Monday, March 31, 2014

Franz Werfel: Star of the Unborn, an SF novel

Franz Werfel
Star of the Unborn
Published posthumously in 1946
607 pages

Opening lines from Franz Werfel's Star of the Unborn

"This is a First Chapter simply because it seemed inappropriate to begin this opuscule with a Second Chapter.  The only factors that stood in the way of placing the words 'Chapter Two' on the first page of this novel were the publisher's sense of propriety, the reading public's well-known propensity for the discovery of monstrous typographical errors, and finally, the author's mania for originality, since he feared that some colleague in the gaily flippant era of romanticism must certainly have begun one of his rank works with a Second Chapter.  For these reasons we begin with chapter One, no matter how superfluous this chapter may be for the progress of the action, or, more accurately, of the exploration."

The novel is a first person narrative, of a little more than 600 pages.  Therefore, the nature or the personality of the narrator, especially in a long work such as this, becomes vital to the work and highly significant to the reader.  Consequently, it behooves me to tell you somewhat about the narrator, as a sort of preparation for what you will experience if you decide to take up this work.  And, since the narrator introduces himself in the very next paragraph  (sort of, anyway), I have decided to let the narrator do all the work and simply let my fingers do the walking.

"Since we are dealing with a kind of travelogue I feel the obligation to introduce the hero, or,  more modestly, the central figure of the occurrences here set forth.  This particular literary form has the unfortunate weakness that the eye that sees, the ear that hears, the spirit that comprehends, the voice that narrates, the  'I' that is involved in many adventures, constitutes the central point about which, in the most literal sense, everything revolves.  This central point, candidly designated as F. W., is, unfortunately, I myself.  Purely from an innate aversion to getting into difficulties, I should have preferred not to be I-myself in these pages.  Still it was not only the most natural, but the only way, and I was regrettably unable to invent any 'he' that could adequately have borne the burden of the 'I' for me.   And so the 'I' of this story is not a deceptive, novelistic, assumed, fictitious 'I' any more than the story itself is the mere offspring of speculative imagination.  It happened to me, as I must confess, quite against my will.  Without the slightest preparation or premonition, contrary to all my habits and instincts, I was sent out one night as an explorer.  What I experienced, I really experienced.  I am quite prepared to embark upon a frank discussion of this little word 'really' with any philosophically minded reader and I am confident that I will with the argument in every instance."

As you no doubt may have noticed F. W. rambles on and on, but he does eventually get there, in a very roundabout way.  And, that for me, is one of the charms of this very unique work as he somehow manages to drag in most of the social, economic, psychological, environmental, and religious issues of the day, which we have not yet managed to solve some seventy years later.  Since we began with a quotation from the beginning of Chapter One, it is only appropriate that we conclude these introductory words with the last paragraph of Chapter One.

"And under the words 'Chapter One' that are still waiting for the story of our monstrous reality, I decided to sketch the foregoing paragraphs.  It is a superstitious trick.  I have not forfeited anything.  I have not given up my original task.  The 'Chapter One' that was to have borne an incomparable load, with the full agreement of my readers, is not a First Chapter.  Instead, Chapter Two assumes the function of Chapter One."

And, thus he begins his little adventure in  "Chapter Two."

F. W. is a time traveler, in a way. He lived and apparently died sometime during the 20th century.  He now finds himself approximately 100,000 years in the future.  He has been resurrected as a wedding gift by B. H., who had been a friend of his some 100,000 years ago.

B. H. had gone to Tibet and studied and learned the basic tenets of reincarnation so thoroughly that he has been successfully reincarnated and retained memories of his reincarnations for 100, 000 years now.  Admittedly his memories of the far past were getting a bit jumbled, but he still remembered F. W. and had used the highly developed science of the day to bring F. W. back to life for some undetermined time as a wedding gift.  B. H. was not fully accepted as a true member of the present civilization at this time and had hoped to gain admittance by presenting this unusual wedding gift.   

Surreal allegory?
Socio/political commentary?
All of  the above?
None of the above?
Some of the above?
Something entirely different?

I'm not sure what to make of this work.   I first read it decades ago and recently came across it gathering dust in a remote corner of my bookcase.  Intrigued, I reread it and now it's scheduled for another reread in the near future.  There's just too much going on here to take it all in within one reading or two, or three.

This book requires a real commitment to finish, primarily because it is so different from what is popular today.  It can't be read in ten or fifteen minute segments. Most people will never read it because of this.  Moreover, the narrator's rambling discursive style will also turn readers off.   And, some of those who have decided to read the book will never get around to it because they will wait for the right moment when they have enough time to spend on this book.  But, this decision is unfortunate because spending the time with this book is far more rewarding than spending the same amount of time on lesser works.   The best way to handle this is to get the book and start reading, without waiting for the opportune moment, for it will never arrive. 

I supposed I've scared off most of you who have taken the time to get this far in my ramblings.   I hope not, but .  .  .

Highly recommended. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seconds and Faces and Masks

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Released in  1966

Cheryl, one of my frequent visitors here, suggested a resemblance between the Japanese film The Face of Another and the US film Seconds, starring Rock Hudson.  The Face of Another is the story of a Japanese businessman whose face is horribly scarred in a laboratory accident.  He covers his head with bandages, resembling the character in films of  H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man.  He is not adapting well, so his psychiatrist suggests a radical solution.  He will make a mask that is so lifelike few will ever realize it is a mask.

In Seconds, the businessman is a successful officer at a bank and seems likely to become bank president in the near future.  However, he is suffering from what was called a midlife crisis.   His job is boring and the romance has gone from his marriage.  His daughter has grown up and is now married and living far away, sending only a few letters and making an occasional phone call. He has come to the point that life means little or nothing to him--just endless tedium.

Then, he is contacted by a friend, a shock, for he thought Sam had died.  Sam tells him there is a company that will solve his problems for him, for a fee of course.  The solution is plastic surgery.  The company will arrange everything:  plastic surgery so he won't be recognized and his "death," so he won't be searched for.  The company will even provide him with a new life--something like a witness protection program for the bored.

After a bit of coaxing, he finally agrees.  This part is the one that doesn't work for me--the plastic surgery.  He changes from a 50 year old man, of average height, and somewhat overweight to Rock Hudson, who is 6'4" with an athlete's body.  A few weeks of workouts in the gym is not going to change his  body that much nor can it add maybe a half foot to his height.  However, once I got past that, I found it an interesting and absorbing film.

Rock Hudson comes up with one of his finest acting jobs in this film.  Regardless of his physical appearance, Hudson really seems to be a 50 year old man, still tired and now lost in his new life.   As in Face, events do not go the way all had hoped for.

While Face is concerned with a mask and Seconds employs plastic surgery, the overlying theme in the two films is the same--the change of one's external appearance and the effects of that change.  In Face, the mask seems to release the inner monster or at least it allows one to become something other than it was without the mask, while the plastic surgery in Seconds may change one's physical appearance, it does not change the inner person.

In Thomas Mann's short novel (perhaps even a novella) The Transposed Heads, Mann proposes a third answer to the question of the significance of the physical body to the spirit.  In the story two vastly different friends, one an intellectual and decidedly not athletic and the other a hardworking farmer commit suicide in order to allow the other to win the heart of the woman they both love.   She, on her part, finds it impossible to choose between them.  Discovering that they have committed suicide by praying to the goddess Kali to decapitate them, she attempts to save them by putting their heads back with their bodies and praying to Kali to resurrect them.   Kali hears her plea and brings them back to life, but unfortunately in her grief and panic the young woman had placed the wrong heads on the bodies.

Over a period of time, the intellectual appearing head with the intellectual mind began to change a bit.  The features coarsened somewhat, its interests and thinking processes were not quite as intellectual as before, and the body began to soften and to resemble the body of an intellectual.  And, the head of the farmer on the intellectual body began to change in the opposite direction.  The head began to resemble that of the intellectual while the body became tougher and stronger.   Mann's point, as I see it, is that the spirit and the body are one unit and influence each other.   The two friends over time may resemble each other in physique and mind more than they did before they committed suicide.

So, there are three positions here:  the spirit controls the body or the outward appearance, the outward appearance greatly influences the spirit, and the spirit and the body mutually influence each other for they are really one.

 One side note here--in psychology the term "persona" refers to "the role that a person assumes in order to display his conscious intentions to himself and others."   The term "persona" comes from Latin and it means "mask."  So, the persona is a mask assumed to display his conscious intentions to himself and others.  The relationship to others is very clear, but what does it mean when we assume a mask to display our conscious intentions to ourselves?

I'm not sure what this all means, but the interrelationship among the terms persona, person, and mask is fascinating.   And how does Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fit in here, as well as stories about the doppelgangers by Poe, Dostoyevsky, and others?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Baltasar Gracian: digging up the dirt

No. 125

"Not the police court blotter.  The sign of blemish in yourself, to point to the shame of another: some seek with the spots of others to cover their own, either to white-wash them, or thus to console themselves, which is the solace of fools: the breath smells badly from those who are the sewers of a city's filth, in which stuff he who digs deepest, soils himself most: few are free from some original sin,  be it of commission, or omission, only, the sins of little known people are little known; let the man alert guard against being a recorder of evil, for it is to be a man despised, and one who even though human, is inhuman."

--Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
translated by Martin Fischer

"the police court blotter" This seems to be a bit of an anachronism here.  I'm not sure that police courts existed in the 17th century when Gracian lived.  I wonder what Gracian had written that Martin Fischer decided to translate this way.  Obviously the police court blotter would be one place that a person so inclined could dig up embarrassing information about someone.

I wonder what Gracian would have to say about today when he discovers that there's a multi-million dollar business whose sole reason for existence is publishing scandal, some of which might be true and much of which is false, about anybody whose name the public might recognize.  In addition,  I see ads on the Internet which inform me that if I click here, I can find out the dirt about anybody I want, famous or not.

It's true that those people who specialize in this are lowlife scum, but they do it because it's profitable.  What can we say about the people who pay for this wallowing in dirt?  I think they are the ones that Gracian is talking about.   As usual, if  no audience existed, nobody would be doing it.

What do you think?   Is there something unhealthy or even unclean about wanting to find out the dirt about others?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Museum Hours: a film

Museum Hours
Written and directed by Jem Cohen 
Released in 2013
107 minutes

This is one of those special, quiet films that I thoroughly enjoyed but can't really tell you why.  The plot is simple:  Anne, a woman from Montreal, goes to Vienna to be with her cousin who is in a coma.  Just what happened to her cousin is never really explained, or at least I missed it, if it was.  It really isn't the focal point of the film.

While in Vienna, she visits the Art History Museum and meets Johann, a museum guard.  They get to talking, and she explains briefly why she is in Vienna. Since she is a stranger and alone in Vienna and he has few friends, he offers to be her guide to Vienna.  Much of the film takes place in the Museum or the surround areas since neither has much money.  Over the course of the film, they learn about Vienna, the Museum, and each other.  Johann, at one point, thinks to himself  how lucky he is for having the opportunity to see his city through the eyes of someone new to Vienna. 

The main attraction of the film, though, is the combination of their quiet, joyful association and the photography.  The photography may have been designed by an artist--striking scenes where the colors suddenly become noticeable--not vivid in a glossy way, but strong, even browns and greys stand out.  I know nothing of the technology of film so I can't say how it's done--special filters or screens, perhaps in the film processing.

We are presented with striking juxtapositions between the street scenes and the paintings in the museum.  Frequently the street scenes resemble works of art from the museum, or perhaps it's the art works that resemble street scenes.  At times I wasn't sure whether I was seeing a painting or a street shot.  Some scenes from outside the museum could easily be titled "A Still Life."  And, in addition,   the treatment of many of the people in the film become portraits as we see them in repose.

The film is available on Netflix and the local public library.  I would recommend getting it from the library because it comes with a booklet that's  not available from Netflix.  I have only 10 DVDs in my personal collection, two of which are gifts.  I am seriously considering buying this film.

This film goes on my must see again list.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Simon J. Ortiz: The Boy and Coyote

The Boy and Coyote

for a friend, Ed Theis, met at VAH
Fort Lyons, Colorado, November
and December 1974

You can see the rippled sand rifts
shallow inches below the surface.
I walk on the alkalied sand. 
Willows crowd the edges of sand banks
sloping to the Arkansas River.

I get lonesome for the young aftenoons
of a boy growing at Acoma.
He listens to the river,
the slightest nuance of sound.

Breaking thin ice from a small still pool,
I find Coyote's footprints.
Coyote, he's always somewhere before you;
he knows you'll  come along soon.
I smile at his tracks when are not fresh
except in memory and say a brief prayer
for good luck for him and for me and thanks.

All of a sudden, and not far away,
there are the reports of a shotgun,
muffled flat by saltcedar thickets.
Everything halts for several moments,
no sound, even the wind holds to itself.
The animal in me crouches, poised immobile,
eyes trained on the distance, waiting
for motion again.  The sky is wide;
blue is depthless; and the animal
and I wait for breaks in the horizon.

Coyote's preference is for silence
broken only by the subtle wind,
uncanny bird sounds, saltcedar scraping,
and the desire to let that man free,
to listen for the motion of sound.

 -- Simon J. Ortiz --
from Woven Stone

A quiet moment of reflection for a man and recollection of a similar moment as a child.  I remember times when I've been out hiking and hearing a gun shot and the sudden silence that follows.  Like Ortiz, I, too, crouched and waited, waited for what I don't know, but waited for something.  Something was out there that was inimical to life--killing because killing was fun. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Helene Wecker: The Golem and the Jinni

Helene Wecker
The Golem and the Jinni
486 pages

After reading the novel, the following kept running through my mind, adapted from a soap opera of many decades ago:  "Can a Jewish Golem and a Jinni from the sands of Arabia find happiness in the teeming tenements of nineteenth century New York City."

And the answer is--Perhaps.

This is her first novel, and, frankly, I consider it to be a great debut.  I'm not one who normally reads fantasy, (this was a selection for a book discussion group I belong to), but I'm glad I was forced to read this one.  It definitely escapes the boundaries of most fantasy today.  While it isn't obtrusive, she also provides considerable background and setting for the immigrant ghettos of late nineteenth century New York.

The first third of the novel is essentially background and preparation for the meeting between the Golem and the Jinni and their eventual conflict with Joseph Schaalman who has unpleasant plans for the two of them.  Initially, the three are not aware of the close ties that bind them, so the remaining two thirds of the novel reveals their relationship and the eventual resolution of the conflict.

Shortly after finishing the novel,  I found something interesting and had to go back to check it out.  I was thinking about the characterization of the Golem and the Jinni something seemed vaguely familiar.  I know little about the author, so I don't know what her reading habits are, but I wonder if she is familiar with the Chinese concept of Yin-Yang,  the view that the world is made of opposites which are an integral part of the world.   The following table lists attributes of the Yin-Yang dichotomy and the characteristics of the Golem and the Jinni.

Yin--the Golem                                   Yang--the Jinni   
feminine                                               masculine
dark                                                      light
cold                                                      hot
moist                                                    dry
passive                                                  aggressive
slow                                                      fast
soft                                                       hard
earth                                                     sun
rest                                                       motion

Throughout the book, the Golem and the Jinni are described or depicted in the ways listed above.  She is created from clay while the Jinni is fire, although the spell he is under forces him to remain in the shape of a human.  She is described as having dark hair and is sometimes referred to as the dark lady, while he is always depicted as light and those with special sensitivity see his face as beaming light.   They have been in New York City for about the same  length of time and while she has barely stirred from her apartment to go only a few blocks to work, he has spent his off hours exploring much of the city.  Both have jobs: she works in a bakery while he works for a metalsmith. 

Overall Rating:  an interesting read about two legendary characters who do not get much attention today.  I will be interested to discover what her next novel will be about. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Face of Another

The Face of  Another
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara 
black-and-white film
Japanese dialogue with English subtitles

This film is based on the novel of the same name by Kobo Abe, who also served as screenwriter for the film.  I haven't read the novel yet as I wanted to see the film first.  I find that reading the novel first will prejudice me against the film as I then focus on the film's correspondence to the novel, which is really only one of the criteria for judging a film.   Since Abe is the screen writer, it should be interesting to see what he does with his novel in adapting it for film.

Okuyama is a business man whose face has been horribly scarred in a laboratory accident.  He is having considerable difficulty in handling his situation.  He has decided to keep his head completely covered in bandages, which reminded me very strongly of  films of H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man.   I wonder if  Abe or the director did this deliberately.

Okuyama is seeing a psychiatrist, hoping that this might help him.  His relationship with his wife is deteriorating, as is his work on his job.  The psychiatrist suggests, rather tentatively, that there's a possible solution.  He knows of an amazing synthetic fabric that looks very much like skin.  He might be able to create a mask which Okuyama might be able to wear in public.   While the psychiatrist has considerable ethical and moral problems with this procedure, Okuyama is desperate enough to try it.  They find a man whose has a nice face, not extraordinarily handsome but a pleasant face, and pay him for the opportunity to make a mold of it.

The psychiatrist is concerned about the consequences of creating a mask for Okuyama and for society if the process proves successful and is made available to the public.  One major question is that of identity:  does our identity come from inside or outside?  Would we be a different person if we had a different face?  What would happen to society if we never knew the real faces of people, but only the masks they chose to wear?

Some might argue that we already wear a mask.  One is Paul Lawrence Dunbar whose poem I have already posted here, but  "We Wear the Mask" deserves another reading in conjunction with this film:

We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be otherwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

-- Paul Laurence Dunbar --

In 1966 this film was considered SF, but recent articles regarding at least two face transplants suggest that this issue now requires some discussion.  Also, in Europe there is considerable turmoil regarding the Moslem custom of veils for women's faces.    A mask or a veil is worn to hide or conceal one's identity from others, even though, paradoxically, wearing one in public makes one stand out among others whose faces are open for all to see.  In a sense, a mask or a veil makes it obvious that one wishes to remain anonymous.

The film has some surrealistic elements that occasionally become confusing.  The psychiatrist's laboratory is a bizarre room with glass and strange diagrams and, frankly, it seems to change each time we visit it.  There are also quick changes between the major plot with Okuyama and the secondary plot of a young woman with radiation scars on one side of her face.  She covers the scars with her long hair combed forward, while her hair is combed back on the other side of her face.  She mentions Nagasaki once when she asks her brother if he remembers the sea there when they were children, perhaps a hint as to the cause of her scarred face. 

The theme of the double or the doppelganger is also strongly brought out in the film.   Okuyama himself is the most obvious example as he is wearing a mask of someone else's face.   Some conversations seem to be repetitions of previous encounters, as well as doubling depicted in the early and late scenes in the film.  After he gets the mask, Okuyama supposedly leaves town but actually remains.  He rents two suites in an apartment building, once wearing his bandages and the second wearing his mask. 

The endings of both plots are clear and unambiguous:  we know what happened.  However, the rationale for the Okuyama plot is not.  Just why did Okuyama do what he did?  The ending of the second plot is much more understandable.

I would recommend this film strongly with one warning.  It is in Japanese, so if you don't understand Japanese, you will have to rely on subtitles.  Occasionally I found myself pausing the film and backtracking because the subtitles appeared and disappeared so quickly I had trouble reading them.  Aside from this minor inconvenience, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I now intend to read the novel and then rent the film again.

Friday, March 7, 2014

J. R. R. Tolkien: THE SILMARILLION--"Ainulindale"

J. R. R. Tolkien
Part One of The Silmarillion

"Ainulindale" is the first part, appropriately enough, of The Silmarillion, which is a collection of stories set in Middle Earth prior to the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I say appropriately enough since an alternate title for "Ainulindale" could easily be The Book of Genesis.  In Genesis, the Lord says, "Let there be Light."   Iluvator, in "Ainulindale," essentially says let there be music.

I find it difficult to read "Ainulindale"  (A) without thinking of Genesis (G) , because of  the similarities and the differences between them.  There is but one God in both creation myths,  and both depict God as the First and Only being who is responsible for all of creation.

And in both are spiritual or non-material beings: angels in G and the Ainur in A.  However, I can find no specific mention of the creation of the angels in G, although one might assume they were created sometime during the six days of creation.  The first mention I can find of an angel occurs when a Cherubim was stationed at the gate of  Eden to prevent Adam and Eve from returning to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life and becoming immortal after they had been expelled for eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  In contrast, in the first line of  "The Ainulindale" Tolkien specifically states that Iluvatar created the Ainur. 

Iluvatar, unlike the Creator in Genesis, does not work alone in the act of creation.  He proposes a "Great Music" to the Ainur.

"Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Iluvatar to a great music: and a sound arose of endless interchange melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the place of  the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void."

Such is the act of Creation in "Ainulinidale."

In spite of Tolkien's great, in-depth knowledge of Northern European myths, he elected to base his Creation myth on those of the Mediterranean area, and his treatment of the existence of evil in the universe comes from the same tradition.  Melkor, like his counterparts in the Judeo-Christian-Moslem traditions, is actually a creation of God or Allah, and is one who turned against his creator as a result of pride.

Satan or Lucifer is not actually named as the tempter of Eve in the Garden, but later Christian theologians have decided that must be who the serpent was.  Like Satan, Melkor was considered to be the brightest of  Iluvatar's creations, and, just as in Christian teachings, Melkor could not created something that would live on its own.  Melkor could only debase that what was already alive.

Evil has always been a problem for those religious traditions that posit a Supreme Good who creates all things.  How does evil appear in the world created by one who is All Goodness, and why?  One of the first thinkers who confronted the idea of evil in the world is Zoroaster, in the 7th BC.   There may have been earlier conceptualizations of this problem, but the writings of Zoroastrianism are the earliest we have.  From the Wikipedia entry on Zoroastrianism, we find the following:

"Zoroaster simplified the pantheon of early Iranian gods into two opposing forces: Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu  (Destructive Spirit) in the 7th century BCD.  Zoroaster's idea led to a formal religion bearing his name by about the 6th century BCE and have influenced other later religions including Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam."

Zoroaster appears to have been the first to have proposed the Final Judgement Day in which the forces of Good and Evil would meet in a final battle to determine who shall control the universe and these forces would include not only all those living but also those who had died before.  According to Zoroaster,  which side would win was in doubt.

The religious traditions that were influenced by Zoroaster all made several significant changes.  In Zoroastrianism, the Destructive Spirit was an independent entity and equal in strength to Ahura Mazda and that evil might ultimately win out.  In later religious traditions, the evil side is actually a creation of the Good and is one who has through pride isolated itself from the Supreme Good.  In addition, in the later traditions the Evil force is weaker than the Good and is doomed to ultimate failure.

Melkor is clearly within this tradition as he cannot create anything on his own.  He can only debase and deform what is already existing.  He can create destructive storms but only because the elements are already there.  Orcs are not created by Melkor, or his follower Sauron, but are the result of experiments on captive elves.

Many of the Ainur became enamored of Iluvatar's universe and elected to assume physical shapes and reside there, in order to protect it from Melkor's destructive meddling.   These were called Valar, and each of the Valar assumed responsibility for a particular aspect of this new world.  A more specific listing appears in the next part of The Silmarillion, "The Valaquenta."  A great struggle ensues between the Valar and Melkor and his followers for control of Arda (Earth) and while Arda did not correspond to the ideas of the Valar, it slowly took shape.

In the  next part, "Valaquenta," we learn much about Iluvatar's first creations: the Valar, the Maiar, and Melkor and his followers.  Two names appear that will play an important role in The Lord of the Rings--Sauron, who was Melkor's chief follower,  and Olorin, one of the Maiar, who is sometimes called Mithrandir, but who is probably better known as Gandalf.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I think Lao Tzu said something like this: "Those who are content with what they have will always have enough."  The corollary then would be that those who are not content with what they have will never have enough. Following are two who say that their needs are minimal and neither extravagant nor excessive.  They will be content with a few wants.


Happy the man, whose wish and care  
A few paternal aces bound,
Centent to breathe his native air
           In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire;
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
            In winter, fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away
In health of body, peace of mind;
          Quiet by day.

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed, sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please
            With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
             Tell where I lie.

-- Alexander Pope -- 

He wishes for solitude and the simple life:  a small farm perhaps with dairy cows, no doubt, that he will milk.  His fields will supply his bread, and, of course, he will do what is necessary to grow the wheat, harvest it, grind it for flour, and then bake it for bread while he is tending his herd of cows.  And, in addition to this he will personally watch over his flock of sheep, while doing all the rest, sheer them, prepare the wool, and then make up his "attire."

I think his solitude and simple life will require some assistance. 

    "Man wants but little here below"
Little I ask;  my wants are few;
    I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brownstone will do,)
             That I may call my own;--
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.

Plain food is quite enough for me;
     Three courses are as good as ten;--
If Nature can subsist on three,
           Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victual nice;--
My choice would be vanilla ice.

I care not much for gold or land;--
   Give me a mortgage here and there,--
Some good bank-stock,--some note of hand,
            Or trifling railroad share;--
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.

Honors are silly toys, I know,
     And titles are but empty names;--
I could, perhaps, be Plenipo,--
          But only near St. James;--
I'm very sure I should not care
To fill our Gubernator's chair.

Jewels are baubles; 'tis a sin
    To care for such unfruitful things;--
One good-sized diamond in a pin, --
           Some, not so large, in rings,--
A ruby, and a  pearl, or so,
Will do for me;--I laugh at show.

My dame should dress in cheap attire;
   (Good, heavy silks are never dear;)--
I own perhaps I might desire
              Some shawls of cashmere,--
Some marrowy crapes of China silk,
Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.

I would not have the horse I drive
    So fast that folks must stop and stare;
An easy gait--two, forty-five--
             Suits me, I do not care;--
Perhaps, for just a single spurt,
Some seconds less would do no hurt.

Of pictures, I should like to own
     Titians and Raphaels three or four,--
I love so much that style and tone,--
            One Turner, and no more,--
(A landscape,--foregound golden dirt,
The sunshine painted with a squirt.)

Of books but few,--some fifty score
    For daily use, and bound for wear;
The rest upon an upper floor;--
            Some little luxury there
Of red morocco's gilded gleam,
And vellum rich as country cream.

Busts, cameos, gems, --such things as these,
    Which others often show for pride,
I value for their power to please,
            And selfish churls deride;--
One Stradivarius, I confess,
Two Meerschaums, I would fain possess.

Wealth's wasteful tricks I will not learn,
     Nor ape the glittering upstart fool;--
Shall not carved tables serve my turn,
            But all must be of buhl?
Give grasping pomp its double share,--
I ask but one recumbent chair.

Thus humble let me live and die,
    Nor long for Midas' golden touch,
If Heaven more generous gifts deny,
            I shall not miss them much,--
Too grateful for the blessing lent
Of simple tastes and mind content!

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes --

Which, if any, of the two do you think will be content with what he has?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Eric Hoffer: dissipation


"DISSIPATION is a form of self-sacrifice.  The reckless wasting of one's vigor is a blind striving to 'liquidate' an unwanted self.  And as one would expect, the passage from this to other forms of self-sacrifice is not uncommon.  Passionate sinning has not infrequently been an apprenticeship to sainthood.  Many of the insights of the saint stem from his experience as a sinner."

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

In other words, dissipation is an indirect form of suicide.  This seems reasonable to me.  Or perhaps  it's a way of punishing oneself for some sin or transgression.

Does this seem reasonable to you?

That great sinners sometimes become saints has been noted before.   One of the most famous examples is St. Augustine who, after spending many years in dissipation, converted and became one of the most respected leaders of the early Christian Church.

This is the point made by C. S. Lewis in his great satirical work, The Screwtape Letters, specifically in the section titled  "Screwtape Proposes a Toast."  Screwtape is responding to complaints by other devils that the souls served up at the banquets recently have been bland and tasteless, flabby and insipid.  He agrees, but he then points out that while the quality of souls has decreased, the quantity has considerably increased.  There is no risk of famine today because of the great number of souls that just sort of end up in hell without even choosing to do evil.   The reason for the diminished quality of souls is clear:

"The great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena the great Saints."

This, I believe, is the same point Hoffer is making at the end of his statement.  Strong or passionate feelings are the same, but what makes the difference in them is the focus of those feelings.  There are ways of measuring the intensity of one's feelings, but there's no way of identifying the focus of those passions, short of asking the individual.  Emotions are much the same in all, but what makes the difference is the focus of those strong passions.