Friday, June 27, 2014

Thomas Hardy: "I Have LIved With Shades"

Could this perhaps reflect Hardy's own doubts about his place in history?

"I Have Lived With Shades"
I have lived with Shades so long,
And talked to them so oft,
Since forth from cot and croft
I went mankind among,
           That sometime they
           In their dim style
           Will pause awhile
           To hear my say;
And take me by the hand,
And lead me through their rooms
In the To-be, where Dooms
Half-wove and shapeless stand:
             And show from there
            The dwindled dust
            And rot and rust
           Of things that were.

"Now turn," they said to me
One day:  "Look whence we came,
And signify his name
Who gazes thence on thee." --
         --"Nor name nor race
        Know I, or can,"
        I said, "Of man
       So commonplace.

"He moves me not at all;
I note no ray or jot
Of rareness in his lot,
Or star exceptional.
            Into the dim
            Dead throngs around
            He'll sink, nor sound
            Be left of him." 

"Yet," said they, "his frail speech,"
Hath accents pitched like thine--
Thy mould  and his define
A likeness each to each--
            But go!  Deep pain
            Alas, would be
           His name to thee,
           And told in vain!"

-- Thomas Hardy --     
from The Works of Thomas Hardy

The poet-narrator clearly seems to be questioning here his own place in history.  He says that the shade pointed out to him will sink into the dead throngs around and nothing will be heard of him.  In the fifth stanza we learn the the shade looks and sounds like him, and the other shades will not say his name for "Deep pain/Alas, would be/His name to thee."

This all seems straightforward, except for the last line--"And told in vain."  Why would it be useless to tell him?  To prevent pain would be a good reason for not revealing the identity, but why include that it would be useless? 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Village: an SF film

The Village
an SF film

Here's another one of those quiet SF films that I never heard of until I ran across it by accident.  It appeared in 2004 and was written, produced, and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who has also directed The Last Airbender and The Sixth Sense.  

I'm surprised that I missed this film because it stars William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Joaquin Phoenix, and Bryce Dallas Howard.  With this cast, it should have received more notice.  Of course, I may just have missed it and am the only person in the world who hadn't heard of it.  The background music is also unique in that the solo violinist is Hillary Hahn, a world-class performer who, at age 35, already has won two Grammys. 

The film opens on a quiet village scene, apparently sometime during the 1800s, according to their clothing and the implements they use.  However, something strange appears almost immediately as two young women who are sweeping the porch with brooms make a game of it, dancing with the brooms.  Suddenly the frolicking is interrupted when one spots a red flower.  They stare at it and one wonders where it came from.  One plucks the flower and immediately buries it, saying "bad color, bad color."

The villagers are all from surrounding towns where each has lost someone through violence or has come here to escape violence.  All have taken a vow to remain in the village and not to return to the towns.  It appears to be one of the many utopian communities formed during the 19th century, one of which was featured in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blythedale Romance.  These are the 19th century equivalents of the hippie communes of the 20th century.  

The people are happy and content as they go about their daily chores and work.  The town is self-sufficient as it produces its own food in its own gardens, and it has a small herd of cattle.  We see the women making clothing, and a blacksmith forging tools and other implements.  Ingredients for the meals do not come out of cans or boxes.  Decisions are made by a council of village elders, with William Hurt's character being the unofficial leader.

However, in spite of the ordinariness of their lives,  strangeness appears when we realize that there is a circle of wooden poles surrounding the village that bear lit torches at night.  A guard is posted at night on a tall watch tower that can be reached only by ladder and up through a trap door that is locked by the guard at the top.  Children are warned not to go beyond the barrier.  We also learn that there are creatures out there called "Those We Don't Speak Of," and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that neither bothers the other by coming into the village or going beyond the barrier.  However, several incidents suggest that this agreement is breaking down for some reason.

The first half of the film depicts the lives of these people and the series of disquieting events regarding the relationship of the villagers and "Those We Don't Speak Of."   However, the second half turns into something quite different as it now focuses on the relationship between two of the characters.  A young blind woman, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, goes on a heroic and solitary quest to a nearby town to get some medicine for her newly betrothed lover, played by Joaquin Phoenix.  It is her journey that now becomes the center of the film.  It is because of this journey that dark secrets are revealed, at least for viewers. 

It's an interesting film about a small isolated village whose inhabitants have voluntarily cut themselves off from what they perceive as the dangers of  living in large towns.  The film centers on people and ideas, and the special effects and the usual trappings of action-oriented SF are missing. 

Recommended for those looking for something other than noisy space battles, drooling aliens, and special effects that substitute for plot and character development.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Robert Grudin: what we best understand

II.24    If the words "to have" and "to know" are taken in their deepest sense, then there is nothing in the world that we may truly have or know.  In most of our experiences--personal, professional, political, esthetic--we stand at the periphery, conversant with detail but unsure about structure, basis, context; unsure even about the nature of the emotions that the experience evokes in us.  What we understand best, we understand by renewal--by looking at the same thing again and again in different ways, looking at it internally and externally, walking around it, turning it in our hands, participating in it until some strange abstract spirit of its being rises from the complexity of effort and detail.  And what we have best, we have by renewal--by chronic challenges never refused,  by danger of loss, by repeated cherishings, and by love remembered.

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

I don't know--does this sound bleak to you?--that "there is nothing in the world that we may truly have or know"-- that in most of our experiences we are at the edge of things.  Grudin seems to deny the possibility of an immediate intuitive grasp of things, and that it is only through repeated exposure over a long period that we best understand things, and I suspect this would include people also.   In a sense, I think he insists that only through immersion in whatever it is that we can develop any in-depth understanding of the event or object or person, but we still will never truly know or have anything.

I think that what he says about repeated exposure and renewal is true most of the time.  It does take time and repeated encounters to understand the other, whether it may be an event or an object or a person.  However, there are occasions when there seems to be an instant grasp of the other, being it favorable or unfavorable, that repeated exposure only confirms the first impression.  They are rare, but they do exist.       

Monday, June 9, 2014

David Brin: EXISTENCE, an excerpt

David Brin
SF novel, 553 pages

I'm in the midst of reading a remarkable SF novel by David Brin.  I've always enjoyed his previous works, but this one is something special.  I never thought he would be able to match his earlier ground-breaking novel, Earth, but he has not only matched it, but I think he has gone a step or two  beyond with Existence.  I haven't finished it yet, so I won't comment any more, but I do want to provide this brief excerpt from the novel.

Hamish, a writer and one of many characters,  is reminiscing:


The art that I practice is the only true form of magic.
     It had taken Hamish years to realize this consciously, though he must have suspected it as a child, while devouring fantasy novels and playing whatever interactive game had the best narrative storyline.  Later, at university and grad school, even while diligently studying the ornate laws and incantations of science, something had always struck  him as wrong about the whole endeavor.
     No, wrong wasn't the word.  Sterile. Or dry, or pallid .  .  . that is, compared to worlds of fiction and belief.
     Then, while playing hooky one day from biomedical research, escaping into the vast realm of a little novel, he found a clue to his dilemma, in a passage written by the author, Tom Robbins.

Science gives man what he needs.
But magic gives him what he wants.

     A gross oversimplification?  Sure, Yet, Hamish instantly recognized the important distinction he'd been floundering toward.
      For all its beauty, honesty, and effectiveness at improving the human condition, science demands a terrible price--that we accept what experiments tell us about the universe, whether we like it or not.  It's about consensus and teamwork and respectful critical argument, working with, and through, natural law.  It requires that we utter, frequently, those hateful words--'I might be wrong.'
     On the other hand, magic is what happens when we convince ourselves something is, even when it isn't.  Subjective Truth, winning over mere objective fact.  The Will, triumphing over all else.  No wonder,  even after the cornucopia of wealth and knowledge engendered by science, magic remains more popular, more embedded in the human heart.
     Whether you labeled it faith, or self-delusion, or fantasy, or outright lying--Hamish recognized the species' greatest talent, a calling that spanned all cultures and times, appearing far more often, in far more tribes, than dispassionate reason!  Combine it with enough ardent wanting, and the brew might succor you through the harshest times, even periods of utter despair.
     That was what Hamish got from the best yarns, spun by master storytellers.  A temporary, willing belief that he could inhabit another world, bound by different rules.  Better rules than the dry clockwork rhythms of this one." 

Whether this represents Brin's own thinking or is simply part of the creative process of constructing a character is up for you to decide, if you choose to read the novel.  

I think, though, that there are hints or clues here to the present time, with all the conflict and partisan fighting going on all over the world, and right here at home.  Those who fear and hate the inexorable changes that seem to overwhelm all are in a state of denial.  Magic gives them what they want.    

If there is anything that characterizes science for me, it is the following, idealized though it may be:

For all its beauty, honesty, and effectiveness at improving the human condition, science demands a terrible price--that we accept what experiments tell us about the universe, whether we like it or not.  It's about consensus and teamwork and respectful critical argument, working with, and through, natural law.  It requires that we utter, frequently, those hateful words--'I might be wrong.'

Other ways of thinking --magic-- do not face that ultimate challenge for if something is not to one's liking, one simply ignores it or mentally rewrites it.  It may be more emotionally satisfying, but that really doesn't solve real world problems such as environmental pollution of water and air or global warming or disputes among belief systems.  We must learn to face problems and do something about them or go the way of the dinosaur.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Edward Thomas: First Known When Lost

The title of this poem provided the name for Stephen Pentz'  blog,  "First Known When Lost."  I recommend that you visit it, if you haven't already discovered it.  It's listed in my blog list in the column to the right.  A click will get you quickly there.  It was Stephen who first introduced me to Edward Thomas' poetry in any sustained way.  Thank you.

First known when lost

 I never had noticed it until
'Twas gone, --the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill.

I was not mre than a hedge overgrown.
One meadow's beadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as a bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut faggot ends
Of hazel make some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary's tributary, rises there.

-- Edward Thomas --
Edward Thomas:  The Annotated Collected Poems
Edited by Edna Longley 

There seems a touch of irony here for he discovers two things.  The first is the copse that he never noticed until it was gone, and now its absence allows him to discover the source of that small winding brook.  

"A tributary's tributary". 

A "tributary" can be a small river or stream or brook that flows into another river, but not into a sea or ocean.  Perhaps this tells us that the brook flows into another stream that is also a tributary of another.  A "tributary" can also mean  paying something to another to acknowledge submission, to obtain protection, or to purchase peace.    I wonder if Thomas is being ambiguous here. 

Friday, June 6, 2014


"To an anthropologist, the social reception of invention reminds one of the manner in which a strange young male is first repulsed, then tolerated, upon the fringes of a group of howler monkeys he wishes to join.  Finally, since the memories of the animals are short, he becomes familiar, is accepted, and fades into the mass.  In a similar way, discoveries made by Darwin and Wallace were at first castigated and then by degrees absorbed.  In the process both men experienced forms of loneliness and isolation, not simply as a necessity for discovery but as a penalty for having dared to redraw the map of our outer, rather than inner, cosmos."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Night Country

Perhaps among the majority of scientists and perhaps the general population, this might be true, but there still are groups of howler monkeys out there who haven't accepted evolution, even after some 150+ years of evidence.  Other groups, and there is considerable overlap here, still deny the existence of global warming, again in spite of overwhelming evidence.  Other groups, again with considerable overlap, still believe the world is only 6000 years old, having been created in 4004 B. C. 

I wonder how many members of these groups also belong to the Flat Earth Society.   Yes, they still exist and here's their web site: