Wednesday, June 29, 2016

John Muir on the unseen

I just encountered this quotation this morning and thought that it somehow fits in with my previous post with the poem about the Unseeable Animal.  The following is from a journal entry by John Muir (author, naturalist, poet, hiker, and father of our national parks system, and if anyone can make the claim, he can)   He is also founder of the Sierra Club.

If the Creator were to bestow a new set of senses upon us, or slightly remodel the present ones, leaving all the rest of nature unchanged, we should never doubt we were in another world,  and so in strict reality we should be,  just if all the world besides our senses were changed. 

--John Muir --
from John Muir: In His Own Words

That's an interesting comment, coming from over a century and a half ago.  Science since then has discovered that many animals detect visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical signals that we are insensitive to.  For example, some migratory birds may use the earth's magnetic field to guide them to their destinations.  Bats, dogs, cats, whales, and dolphins are sensitive to sounds we cannot hear. 

I wonder what the world would look like if we could experience those cues that are undetectable by us now.  Perhaps that "unseeable animal" is real.  While I don't consider myself to be a full-fledged romantic, for some reason, though, I prefer Wendell Berry's "unseeable animal."

The other work by John Muir that I'm reading is A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (Annotated).  This small book is based on his hike from Indianapolis, Indiana, beginning on September 1, 1867, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, to Savannah, Georgia, which he reached on  October 8, 1867.  I may post on this one in the future.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Wendell Berry: "To the Unseeable Animal"

Here's a poem celebrating an unusual animal.  I don't think I've ever read about one like this before.  

To the Unseeable Animal

My daughter: "I hope there's an animal
somewhere that nobody has ever seen.
And I hope nobody ever sees it."

Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods' shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed

particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have waked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope.  The darkness
keeps us near you.

-- Wendell Berry --
from Art and Nature, an Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry

A plea that there should always be mystery, the unknown, the unfathomable?

Does this help to make life bearable?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Gene Wolfe: A Borrowed Man, one of Wolfe's quirkiest novels

Gene Wolfe
A Borrowed Man

Gene Wolfe, who regularly turns out quirky novels (who else would write a quartet featuring a trained and licensed torturer and executioner as the hero), has turned out another one:  A Borrowed Man.

The narrator is E. A. Smithe, well,  sort of E. A. Smithe anyway.  He's a reclone of the deceased writer of the same name.   He has been created and then filled with all the information found about E. A. Smithe.  He is then sent to a library where he spends his days, on a shelf, of sorts, waiting for a patron who is doing research to appear and ask him questions about E. A. Smithe or his writings.  (This gives new meaning to the job title of resource person.)    If he is lucky, a patron may even borrow him from the library (even though it's quite expensive) for a short period of time.  While the reclone is not considered a person, the patron who damages one has to pay a hefty fine, just like that for a book or other item borrowed from the library..

Being consulted and being borrowed from the library is very important because the life span of a reclone depends upon usage.   Since space, as always at a library, is limited, those reclones who are not consulted or borrowed are eventually burned.  And, he isn't the only E. A. Smithe reclone, for there are others in other libraries.  

Our Smithe reclone, one day, is borrowed by a patron, Collette Coldbrook, for ten days.  He is a bit disappointed because the fee is only 4700 for the period.  He had hoped it would be higher, a sign of his value to the library.   Eventually he finds out the reason for being "borrowed."   To be brief, the real E. A. Smithe had written a book, according to Collette, in which a clue to a fortune may be hidden.

Collette Coldbrook is the daughter of a recently deceased financier who had built up a considerable fortune, the source of which is unknown.  Collette had been told by her brother, Conrad, that a book written by Smithe holds a clue to the source of her father's fortune.  A short time later, her brother was murdered by person or persons unknown.  Collette reveals this to the reclone only after having gone to an out-of-the-way-place to avoid any possible listening devices.

This is a slow-paced thriller with the reclone and Collette hoping to find the hidden clue in the book before the unknown others get there first.  She has no idea as to the identity of these others--it could be a band of criminals or even one of several government agencies, also curious about the source of her father's fortune.
The novel takes place in the future, maybe a century or more. The US government has obviously been replaced by another government.  Moreover, the world's population is now around one billion.  Wolfe does not explain just what led up to these changes or to the dramatic reduction in population.

And, as this is a novel by Gene Wolfe, the reader should prepared for several surprises along the way.  All is not as it appears to be.

Looking for something a bit strange?  Try this one. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Cordwainer Smith: "No, No, Not Rogov!"

Cordwainer Smith
"No, No, Not Rogov!"
from The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith
16 pages

The following quotation constitutes the first three paragraphs of the story.

That golden shape on the golden steps shook and fluttered like a bird gone mad--like a bird imbued with an intellect and a soul, and, nevertheless, driven mad by ecstasies and terrors beyond human understanding--ecstasies drawn momentarily down unto reality by the consummation of superlative art.  A thousand worlds watched.

Had the ancient calendar continued this would have been A.D. 13,582.  After defeat, after disappointment, after ruin and reconstruction, mankind had leapt among the stars.

Out of meeting inhuman art, out of confronting non-human dances, mankind had made a superb esthetic effort and had leapt upon the stage of all the worlds.

.  .  .

The golden shape on the golden steps executed shimmering intricacies of meaning.  The body was gold and still human.  The body was a woman, but more than a woman.  On the golden steps, in the golden light, she trembled and fluttered like bird gone mad. 

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever," Keats once said.  This, of course, frequently leads to those who enjoy quibbling, and the quibbled topic usually is "beauty."  Is there some beauty that is recognized by all or is beauty always "in the eye of the beholder"?  Part of the debate may involve the issue of the beautiful that appears before its time. Many literary works, musical compositions, paintings, and sculptures are initially rejected or even castigated as ugly and then "rediscovered" a decade or more to be very beautiful.  Aside from these issues, I wonder if  it is "a joy forever," or even if it is a joy?  Could beauty be something else?   Is there a beauty that might be so profound that it becomes destructive to the unprepared?  Cordwainer Smith explores this idea in this short story. 

In spite of the introductory quotation, most of the story is told on a less exalted level.  It is set in the Soviet Union, begins during WWII, and continues on through several decades and commissars.  It takes place in a research laboratory, and the cast of characters includes Rogov, (the head of the research team),  Cherpas (initially Rogov's greatest rival and later his wife), and two observers installed by Stalin.  One is  Gausgofer (a scientist and a policewoman, whose real job is to watch the scientists), who falls in love with Rogov, and, therefore, hates Cherpas.  The other is Gauck (whose real job was to watch everybody, including Gausgofer), about whom nothing is said and who just watches and says little.  "Gauck had no friends, no enemies, no beliefs, no enthusiasm.  Even Gausgofer was afraid of him."

Their goal was to develop a device that, as a receiver, could read and record the thoughts of people at a distance.  In addition, once turned into a transmitter, it should be able to influence the thinking of people at a great distance.

Eventually they focused on the receiver function, but test results shifted the goal from reading thoughts at a distance to being able to see what targeted individuals were seeing.  Being able to see, for example, what the US president was seeing would give the USSR a decided advantage in that it could now read the briefing papers given to the president.  The USSR would know what the US president knew.

They succeed, but not in the way they expected.

Is there a beauty that is so overwhelming that, for those who haven't been prepared, it becomes destructive?

The final paragraphs:

On the golden steps in the golden, light, as golden shape danced a dream beyond the limits of all imagination, danced and drew the music to herself until a sigh of yearning, yearning which became a hope and a torment, went through the hearts of living things on a thousand worlds.

Edges of the golden scene faded raggedly  and unevenly into black.  The gold dimmed down to a pale gold-silver sheen and then to silver, last of all to white.  The dancer who had been golden was now a forlorn white-pink figure standing, quiet and fatigued, on the immense white steps.  The  applause of a thousand worlds roared in upon her.

She looked blindly at them.  The dance had overwhelmed her., too.  Their applause could mean nothing.  The dance was an end in itself.  She would have to live, somehow, until she danced again.  

As in many of Cordwainer Smith's stories, the focus is on the effects of technology and scientific advances on people rather than on the technology or science.  People are most important in his stories.

Cordwainer Smith is one of those sadly neglected SF short story writers from the late 1950s through the 1970s.  While many of his short works take place in a common universe, and several novels have been constructed by linking his short stories, he never got to the point of writing a series of novels that are so popular today, or perhaps required today.

I hope that maybe some visitors here will take a look at his stories.  It will be rewarding.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXVII

This is another of the quatrains Edward FitzGerald added to the Second Edition.


Strange, is it not?  that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
    Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

Strange, is it not?  that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
    Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

The two quatrains of the Second and the Fifth Editions are identical.  I can find no changes, even minor punctuation changes.  I guess FitzGerald thought he got it right the first time.

The point is clear, nobody has come back after death to tell us what actually happens.  I often hear others today discuss smugly how we moderns are so much wiser and more sophisticated than people living centuries earlier, that they believed all sorts of superstitions and had so many silly ideas about the universe. 

Perhaps somebody should point out that Khayyam seems far more skeptical than our contemporaries who believe in channelers and mediums who claim to be in contact with the dead and can bring their words to us, one or more of whom even had a TV series in which they "contacted" the spirits of those gone on before.  I think he would be equally skeptical of those who claim to hear the voices of the dead on tape recorders set on RECORD and left running in a empty room.

We may have eliminated or almost eliminated several diseases, but we haven't even begun to deal with gullibility.  And, I won't say a word about presidential aspirants and their followers. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hermann Hesse: Page from a Journal

Page from a Journal

On the slope behind the house today
I cut a hole through roots and rocks and
Dug a hole, deep and wide,
Carted away from it each stone
And all the friable, thin earth.
Then I knelt there a moment, walked
In the old woods, bent down again, using
A trowel and both my hands to scoop
Black, decaying woods-soil with the warm
Smell of fungi from the trunk of a rotting
Chestnut tree--two heavy buckets full I carried
Back to the hole and planted the tree inside;
Carefully I covered the roots with peaty soil,
Slowly poured sun-warmed water over them,
Mudding them gently until the soil settled.
It stands there, young and small,
Will go on standing when we are gone
And the huge uproar, endless urgency and
Fearful delirium of our days forgotten.

The fohn will bend it, rainstorms tear at it,
The sun will laugh, wet snow weigh it down,
The siskin and the nuthatch make it their home,
And the silent hedgehog burrow at its foot.
All it has ever experienced, tasted, suffered:
The course of years, generations of animals,
Oppression, recovery, friendship of sun and wind
Will pour forth each day in the song
Of its rustling foliage, in the friendly
Gesture of its gently swaying crown,
In the delicate sweet scent of resinous
Sap moistening the sleep-glued buds,
And in the eternal game of lights and
Shadows it plays with itself, content.

-- Hermann Hesse --
from Art and Nature:  An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry

There are times when I read a poem and then move on.

Sometimes I will read a poem, move on, and then come back.  It was a delayed reaction, but it interested me for some reason. 

And, once in awhile, I will read a poem and not move on.  This happened with Hesse's poem. Why?  I have no idea.

Perhaps one of you might tell me why.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Laotse and Eric Hoffer: the odd couple

I first encountered this theme in Laotse's Tao Te Ching and, to be honest,  I didn't understand the significance or the reality at that time.  A day ago, while browsing through Eric Hoffer's Reflections on the Human Condition, I ran across the same theme which was expressed in the identical words that Laotse used. 

Frankly, I still don't accept this as possible.  Perhaps it's because I live in a different time than either Laotse or Eric Hoffer.  Here are the two statements in question.

17.  Rulers

Of the best rulers
     The people (only) know that they exist;
The next best they praise;
The next they fear;
And the next they revile.

      When they do not command the people's faith,
      Some will lose faith in them,
      And then they resort to oaths!
But (of the best) when their task is accomplished,
       their work done,
The people all remark, "We have done it ourselves."
-- Laotse --
The Wisdom of Laotse
Edited by Lin Yutang

No. 87

The genuine creator creates something that has a life of its own, something that can exist and function without him   This is true not only of the writer, artist, and scientist but of creators in other fields.  The creative teacher is he who, in the words of Comenius, "teaches less and his students learn more."  A creative organizer creates an organization that can function well without him.  When a genuine leader has done his work, his followers will say, "We have done it ourselves,"  and feel that they can do great things without great leaders.  With the noncreative it is the other way around: in whatever they do they arrange things so that they themselves become indispensable.  

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

In both statements this theme is expressed  in identical wording: "We have done it ourselves."  Is this possible?  If their accomplishments are not attributed to them, then how do we know they are great leaders or very creative workers? 

Would this work in a democracy where one must win the approval of the voters?  Would a "do nothing" legislator or governor or president ever get reelected if the people didn't recognize the value of that person's actions while in office?  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Jane Austen: Predator and Prey

Don't know why, but upon re-reading P and P for the x? time, I suddenly saw a new title for the novel: Predator and Prey.  The first sentence is what started me thinking:

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

The second paragraph is even more specific actually:
"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his
first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

The phrase "the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters" started me thinking: "rightful property" or prey?  This focus on one of the most famous openings in English literature caused me to see the book in a slightly different way, which resulted in a new title:  Predator and Prey.  Who are the predators and who are the prey.  This resulted in a new perspective as I then began to look at each of the characters to see which role they played.  Some even play both. 

I also paid a bit more attention to Caroline, the unmarried Bingley sister, this time.  Once she senses Darcy's interest in Liz, the claws come out.  Caroline's senses are sharp and sensitive, very necessary for a predator to know when a suspected competitor invades her territory.  However, this different view of the novel also had a surprising effect in that I now viewed Caroline in a much more sympathetic light.  More about that later.

Following is a cast of the main characters and a brief statement regarding my take on their roles in the novel.  Feel free to disagree.

Mr. Bennet: prey-- He was caught and trapped when young by a pretty face.

Mrs. Bennet:  predator--she caught Mr. Bennet and is now on the hunt for her daughters.

Jane:  prey,  not really on the hunt for a husband, potential predator.

Elizabeth: prey,  not really on the hunt for a husband, but could be a potential predator.

Lydia:  predator,  attracted by red coats of officers

Wickham:  predator, searching for a rich woman to marry

Col. FitzWilliam:  predator, see Wickham

Darcy:  prey

Bingley: prey, target of local mothers

Miss Caroline Bingley: predator, on the prowl for Darcy

Georgiana:  prey, with Wickham as a past predator

Mr. Collins:  predator and prey, looking for a wife, becomes Charlotte's target.  Or, as we used to say back in the Dark Ages, "He chased her until she caught him."

Some brief observations:

Lizzie is hard on Charlotte but excuses Wickham and FitzWilliam

Older sons are prey while younger sons are predators, who are forced into those roles because of the culture and the tradition of primogeniture--oldest sons inherit everything in order to keep the family estate intact. Therefore the oldest son is a great catch (prey) , while the younger sons are forced to find an occupation (military or the church) or marry a woman with a large dowry who can support them (predator).  The oldest son can also be a predator if familial pressures causes him to search for a wife who has wealth and perhaps a title, which would be ideal.  Either or both could enhance the family's position in society.

Some critics and readers have dismissed Austen's works as light-hearted romances with the same theme: a young woman out to get a husband, and in spite of the usual obstacles, manages to get her man and live happily ever after.
This may be true on a surface level, but underneath there is a very serious struggle taking place.

The right marriage is not just a road to everlasting bliss but a means of survival for many of Austen's heroines, and heroes also, as it was true for many in the 17th through the 19th centuries.  Many, especially in the middle class, would be doomed to a life of penury or maybe worse, a life dependent upon the good will and generosity of relatives and friends.  Limited as they were by the strictures of their society (as we also are today--even if we don't see it), jobs were unavailable or unthinkable for many.  Marriage to a suitably wealthy individual was the only solution.

And that poses the problem--making a choice, if one were lucky enough to have choices.  Who to choose to spend a lifetime with?  P. D. James, one of my favorite mystery writers in an interview said that Jane Austen was her favorite author, and that, if Austen were writing today, she would be writing mysteries.

Consider--what is the task of the detective in a mystery story--stripping away the public persona to get at the suspect's real character.  What is the task of the wise young woman or man in choosing a mate?  Isn't it the same?  In fact, that is the task of all of us, knowingly or not, of finding out just what are our acquaintances really like and how many would make good and trustworthy friends. 

As for that "living happily ever after" myth, Austen doesn't believe in it, and it shows at the conclusion of most of her novels.  It may be a good match, but unending  bliss is not in the cards.

Just a few thoughts about the far too few works by one of my all-time favorite authors.