and amateurs, Pt. 2

More from Joseph Wood Krutch on specialists and amateurs.  He's found a kindred soul among the specialists.

"The late William Morton Wheeler, one of the the most competent of specialists in a highly specialized field, spoke closer to my own condition when he wrote, not only sympathetically but even enviously, of those who like me have assumed no responsibility:

Our intellects will never be equal to exhausting biological reality.  Why animals and plants are as they are, we shall never know; of how they have come to be what they are, our knowledge will always be extremely fragmentary, because we are dealing only with the recent phases of an immense and complicated history, most of the records of which are lost beyond all chance of recovery; but that organisms are as they are, that apart from the members of our own species, they are our only companions in an infinite and unsympathetic waste of electrons, planets, nebulae and suns, is a perennial joy and consolation.  We shall all be happier if we were less completely obsessed by problems and somewhat more accessible to the aesthetic and emotional appeal of our materials, and it is doubtful whether, in the end, the growth of biological science would be appreciably retarded.  It quite saddens me to think that when I cross the Styx, I may find myself among so many professional biologists, condemned to keep on trying to solve problems, and that Pluto, or whoever is in charge down there now, may condemn me to sit forever trying to identify specimens from my own specific and generic diagnoses, while the amateur entomologists, who have not been damned professors, are permitted to roam at will among the fragrant asphodels of the Elysian meadows, netting gorgeous, ghostly butterflies until the end of time. 

I felt the same way when I was teaching various introductory literature courses.  While the prescribed works were excellent and noteworthy, I felt that I was missing out on be able to read other works not included in the curriculum.   Now, having retired, I am frustrated because I can read only one book at a time.   Happiness is good health, a bad memory, and a long TBR list. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Joseph Wood Krutch: on specialists and amateurs, Pt 1

"Many specialists are very contemptuous of such activities as mine--but not all of them are.  Some steal time from their exacting pursuits to be amateurs at something else or even, like me, of things in general.  Thus they recapture some of the spirit of the old naturalists who, whether they were professionals like Linnaeus or hobbyists like Gilbert White, lived at at time when there seemed nothing absurd about taking all nature as one's province.  And there are even some, eminent in their specialty, who experience a certain nostalgia for the days when the burden of accumulated knowledge was less heavy.  "The road," said Cervantes, "is always better than the inn" and discovering is more fun than catching up with what has been discovered.

Your amateur is delightfully if perhaps almost sinfully free of responsibility and can spread himself as thin as he likes over the vast field of nature.  There are few places not covered with concrete or trod into dust where he does not find something to look at.  Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that he feels no pressing obligation to "add something to the sum of human knowledge."  He is quite satisfied when he adds something to his knowledge.  And if he keeps his field wide enough he will remain so ignorant that he may do exactly that at intervals very gratifyingly short."

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

Is Krutch saying that specialists aren't necessary or that they are wasting their time?  Who is more useful--the specialist or the amateur--to humanity?   It seems at first glance that the specialist is obviously the most important or useful for they "add something to the sum of human knowledge."  What does an amateur like Joseph Wood Krutch provide that is comparable? 

What is the difference between the specialist and the amateur?  Are both important?

I had a friend who was an amateur railroader.  He built everything he could from raw materials--wood, metal, paint.  He would buy the plans for railroad cars and equipment and buildings and painstaking cut and and sanded and painted.  He worked on a huge model train layout in his basement.  One day he decided to turn his hobby into gainful employment.  He solicited work from architects to build models for the jobs they were trying to get.  He opened up a small shop in which he constructed various small objects such as models for display.  He prospered and eventually had to hire someone to work in the shop.  Shortly after he began this enterprise, he stopped work on the layout in his basement.  I lost track of him years later, and now I wonder if he ever went back to it.  What happened to his hobby?

Is this something like what happens to someone who is fascinated by nature, wanders about fields, forests, ponds,  marshes or beaches, who eventually studies it in school, and becomes a specialist, but no longer wanders those fields and forests and wet places that fascinated him long ago?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Carl Sandburg: Happiness


I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me
     what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
     thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
     I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the
     Deplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their
     women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

--  Carl Sandburg --
from Harvest Poems

Much too simple an answer, isn't it?  At least, I guess, for the 21st century--family, friends, a keg, and making their own music.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain LXXIII

This is the LXXIII quatrain, with only two more left in the first edition.  It's a bit different from the others in that it expresses very strongly the poet/narrator's unhappiness with life as it is here on earth.

First Edition:  Quatrain LXXIII

"Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
 To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
     Would not we shatter it  to bits--and then
  Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!

Second Edition: Quatrain CVIII

"Ah, Love! could you and I with Fate conspire
 To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
  Would not we shatter it  to bits--and then
 Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!"

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain  XCIX

"Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
 To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
  Would not we shatter it  to bits--and then
 Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!"

The quatrain remains very stable throughout the five editions.  In the second edition,  the poetic "thou" becomes the more informal "you," which FitzGerald keeps through the succeeding editions.

The most significant change occurs in the first line of the fifth edition.  In the first and second editions, FitzGerald refers to Fate, a more generic term going back to classical times, and is frequently depicted as female.  It's a supernatural power that determines what happens to us in the future.  In the fifth edition, "Fate" becomes "Him," which clearly suggests the monotheistic deity of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  All three religion portray God as male, as does the change from "Fate" to "Him."

What is most interesting is that God is now depicted as the supernatural power that decides what will happen to us, which, to me anyway, suggests predetermination or predestination--that God has already decided what our ultimate destiny will be, this logically happening even before our birth.  Is our future set even before we are born?   Are we just puppets jerking about as the puppetmaster determines?  This idea is also suggested in Quatrains XLIX, L, LI,  and LIII

The poet/narrator's evident displeasure with life here is evidenced by his characterization of life here as "this Sorry Scheme of Things"  and wishes he were able to "shatter it to bits" given the opportunity and to then "Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire."

Of course, the believer's answer is that there is nothing wrong with this world.  It's just that we don't understand God who has made the universe as it is nor do we perceive the ultimate resolution of all that happens here. 

Does that work for you?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Henry Beston: The Outermost House

I had only in the past year heard of Henry Beston and his classic work The Outermost House.  This is actually my second reading of the book, which gives a clear indication of my feelings about the book.  I am not going to try to review the book, for that is beyond my skills.  Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the book and will read it again.  It's one of those rare books.

Beston had had a cabin built on Cape Cod, not far from the Atlantic shore of the peninsula.  In September of 1924 he went to the cabin, planning on spending only a few weeks there.   Instead he found himself reluctant to leave.  His two-week stay eventually lasted a full year, in which he took copious notes about the seasonal changes occurring there to the beach, the weather, and the birds, plants, and animals that were his neighbors.  The Outermost House is the result of that unplanned year on Cape Cod.

Instead of a review, I will simply post several quotations from the work so as to give you an idea of Beston's ideas and  writing skills. 

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.  Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.  We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves.  And therein we err, and greatly err.  For the animal shall not be measured by man.  In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.  They are not brethren, they are not underlings;  they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

He seems to contradict the well-know assertion that "man is the measure of all things," supposedly made by the Greek philosopher Protagoras.  Moreover he also appears to question some of the more sympathetic views of the animal kingdom, especially that of St.  Francis of Assisi who fequently referred to our furred and feathered neighbors as brothers and sisters.  Beston simply states that they are "not brethren" nor are they "underlings." but a separate people with their own powers and abilities.

What do you think?   Is Beston right about our relationship with the other inhabitants who are "fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

Or, is it legitimate to set humanity up as the measure of all things or even perhaps to see them as our brethren?


Monday, September 23, 2013

Harlan Ellison: Some comments about A Boy and His Dog

The following quotations come from HE's introduction to Vic and Blood, a recently published collection of the three Vic and Blood short stories.  The introduction is titled "Latest Breaking News: The Kid and the Pooch." HE wants to set the record straight regarding responsibility for the film.

"The film version of  'A Boy and His Dog' had a more than slightly misogynistic tone.  Not the story, the movie.  I have no trouble placing the blame on that sexist loon Jones (see: "Huck and Tom,   The Bizarre Liaison of Ellison and Jones" in  Outre magazine, issue #309, Fall 2002).  He was brung up in Texas, and as a good ole boy he is pretty much beyond retraining.

But I catch the flak.   I've had to go to universiies where they've screened the movie (it being one of the most popular campus films perennially, and constantly available in one of another unauthorized knock-off video versions)  and I've had to try to explain to Politically Correct nitwits that I didn't write the damned film--which I happen to like a lot, except for the idiotic last line, which I despise--I wrotne the original story; so I won't accept the blame for what they perceive as a 'woman-hating' in the film.

And I say to them READ THE D_____D STORY!  In the story (not to give too much away for those few of you who don't know this material), as in the film.  .  .  VIC NEVER TOUCHES THE MEAT!"

"So here we are,  Vic, Blood, you, me, 34 years after I wrote that first section (which turned out to be the second section, actually).  Twenty-eight years after the film of  'A Boy and His Dog' won me a Hugo at the 34th World Science Fiction Convention.  And I've written the rest of the book, BLOOD'S A ROVER.  The final, longest section is in screenplay form--and they're bidding here in Hollywood, once again, for the feature film aand TV rights --and one  of these days before I go through that final door, I'll translate it into elegant prose, and the full novel will appear."

Well, it's been ten years since he wrote this on "25 March 2003," and I haven't seen anything of the novel or heard anything about the film.  By the way, I've reread this several times and any unusual spelling or punctuation you find belong to HE.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Boy and His Dog: an SF film

I must admit that when I first saw the title many years ago, my immediate reaction was another "Lassie Come Home" film, so I ignored it.  Years later I came across comments that suggested it was a post-apocalyptic film and that Harlan Ellison had something to do with it.  Aha, I thought--Harlan Ellison!  Dog comes home and is eagerly welcomed.  That night the dog gets up and rips out the throats of all those in the house or perhaps those welcoming the dog hadn't had any food for days, so Lassie ends up in the pot that night.  That's HE stuff.

So I watched the film, and I was intrigued by it, but still troubled by something.   I would watch it several times over the past decades and never quite resolved my problems with it.  Finally, last week I watched it again, and I think I found out what's troubling me.

The film is really a two-part fantasy, one part above ground and the other down below.  The inhabitants of the two planes of existence are very different, although they do share one common characteristic: both are trapped in a future-less existence.

Above ground, the inhabitants live solely in the present:  they have no past and no future.  They make no plans for the future.  No one seems concerned that the canned goods they scavenge may either run out or turn bad over time.  They want food and they search for it until they find some, eat, and rest.  The same holds true for sex.  They want sex, they search for it until they find a woman, rape her, and also frequently kill her. Today is all there is, and survival and immediate gratification are primary.   The only common meeting ground for the inhabitants appears to be at the patched up film tent where apparently the only films that survived (or at least played) are porno films.

The only voice of sanity is that of Blood, the telepathic dog who hangs with Vic, a young rover or loner (played by a young Don Johnson, in his pre-Miami Vice days).  Blood's sardonic observations provide a common sense point-of-view on the environment and the people about them.  In complete contrast to everyone else, including his partner Vic, Blood alone has a sense of the past, present, and future.

His comments about the behavior of  Vic and the others in the present are brief, ironic, and accurate.  In addition, he attempts to teach Vic some history, which suggests that Blood is aware that unless one understands the past, one cannot comprehend the present, and if one doesn't know where one is, one cannot see where one is going.  Blood alone is one who thinks about a better future or at least a different future.  Now the promised land he frequently tries to persuade Vic to search for may be mythical, but it does show that Blood understands that this may not be all there is and there may be a better future than the one awaiting those who remain in this desolation.

Vic eventually is seduced into going down below and leaving Blood behind.   Down below is far more bizarre than the post-apocalyptic world above.  It's inhabitants occupy a different fantasy world: the past of the  American Golden Age.  It's the small town, the rural heartland of  America, that possibly never existed, the time appears to be the period between WWI and WWII.  The inhabitants wear bibbed overalls and pinafores, with clownish makeup and pigtails.  A high school marching band wanders here and there (reminds me a bit of the band in The Prisoner).  Everyday is a picnic:  every day is the Fourth of July.  The community is run by the Committee whose every dictate is silently obeyed by the rest.   Dissenters are sent to "the farm," an interesting WWII holdover euphemism which stands for death.

We now discover just why Vic has been lured down there.  The Committee has decided that "new blood" is needed, some healthy mongrel genes are necessary for the maintenance of healthy diversity.  He is an imported stud.  Unfortunately for Vic, the world down below has techniques for artificial insemination for humans also, so Vic's initial dream of endless couplings comes to naught.

 I consider this to be the weakest part of the film, for Blood is not there with his brief and sarcastic observations.  Jason Robards, as head of the committee, is the only one down there who is aware of what the real situation is, but he lacks Blood's ability to see beyond the present.  All of Robard's actions are designed to maintain the status quo.  The people down below are trapped in the past, they deny the present, and their future is only an escape to a mythical past.

Vic, and the viewers, need Blood to point out the weaknesses of the down below world.  Perhaps it is impossible for common sense to exist below.  The strange encounter with the dog below makes me wonder about that.  Vic sees a dog similar to Blood, although considerably cleaner.  Vic speaks to the dog but gets no answer.  Robards gets the dog and questions it.  Silence.  This is not a telepathic dog. Robards orders the dog to be sent to "the farm," just in case.  This might be suggestive of what might happen to anyone who might look too closely at their culture.

The film only regains its focal point when Vic escapes the asylum (mental asylum, not safe place asylum) down below and finds Blood.  Blood is the real star of the show.   He provides a basic level of sanity that pokes through the fantasy above ground, but not for the world below.  And, without Blood, I find the world down below somewhat disappointing and less interesting than it should have been.

 As for the ending--that's pure Ellison.  All I can say is encapsulated in two cliches, slightly modified:

Love is a sometime thing, but a dog is man's best friend.


Greater love hath no man than to give up his wife for his dog.

 I recently found a copy of  Ellison's short story that was the basis for the film.  It was a bit expensive, but I was curious.  When I received it a few days ago, I discovered that Ellison had written three short stories about Vic and Blood,  "Eggsucker," "A Boy and His Dog" (the basis for the film), and "Run, Spot, Run."  The third one is actually an excerpt from Ellison's projected novel Blood's a Rover (working title).   I can't find any information that the novel was published.  However, there are several graphic novels featuring Vic and Blood, so those may have replaced the projected novel.

Now for the short stories.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Not the Messiah. (He's a naughty boy)

Not The Messiah is an oratorio based on The Life of Brian, and it celebrates the 40 years of Monty Python.  It was a magnificent performance.  I enjoyed it so much that I will put it back on my queue for another viewing down the road. I do this very rarely.

The performance took place in the Royal Albert Hall in 2009.  The Royal Albert Hall is a marvelous setting for musical works.  In addition, the music was provided by the 120+ piece BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the  chorus consisted of 140+ voices.   In addition, were four opera singers.

This is obviously the setting for an evening of high musical culture--except for one small detail.  This is produced by the Monty Python gang.  The music was inspired by Handel's Messiah, a glorious work performed at Christmas on every continent and in every locale with a large chorus.  However, refusing to being tied down to consistency, other musical flavors are included:  pop, Welsh hymns, country and western, doo-wop, hip hop, Broadway, and Greek chorus.

A number of the arias and choral presentations were obviously "influenced" by Handel's own words. The lyrics ranged from the sentimental to the raucous to the maudlin to the just plain silly, and occasionally with a bit of profanity thrown in.  This, I think, is what makes it so successful--the context.  One expects magnificent lyrics to fit the setting and the music and the musical talent available and one gets nonsense.

Then there were the side bits.  For example, we were treated to a Bob Dylan shtick, complete with guitar and harmonica rig, as he mumbled his way through "We are all individuals."  Thanks to the powers that be for subtitles.  One of Handel's choruses in the Messiah is titled "All we like sheep have gone astray."   The Monty Python version is somewhat different--"We love sheep."  At the appropriate moment of course in wanders a shepherdess with a flock of sheep (three).  Also wandering on stage throughout the evening were bagpipers and a squad of  Royal Canadian Mounties.  Somehow a group of Mexican trumpeters got into the orchestra, complete with Mariachi outfits.  Most of this nonsense was provided by the Monty Python group themselves.  On hand were a couple of Terrys, a Brian, a Michael, and a few other noteworthies.

I must confess that I'm not a Monty Python fan. I have seen several of their films and thought them enjoyable, but could never understand the adoration of their fans.  However, this is a really great film and one that I will watch again in the future.

Highly Recommended

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Robert Frost: Stopping by Desert Places

No, I haven't gotten the title wrong.  I just conflated the titles of two of Robert Frost's poems:  "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "Desert Places."  I find that juxtaposing two different  poems can give me some ideas about one or both that I might never have seen by looking at them separately. 

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express

They cannot not scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Some obvious similarities are that they have four stanzas of four lines each.  However, the rhyme pattern is different.  In "Stopping," the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme, while the third line provides a link to the next stanza (aaba, bbcb, and ccdc) until the last stanza in which all four lines rhyme, including the famous doubled last two lines--dddd.

In "Desert Places,"  Frost has also rhymed the first, second, and fourth lines, but the third line does not provide a link to the next stanza.  Moreover,  the fourth stanza does follow the pattern of the first three stanzas:  aaba, ccdc, eefe, and gghg.

Both poems are set in winter and are located in rural settings.  Both focus on snow and the attitude of the person viewing the snow covered landscape.  However, it seems, to me anyway, that the attitudes of the poet/narrator differ considerably in them.

Stopping By Woods:  First Stanza

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Desert Places:  First Stanza
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

In both poems, the narrator is out in the countryside--either in the woods or by a field.  Snow is falling in both, but the mood differs considerably.  In "Stopping" the narrator has stopped in a forested area, supposedly to watch the snow fall.  But, he concerns himself with something quite different than snow.  The owner lives in the village and won't see him here.  He stresses that he is alone out here.  The question, for me, anyway, is why is this an issue, important enough to make it the central point of this introductory stanza.

The first stanza of "Desert Places"  is quite different:  Frost concentrates on the physical scene before him.  It seems to be a far less pleasant place than the woods in "Stopping."  The snow falls and darkness is coming on, fast.  This seems to bother him, as if he doesn't want to be out at night when it's snowing.  The snow covers everything but "a few weeds and stubble."  This does not appear to be an attractive view.  The second "fast" in the first line--does that refer to the "night" or to him as he hurries past the "weeds and stubble." There is no thought here of stopping to watch the snow fall, as we find in "Stopping.

Stopping by Woods--second stanza

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Desert Places--second stanza

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He imagines, in the second stanza, what his horse must be thinking, but of course, it is really what he is thinking at this moment.  There's something strange here about stopping in away from any human habitation, with only a frozen lake and woods around him.  It is also strange that he calls this the darkest evening of the year.  First, how does he know it is the darkest of the year?  Second, the snow is falling and snow reflects ambient light, so it is actually much lighter than if it wasn't snowing.  Perhaps the "darkest evening" refers to an internal state, rather than the actual condition around him.

While the second stanza of "Desert Places" also reflects an internal state of the narrator, the tone again is very different.  Instead of being connected in some way to his horse, he is now completely isolated from everything about him.  The woods belong to something else.  Even his perception of the animals about him is distorted by his isolation.  The animals 's lairs are seen as smothering them, yet in reality the lairs are protecting the animals from the snow and cold.  Depressed, he transforms the life-preserving lairs into the graves of  "smothered" animals.

Whatever life he may possess seems gone, for he is so "absent-spirited" that the loneliness he perceives about him doesn't even notice him.  He is a non-entity, a void that is ignored even by a scene he sees as a graveyard. He is neither there nor not-there.

"Stopping by Woods"--third stanza

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

"Desert Places"--third stanza

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express

In "Stopping" he again imagines what his horse might be thinking, but it is he who really questions his decision to stop here.  The mood here is questioning but not bleak.  He is accompanied by his horse who communicates with him, and his natural surroundings are pleasant.  I think the last two lines of this stanza are the most beautiful in the poem:
                  The only other sound's the sweep
                  Of easy wind and downy flake

Each time I read this poem I find myself slowing down when I get to "sweep" and drag out "easy wind" and "downy flake."

Contrast this with the third stanza in "Desert Places."  "Lonely" appears twice, and "loneliness" once.  The snow is "a blanker whiteness of benighted snow" that possesses "no expression" and "nothing to express."  It is the silence of nothingness, not that of "an easy wind and downy flake."  Moreover, that loneliness will get worse:

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--

To call this a bleak stanza would be an understatement.   A loneliness that can only get worse and the silence of nothingness provide a stark contrast to the third stanza of  "Stopping."  But there still is a glimmer of hope for the loneliness will get worse "ere it will be less."

"Stopping by Woods"--fourth stanza

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

"Desert Places"--fourth stanza

They cannot not scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

While my interpretation of the poem differs from the commonly accepted interpretation (I think he is contemplating suicide), the fourth stanza clearly suggests that some decision has been made.  He decides that it isn't time to sleep (sleep frequently is a euphemism for death, not only in poetry but among many people) because he has tasks to perform and "miles to go before I sleep."  I think it is significant that the last two lines are the same.  Perhaps some doubt still remains, and he needs to repeat it to convince himself.  I wonder if this stanza is perhaps one of the most memorized stanzas of any of Frost's poems.  I know I knew it by heart long before I had memorized the entire poem.

Overall I feel that this is an optimistic stanza, and therefore an optimistic poem, for he has decided to go on.  There are still things to do and promises to keep before it's time to sleep.

Compare this to the fourth stanza of "Desert Places."  While the third stanza does suggest hope

"And lonely as it is that loneliness/Will be more lonely ere it will be less--"

the fourth stanza does not carry that hope forward and end optimistically as does the fourth stanza of  "Stopping."    The despair and desolation he feels is inside him.  Frost draws a contrast here between himself and Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematician and philosopher, who once wrote  "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces [the heavens] terrifies me."  Frost remarks that those spaces don't frighten him because he has those desert places so much closer than outer space.

Now, forget what I've just written, go back to the top, and read and enjoy both poems.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Favorite SF Films

This is a list of my favorite SF films.  It is not a list of Ten Best SF Films or anything as grandiose as that.  Some of these may be included in Best SF Film lists created by others, but I suspect quite a few won't make it, for one reason or another.

They are in alphabetical order, so the sequence does not indicate any preferences on my part.  These are my favorites, three of which I own:  Blade Runner, THX 1138, and The Man from Earth.  I will probably get my own copies of many of the others when the opportunity and cash availability coincide favorably.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick and adapted from a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Sentinel."  One of the few SF films that actually has an idea other than drooling BEMs invading Earth and lusting after scantily-clad human females.  I suspect this film appears on several Best Of .  .  . lists.  Spectacular special effects, HAL 9000, and the theme of the further evolution of the human species are the major characters here.

A Boy and His Dog
Adapted from a short novel or a long novella (pb copy available has 90 pages) by Harlan Ellison.  I haven't read the work, but I just found out about it and have ordered it.   It would be interesting to compare the two works.  It's a post-apocalyptic tale of the adventures of a teen-aged boy (a very young Don Johnson--pre-Miami Vice) and his telepathic dog, Blood. 

Sigourney Weaver,  the Alien, and special effects and straightforward plot.  While the plot, an alien gets aboard the spaceship and proceeds to eliminate crew members is not new, the special effects and the design of the space ship make this one a standout in the genre.  And, Weaver as Ripley strikes me as being unique as a strong, intelligent, and competent female in a genre that is normally male-dominated and the females are generally relegated to being hapless victims who always need rescuing.

I've seen the sequels, and while they are good, they strike me as being more of the same: Ripley vs. the alien.  From what I've read, the alien was inspired by two aliens encountered in A. E. van Vogt's novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, a starship sent out on an exploratory voyage.  In addition, Gene Roddenberry in an interview said this work was the inspiration for Star Trek.  If so, this would make van Vogt's novel one of the most influential novels in the genre.  

Blade Runner
This film also, no doubt, makes many Top Ten SF Film lists, and rightfully so.  Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a cop who specializes in eliminating replicants (androids).  He is burned out and has to be forced into this one last assignment, destroying 4 or 5 replicants who have made it back to earth.  His problem is exacerbated by his feelings for Rachel, another replicant.   Considerable debate has emerged about Deckhard's status:  is he human or a replicant?  Riddley Scott, the director, has said he is, but after viewing the film a number of times, I have to disagree.  The link will lead you to my comments about the five versions of Blade Runner.     See my post about the five versions of Blade Runner.

Man from Earth
I found this film a welcome change from the usual run of SF films characterized mainly by special effects and cartoon characters.  Put simply, it's about a man who tells his friends one afternoon as he's packing to leave for places unknown that he's actually 14,000 years old.  He has to leave because people are beginning to notice that he hasn't aged in the ten years that he's been there.  There are three ways we can take an announcement like this, and his friends react the same way.  One response is that he's telling the truth.  That is immediately rejected by all.  The other two are that he's lying to  or that he's delusional.  In the film we see how his friends struggle to decide which of the two it is.
See my post on this film.

Watch the complete version which runs close to 2 1/2 hours.  It will be uneven in parts because after they had spliced together about 2 hours of film and digitally remastered it, another 30 minutes was discovered in South America.  That version was owned by a film collector who had died and left his collection to a film museum.  So, there will be about two hours of digitally remastered film interspersed with about 30 minutes of unrestored film   You will instantly see the difference. 

It is a romance and a sociological critique about a city which has only two classes:  the bosses and the workers, or as Maria puts it, the head and the hands.  The conflict is caused by the lack of a "heart" to mediate between the two contending forces.  It is one of the films I intend to make part of my personal collection one day.

Star Wars IV: A New Hope
The best of the six episodes still.  Episodes V and VI are considerably better than the three later episodes.  IV had a plot and interesting characters with the best special effects at its time.  While the special effects became more spectacular in Episodes I, II, and III, Lucas forgot the basic fundamentals of story telling:  interesting characters and a plot.  Instead he substituted action scenes to make up for the lack and hoped nobody would notice it. Most comments that I heard suggested he failed.  There are stories going around that Episodes VII, VIII, and IX will appear sometime in future. It will interesting to see what happens.  

The Day the Earth Stood Still  (1951 version)
This is the first SF film that far surpassed the level of SF films I had seen up to that point.  It is loosely based on a short story by Harry Bates, "Farewell to the Master."  It has an idea that was frightening, at least to me.  The alien confederation had given to machines the power of life and death over not just a person, but an entire species.  Gort was authorized to commit genocide if it so decided.  The alien ambassador Klaatu, played marvelously by Michael Rennie, brought a warning from the alien/galactic federation--humans were too violent to allow them loose in the galaxy, so it must change or be destroyed.

I found this frightening and confusing (and still do).  Why not just quarantine the planet?  If Gort had enough power to nullify all electrical systems, it certainly could prevent space ships from leaving the solar system, or even leaving Earth.  We have simple-minded bloodthirsty types in this country whose only solution to international problems seems to be encapsulated in the dictum--"Nuke  'em back to the stone age.  That'll solve the problem once and for all."  That seems very similar, to me anyway, to the alien federation's thinking also.

Them  (1954)
My favorite creature feature--giant ants brought about by, surprise, radiation from tests of nuclear weapons.  James Arness  is an FBI agent called in by the police to investigate several mysterious killings.  Edmund Gwenn is a scientist called in to help with the investigation, and, of course, he brings with him his beautiful, single daughter as his assistant. The story begins in the New Mexico desert and ends in the drains under Los Angeles.  Great fun.

THX 1138
A very early Lucas film and probably not to many viewers' liking.   While the plot is not very complex, we are given two interesting characters,  with an excellent performance by Donald PleasenceRobert Duvall turns in a very good performance also.  The setting and the cinematography are the stars of the film.  Setting a significant part of the film in an all white backdrop was risky, but it worked well, creating a bizarre environment that emphasized the alien culture and the contrast to the still recognizable human feelings and emotions of the characters.

How many of these are on your favorites list?   Which ones weren't included?   Let me know as I may have forgotten about some of them over the years.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Loren Eiseley: the unpredictable, pt. 3

"A few years ago I chanced to write a book in which I had expressed some personal views and feelings upon birds, bones, spiders, and time,  all subjects with which I had some degree of acquaintance.  Scarcely had the work been published when I was sought out in my office by a serious young colleague.  With utter and devastating confidence he had paid me a call in order to correct my deviations and to lead me back to the proper road of scholarship. He pointed out to me the time I had wasted--time which could have been more properly expended upon my own field of scientific investigation.  The young man's view of science was a narrow one, but it illustrates a conviction all too common today:  namely, that the authority of science is absolute.

To those who have substituted authoritarian science for authoritarian religion, individual thought is worthless unless it is the symbol for a reality which can be seen, tasted, felt, or thought about by everyone else.  Such men adhere to a dogma as rigidly as men of fanatical religiosity.  They reject the world of the personal, the happy world of open, playful, or aspiring thought."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Night Country

I am not launching an attack on science, nor is Loren Eiseley.  Science is one of several methods humans use to understand their environment and their place in the universe.  Science is not perfect nor are scientists superior thinkers.  They are expert in their field of research, but even there one finds disagreements among the researchers with considerable expertise and knowledge.  Science can tell us how things came about and how to do many interesting or curious things, but it can't tell us if we should and why we should do these things.  Science showed us how to build an atomic bomb or how to create chemical weapons, but science can't tell us if we should build that bomb or develop those weapons.

The answer to a "why" question  requires a different mind set, a different knowledge, a different perspective that can't be tested, tasted, felt, or measured.  It requires a way of thinking that combines a knowledge of the human past, present, and projections into the future.  Should we build an atomic bomb?  What are the consequences of creating such a weapon?  Once something is created, its very existence seems to promote its use.  That's the next question:  should we use it?  Why?  How? When? Science can not be expected to provide the answer to these all important questions.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Loren Eiseley: the unpredictable, pt. 2

This quotation follows directly after the quotation included in the earlier post titled "Loren Eiseley: the unpredictable."  I had planned on a series of sequential posts from this section of Eiseley's The Night Country, but it didn't work out that way.  Reality sometimes barges in and upsets "the best laid plans of mice and me."

"It is through the individual brain alone that there passes the momentary illumination in which a whole human countryside may be transmuted in an instant.  'A steep and unaccountable transition,' Thoreau has described it, 'from what it called a common sense view of things, to an infinitely expanded and liberating one, from seeing things as men describe them, to seeing them as men can not describe them.'   Man's mind, like the expanding universe itself, is engaged in pouring over limitless horizons.  At its heights of genius it betrays all the miraculous unexpectedness which we try vainly to eliminate from the universe.  The great artist, whether he be musician, painter, or poet, is known for this absolute unexpectedness.  One does not see, one does not hear, until he speaks to us out of that limitless creativity which is his gift."

I find this startling and illuminating.  I have heard many scientists defend what they do to be as beautiful and stirring as as any work of art--that science is not the enemy of the arts.  But now I read Eiseley's comment here:

"At its heights of genius it betrays all the miraculous unexpectedness which we try vainly to eliminate from the universe."

Isn't that the task of science--to remove the unexpectedness and unpredictability of the universe?  I am reminded of Poe's "Sonnet--to Science."

Science!  true daughter of Old Time thou art!
    Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
     Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee?  or how deem thee wise,
     Who wouldst  not leave him in his wandering
To seek for resurrect in the jewelled skies,
     Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
     And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
     Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

I think Poe and Eiseley would agree here.  After all, what is science about--it is an attempt to explain all things and reduce it to predictability, to do away with surprises and the unexpected.  What happens when scientists stumble across something unexpected?  They greet it with joy and then go about trying to eliminate it.  Scientists, some day, may be able to tell us from what parts of the brain a poem or a symphony emerges, but they will never be able to predict the next poem or symphony that emerges.

The next paragraph in Eiseley's essay:

"The flash of lightning in a single brain also flickers along the horizon of our more ordinary brains.  Without that single lightning stroke in a solitary mind, however, the rest of us would never have known the fairyland of The Tempest, the midnight world of Dostoevsky, or the blackbirds on the yellow harvest fields of Van Gogh.  We would have seen blackbirds and endured the depravity of our own hearts, but it would not be the same landscape that the act of genius transformed.  The world without Shakespeare's insights is a lesser world, our griefs shut more inarticulately in upon themselves.  We grow mute at the thought--just as an element seems to disappear from sunlight without Van Gogh.  Yet these creations we might call particle episodes in the human universe--acts without precedent, a kind of disobedience of normality, unprophesiable by science, unduplicable by other individuals on demand.  They are part of that unpredictable newness which keeps the universe from being fully explored by man."

all quotations:
-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Night Country

This is probably one of the clearest and most succinct comments on the value and importance of the arts that I have ever read.  And, as I read it, what Eiseley says about the flash of genius that illuminates others, is equally true of what he writes here, for he has changed my thinking about the value of the arts and also about the value of science and their roles in human culture.  The arts can not  do nor should they be expected to do that which science can, but on the other hand, science can not do what the arts do for humanity--transport us out of mundane reality into a new unexpected and unpredictable world.  Science attempts to reduce all to a  mathematical formula--The Grand Theory of Everything--while the arts seek to maintain the sense of wonder, of surprise, of unpredictability that makes us human.