Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXIX

The following is another quatrain FitzGerald added to the Second Edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXIX

Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,
And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,
    Is't not a Shame--is't not a Shame for him
So long in this Clay suburb to abide!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XLIV

Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,
And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,
    Were't not a Shame--were't not a Shame for him
In this Clay carcase crippled to abide?

The first two lines are identical.  The changes appear in the third and fourth lines. The third line poses the most problems:  the change from   "Is't" to "Were't."  Since I have never encountered these contractions before, I went searching and found that "Is't" most likely means "is it."  I found several different possibilities for "Were't" and finally concluded that the contraction stands for "were it"  which fits best when considering that it replaced "is't."  The most significant change in the fourth line is the replacement of "suburb" by "carcase," which brings out a much clearer reference to the body, especially when one considers Biblical references to clay and dust.

I think the overall theme is that the soul is trapped in the body, that it could be much freer without the body.  It comes across much stronger in the Fifth edition when the poet/narrator tells us that the soul is within a "carcase crippled to abide."  This, of course, is in line with Christian and Islamic beliefs about the existence of the soul after death, and it's glorious future, if it is destined for heaven.

There, of course, is a gentle irony here when one sees how hard those who believe in a glorious afterlife struggle so hard to remain here in our "crippled" existence, as hard, as far as I can tell, as any atheist or agnostic, in fact. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Leconte de Lisle: "The Jaguar's Dream"

Here's one of those poems that grabbed me, and I had to keep coming back to read it.

The Jaguar's Dream

Lianas in bright bloom hang from mahogany shade,
Motionless where the air is languorous
And buzzing with summer flies.  Brushing the moss,
They curl into cradles clutched by the emerald quetzal, swayed
Wildly by monkeys, spun with the yellow spider's silver floss.
Here the bull-killer, slayer of stallions, tired,
Moves among dead tree-stumps moist and soft as sponge,
Implicit violence in his measured tread.
Pelt shimmering with each muscle's plunge,
While from his bay-wide muzzle, drooping with thirst,
A clipped, harsh, rattled breathing shocks
Huge lizards from their sun-trance to a burst
Of chrome-green sparkling over shadowed rocks;
And there where the dark wood blots the sun,
He sprawls across a lichened stone,
Licks satin paws to a lustrous sheen,
Flutters the sleep-heavy lids of gold eyes down
And, as the ghost of his waking force
Twitches his tail and ripples along each side,
He dreams that by some orchard's water course
He leaps and digs his dripping  claws
Into a bellowing bull's flesh-swollen hide.

Charles-Marie Rene' Lecontede Lisle  (1818-1894)
from World Poetry:  An Anthology of Verse
from Antiquity to Our Time  
trans. James Lasdon

I don't know what this poem means or if it is symbolic or metaphorical or allegorical.  It's inner, hidden, deeper meaning escapes me.  It must be the imagery here that attracts meA picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words, but I doubt if a thousand pictures could accomplish, for me anyway, what these few words some how manage to do.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Minute Meditation

Many moons ago when I was in grad school, a professor went on a rant attacking John Gardner and his "obsolete" views.  I was so intrigued that I got the book.  I was instantly converted.  One of my regrets is that I never went back and thanked that professor for introducing me to John Gardner. I've also read several of his novels. If you are looking for something different, try John Gardner.

"In a world where nearly everything that passes for art is tinny and commercial and often, in addition, hollow and academic, I argue -- by reason and by banging the table -- for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does and what the fundamental business of critics ought therefore to be.

.   .   .   .   .   .

The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.  It seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us."

-- John Gardner --
from On Moral Fiction

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The Minister's Black Veil"

Nathaniel Hawthorne:  "The Minister's Black Veil"

I'm sure most people have either read the story or are at least familiar with the basic story line.  Parson Hooper appears one Sunday morning wearing a black veil:  Swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face, so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Hooper had on a black veil. The effect on the congregation was one of amazement and not a little fear:  "I don't like it," muttered an old woman, as she hobbled into the meetinghouse.  "He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face." 

The sermon he delivered that day was clearly related to the black veil:  The subject had reference to secret sin, and those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest, and would fain conceal from our own consciousness, even forgetting that the Omniscient can detect them. 

Hooper's black veil is supposed to serve as a reminder to all who see him of the secret sins they are hiding from others.   I think most of us are very well aware of those dark secrets we hide from others, so I don't understand why Parson Hooper feels it necessary to make himself a reminder of that.   What purpose does it serve to remind us of our own sins and also that others have their own hidden sins?

Doesn't this make us wonder about our friends and loved ones and strangers?  How does this increase Christian charity to towards others?  Doesn't this rather make us suspicious of others?  Doesn't this increase our mistrust of others?   He certainly found himself the object of fear among all who encountered him.  He persisted in this behavior and wouldn't even allow his betrothed to see him without the veil, thereby ending their engagement.

I am puzzled by this story.  Does Hawthorne mean for us to admire Parson Hooper or is he another example of excessive religious zeal, similar to the Salem witch trials in which one of Hawthorne's ancestors played a prominent role?


Friday, July 22, 2016

Basho: just a brief post on a haiku

The following are two translations of a haiku by Basho that caught my attention. The reversal is what made me stop and consider it.

No. 7

rabbit-ear iris
how much it looks like
its image in water

-- Basho --
from Basho: The Complete Haiku
Trans.  Jane Reichold

No. 6

blue flag irises
        looking just like their images
                in the water

-- Basho --
from Basho's Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
Trans. David Landis Barnhill

It is so common to read how closely the reflection in the water resembled the object that the reversal made me stop and think.  This is one of those moments when words fail, which makes it a rare haiku. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Minute Meditation

"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, 'Mother, what was war?'"

-- Eve Merriam, poet and writer (1916-1992) --

Has this ever been better said?

Will this dream ever come true?

What little I know of human history makes me pessimistic.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Jane Austen's EMMA; a brief personal reaction

Jane Austen

This is probably my fourth? fifth? reading of Emma.  I am now in midst of my regular rereading of Austen's works, but I probably won't post extensively on them, mainly because I can't step back sufficiently to comment coherently.  But, occasionally a thought may strike me, as it has just recently while reading Pride and Prejudice.  This will be a much, much shorter post, just an odd thought.

In the spirit of the novel, here's a riddle (well, maybe not a riddle):

Mr. Knightly (George) got the wife he wanted, but she was not the best wife for him.

Frank Churchill got the wife he wanted, but she wasn't the wife he deserved.

Emma Woodhouse got the husband she wanted, but he wasn't the husband she deserved.

Jane Fairfax got the husband she wanted, but he was not the best husband for her.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Minute Meditation

 It seems as though humans, world-wide, have always regarded mountains as special places.  So many cultures placed the residences of their gods and goddesses on mountain tops.  And, how many prophets, sages, and poets have retreated to the mountains, either for a short time or for a lifetime?

Here's a brief reaction to a day in the Sierras from a writer whom I have just belatedly discovered.  

Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where.  Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars.  This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.

-- John Muir --
from  My First Summer in the Sierra

I like that last line:  This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality. There is no past, no future, just the ever-present now, just being there.  

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Alfred Bester's Masterpiece: The Stars My Destination, Pt. 2

Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination

Some random disconnected passing thoughts:

I have read that the original title was Tiger! Tiger! but was changed for some reason.  The title possibly may have come from the first line of Blake's poem, "The Tiger."

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I know many who prefer the original title, but I, of course, have the opposite view.  The only title I knew for decades was The Stars My Destination, so it's become part of it for me.   On the other hand,  Tiger! Tiger! does fit Gully Foyle, for it is much more closely related to Gully and to the story line,  because, if Gully is  nothing else, he is a predator.  And, then there's that tattoo. 

I read and enjoyed the Prologue to TSMD for several reasons. One is that it provided information helpful to the story, and the second reason is its opening paragraph, which struck me as being somewhat familiar.  I have reformatted it.  Does anyone else think this is remotely familiar to something else?

"This was a golden age,
                       a time of high adventure,
                       rich living, and hard dying.  .  .
but nobody thought so. 

This was a future
                      of fortune and theft,
                      pillage and rapine,
                      culture and vice.  .  .
but nobody admitted it.

This was an age
                      of extremes,
                      a fascinating century of freaks.  .  .
but nobody loved it."

This, however, is how it appeared in the book:

"This was a golden age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying.  .  . but nobody thought so.  This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice.  .  . but nobody admitted it.  This was an age of extremes, . . . a fascinating century of freaks.  .  . but nobody loved it."

And there's even an interesting short story buried there--the discovery of jaunting.  

Pyre, a horrific weapon,  becomes an important issue in the story, as there is a solar system-wide war going on at this time.  Foyle knows the location of Pyre and therefore becomes a person of great interest to the Earth government.  A pyre is also a funeral ritual, a traditional way of honoring a leader or important person in some societies.  Is this weapon signifying the death of the present human civilization?

Another mythic element that seems relevant is the myth of the Phoenix, a long-lived bird that is the only one of its kind.  Every thousand or more years the Phoenix in its nest bursts into flames and arises reborn out of the ashes.  Foyle is trapped at the end when the Pyre is set off and as he attempts to escape, makes a discovery that transforms him into being able to jaunte at a new level.  And humanity will be transformed from a species limited to the solar system to ultimately a galactic civilization. Both Gully and humanity, in one sense, are reborn.  

It's a great story, one that rewards rereading, which I do every couple of years regularly.  It's permanently in my TBR bookcase.  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Alfred Bester's Masterpiece: The Stars My Destination, Pt. 1

Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination

 It's been often said that character development is rather weak in SF, as science and technology and problem-solving tend to be the central focus.  One very early exception to this is Gully Foyle, the  main character in The Stars My Destination (TSMD).  When I first read TSMD, I was amazed to find someone who emerged  from the crowd.  He is now my No. 1 Most Unforgettable SF Character.  As an early discarded title suggests, he can best be described as a predator.  There are also several other characters who could carry a novel of their own.  Some of which are mentioned later.  

 It's a classic whose literary roots now go back almost two centuries:  the revenge tale of Edmund Dantes, The Count of Monte Cristo.   Both Dantes and Foyle were trapped, and both manage to escape with considerable wealth which they use to remake themselves--from a fishing boat captain to a Count and from a lowly merchant seaman to one of the elite,  Foyle of Foyle.  And, both have the same goal, revenge on those who trapped them and, ironically, enriched them.

But, before Gully became a revenge-driven predator, he was a cypher, mostly just existing.  The following is a picture of his character as reflected "in the official Merchant Marine records.


"FOYLE, GULLIVER------AS-128/127:006

EDUCATION:                      NONE
SKILLS                                 NONE
MERITS                                NONE


A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition.  Energies at minimum.  The stereotype Common Man.  Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key.  Not recommended for promotion.  Has reached a dead end."


In the beginning Foyle was a non-entity, barely conscious of himself as a human being.  The psychological profile said it would take a shock to awaken Foyle to be able to function at somewhere near his potential.  The shock appeared--being abandoned to die by the sister-ship Vorga.  Whatever else was missing in Foyle's personality, self preservation was obviously functioning.   Once he manages to escape,  he changes from a non-entity to a brutal but intelligent individual driven solely by revenge.  

Significant characters in the novel;

Peter Yang-Yeovil (Yin-Yang?): the  Spy master who is a direct ancestor of Mencius (a real historical person who was the most famous follower of Confucius--confusion about dates, but could be as early as 385 BC and lived as late as 289 BC).

Saul Dagenham: the radioactive security chief

Robin: the jaunte and social graces teacher, who refuses to become his Romance Instructor

Jiz: frustrated by the restrictions placed on women and turns to crime to gain her freedom, a precursor of numerous female thieves, assassins,  and bodyguards found in later cyberpunk novels.

Olivia: the Ice Princess, bored by her luxurious but restricted life who engages in various illegal business ventures. 

I found it frustrating to encounter these people so seldom.

I think the creation of Gully Foyle is TSMD's greatest strength. Encountering him back in the 50s was a shock in comparison to the relatively bland and cardboard characters usually found in most SF stories, and in spite of the past 60 years of development of characterization in SF, I consider Gully to still be one of the strongest characters in SF. 

Probably the weakest aspect of the novel would be the culture created by jaunting--I think it's a bit thin--it reminds me of many rock-and-roll performances--lots of bright lights, smoke, noise, but a bit thin on substance or quality.
While his world isn't as fully developed as Dune, for example, it still comes alive as an hectic, neon-lit, flashing world.   My copy is around 250 pages and it would take a lot larger work to really develop the culture to some depth.  However, it is fun to read and Bester's satiric eye has nailed the future aristocracy quite well. 

Bester has included a number of mythic elements in this work.  Gully can be seen as a dying and resurrecting god in one sense, for he does come back after being marooned in space and left to die by another ship, even though it belonged to the same company.  He then engages on a quest, not for a Holy Grail but for a far more human reason--revenge.

To be continued

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Minute Meditation

"keep in mind the tailorbird
 at home on a single branch"

Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
Red Pine, translator and editor

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Herman Melville: "Bartleby" aka "Bartleby the Scrivener"

Herman Melville

Since there already is so much written on "Bartleby,"  this will be a brief comment. 

Bartleby, like Melville, starts out very successfully in the beginning. They give their respective bosses just what those bosses want.   But then, they start to refuse to do what is wanted from them, which is more of the same. Note that Bartleby's first refusal is checking other people's words while Melville begins to move away from his highly successful South Sea island novels.  Interestingly, neither absolutely or directly refuses.  Melville simply goes ahead and writes what he wants, regardless of the reactions of the readers and critics.  Bartleby tells the lawyer, "I would prefer not to," which not a direct refusal but a statement of his preferences.

Both continue to not do what is expected of them--Bartleby to do his copying of other people's words and Melville of giving the readers and critics the stories they want--more South Sea island adventures with cannibals and so on. Finally, the audience leaves both of them alone,  Bartleby in the deserted office and Melville with Moby Dick and his later works which few buy and critics attack.  At the end, Bartleby turns his face to the wall and dies, while Melville "dies" as a novelist and turns to writing poetry, the kiss of death for most writers hoping to gain an audience in America.

As for Bartleby's motivation--depression?  Could be, but we never get inside his head, so there's really no way of knowing.  The rumor that Bartleby lost his job in the Post Office "dead letter office" is curious.  I'm not sure what to do with it.

Since "Bartleby,"  I've read, is one of the most commented on short stories by an American writer, I guess many others are not sure what to do with this tale either.

What's your take on the tale?

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Minute Meditation

This will be something new: a brief, irregularly appearing post on something I just read that struck me in some way.  It could be a haiku or only a line or stanza from a longer poem or a short quotation from a work of prose or fiction.  It will be short and brief and perhaps worth a minute or two of thought.

At the shrinemaiden's street
ceremonial robes being washed --
early summer.
                                   -- Buson --

Usually poetry or nature writing celebrates the first appearance of a flower or a bird or animal or even a weather event as the sign of a new season.  Buson here suggests that human acts can also be a sign of a new season.

Buson (1716-1784), Japanese painter and poet, regarded as second only to Basho as a haiku poet.

haiku taken from Haiku Master Buson
trans.  Yuki Sawa and Edith M. Shiffert

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXVIII

This is another of the quatrains that Edward FitzGerald added to the Second Edition of his version of the Rubaiyat.  It's a familiar theme, one brought out previously and linked to the quatrain preceding this one.


The Revelations of Devout and Learn'd
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn'd,
    Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep
They told their fellows, and to Sleep return'd.


The Revelations of Devout and Learn'd
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn'd,
    Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return'd.

Aside from the comma added at the end of line three and the change from "fellows" to "comrades,"  the Fifth Edition is identical to the Second.  The comma may simply be a correction wherein the printer missed it in the Second Edition.   Perhaps there is an emotional connection to others suggested by "comrades" and possibly lacking in "fellows" is the reason for the change.   I do not see that it makes any great change in the overall point of the quatrain.

Those "Revelations" refer back to the previous quatrain, to the claims of what lies ahead for us after death.  As the Poet has mentioned in previous quatrains, nobody really knows what follows, if anything, death. That those "Stories" are told after the Devout and Learn'd Prophets have awakened from sleep suggest that they may simply be dreams.  But, the wide-spread acceptance of these Stories tells us that many people prefer dreams to uncertainty.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Robert Frost and Sarangapani: Cynical, realistic, or pragmatic?

As readers of poetry know, there are various types: romance, epic, nature, philosophical . . . There is also another that might be seen, depending on the eye of the beholder, as cynical, practical, realistic, or pragmatic.  As is true of all poetic themes, this is also found across various cultures and eras. Here are two examples I thought you might be interested in

Provide, Provide

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag.

The picture pride of Hollywood.
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood.

Die early and avoid the fate.
Or if predestined to die late,
Make up your mind to die in state. 

Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
Where nobody can call you crone.

Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard,
Or keeps the end from being hard.

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all.  Provide, provide!

-- Robert Frost --

The Madam to the Young Courtesan

Grab whatever cash he has,
that Venugopala,
and think nothing of the rest.

As they say about lentils,
don't worry
abut the chaff.

Des it matter
to which woman he goes,
or how late he stays there?

Just pass the days
saying yes and no,
til the month is over

                 and grab the cash

What is it to you
if he runs into debt
or if he has an income?

Quietly, tactfully,
lie in wait
like a ca on a wall

               and grab the cash

What if he makes love
to her
and only then to you?

What's there
to be jealous abut?
When youth passes,
nothing will go your way,..

                so grab the cash

-- Sarangapani --
18th century India
from World Poetry
trans by A. K.  Ramanujan,  Velcheru Narayana Ran, and David Shulman

 How would you classify these poems?  Cynical?  Practical?  Realistic? Pragmatic?