Monday, August 25, 2014

Eric Hoffer: on total commitment

No. 54

Anyone aware of the imperfections inherent in human affairs is hardly capable of total commitment.  Part of him will inevitably remain uncommitted.  It is the perch of uncommitment which makes an act of self-sacrifice sublimely human, and distinguishes the man of faith from the fanatic.

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

The question that immediately comes to my mind is what Hoffer means by self-sacrifice.   Would this include suicide bombers, those who strap a bomb to themselves and then go on a school bus or in a crowded restaurant or a market and blow up themselves and numerous others--men, women, and children?   Is this sublimely human or the act of a fanatic?   How can one distinguish between them?


Friday, August 22, 2014

Eric Hoffer: some thoughts on freedom

Some random quotations from Eric Hoffer on the nature of freedom:

No. 55

We take for granted the need to escape the self.  Yet the self can also be a refuge.  In totalitarian countries the great hunger is for private life.  Absorption in the minutiae of an individual existence is the only refuge from the apocalyptic madhouse staged by maniacal saviors of humanity.

Fortunately we don't have any of these maniacal saviors of humanity, around here, do we?  We don't have people here who are convinced that they and they alone have the Truth and God's blessing on them and their ideas and are willing to create chaos and massive disruption unless they get their way, do we?  We are so lucky, aren't we?

No. 56

One of the chief objectives of freedom is to make it possible for a person to feel himself a human being first.  Any social order in which people see themselves primarily as workingmen, businessmen, intellectuals, members of a church, nation, race, or party is deficient in genuine freedom.

Since I retired, I've met a number of retired people who are unhappy, confused, and lost.  They do not know how to define themselves anymore.   They no longer are teachers, business executives, engineers, police officers, clerks. . .  They defined themselves in the past by their occupations, and now, since they no longer work, many are lost and no longer see themselves as anything.  They are lost and bitterly speak about retirement for they no longer have an identity.

Others take refuge in politics and redefine themselves as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Greens.  Politics, which had been of lesser importance in the past now becomes their all-consuming interest. They now become staunch supporters of their party, complete with closed minds and unwilling or unable to listen to opposing views for fear that they may develop doubts and again lose their identity.  And others turn to religion, again rejecting and demonizing those who think differently.

On the other hand, it's harder to see oneself as a human being only because then one has to make one's own decisions about the pressing issues of the day.  Being a staunch member of a political party or a religious group gives one a ready-made collection of maxims or rules to follow, a set of criteria for making the "right" decision, and leaders who explain the right way to think, the approved opinions and ideas.

It isn't just retired people who are this way.  There are many who are not retired but show the same attitudes about the groups they belong to and also about those who are different.  I'm not saying all members of any political party or religious group are like this, but they are there and generally they are the ones who cause the most problems.  They have a way of making others, who are not as adamant or unswerving in their faith, appear to be less than genuine members of the group.  They are loud in their condemnation of others who are not really True Believers, as defined by them, True Believers really being those who think the same way as they do.  They and they alone are qualifed to decide who is and who is not a real member of the group.

These true believers are really slaves, trapped within an imperfect belief system, as all human systems are, and cannot really breath the fresh air of freedom for they spend their waking hours making sure that they and all others are on the One True Path to Paradise.

Quotations are from
Eric Hoffer
Reflections on the Human Condition

Monday, August 18, 2014

Han shan or Cold Mountain: a poem

Han shan was a hermit poet who probably lived sometime during the ninth and tenth centuries.  "Han shan" means cold mountain in Chinese, which is the name of the mountain where he resided.  His poems show a strong Taoist and Buddhist influence, and he may have been a monk at some point.  His poems were only collected after his death by someone who went looking for him and found his poems on trees, rocks, and walls of a nearby temple and nearby villages.

Today, according to one account, Han shan is ignored by scholars and critics, but his poems are found in very many temples and shrines throughout China.

People ask the way to Cold Mountain
but roads don't reach Cold Mountain
in summer the ice doesn't melt
and the morning fog is too dense
how did someone like me arrive
our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here

-- Cold Mountain --
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans.  Red Pine

At first I thought the difficulty was purely physical.  Cold Mountain is a difficult place to reach, according, at least, to the first four lines.  However, the last four lines suggest that the real difficulty may not be physical but psychological or even spiritual.  That brings me to ask if  "Cold Mountain" is a place or a state of mind. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Baltasar Gracian: the necessity for the coverup

No. 126

"He is not a fool who commits foolishness, but he who having done so does not know how to conceal it.  If your merits should be kept under seal, how much more your demerits.  All men go wrong, but with this difference, the intelligent cover up what they have committed, and the fools expose even what they  may commit.  A good name rests more upon what is concealed, than upon what is revealed, for he who cannot be good, must be cautious: the sins of great men should be regarded as mere eclipses of the heavenly bodies.  Let it be a mistake to confide your errors even to  a friend, for were it possible, you should not disclose them to yourself; but since this is impossible, make use here of that other principle of life, which is: learn how to forget."

--Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom
trans.  Martin Fischer

I think the core of the paragraph is the following:

"A good name rests more upon what is concealed, than upon what is revealed.  .  ."

Is this true?  I admit that this probably is true in a number of cases.    Almost daily we hear about the hidden transgressions of our social, financial, political, entertainment, and religious leaders and idols.  However, is this true of all, or even a majority of them?   Are there people whose good name is just who they are and not the byproduct of a campaign of concealment?

The last few words--"learn how to forget"--reminds me of a favorite saying of mine.  I've forgotten the author, but I do remember the remark: "Perfect happiness is good health and a bad memory."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Henry Beard: the anonymous old English epic--Beocat

Following is a poem that dates back to the heroic years, a thousand years ago, an Old English Epic written by an Unknown Author's Cat. 

Grendel's Dog

Brave Beocat,      brood-kit of Ecgthmeow,
Hearth-pet of Hrothgar     in whose high halls
He mauled without mercy     many fat mice,
Night did not find napping,     nor snack-feasting,
The wary war-cat,     whiskered paw-wielder,
Bearer of the burnished neck-belt,     gold-braided collar band,
Feller of fleas     fatal, too, to ticks,
The work of wonder-smiths,     woven with witches' charms,
Sat on the throne-seat     his ears like sword-points
Upraised, sharp-tipped     listening for peril-sounds,
When he heard from the moor-hill     howls of the hell-hound,
Gruesome hunger-grunts     of Grendel's Great Dane,
Deadly doom-mutt,     dread demon-dog,
Then boasted Beocat,     noble battle-kitten,
Bane of barrow-bunnies,     bold seeker of nest-booty:
"If  hand of man unhasped     the heavy hall-door
And freed me to frolic forth     to fight the fang-bearing fiend,
I would lay the whelpling low     with lethal claw-blows;
Fur would fly     and the foe would taste death-food.
But resounding snooze-noise,     stern slumber-thunder,
Nose-music of men snoring     mead-hammered in the wine hall,
Fills me with sorrow-feeling     for fate does not see fit
To send some fingered folk     to lift the firm-fastened latch
That I might go grapple     with the grim ghoul-pooch."
Thus spoke the mouse-shredder,      hunter of hall-pests,
Short-haired Hrodent-slayer,     greatest of the pussy-Geats.

-- Anonymous Feline --
trans. by Editor's Cat

 Henry Beard
from Poetry for Cats

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Robert Grudin: the loss of the past


"One of the most mysterious operations of time is the way in which things silently divorce themselves from us and slip into the past.   We are like people climbing out of an immensely deep valley on a trail which only occasionally allows us glimpses of the geography below or the heights above.  We turn to see, distant and small beneath us, places which only recently have constituted our total environments; we glance far down at our own beginnings as things dear but inexorably removed from us.  Other people walk with us, so close and for so long that they form a part of our identity.  When they leave us at last, we see them for the first time as separate beings, suddenly clear and whole, yet hopelessly distinct and diminishing.  Only those of us who habitually and affectionately consult the past, who see the present as the birth of the past and appreciate it as the freshness of a new vintage, can hope to mitigate the appalling sadness of these views."

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

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.

-- Edward Thomas --

The above is the first stanza of "First known when lost," a poem by Edward Thomas.  The complete poem was posted on June 8, 2014.  It came to mind when reading Grudin's short meditation.   It is sad to think that we really don't know something until it's gone, and then only briefly for it quickly fades from memory as time passes.  And as we've been told by poet and novelist and philosopher, we can never go back, for it is gone forever.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Otomo no Tabito: a suggestion for the wise


Instead of  fretting
   over things that can't be changed,
how much better
   to swallow down a full cup
       of cloudy sake!

-- Otomo no Tabito --  (665-731)
from  Traditional Japanese Poetry:  An Anthology

Works for me. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Colin Wilson: THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE, an SF novel

Colin Wilson
The Philosopher's Stone

                                             PART ONE

                                The Quest of the Absolute

 I was reading a book on music by Ralph Vaughan Williams the other day, while listening to a gramophone record of his remarkable Fifth Symphony, when I came across the following remark: 'I have struggled all my life to conquer amateurish technique, and now that perhaps I have mastered it, it seems too late to make any use of it.'  I found myself moved almost to tears by the poignancy of those words of a great musician.  Admittedly, he was eighty-six when he died, but for practical purposes--the value of the music he wrote in his last years--it might well have been twenty years earlier.  And I found myself thinking:  Supposing by some fluke, Vaughan Williams had lived another twenty-five years .  .  . or supposing he had been  born a quarter of a century later.  Could I have passed on to him what I now know, so that he might still be alive and writing great music? .  .  .

It was this train of thought that decided me to tell the story of my discovery exactly as it happened.  In doing so, I break my own vow of secrecy; but I shall see that the account is withheld from those whom it might harm--that is to say,  from most of the human race.  It should exist, even if it never leaves a bank vault.  The carbon copy of memory grows thinner year by year.   

It's hard to decide whether to call this a two-part novel or two novels (the second being a sequel) between the same covers.  It's only 300 plus pages, but it's small print and much of which is narrative, which can provide far more information in a short space than dialogue. The strange turn occurs about two-thirds of the way into the book.


The following is taken from the Wikipedia entry on "the philosopher's stone."

 "The philosophers' stone or stone of the philosophers is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning  base metals such as lead into gold or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immorality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal in alchemy. The philosophers' stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolizing perfection at its finest, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss. Efforts to discover the philosophers' stone were known as the Magnum Opus ("Great Work")."

The title is quite apt as the novel is an autobiographical account of the narrator's (first person narrative) details the results of  his lifelong attempts to discover the means of increasing the life span of humans.  He has noted that many of the greatest writers and composers have lived far longer than the average person and attempts to discover whether their genius is the result of a long lifespan or conversely, their long life span is somehow connected to their genius.

The first part of the novel is an extensive portrait of the narrator's life and the various experiments and theoretical considerations that he worked his way through in his attempt to discover ways of further developing human thinking and consciousness.  Wilson has obviously done considerable research for this part of the novel, for I recognize many of  the concepts from various psychology courses that I had taken many years ago.  Eventually, as it happens so often in science, the breakthrough was made completely by accident.

The second part concentrates on the process of  determining just what his new powers are and how to use them.   The breakthrough comes from an experiment that initially involved inserting a small probe into a part of the brain.  In one experiment, a minute piece of a metal breaks off and remains embedded in the cortex of the subject.  This results in changes in the person's thinking and behavior.   Eventually, the narrator tries the experiment on himself and begins an extended process of studying the changes occurring in himself.

The narrator discovers that his expanded consciousness and ability to focus allows him to detect details about objects that normally go unnoticed.  In short, he can take an object and "see" its past history to a far greater extent than was considered possible.  It is this new ability that is responsible for the sudden change in the novel.  The effect of this  is quite startling, and it turns the novel into a totally unexpected (unexpected by me, anyway) direction.

One example given occurs when he looks at a print of Goethe, Werner, and Napoleon.  After studying it for a short time, he is able to see the scene as the sketch for the print is being made.  It is in a large ballroom and he can see the three principles in the print and even hear the music.   

Shortly after this, he is shown a figurine that comes from a sacrificial well in Mexico.  His expanded powers of observation tell him that this comes from a period long before any human civilization, at least a half million years before this.  He begins to study mythology, since there is no archeological or anthropological evidence.  Eventually he stumbles across The Secrets of Atlantis, by Gabriel Guenon, who apparently really existed.  There are references to a book with that title, but, according to The H. P. Lovecraft Archive web page, the book can not now be located.

In the book, Guenon supposedly states that H. P. Lovecraft had written a number of stories about "the Ancient Old Ones [who] had come from the stars, and once dominated the earth.  .  ."   It is at this point that the narrator discovers that there are forces that are attempting to prevent any further research into this topic and seemingly are willing to do anything to stop him.

This is not an easy book to read.  It, again, is one of those books that one settles down with over a period of several nights and concentrates solely on it.   It was first published in 1969, but it has a very distinctly older ambiance about it.  I'm reminded of works by Jules Verne by it or a more recent novel which I commented on a short time ago--Franz Werfel's Star of the Unborn.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Eric Hoffer: quiet confidence and noisy insecurity

No. 11

"The passionate state of mind is often indicative of a lack of skill, talent or power.  Moreover, passionate intensity can serve as a substitute for the confidence born of proficiency and the possession of power.  A workingman sure of his skill goes leisurely about his job, and accomplishes much though he works as if at play.  On the other hand, the workingman who is without confidence attacks his work as if he were saving the world, and he must do so if he is to get anything done.  The same is true of the soldier.  A well-trained and well-equipped soldier will fight well even when not stirred by strong feeling.  But the untrained soldier will give a good account of himself only when animated by enthusiasm and fervor."

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

This reminds me of certain politicians today--those who make a lot of noise and insist they are saving the country from its internal and external enemies, when in reality they accomplish the opposite and, what is worse,  they prevent others from doing what is necessary.  In other words, those who shout the loudest and make the most noise accomplish the least.