Saturday, March 28, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon: "A Crime for Llewellyn"

Theodore Sturgeon:  "A Crime for Llewellyn"

"He had a grey little job clerking in the free clinic at the hospital, doing what he'd done the day he started, and that was nineteen years back.  His name was Llewellyn, and Ivy Shoots called him Lulu.

Ivy took care of him.  He'd lived with Ivy ever since she was an owlish intellectual with an uncertain almost little girl look about her and he was a scared, mixed up adolescent wilting in the interim between high school and his first job.  Ivy was in several senses his maiden experience--first date, first drink, first drunk,  and first hangover in a strange hotel in a strange city accompanied by a strange girl.  Strange or not--and she was--she was his Secret.

A man like Lulu needs a Secret.  A sheltered background consisting of positive morality, tea-cosies, spinster aunts and the violent contrast of  eighteen months as a public charge--after the aunts had burned to death, uninsured--had convinced him that he was totally incapable of coping with a world in which everybody else knew all the angles.  So he fell joyfully into the arrangement with Ivy Shoots and the Secret that went with it.

He was small and he was pudgy, and he wasn't bright, and his eyes weren't too good, and the very idea of his stealing a nickel or crossing in the middle of the block was ridiculous.  It seemed to him that all the men around him emanated the virtue of sin--the winks and whistles at the girls, the Monday tales (boy did I tie one on Saturday night), the legends of the easy conquests and looseness and casual infidelity, the dirty jokes, and the oaths and expletives--and because they seemed to have no scruples they kept their stature as men in a world of men.

In this, Lulu could easily have drowned.  Only his Secret kept him afloat.  He told it to no one, partly because he sensed instinctively that he would treasure it more if he kept it to himself, and partly because he knew he would not be believed even if he proved it.  He  could listen contentedly to the boasting of the men he envied, thinking if you only knew! and you think that's something!  hugging to himself all the while the realization that no one among them had committed  the enormity of living in sin as he was doing."

That was his Secret:  He was living in sin!

Then, his world came tumbling down around him.  Ivy, misunderstanding him, thought he felt guilty about living together.  So, one night, after work, she confessed Her secret.  She brought out their marriage license--they were married after all.  That wild night when Llewellyn met Ivy and got drunk and woke up the next morning in bed with her was very hazy in his mind.  He had blacked out during the evening and never knew that he and Ivy had gotten married.  He was devastated.

But, Llewellyn had a stout heart and was more than ever determined to commit a crime.  After all, it can't be that hard to do something illegal or immoral, could it?  Somebody had once told Llewellyn that there were so many laws that it was hard for the average person to go through the day without committing some sort of crime.  Only luck kept most of us out of jail.  Lulu was confident--it should be easy.  And, it really was important. 

But, our destinies are not completely under our control.  Fate plays a role in determining what happens to us, and Llewellyn was soon to learn this inescapable fact--that if some are destined to be criminals, regardless of what they do, then there may be others who are just the opposite--in spite of theft or bigamy or murder or .  .  .

Poor Llewellyn.   We now follow Llewellyn as he fumbles his way around in his attempt to commit a crime, handicapped by Fate which seems determined that his destiny is to remain a good person. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kenko: the ideal house

No. 55

"A house should be built with the summer in mind.  In winter it is possible to live anywhere, but a badly made house is unbearable when it gets hot.

There is nothing cool-looking about deep water; a shallow, flowing stream is far cooler.  When you are reading fine print you will find that a room with sliding doors is lighter than one with hinged shutters.  A room with a high ceiling is cold in winter and dark by lamplight.  People agree that a house with plenty of spare room is attractive to look at and may be put to many different uses."

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness

As I live in Tucson, Arizona, I have to agree with Kenko's first statement.  Conquering the hot summers, especially at night, is most important.  When winter comes, I can always add a sweater if necessary.

Is the perceived difference between deep water and shallow, flowing stream real or psychological?   Perhaps more moisture is lifted into the air by a shallow, flowing stream than by a deep pool and that moisture is what gives the impression of coolness?  I must admit though I would find a shallow, flowing stream more interesting than a deep pool, although a deep pool does have its own attractions. 

Some haiku, remotely appropriate

      For deliciousness
Try fording this rivulet.  .  .
         Sandals in hand one hand
                        -- Buson --
from A Little Treasury of Haiku

 This hot day
         swept away
by the River Mogami
               -- Basho --
from The Sound of Water

At the ancient pond
      a frog plunges into
           the sound of water

                    -- Basho --
from The Sound of Water

 The last haiku is probably Basho's most famous; in fact there's a book titled something like 101 versions of this haiku.  This is my favorite simply because it suggests that the frog plunges, not into the pond, but into the sound of water, the sound of the splash.  Just why this fascinates me, I have no idea.      

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Robert Frost: Trial by Existence

Robert Frost:  "Trial by Existence"

Normally I don't post poems this long, but this one I just have to.  It is, to me anyway, one of Frost's most unusual and inexplicable poems.    It is fairly straightforward and understandable on the surface level, but something else is going on here.  Just what this is, I have no idea, which is why I have posted it.  I'm hoping somebody can help me understand this poem and Frost's thinking as he wrote it.  Perhaps that's too much to ask, and I should just read and go with it.  But, I have this itch .  .  .


Even the bravest that are slain
Shall not dissemble their surprise
On waking to find valor reign,
Even as on earth, in paradise;
And where they sought without the sword
Wide fields of asphodel fore'er,
To find that the utmost reward
Of daring should be still to dare.

The light of heaven falls whole and white
And is not shattered into dyes,
The light forever is morning light;
The hills are verdured pasture-wise;
The angel hosts with freshness go,
And seek with laughter what to brave;--
And binding all is the hushed snow
Of the far-distant breaking wave.

And from a cliff-top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
And the slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!

And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.
And a white shimmering concourse rolls
Toward the throne to witness there
The speeding of devoted souls
Which God makes his especial care.

And none are taken but who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt;
And very beautifully God limns,
And tenderly, life's little dream,
But naught extenuates or dims,
Setting the thing that is supreme.

Nor is there wanting in the press
Some spirit to stand simply forth,
Heroic in it nakedness,
Against the uttermost of earth.
The tale of earth's unhonored things
Sounds nobler there than 'neath the sun;
And the mind whirls and the heart sings,
And a shout greets the daring one.

But always God speaks at the end:
'One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have by for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.'

And so the choice must be again,
But the last choice is still the same;
And the awe passes wonder then,
And a hush falls for all acclaim.
And God has taken a flower of gold
And broken it, and used therefrom
The mystic link to bind and hold
Spirit to matter till death come.

'Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.

 Do you find this a strange poem when put up against others of his that you know about?

What does this say about the various religious traditions that concern themselves with guilt and everlasting punishment for sins committed here in this life?

Choosing the life of a saint or hero or some remarkable person would be understandable.  And perhaps choosing a martyr's life could also be understood.   But, choosing to live the life of Hitler? 

In the post immediately preceding this one, Hoffer talked about freedom to choose or not to choose.  I wonder if there's any connection between Hoffer's comments and my sudden decision to provide this poem a day later.  And, it was a sudden decision.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Eric Hoffer: two types of freedom

No. 57

To some, freedom means the opportunity to do what they want to do; to most it means not to do what they do not want to do.  It is perhaps true that those who can grow will feel free under any condition.

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

Are these the only types of freedom?

It strikes me that one is positive--able to do what one wants-- and one is negative--not having to do what one does not want to do.  I can see how someone with a positive view can feel free to grow, but how would someone who can grow feel free under the negative view.

Something's missing here.  .  .

Monday, March 2, 2015

PD James: Unnatural Causes, Aunt Who?

PD James
Unnatural Causes

This is the third in the series of mysteries featuring  the cases of Dalgliesh, James' poetry writing Scotland Yard detective.  This one is a bit different in that it really isn't Dalgliesh's case, for he's on vacation, visiting his Aunt Jane Dalgliesh who lives in a small village on the coast that has become sort of an undeclared writers' colony.  However, the officer in charge of the case is very ambivalent towards Dalgliesh.  He doesn't like Dalgliesh, and Dalgliesh returns the feeling, but he wants to draw upon Dalgliesh's experience and expertise.  This makes for a rocky professional relationship.

A corpse is discovered in a small dinghy floating off the coast.  His hands have been cut off, probably after his death, according to the autopsy.  He is soon identified as he had been one of the writers who lived in the small village.  How did he die?  Why were his hands removed after death?  Some sort of warning?  A false trail?  As usual, James provides much to keep us occupied.

This is probably my third, and perhaps even the fourth, reading of this novel.  Even though I knew whodunnit, I still find James' works entertaining as novels about people and their behavior.    And something new always shows up at each reading.  This time Dalgliesh's aunt stood out from the background.  I become aware of her this time, much more than in previous readings.  Just why, of course, is probably a case of over-reading on my part, but I find it interesting anyway.

Adam Dalgliesh and his Aunt Jane are very close, in spite of the difference in their ages, or perhaps because of this difference.  She is in her eighties now and a spinster.  She had been engaged as a young woman back in 1918, but her fiance had been killed six months before the Armistice in November.  Apparently no one has come along since then to engage her affections.  She was the daughter of a minister, and after her mother died, shortly after her fiance's death, she took over the role of housekeeper for her father.

After his death  in 1955, she moved to the coast of Suffolk and lived quietly there.  Her one hobby, ornithology, kept her occupied.  Her careful and meticulous observations provided her with material for several books and she found herself, eventually, considered to be "one of the most respected of  amateur ornithologists in England."  Her reputation in the small village increased when it was discovered that several distinguished individuals, including a famous writer who had been a recluse for many years, were seen in her company. 

Dalgliesh later in the novel remarks that Aunt Jane was not a sentimental woman, quite the contrary.  "To Jane Dalgliesh people were as they were.  It was as pointlessly presumptuous to try to change them as it was impertinent to pity them.  Never before had his aunt's uninvolvement struck him so forcibly; never before had it seemed so frightening."  Jane Dalgliesh seems to be one who see people clearly and objectively, with few romantic illusions about her fellow inhabitants of this small planet and views them coldly and dispassionately.  They are as they are.

Now, why does this suddenly stand out, waving frantically for my attention.  Well, PD James' death last November got me to begin rereading her works again and to also remember an interview I had seen many years ago.  In the interview she said that Jane Austen was her favorite writer and that if she were alive today, Austen would be writing mysteries.

Jane Austen, who,  in the past, had frequently been referred to as "Dear Aunt Jane,"  was also a spinster at her death.  She too had been the daughter of a minister and remained in the family household until her death at 41.  She had never married, but had several chances.  One, at an early age, according to a family tradition, had occurred while they were living on the coast.  According to her sister Cassandra, a young man had fallen in love with Jane.  He had made a favorable impression on Cassandra, and she thought that he would have been successful in his courtship.  However, he had to leave, but he also made it clear that he would return.  Shortly afterwards, however,  they learned of his death.

Jane Austen's novels, based on careful and meticulous observation of the people around her, while never making any top ten list, did attract readers, one of whom was the Prince Regent who apparently kept copies of her works at each of his residences.  Her novels fostered no illusions about people and clearly presented them as they were, warts and all.

I suppose this is a real stretch.  Both aunts are named Jane, both had a minister for a father, both remained spinsters, both when young apparently lost a possibly successful  suitor  through death, both gained some fame as a writer whose works featured close and meticulous observation of their subjects, and both apparently had a clear and unromantic view of those about them, perhaps approaching a cruel and detached vision.

And to push this even further--I can't help thinking of another aunt who also clearly, perceptively, and objectively views her neighbors and sees the evil buried deep within--Aunt Jane Marple.   Obviously, I have a bad case of Aunt Jane fever. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gene Wolfe's NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN--First impressions

Gene Wolfe
Nightside the Long Sun

I've finally managed to get to the book and am now in Chapter 4.  These are some random impressions based on the early chapters.

This reminds me of Wolfe's earlier series,  The Book of the New Sun.  It's the language that conveys this impression.  It is archaic and very formal, with many foreign and obscure English words.
I find myself heading for the dictionary or search function on the browser.  Just now I discovered, after a number of tries (the usual response was "no such word" while the others directed me to Gene Wolfe's novels), the following definition for manteion.  And, it appears to be Greek.

Manteion:  "An oracle; either a person or a shrine but usually a title denoting a prophet and reader of the omens of sacrifice. "

The story is illustrative of the role of the augur: "he does not predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed." 

Patera Silk is an auger;  in the story he is  one who  reads the will of the gods by studying the entrails of sacrificed animals. It appears as though the term in the far future has become confused with another term--haruspex--for augers observe and interpret the flight of birds while a haruspex is the one who interprets from the entrails of sacrificed animals.  Both augur and haruspex go back to the days of the Roman Empire.

As in his earlier series, Wolfe loves to show us how history and myth and legend become confused and intertwined over long periods of time.

The Christian Sign of the Cross has now become the addition sign that Patera Silk makes. 

patera probably comes from the latin "pater" which means father.

Our Father--pater noster

Pater Silk, so far, appears to be a variation of the Holy Fool, an innocent who understands little of the world about him, but is blessed with almost divine wisdom in understanding the hearts of others.
That he is first seen as playing with children is indicative of the type of person he is.  He is a strange mix of a Christian minister or priest and teacher and a Roman official who reads the will of the gods in bird flight and the entrails of sacrificial animals--two very contradictory actions.