Friday, December 30, 2016

Ryokan: time and memory

This poem by Ryokan seems very appropriate for this time of year.

Time passes,
There is no way
We can hold it back---
Why, then, do thoughts linger on,
Long after everything else is gone? 

 from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf
trans. John Stevens

Another view, perhaps?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Vietnamese Poem: The Cherished Daughter

There's a suggestion of a story here in a poetic form.  It took me several readings to pick up several hints.  Part of my problem is my ignorance of Vietnamese culture, so I'm still not certain that I have correctly or fully grasped it. 

The Cherished Daughter

Mother, I am eighteen this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than five full quan,
five thousand areca nuts,
five fat pigs,
and five suits of clothes.

Mother, I am twenty-three this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, dear, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than three full quan,
three thousand areca nuts,
three fat pigs,
and three suits of clothes.

Mother, I am thirty-two this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, darling, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than one full quan,
one thousand areca nuts,
one fat dog this time,
and one suit of clothes.

Mother, I am forty-three this year.
Still without a husband.
Mother, look, Mother,
will you please just give me away?

-- Anonymous  (c. 1700 AD)--
trans.  Nguyen Ngoc Bich
from World Poetry:  An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time

I had to smile the first reading at the exasperation in the daughter's voice at the end.  On the second reading, I began detect perhaps a hint of desperation at the end, or perhaps more than a hint?   It wasn't until this point that I seriously considered the title.  Did the mother, perhaps, cherish the daughter a bit too much?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Minute Meditation

I found this on Pat Cadigan's blog Ceci N'est Pas Une

One night, Confucius had a dream about chopsticks.

In the dream, he was transported to Hell where he saw multitudes of people sitting at enormous tables set out with wonderful foods of all kinds.  There was so much food that the tables groaned under the weight and the various aromas were mouth-watering, promising incredibly delectable flavours.  But the people sitting at the tables had not touched any of it--they had been told they could eat as much as they liked but only if they ate with chopsticks that were five feet long.  None of them could figure out how to eat with five-foot-long chopsticks, so all they could do was stare hopelessly at this amazing feast and cry in hunger and misery.  

Then Confucius was taken to heaven where he again saw multitudes of people sitting around enormous tables laden with glorious foods.  They had also been told they were allowed to eat only if they used the five-foot-long chopsticks.  But, these people were not crying with hunger and frustration--they were eating their fill, talking, laughing, and enjoying themselves.

Because in heaven, they were feeding each other.

Simplistic, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

N. Scott Momaday and Emily Dickinson

The following excerpt comes from N. Scott Momaday's The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages.   The chapter title is "A Divine Blindness:  The Place of Words in a State of Grace."   I have often found Dickinson's poetry to be puzzling and enigmatic, but this poem confounds me completely.

I am publishing this excerpt because of Momaday's first comment on the poem:  "This poem, written about 1866 by a then obscure woman poet in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts, is one of the great moments in American literature."  I know what that means, but I can't relate it to Dickinson's poem.  Perhaps you will do better.

The excerpt--poem and commentary:

     "When the subtitle "The Place of Words in a State of Grace" occurred to me, in the back of my mind was this poem by Emily Dickinson.

                            Further in Summer than the Birds
                            Pathetic from the Grass
                            A minor Nation celebrates
                            Its unobtrusive Mass.

                             No Ordinance be seen
                             So gradual the Grace  
                             A pensive Custom it becomes
                             Enlarging Loneliness.

                             Antiquest felt at Noon
                             When August burning low
                             Arise this spectral Canticle
                             Repose to typify

                             Remit as yet no Grace
                             No Furrow on the Glow
                             Yet a Druidic Difference  
                             Enhances Nature now   

    This poem, written about 1866 by a then obscure woman poet in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts, is one of the great moments in American literature.  The statement of the poem is profound;  it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.   The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception.  But that, we reason, is enough.  This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

                              So gradual the Grace  
                             A pensive Custom it becomes
                             Enlarging Loneliness. .

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others.  The poem bespeaks a state of grace.  In its precision, perception, and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of the human being."

As I wrote above, I recognize that Momaday considers Dickinson's poem to be of supreme significance, but I cannot relate his words to the poem.

Any thoughts?

Poem 1068
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
edited by Thomas H. Johnson

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Elizabeth Jennings: "The Diamond Cutter"

Here's another one by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) , a recent discovery, for me anyway.  She was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, and moved to Oxford at age six and lived there for the rest of her life. 

The Diamond Cutter

Not what the light will do but how he shapes it
What particular colours it will bear.

And something of the climber's concentration
Seeing the white peak, setting the right foot there.

Not how the sun was plausible at morning
Not how it was distributed at noon,

And not how much the single stone could show
But rather how much brilliance it would shun;

Simply a paring down, a cleaving to
One object, as the star-gazer who sees

One single comet polished by its fall
Rather than countless, untouched galaxies.

-- Elizabeth Jennings --

I think the point is that one must not be distracted by external glories or brilliance to get to its heart.  But, isn't something lost when one does that?   Or, is she suggesting that there are some things that are too grand, too glorious, too magnificent for us to truly appreciate, that we need to focus on a more limited scale to gain at least some idea of just what it really is.

Your thoughts?  

Friday, December 16, 2016

Jane Austen's Fanny Price: A Taoist Sage at Mansfield Park

Jane Austen
Mansfield Park

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 and died on July 18, 1817. 

Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park, (MP)  is probably the most maligned of Austen's heroines.  Just why is not clear to me, but I suspect it's a classic example of imposing 21st century standards on 19th century characters and a misreading of Austen in general.  Too many readers fall in love with Liz  Bennet's lively, outgoing, and cheeky behavior and therefore insist that all of Austen's heroines be the same.  In fact, three of Austen's heroines do fit this category:  Liz, of course,  Emma (Emma), and to a considerable extent Catherine (Northanger Abbey) , the youngest of  the heroines.

But, Austen also has three quiet, more reserved heroines:  Elinor (Sense and Sensibility), Anne (Persuasion), and Fanny (MP).  What I find interesting, is that, though the heroine is the quiet reserved type, there is another woman who exemplifies the more outgoing lively woman, the "Liz" type if I may so call her.  Paired off with Elinor is her sister Marianne, who exemplifies the romantic enthusiastic outgoing follower of sensibility; with Anne is again her sister Elizabeth (interesting choice for her name) who is certainly more outgoing and demonstrative than Anne; and with Fanny, of course, is Mary Crawford, whom some readers want to be the heroine of MP in spite of her selfish, egotistic, insensitive, amoral, and manipulative behavior.

Mary Crawford is Austen's point that being bright, lively, and vivacious does not necessarily make one a good person (notice how many male villains in Austen are the same type),  for those are external attributes.  Liz is a good person because of what's inside her, not because of  how she appears to others.   The same is true of Fanny, for it is what is inside her that makes her a good person. What makes Mary a bad person is what's inside of her and those who admire her  are those who see the surface only.  Telling this sort of critic that you can't tell a book by its cover is a waste of time, for they are enthralled, fooled, duped by external glamour and never get beyond that.

Many commentators have insisted that Fanny shouldn't be the heroine, nor does she deserve to be happily married at the end.  She has done nothing to deserve her fate.  Mary should be the real heroine and gain Edmund as her reward.  Of course, these are the same people who deride Edmund as being dull, uninteresting, and priggish.  I can only wonder how they could see Edmund and Mary together.   I wonder how long Mary would be a faithful wife to Edmund, a country minister, and also how long her brother Henry, who is the male version of a lively, outgoing, charming suitor,  would remain satisfied with the dull, priggish Fanny, as they see her.

One theme in MP that has surprised me is the number of characters in the story who have improved, inexplicably over the length of the novel.  In Austen's novels, it's usually the heroine and the hero who have learned something about themselves and have managed to more or less overcome their failings (Emma, I must admit, is a question mark here), but in this novel, a number of other characters, especially in the Bertram family, have developed, more or less, a sense of responsibility and concern for others, which was lacking in the beginning.

It is this that started me thinking.  I could find no particular or obvious reason for these changes in the characters.  No one lectures them and seldom are they called upon to recognize their shortcomings.  The changes seem to happen in a vacuum--mysteriously.

It was about this time, the third or fourth reading of MP,  that, from the depths of my sub- or unconscious that there is something Taoist about Fannie's behavior.  I wondered how a Taoist might view this novel.  I am not an expert in Taoism, but I have read a little ("a little learning is a dangerous thing"), just enough to get me in trouble here.  So, I dug out my copy of Laotse's (aka Lao Tzu) Tao Te Ching and found some intriguing characteristics of the Taoist Sage.

I am not saying that Jane Austen deliberately created Fanny as a Taoist Sage or even that she was aware of Taoism.  This is simply a view of MP as it might be seen by a Taoist. 


Just what is a Taoist sage and how does one recognize one?

Chapter 2
The Sage:one who manages affairs without action, preaches without words, acts, but does not appropriate claim or ownership, and accomplishes but claims no credit.

This clearly could be Fanny as many of her detractors point out that she is far too quiescent for their tastes.

Chapter 9
The Sage retires when the work is done:

Fanny seldom if ever claims credit for what she accomplishes.  She does what she is expected to do and says little about it.

chapter 17
But of the best sages,  when their task is accomplished and their work is done,
the people will all remark, "We have done it ourselves."

Fanny seldom gets credit for what she does, even though near the end of the novel, Lady Bertram declares she can't get along without Fanny.  This is the reason  Susan will move to Mansfield Park to take Fanny's place. 

Chapter 22
The Sage does not:reveal himself, justify himself, boast of himself, or act proudly.

He acts in accordance with the situation and does not force himself or his ideas on others.  He acts as an example for others, so his influence is subtle and non-assertive.

This is  true of Fanny.  She listens and observes and only expresses an opinion when asked.  And, few ask her besides Edmund.

All of the above observations come from the  Wisdom of LaoTse, translated and edited by Lin Yutang, 


I mentioned above that many of the characters had undergone significant changes by the end of the novel.  Here is a brief description of the major characters at the beginning of the novel and the changes they undergo to reach the place where they are at the end.     .

The Prices  (Fanny's family)

Fanny's brother in the navy who gets necessary sponsorship for promotion  from Sir Thomas.  Sir Thomas would never have met William if if weren't for Fannie and the impression she made on Sir Thomas.

her marriage, far above her class status to Edmund

Fanny's sister, ends up replacing Fanny at Mansfield Park. 

THE BERTRAMS  (at Mansfield Park)

Sir Thomas
In the beginning of the novel, he is an absent father and head of the household, and this is true whether he is off in the West Indies or at home.  He does not  take his proper place as father and lord of the manor.  He also knows that his wife is unable or unwilling to play her part, so he allows Aunt Norris to become a dictator and rule his household.  Later, though, he suddenly realizes the problems that his family is having are at least partially due to his abdication of responsibility, and he now begins to assert himself as head of household.

Lady Bertram
She seems totally detached from the family.  Her main concerns seem to be herself and her dog.  Again, near the end, when Tom becomes deathly ill, she rouses herself and spends most of her time at his bedside nursing him.  This is a considerable change from her earlier behavior when the reader isn't sure whether she really is aware of anyone, aside from her pet dog,  around her.

The eldest son plays to perfection the role of The Wastrel.  He shows no interest in his studies at college, and demonstrates little concern nor for his duties and responsibilities as heir to Mansfield Park.  It's party time is his philosophy.   Shortly after his illness, he also changes his behavior and settles down at the university and begins to show an interest in his role as heir to Mansfield Park.  There is also a hint of marriage, which is a major concern of every well-established family--the heir must marry and produce an heir of his own.

While he is  a serious and dedicated student, determined to be a good minister to his parish when he takes over, he also is infatuated by Mary Crawford, who would make a most inappropriate wife for the clergyman he wants to be.  Again, at the end, he recognizes the folly of his infatuation and gradually comes to realize that Fanny is the woman most suited for him and his role in life.

The oldest daughter, selfish and self-absorbed, thinks only of herself.  She makes a bad choice in her marriage, selecting a suitor who could never be a suitable partner but has a large house and a considerable fortune.  For her follies she ends up in exile, supported by Sir Thomas, but banned, at least for now, from Mansfield Park.

She is strongly influenced by her older sister.   Austen seems to suggest she would be a different person if she had a different older sister to model.

Aunt Norris
Sister to Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price (Fanny's mother)
She is the real power in the house.  Unfortunately she is also evil, greedy, and malicious.  She is the one who most deliberately torments Fanny, reminding regularly of her low position at Mansfield Park, barely one step above the servants.    At the end, she realizes that Sir Thomas has recognized his error and has finally become the head of household he should have been long ago, and she elects to go into voluntary exile with Maria. 

Mary and Henry Crawford
brother and sister, relatives to the minister at MP.  They are bright, outgoing, attractive, as well as shallow,  selfish, and self-absorbed.  They are classic examples of the cliche that one can't tell a book by its cover.  They are very popular at first, but by the end, they have revealed themselves take themselves off to London, perhaps to wonder for the rest of their lives just what they had missed out on.

Mansfield Park is the longest and most complex novel that Austen wrote.  It is. in my estimation, the most misunderstood and misread novel as well.  Austen's basic tenet, in all her works, is that one must look beneath the surface to determine the true nature of the other, and that true nature may be in opposition to what appears on the surface.  I believe that too many readers have taken the surface appearances of many of the characters and stopped there, and therefore missing their true nature.

In any case, read and enjoy.  I rank it a close second to Persuasion.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Buried Giant

In a review, Neil Gaiman calls this novel one "that's easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love."   That 's a strange comment, but one that I have to agree with.

The Buried Giant is a mix of legend, myth, fantasy, and some history.  It is set in medieval England shortly after the death of King Arthur.  One of the main secondary characters is the aged Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, who has a very dubious mission to fulfill.  Along the way, we encounter some enigmatic boatmen. And, here there bee dragons, also --well, only one dragon, Querig, who is also a bit beyond her prime years, and an ogre or two or three and apparently hundreds of pixies..  Oh yes, and several Saxons decide two elderly Britons might need protection on the road.

At this time, there has been a hiatus in the civil war between the native Britons and the invading Saxons, who seemingly have come to say, even though Arthur, who had managed to keep the peace, has gone on to the Westerly Isles.  However, a strange plague, the mist, has struck the British Isles--resulting in forgetfulness.  Peoples' memories are failing, both for recent and past events.  Only occasionally do some past memories emerge.  Moreover, not all are afflicted to the same degree and the degree of forgetfulness seems to fluctuate.  For example, Axl's memory seems to be improve as he proceeds on his quest.

Ishiguro has created a quest novel, one containing several quests actually.  One is that of the elderly couple, Alx and Beatrice, who set off on a search for their son.  They no longer remember why he left, but they do believe that they will be able to find him and that he will welcome them.  As it happens on all good quests, others join the elderly Britons--Wistan, a Saxon warrior, on a mission for his king; Edwin, a Saxon youth who has been injured; and Sir Gawain, who decides to aid the Britons and also to keep an eye on Wistan, whom he suspects is on a mission that may be opposed to his own mission, given him long ago by King Arthur.

Some of the episodes bring up echoes of other works.  One incident involving Wistan seems reminiscent of the Epic of Beowulf, while a second also involving Wistan, along with Edwin and a goat, seems Biblical in tone, specifically that of Abraham and Isaac.  But, again, I've often been accused of over-reading, so I'll leave it up to you to decide, if you read it.

If there is a downside, for me it would be Ishiguro's precise measured prose and the dialogue.  I had read his Remains of the Day and thought that style fit in perfectly with the setting of the novel--a mansion set in rural England, complete with numerous servants and landed gentry.  However, I felt it didn't fit in medieval rural England, most of whose inhabitants were peasants and country folk, and most of whom were illiterate.  However, the problem, to me anyway, was not distracting enough to cause me to stop reading and enjoying the novel.

Overall, I consider The Buried Giant a very interesting book with an unusual theme, well worth reading and thinking about.  I also plan on reading other works by Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Minute Meditation

Ten Thousand Flowers in Spring, The Moon in Autumn

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If  your mind  isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

 -- Wu-men --
Chinese  1183-1260
from Art and Nature

All seasons have their own beauty and attractions, in addition to or perhaps separate from the moods or psychological states attributed to them.  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Basho: autumn haiku translations

Once before I had posted a number of different translations of a haiku by Basho.  Well, inspired by a discussion on at least one other blog that I follow, I decided to do it again, this time of an autumn haiku by Basho.

No. 38

on a withered branch                  from The Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
a crow has settled                       trans.  David Landis Barnhill
autumn evening

A solitary                                    from The Sound of Water
crow on a bare branch--              trans. Sam Hamill
autumn evening

On dead branches                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
crows remain                              trans. Hiroaki Sato
perched at autumn's end

on a barren branch                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
a raven had perched ---                trans.  William J. Higginson
autumn dusk

On a leafless bough                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
A crow is sitting: -- autumn,          trans.  Harold Gould Henderson
Darkening now --

No. 120
on a bare branch                           from Basho:  The Complete Haiku
a crow settled down                      trans.:  Jane Reichhold
autumn evening

A black crow                                 from Matsuo Basho:  The Narrow Road
Has settled himself                        to the Deep North
On a leafless tree,                          trans:  Nobuyuki Yuasa
Fall of an autumn day.

I like the subtle differences found in these translations.  For example, that branch is described as "withered," "bare," "dead," "barren," and "leafless."  They are not identical, or so it seems to me.  Each suggests a different feeling.  "Withered" gives the impression of something dying, long past its youth, soon to be dead.  "Dead" has a finality about it: all life is gone.  "Barren" says to me that it may be alive,  but it is sterile; nothing can come from it.  "Bare" and "leafless," however, are factual statements: this is the way that branch is.  As we know the sequence of the seasons, we realize this is only a temporary state, and therefore it contains a element of hope.  They will be bare and leafless for a time, but then there's spring.

My favorite is the second one, the translation by Sam Hamill

A solitary                                    from The Sound of Water
crow on a bare branch--              trans. Sam Hamill
autumn evening

Which one do you favor?  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXX

Quatrain  LXXX is linked closely to the previous quatrain, LXXIX.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXIX

With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
And there of the Last Harvast sow'd the seed:
     And the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

As you can see, the previous quatrain leads directly to today's quatrain. 

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXX

Yesterday, This Day's Madness did prepare:
To-morrow's Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
    Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink!  for you know not why you go, nor where.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXIV

Yesterday This Day's Madness did prepare;
To-morrow's Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
    Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink!  for you know not why you go, nor where.

Aside from two punctuation changes, a dropped comma after "Yesterday," and the substitution of a semi-colon for a colon after "prepare" (which may have simply been a typesetter's errors), the two versions are the same.

The first two lines bring out a theme that has appeared before this--that of causality.  Today's events or happenings are the result of what happened in the past and will inevitably lead to future consequences.   This suggests predestination or a deterministic universe.   The first two lines still leave the past free if you want to see it that way.  Others may argue for an unbroken chain of events going back to . . .?   On  the other hand, to complicate the issue, we can always bring in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory which many now see as refuting any theory of a deterministic universe.

The last two lines restate a very familiar theme:  we don't know where we came from and we don't know where we are going, and we don't know why we are here.  This, of course, strikes directly into the heart of most religions whose basis for their existence is that THEY know all the answers.  The Poet/Narrator clearly has some doubts about this, which he has stated many times throughout the poem.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Kevin J. Anderson and Gregory Benford: Mammoth Dawn

Kevin J. Anderson
Gregory Benford
Mammoth Dawn

This is a rather unusual book.  The core is the novella, "Mammoth Dawn," a collaboration by Gregory Benford and Keven J. Anderson.

Husband and wife geneticists, Alex and Helen Pierce, have developed a method of extracting DNA from the preserved remains of now extinct animals.  On their ranch in Montana, they have brought a number of extinct species back to life:  dodos, moas, mammoths, and saber-toothed tigers.  Others are at the development stage.

Of course, there is opposition.  One group, the Evos, argue that it was God's plan that these species went extinct and that the Pierces are violating that plan, usurping God's prerogative to decide what species live and which ones die.  In addition, it becomes a political, as well as a scientific and religious issue, and Congress becomes involved.   Some proposed legislation would stop such research.  The Pierces have to defend themselves on two fronts, a dangerous situation to be in.

Unfortunately, the Pierces make a mistake and underestimate the protestors camped outside the ranch's boundaries.  One night they pay for this when the Evos mount an armed attack, with disastrous results for the Pierces and their dreams. 

The novella, though, is just one of six parts of this book, as can be seen by the "Contents" page.

A.  "Introduction:  Cloning Mammoths"

The genesis of the novella, "Mammoth Dawn," was a conversation between Keven J. Anderson and Gregory Benford, inspired by the film Jurassic Park, about the possibilities of cloning dinosaurs. 

B.  "Mammoth Dawn: The Original Novella"

The novella as published in Analog in 2002. 

C. "Mammoth Dawn:  Full Treatment and Proposal
Benford and Anderson had decided that the short story wouldn't do justice to their thinking on the topic, so they planned  to expand the work to novel length.  What follows is their development of the ideas about cloning extinct species and a proposal for a full-length novel.

 D. "Overview"
    "Scientific Basis--Why Mammoths? Why Now?
      Self-explanatory-- four pages

What follows is an explication of the proposed novel.
E.  "Prologue--The Hunt"
     "Part I--Mammoth Ranch"
     "Part II--The Resurrection Preserve"
     "Part III--Survival of the Fittest"
     "Part IV--Pleistocene Rules"

Part I is an expansion of the novella while the following three parts relate the aftermath of the attack on the ranch and its consequences.

The last section of  Mammoth Dawn:  a discussion of the status of cloning research.
F. "Bringing Back the Mammoths"

Unfortunately the novel has yet to be written, and sadly, may never be written, for Anderson says in the "Introduction,"

     "The novel of Mammoth Dawn would be a huge project, even for a pair of seasoned writers, entailing a great deal of travel, research, and likely years of writing.  We loved the idea.
      We didn't have time for it, but we meant to."

It's an excellent action-packed short story, but I do wish that, in the near future, they do find the time to write the novel