Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jorge Luis Borges: "Ars Poetica"

Ars Poetica: Jorge Luis Borges 

To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know we cease to be, just like the river,
And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
Of mankind’s days and of his years,
To transform the outrage of the years
Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold, of such is Poetry
Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,
Wept with love to descry his Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of wonders.

It is also like an endless river
That passes and remains, a mirror for one same
Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
And another, like an endless river.
-- Jorge Luis Borges --
From Dreamtigers,  translated by Harold Morland

What does art do?  Is it just a way of dealing with death or is there more to it than that?  If we were immortal, would there be art?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Carl Sandburg: "From the Shore"

Here's one from Carl Sandburg that caught my eye as I was browsing through a collection of his poetry.

From the Shore

A lone grey bird,
Dim-dipping, far-flying,
Alone in the shadows and grandeurs and tumults
Of night and the sea
And the stars and storms.

Out over the darkness it wavers and hovers,
Out into the gloom it swings and batters,
Out into the wind and the rain and the vast,
Out into the pit of a great black world,
Where fogs are at battle, sky-driven, sea-blown,
Love of mist and rapture of flight,
Glories of chance and hazards of death
On its eager and palpitant wings.

Out into the deep of the great dark world,
Beyond the long borders where foam and drift
Of the sundering waves are lost and gone
On the tides that plunge and rear and  crumble.
-- Carl Sandburg --
The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg

I have always envied birds for they live in three dimensions while I'm trapped in two.  Yes, I know about airplanes, but I am a fearful-flyer, a control problem, I suspect.  But I never really considered very deeply just what it means to be able to fly and just what it is like, especially during those times when there are no soft winds and a blue sky and a safe landing below--at least, that is, until I read Sandburg's poem. 

The use of alliteration and the hyphenated adjectives reminds me of some Old English poems that I have read, Beowulf being one and others--"The Seafarer" for example.  This is a brief quotation and one appropriate I think:

All I ever heard along the ice-way
was sounding sea, the gannet's shanty
whooper and curlew calls and mewling gull
were all my gaming, mead and mirth
At tempest-tested granite crags
the ice-winged tern would taunt
spray-feathered ospreys overhead
would soar and scream.  .  .
 -- Anon  --
Online translation of "The Seafarer" by Charles Harrison-Wallace.

And, of course, there's always a haiku that strikes a similar note.

Grey marsh, black cloud.  .  .
Flapping away in autumn
Last old slow heron
-- Anon --
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Trans. Peter Beilenson

I read somewhere (wish I could remember who said this) that a poem should make you see something new or see something old in a new way.  I think Sandburg has succeeded here.

Has he succeeded with you?   

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: contradictory people

No. 135

"Do not carry a spirit of contradiction, for it is to be freighted with stupidity, and with peevishness, and your intelligence should plot against it; though it may well be the mark of mental genius to see objection, a wrangler about everything cannot escape being marked the fool, for he makes guerrilla warfare of quiet conversation, and so becomes more of an enemy to his intimates, than to those with whom he will have nothing to do;  it is in the most savory morsel that the spine which gets caught hurts most, and so it is with contradiction in moments of happy converse; such a man is a fool, offensive, who adds to the untamed within himself, the beastly."

-- Baltasar Gracian --
The Art of Worldly Wisdom

 As usual, this is not a simple "never do this" rule, for Gracian is far too sophisticated to suggest this.  I think the most significant qualifier is "a wrangler about everything."  In other words, pick the time and place carefully, and be sparing of contradicting others.  With all the distractions brought about by the ringing of the ever present mobile phone, it is difficult enough to have a quiet, uninterrupted conversation with one or more people without having to deal with the one who deems it necessary to correct numerous statements.

There are times and places when pointing out errors will be necessary, but those probably, in reality, are rare.  And, there should be a statute of limitations as to bringing up comments or statements made in the past.  How significant is it if one has to go back a decade or more to dig up a racial slur or a sexual innuendo?
The circumstances in which the statement was made are no longer clear, even if not distorted by time, and the individual who made the statement may no longer think the same way. 

If Gracian were alive today, after being made aware of the various recording devices and means of storing conversations, he would probably suggest that one should now think three or four times rather than only twice before saying something.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Robert Silverberg: Downward to the Earth

Robert Silverberg
Downward to the Earth, Second Edition

Published in 1970, this one somehow escaped me at that time. It's one of his best.  It's the tale of a man, Edmund Gunderson,  who returns to the planet where he was a colonial supervisor when the earth government decided the local species was intelligent. Therefore, the Company (always an evil company here) had to leave the planet.

Gunderson has several reasons for his return. One is that he feels guilty for his mistreatment of the nildoror, the sentient indigenous inhabitants who look a lot like elephants, and there's more to them than their size. Another is his interest in the rumors that the nildoror undergo a rebirth at some time during their life span, and he wishes to find out more about that.  In addition, he also plans on searching for friends of his, one of whom is Seena, whom Gunderson had been in love with.  Another is Kurtz, who also stayed behind.

In order to accomplish these tasks, he must travel alongside a river deep into the heart of the continent where few Earth people have gone, and perhaps into areas where no Earth people have ever gone.  Readers familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness will recognize a number of elements here.

One of these elements, of course, is the long journey into a jungle that is dark, dangerous, mysterious, and brooding.  A second is that one of the goals is to find Kurtz, which is the major reason for the journey in Heart of Darkness.  A third element involves the mistreatment of the indigenous population by a large corporation.  Another is the depiction of the nildoror which is far more sympathetic than the portrayal of the Earth people.  Yet one more is a scene in Chapter Two which faintly echoes an early scene from Heart of Darkness, and in both, the people have just left the ship (sea and space types) and are heading for the village.

The path widened to become a clearing.  Up ahead, one of the tourist women pointed into the bush; her husband shrugged and shook his head.  When Gunderson reached that place he saw what was bothering them.  Black shapes crouched beneath the trees, and dark figures were moving slowly to and fro.  They were barely visible in the shadows.

Those, we learn, are the Sulidoror.  Just who they are and what they are and what their relationship to the nildoror is remains another mystery Gunderson hopes to solve.

I also see some elements here that remind me of Dante's Divine Comedy, but it may be another example of my penchant for over-reading.  Most others in the discussion group didn't see it, so either it isn't there, or I did an inadequate job of pointing out what I saw.  

Gunderson's trip upriver, although he follows the river, but seldom travels on it, can be broken into three parts.  The first is hell, a hot, steaming jungle, populated by various dangerous beasts--death is everywhere.  I find this to be an echo of Dante's Inferno.

Once Gunderson escapes the jungle, he moves into the highlands which are much safer and the climate is more temperate. It is cooler, misty, with sparse vegetation.  There is little danger there, and it becomes a time for reflection and enlightenment, as he moves closer to the rumored land of rebirth. This suggests Dante's Purgatorio to me.  Gunderson has avoided death in the jungle and now is on his way to his ultimate goal.

The place of rebirth is the peak, the goal of Gunderson's journey, just as Paradiso, or heaven was Dante's goal, as it is for all Christians.  And, just as there is in the Christian tradition, there is the judgement which Gunderson must undergo at the time of rebirth. What one becomes is determined by the life one has led.

This is only a brief summary of the work, and I haven't mentioned anything about Gunderson's meeting with Kurtz nor about Gunderson's lost love who stayed behind with Kurtz.  

 It's a fascinating work, with an interesting introduction by Silverberg and with some very interesting aliens.  Those seeking this book should be careful and get the second edition.  The first edition does not include Silverberg's introduction nor the map of Gunderson's journey.

I definitely need to do a reread on this one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LII

This is the third in a series of four linked quatrains, from Quatrain L to LIII.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LII

Whose secret Presence, through Creation's veins
Running, Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
    Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and
They change and perish all--but He remains. 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LI 

Whose secret Presence, through Creation's veins
Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
    Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and
They change and perish all--but He remains. 
-- Edward FitzGerald --
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

There are no significant differences between the Second and Fifth editions.  The only change I can see is the removal of the comma following "Running" in the second line, which makes for a more direct statement of the way the "secret Presence" moves and "eludes" us.

The first line of this stanza tells us something about "the Master" who was mentioned in the last line of the previous stanza.  The Master is present throughout all creation, taking all shapes, and even though they change and die, "He remains."  In other words, the Creator does not just create and abandon His creations or allow them an existence free of his presence but inhabits them throughout their lives.  In Hinduism we find a similar belief.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna

My true being is unborn and changeless
I am the Lord who dwells in every creature.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter Four
Eknath Easwaran, trans. and editor

In both cases, the Supreme Deity or the Master is present in all creation.  Though they die, He remains "unborn and changeless.  .  . in every creature."  Moreover, his "Presence" though running through creation's veins is secret and like quicksilver, which is impossible to grasp or hold.  This is echoed in John 7:34, "Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come."

Consequently, in  many religious traditions, God, the Master, the Lord, Allah, is  characterized as ineffable, unknowable, unfathomable.  His motives are beyond us and mysterious.  Yet,  a few minutes later we are told about God's likes and dislikes, what He wants us to do and what we are to avoid doing, what pleases Him and what saddens Him, what we can eat and what is forbidden.  There are all sorts of behaviors that must be performed, that may be performed, and that must not be performed.  God doesn't seem that unknowable to these people, or so it seems to me.

It all appears to be a bit contradictory to me.  


"Mah is also the Persian language name of a species of fish, which gives rise to the Persian language expression, az mah ta mahi, "from the moon to the mah-fish", to mean 'everything'."
Wikipedia entry on "Mah"

"Krishna is recognized as the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu or as the Supreme God in other traditions. Krishna is one of the most widely revered and most popular of all Hindu deities."
Widipedia entry on Sri Krishna