Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain LXXII

Another quatrain bemoaning the end of Spring or Youth.

First Edition: Quatrain LXXII

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
    The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

Second Edition:  Quatrain CIV
Yet Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
    The Nightingale that in the branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XCVI
Yet Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented manuscript should close!
    The Nightingale that in the branches sang,
Ah, whence and whither flown again, who knows!

FitzGerald made only minimal changes to this quatrain over the five editions.  The most significant change occurs in the first line when the introductory "Alas" in the first edition is replaced by "Yet Ah" in the second and fifth versions.  The tone now changes from "Alas," a strong expression of sorrow, to "Yet Ah," which, to me anyway, is much weaker and more thoughtful, perhaps with a touch of ambivalence here.

Overall though, the theme is that of passing time, of changes which are inevitable, which echoes a number of the early quatrains that centered around the theme of the loss of past glories.  Something that was present is now gone--Youth and the nightingale in this quatrain--but they are replaced by the Rose of summer.

The first line is a bit ambiguous; I first understood it as saying that Spring and the Rose vanish together.  But, in Quatrain VIII (First Edition) we read, "And this first Summer Month that brings the Rose" which indicates that Spring vanishes with the appearance of the Rose, the sign of the "first Summer Month."  Perhaps the Rose brings its own delights, not quite as pleasing as Youth and Spring though.

Time passes, and what it brings can never replace what has been lost--that Golden Age so often celebrated in many mythical histories.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Jerome Bixby's Man from Earth, an SF film

Jerome Bixby is probably best known for his short story, "It's a Good Life," which became a Twilight Zone episode in 1961, as well as scripts for four Star Trek episodes.  In addition, he has written numerous short stories, both SF and westerns under several pseudonyms.  But, for me, his best work is the script for The Man from Earth, which he finished several days before his death.

It has no special effects, no drooling bug-eyed monsters (BEMs), no space ships, no ray guns, no car chases, no exploding buildings, no scenes of hand-to-hand combat, and no gun battles.   So, what does it have?  It has a fascinating premise, interesting characters, and intelligent dialogue.  It is directed by Richard Schenkman, who resisted the urge to "improve" it by turning it into an action-oriented film.  The cast has no big names, which is an advantage for then the focus is on character and dialogue.  They do a superb job.

The plot is simple: John Oldman, a history professor, has resigned his position and is leaving the area.  His friends and colleagues are hurt, angry, and confused, for he hasn't told anyone about his decision, except for the university administration. He plans to leave without saying goodbye to his friends, some of whom he has known for ten years.   They are hurt and angry because he is "sneaking" out of town without even saying goodbye and confused about his reasons.  He is highly respected and considered to be the most obvious choice for appointed head of the department in a few years.

The film opens quietly: John is putting boxes into the back of his pickup.  He is obviously getting ready to leave when several cars pull up.  People get out carrying bags of takeout food and drinks.  They have decided to have a going-away picnic, in spite of John's attempts to leave quietly.  It is clear that they are upset, but he is a friend so they try to be civil.

They move into the house and take places in the large front room with a fireplace.  This is where they will spend most of the film, talking about John's decision to leave.  After considerable nagging, John reluctantly comes to a decision: he will explain.

He introduces the subject gradually, by suggesting that he may be writing a novel.  He begins by asking his anthropologist friend if a man from the Pleistocene Era, which ended around 12000 BC, would be noticeable today.  The anthropologist says that one wouldn't be any physically different from people today.

John explains that he's not talking about time travel or any sort of mechanism that would suddenly transport this person some 14,000 years into the future.  His caveman simply lives day-by-day, after having reached the apparent physical age of mid 30s.  He is 14,000 years old.

After having established this, he casually mentions, in response to a question about Columbus, that he had been with Columbus and that he, like many, did feel the world was round, but there was always that uncertainty.  At this point the mood and tenor of the relationships changes drastically.

To be brief, John Oldman claims to be 14, 000 years old, and that's why he is leaving.  He has found that it is best if he spends no more than a decade in any particular place because people begin to notice that he doesn't seem to age like everybody else.  In fact, one of his colleagues, a few minutes earlier, had joking asked what his secret was--that he hadn't aged a bit since he arrived ten years ago.

There are three ways that one can respond to Oldman's claim:  he is telling the truth, he is deceiving them for some reason, or he is seriously mentally disturbed.  They cannot accept that he is telling the truth, so he must be lying or seriously delusional.  Some are angry for they think he is trying to make fools of them while others are saddened by his obviously delusional state of mind.  

These are good, honest, intelligent people who try to handle possibly the most ambiguous and perplexing situation they have ever encountered.  They know, like, and respect John, but his claim is too outrageous.  They try to poke holes in his story, but it's impossible.  He makes no claim to be a super genius or possess super powers.  He only knows what he learns from those about him.  Everything he knows could have come out of a book or learned paper written by anthropologists or historians.

The film concentrates on the changing relationship between John and the others.  He now realizes that he made a serious mistake in telling them his story for they can't accept it as true.  Part of their problem may be that they can't accept that he will go on living while they age and eventually die.  I wonder if I would sit there and ask myself--"Why him and not me?"
When I first sat down to watch the film, I had no expectations aside from the brief blurb stating that it was about a man who claimed to be 14,000 years old.  I couldn't believe it when the film ended and I found I had sat there, transfixed for 90 minutes by a film that many would dismiss as being just one of those talky movies where nothing happens.

I have watched it now four times and finally purchased my own copy.  It is one of only ten DVDs that I own, two of which are gifts.  The other two SF DVDs that I own are Blade Runner and THX 1138.  I will watch it again, probably several more times at that, for each time I discover something new, about the story, about the dialogue, about the characters.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 33--Knowing Oneself


He who knows others is learned;
    He who knows himself is wise.
He who conquers others has power of muscles;
    He who conquers himself is strong.
He who is contented is rich.
    He who is determined has strength of will.
He who does not lose his center endures,
He who dies yet (his power) remains has long life.

The Wisdom of Laotse
trans. by Lin Yutang

This was also stressed by the Greeks. "Know thyself" is a Delphic maxim which apparently was carved into the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.  This chapter however goes beyond attaining knowledge and insists on action.  To know oneself is not enough: one must take
what one knows about oneself and act upon it to shape one's behavior.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Eric Hoffer: from Reflections on the Human Condition

Something to irritate almost everybody .  .   .

"#33  It is the malady of our age that the young are so busy teaching us that they have no time left to learn."

"#40  It is maintained that a society is free only when dissenting minorities have room to throw their weight around.  As a matter of fact, a dissenting minority feels free only when it can impose its will on the majority:  what it abominates most is the dissent of the majority."

"#41  There is a spoiled-brat quality about the self-consciously alienated.  Life must have a meaning, history must have a goal, and everything must be in apple-pie order if they are to cease being alienated.  Actually there is no alienation that a little power will not cure."

"42  The untalented are more at ease in a society that gives them valid alibis for not achieving than in one where opportunities are abundant.  Fin an affluent society, the alienated who clamor for power are largely untalented people who cannot make use of the unprecedented opportunities for self-realization, and cannot escape the confrontation with an ineffectual self."

"43  We all have private ails.  The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails."

"44  Commitment becomes hysterical when those who have nothing to give advocate generosity, and those who have nothing to give up preach renunciation."

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

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Loren Eiseley: on stability

"Life is never fixed and stable.  It is always mercurial, rolling and splitting, disappearing and re-emerging in a most unpredictable fashion.  I never make a journey to a wood or a mountain without experiencing the temptation to explode a puffball in a new clearing or stopping to encourage some sleepy monster that is just cracking out of the earth mold.  This is, of course, an irresponsible attitude, since I cannot tell what will come of it, but if the world hangs on such matters it may be well to act boldly and realize all immanent possibilities at once.  Shake the seeds out of their pods, I say, launch the milkweed down, and set the lizards scuttling.  We are in a creative universe.  Let us then create.  After all, man himself is the unlikely consequence of such forces. In the spring when a breath of wind sets the propellers of the maple seeds to whirring, I always say to myself hopefully, "After us the dragons.

To have dragons one must have change; that is the first principle of dragon lore.  Otherwise everything becomes stale, commonplace, and observed.  I suspect that it is this unimaginative boredom that leads to the vulgar comment that evolution may be all very well as a theory but you can never really see anything in the process of change.  There is also the even more obtuse and less defensible attitude of those who speak of the world's creative energies as being exhausted, the animals small and showing no significant signs of advance.  'Everything is specialized in blind channels,' some observers contend.  'Life is now locked permanently in little roadside pools, or perching dolefully on television aerials.'

Such men never pause to think how they might have looked gasping fishily through mats of green  algae in the Devonian swamps, but that is where the homunculus who preceded them had his abode.  I have never lost a reverent and profound respect for swamps, even individually induced ones.  I remember too well what, on occasion, has come out of them.  Only a purblind concern with the present can so limit men's views, and it is my contention that sympathetic observer, even at this moment, can witness such marvels of transitional behavior, such hoverings between the then and the now, as to lay forever to rest the notion that evolution belongs somewhere the witch world of the past."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Night Country

Loren Eiseley is not the first to talk about unending change in the world: Taoists, Heraclitus, and Montaigne among many others had also noted this, but we forget and we need to be reminded of this regularly.  In textbooks that discuss evolution, how many end the exposition with the present day and never go on to talk about future evolutionary modifications.

The same is true of human affairs.  I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Iron Curtain came down in the early '90s.  The wise ones talked about peace, the end of the arms race, the reduction of military forces now that the Cold War had ended.  The money spent on weaponry could now be put to peaceful uses to benefit humanity.  And now.  .  .

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Wallace Stevens: The House was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the evening, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm.  The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
is he reader leaning late and reading there.

-- Wallace Stevens --

Another title for this poem could be "Meditations on Reading."  Or, perhaps that could be a subtitle for I really don't want to give up the title for it fits the poem so well, for when I am reading, the house is quiet, regardless of how noisy it may really be, and the world is calm, in spite of the daily headlines.  The title flows as do the words on the page.

This poem best describes the act of reading, as least as far as I am concerned.   The flowing into a union of the reader, the writer, the ideas/words, and the night convey what I experience when I look back at a time when I was absorbed in a book.  I am somewhere else and only partially me.   To say I am only reading words on a page is true, but only partially true.  It is not the whole truth.  Emily Dickinson said some thing very similar when she wrote, "There is no frigate like a book/To take us Lands away."