Wednesday, January 29, 2014


  Ah, the sad expression in the eyes
                     of that caged bird--
                            envying the butterfly!
                --  Basho   (1644-1694  -- 

    I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
        When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
    And the river flows like a stream of glass;
        When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals ­
    I know what the caged bird feels!

    I know why the caged bird beats his wing
        Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
        And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting ­
    I know why he beats his wing!

    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
        When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,­
    When he beats his bars and he would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
        But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings ­
    I know why the caged bird sings!
                      -- Paul Lawrence Dunbar  (1872-1906)

From 17th century Japan and in late 19th and early 20th century US,  we find two poems, different in form, but very similar in spirit.  And, one must also keep in mind that the first part of  Maya Angelou's autobiography is titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  In addition, I found the following quotation while reading Frederick Douglass' autobiography, which tells of his life as a slave and after he gained his freedom.  I have often wondered whether it was the inspiration for Lawrence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy."

“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass   (1815-1895)
Remember this the next time someone insists that slaves are happy because they sing so much!  

Friday, January 24, 2014

Some great DVDs viewed in 2013

This will be a short list, mostly because I bought a new computer and lost most of my files during the changeover.  They are in no particular order, simply because I don't want to expend the effort necessary to rank them, and especially since I know quite well that, on another day, I might rank them differently!

The Man from Earth:  I thought enough of this film to buy my own copy.  It's the fascinating tale of a man who tells his friends and coworkers that he's thousands of years old and their response to that revelation.  It's one of the best SF films I've viewed in many years.   For more information, check out the post I did on it last year.

Doktor Fautus:  based on the novel by Thomas Mann about a composer who makes a pact with the devil.  I haven't read the novel in some time, so I can't comment on the fidelity of the dramatization.  I will say though that it was an enjoyable film, even if much of it seemed strange to me, which might be caused by my failing memory, maybe.  .  .

1984: finally after many years Netflix found a copy to send me.  It's the version with John Hurt as Winston Smith and Richard Burton as O'Brien.  It was quite good as far as it went, but there was no way that any film could present the image upon which the tyranny of Oceania rested--"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

12 Angry Men:  starring Henry Fonda as Juror 8, the lone man who, at the beginning of the jury's deliberations, insists that they take time to discuss the case inasmuch as a guilty verdict would result in the death penalty. It's an exploration of the effects of prejudice on our  perception of others and the judgements that result. What was equally fascinating was the discovery that there were two foreign versions of this film, both very close to the US version.  The Russian version's title is 12, and while it follows closely the US version, there are some differences.  The Hindi language version is titled Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, and it is very close to the US version.  For more information, see the post I made of the three last year.

A Dance to the Music of Time: based on the novels by Anthony Powell.  The film is a condensation of Anthony Powell's series of novels published under the same title as the film: A Dance to the Music of Time.  The novels are published in four parts:  First Movement, Second Movement, Third Movement, and Fourth Movement, and each of the four parts consists of three novels each.  A symphony typically has four movements, so that suggests a lengthy and complex treatment of  various themes.  The film begins with a disparate group of people who meet while they are in school.  The narrative follows one man from that point and down the years through the post WWII era.  We see how he grows and develops and the way those people he had met during his academic years drop away and then reappear during this period.  I found the film absorbing enough to go out and get the books.

Europa Report:  an SF adventure/exploration film.  It's somewhat reminiscent of  2001 in that the ship is headed towards Jupiter, or to be more precise, Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter.  It's a skillful blending of NASA film clips and fiction.  They have obviously studied NASA technology and methodology to create a very believable film of the way a journey to Europa just might take place.  It's one of the better SF films I viewed last year.

Appalachian Journey: One night over a decade ago I was driving home from work and was listening to PBS radio KUAT-FM.  It happened to be the broadcast from Lincoln Center, a chamber music event.  It featured, among others, Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O'Connor with special guests James Taylor and Alison Krauss.  I was instantly captivated by the liveliness of the music--country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and barnyard melodies.  During an interview,  Edgar Meyer stated that the program tonight was duplicated on a CD they had produced: Appalachian Journey.  I immediately went out and purchased the CD.  I then went out and searched for other CDs featuring Edgar Meyer, and I think I now have at least 5.  A short time ago, I discovered that the concert at Lincoln Center had been filmed, so I immediately added it to my queue.  Now I can listen to the CD and see them in my memory on stage.  If you're not familiar with Edgar Meyer and his unique musical universe, you should check it out.

Steel Helmet:  one of the few war pictures that I enjoyed watching.  It is very different from the usual patriotic war films that came my way.  It tells of Sgt Zack, a loner whose outfit had been wiped out by the North Koreans, and his encounter with several stragglers, a Korean boy, and an American unit searching for a Buddhist temple to be used as a forward observation post.  The film came out in 1951, during the Korean War, and those expecting the typical John Wayne patriotic war film must have been shocked by what they saw.  One reviewer called it an anti-American and pro-communist propaganda film.   By today's standards, it probably isn't that shocking, but back then it had to be disturbing to many.

If I were told that I had to buy at least one war film, this would probably be the one.

THX 1138:  This was one of George Lucas' early efforts.  It's based on the film he produced and directed during his studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.  It's a fascinating picture of a future USA where being unhappy and feeling any emotion but happiness is against the law.  It also has one of the riskiest sequences I've ever seen in any film--a long period of time wherein the characters are set against an all-white background, where even the simple furniture is white.  The characters' faces and hands provide a startling contrast.  Of course, Lucas has to include a car chase scene, something he couldn't do without, even back then when he was producing films that had interesting plots and characters and weren't just excuses for action, action, action.

It is one of the eight DVDs that I have in my personal collection.

Twelve O'clock High:  one of the few war pictures I have watched several times, probably mostly due to the fine performance by Gregory Peck, one of my favorite actors.  As an HQ staff officer, he finds it necessary to remove a friend from command of a bomber unit based in England during WWII for he feels the commander has gotten too close to his men and can't make the hard decisions necessary.  Peck's character then takes command and isolates himself from the unit, thereby triggering resentment from the men who had gotten used to the previous commander's more paternal style.        

Zorba the Greek:  I had heard much about this film many years ago and eventually watched it.  I found the music so infectious that I bought the soundtrack for the film.  I also so enjoyed the story that I bought the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.  I was hooked and over the years have purchased as many of his works as possible.  I think my collection of his works exceeds ten books. Zorba is a free spirit, and his behavior and attitude might disturb many.  The Englishman he mentors is at the exact other end of the spectrum--uptight and constrained--and this provides the conflict in the film.   At the end, the Englishman returns to England, but he isn't the same person who came out here.

This is one of the few DVDs that I may add to my collection someday.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Robert Grudin: the perfect comeback--hours later


"The French use the term 'esprit de l'escalier'  ('wit of the stairway') to describe the brilliant comments that occur to us just after we have left the party or meeting where they would have been appropriate.  The killing response to an unprovoked insult, the quietus for an aggressive bore, the naughty paradox that would have made you shine, are as useless now as tickets to last night's show.  So much is wit the child of time.  Still, it is not just our own slowness that makes us think of things too late.  Something in the social experience itself, some fear of self-expression or some awareness of wit's proximity to the utterly absurd, deadens our minds and stops our tongues.  Besides, the witty remark, whether it denudes hypocrisy or subverts language, is always a miniature revolution, a gesture of reform.    The witticism makes its creator, at least momentarily, an enemy of established society; and thus wit is as much a child of courage and as it is of time."

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

The first part, the delayed witticism, is a too common experience for all of us, including me.  Sometimes the brilliant, killing response comes when I'm walking out the door or driving home or even, occasionally, waking up in the middle of the night (the three o'clock comeback).  It is frustrating, but unfortunately a very mundane experience, one that I really don't spend much time thinking about.

Where I part from Grudin is the second part where he states that the delayed comeback is much more than just slowness of thought, that it's "a miniature revolution" or "a gesture of reform."  I think that's pushing it a bit far.    Does the occasional witticism really make one "at least momentarily, an enemy of established society"?

I don't' know about others, but the few times I've been on time with a comment I never considered or thought out what I was going to say--it just popped out, and I was as surprised as anyone else.  The idea that saying that made me "an enemy of established society" never occurred to me, either before, during, or after the incident.

Why does this happen to me?  I'm not the fastest thinker around; it takes me time to think about the situation, the book, or the film, and it's only after some time has passed that I am able to grasp the relevant ideas or themes or nuances in question.  Generally, I'm just a slow thinker, and if an "unprovoked insult" is the issue, then shock comes into play.

Shock, be it physical or mental, paralyzes one momentarily, both physically and mentally.  There's always that moment of paralysis before one takes action.  If it's a physical threat, then the responses are usually limited to flight or fight.  If it's a mental threat, then the possible responses are multiplied: say something or leave or stay there and bear it, and to say something appropriate is the most complex of possible responses.  

I think Grudin is over-intellectualizing here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Friedrich Nietzsche: on disarmament


"The means to real peace.   No government admits any more that it keeps an army to satisfy occasionally the desire for conquest.   Rather the army is supposed to serve for defense, and one invokes the morality that approves of self-defense.  But this implies one's own morality and the neighbor's immorality;  for the neighbor must be thought of as eager to attack and conquer if our state must think of means of self-defense.  Moreover, the reasons we give for requiring an army imply that our neighbor, who denies the desire for conquest just as much as does our own state, and, who, for his part, also keeps an army only for reasons of self-defense, is a hypocrite and a cunning criminal who would like nothing better than to overpower a harmless and awkward victim without any fight.  Thus all states are now ranged against each other: they presuppose their neighbor's bad disposition and their own good disposition.  This presupposition, however,  is inhumane, as bad as war and worse.  At bottom, indeed, it is itself the challenge and the cause of wars, because, as I have said, it attributes immorality to the neighbor and thus provokes a hostile disposition and act.  We must abjure the doctrine of the army as a means of self-defense just as completely as the desire for conquests.

And perhaps the great day will come when a people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifices for these things, will exclaim of its own free will, 'We break the sword,' and will smash its entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations.  Rendering oneself unarmed when one had been the best-armed, out of a height of feeling--that it is the means to real peace, which must always rest upon a peace of mind; whereas the so-called armed peace, as it now exists in all countries, is the absence of peace of mind.  One trusts neither oneself nor one's neighbor and, half from hatred, half from fear, does not lay down arms.  Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared--this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth too.

Our liberal representatives, as it is well known, lack the time for reflecting on the nature of man:  else they would know that they work in vain when they work for a 'gradual decrease of the military burden.'   Rather, when this kind of need has become greatest will the kind of god be nearest who alone can help here.  The tree of war-glory can only be destroyed all at once, by a stroke of lightning:  but lightning, as indeed you know, comes from a cloud--and from up high."

--Friedrich Nietzsche --
from The Portable Nietzsche
p. 71

A bit naive, isn't he?   Could this really work?  For example, could the US really unilaterally disarm today?  The last paragraph is somewhat confusing.  Is Nietzsche saying that only god could bring this about?  Is he suggesting that while disarmament is best, humans are incapable of achieving this? 

Many years ago I read an SF story in which a character stated that if WWIII is a nuclear war, then WWIV will be fought with clubs and stones.  Perhaps that cloud Nietzsche writes of is a mushroom cloud.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Emily Dickinson

This is another of Emily Dickinson 's many poems on death.  It focuses on death as a being restful, a safe shore--a common theme in her poetry.

On this wondrous sea
Sailing silently,
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar --
Where the storm is o'er?

In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest --
The anchors fast --
Thither I pilot thee --
Land Ho!  Eternity!
Ashore at last!

-- Emily Dickinson --
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson
Poem 4, pages 6-7

Death here is seen as a safe harbor, welcomed after the storm of life--one of the most common themes found in her poetry.  I found the reference to the "peaceful west" also intriguing.  Perhaps it has to do with the image of the setting sun, signalling the end of the day, which is also a common image used by many poets--our life span seen as a day.  For example, one finds this in Shakespeare's Sonnet LXXIII; in fact both the setting sun and the west are present.

"In me thou see'st  the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest."

Although the poet is not speaking directly of death, death is lurking in the background for this time is that time just before death, the twilight of one's life.  And, we see similar elements here: a time of rest and a reference to the west. 

While I am clearly in the autumn of my days, I am not looking forward to a rest, just yet. 


Joseph Wood Krutch: a prophecy?

"An obviously unfriendly reporter revealed not long ago that President Eisenhower had ordered removed from the White House lawn the squirrels which were interfering with his putting green, and even so trivial an incident is a straw in the wind.   To hold golf courses obviously more important than squirrels indicates a tiny but significant decision.  It points toward a coming world where there will be more golf courses and fewer wild plants as well as wild animals--hence to a world less interesting and less rich for those who would rather hunt a flower or watch the scamperings of a squirrel than chivy a rubber ball over a close-cropped grass plot.

The late David Fairchild who was responsible for the introduction of so many useful and beautiful plants into the United States, tells the story of an army officer assigned to an office building in Miami during the First World War.

'I haven't got anyting but human beings around me in that building where I spend my days.  Aside from the floor and the ceiling, the doors and windows and desk and some chairs there isn't anything but people.

The other evening when I was feeling particularly fed up with the monotony of the place, I went into the laboratory and as I was washing my hands a cockroach ran up the wall. "Thank God for a cockroach!" I said to myself.  "I'm glad there something alive besides human beings in this building."'

It may well be with such small consolations that the nature-lover of the not too distant future will be compelled to content himself.  Cockroaches will not easily be exterminated."

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

I'm not sure why Krutch referred to the reporter as "obviously unfriendly."   I wouldn't be surprised to discover to learn that most Americans would agree with President Eisenhower's decision.  After all, to put squirrels above golf courses, to consider that other creatures' survival needs might be as important as, if not more important than, human pleasures is ridiculous, isn't it?

Just how significant  is the organic world (of which we are apart, which so many conveniently forget or ignore) in our new electronic, digital world?