Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kenko's advice


"A man who has determined to take the Great Step should leave unresolved all plans for disposing of urgent or worrisome business.

Some men think, 'I'll wait a bit longer, until I take care of his matter,' or 'I might as well dispose of that business first,' or 'People will surely laugh at me if I leave such and such as it stands.  I'll arrange things now so that there won't be any future criticism,' or 'I've managed to survive all these years.  I'll wait till that matter is cleared up.  It won't take long.  I mustn't be hasty.'  But if you think in such terms the day for taking the Great Step will never come, for you will keep discovering more and more unavoidable problems, and there will never be a time when you run out of unfinished business.

My observation of people leads me to conclude, generally speaking, that even people with some degree of intelligence are likely to go through life supposing they have ample time before them.  But would a man fleeing because a fire has broken out in his neighborhood say to the fire, 'Wait a moment, please!'?  To save his life, a man will run away, indifferent to shame, abandoning his possessions.  Is a man's life any more likely to wait for him?  Death attacks faster than fire or water, and is harder to escape.  When its hour comes, can you refuse to give up your aged parents, your little children, your duty to your master, your affections for others, because they are hard to abandon."

 -- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness
Donald Keene, trans.


Kenko's advice is universal; don't stall around but take that Great Step, whatever it might be.  One should always act when the enthusiasm is high. The second paragraph contains Kenko's reasoning:  if the individual delays to resolve some issues or handle some problems, there's a good chance the person will never take the Great Step. If the individual waits to solve some problem, then a new one will arise which must also be solved and so on.  As Kenko writes, " But if you think in such terms the day for taking the Great Step will never come, for you will keep discovering more and more unavoidable problems, and there will never be a time when you run out of unfinished business."  Therefore, don't delay, do it now.

The third paragraph expresses a very common theme--one probably known, again universally, and expressed in most of the world's religions.  We don't know the time of our death--it may be the next minute, the next hour, the next day or week or year or decade.  So, again, don't wait, act now before it's too late.

Do you think it remarkable that advice given in the 14th century Japan by a Buddhist monk is so relevant today?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Olaf Stapledon: Star Maker

I suspect Olaf Stapledon is one of those SF authors more celebrated than read.  His language is dense, and the vocabulary is considerably above the 10th grade level of most Americans.  His diction can be formal and imposing.  Reading his best known work, Last and First Men, is like reading an abridged historical account of the human race.  That being said, the sheer sweep of Stapledon's imagination is sufficient to overcome those difficulties.

However, I am not going to comment on Last and First Men but on a more accessible work, Star Maker.  In this work, Stapledon does provide us with characters and some dialogue.  It is much closer to a traditional novel than is Last and First Men. It is a quest novel, in which the major character journeys in search of the answer to the ultimate or perennial question--what is this all about?  After having read the work, or actually part way through it, I got the idea that Stapledon was strongly influenced by Dante's Divine Comedy when he wrote Star Maker.

The subject matter is essentially the same, and both narrators are undergoing a crisis which initiates their journeys.

Midway life's journey I was made aware
   That I had strayed into a dark forest,
   And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
   This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
   At thought of it strikes now into my beast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.

-- Dante --
Inferno, Canto 1, ll 1-7
The Portable Dante,  
Laurence Binyon, translator

Star Maker begins--

One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out onto the hill..  .    .

. . . there was bitterness.  And bitterness not only invaded us from the world;  it welled up also within our own magic circle.  For horror at our futility, at our own unreality, and not only at the world's delirium, had driven me out onto the hill. 

-- Olaf Stapledon --
Star Maker.  page 1.

It is at this point that the voyage of discovery begins for both narrators.  Both find mentors or guides.  Dante is guided by Virgil, while the Canine species philosopher acts as companion and guide to the anonymous narrator.   While Dante experiences a wide variety of behaviors from various individuals, both wise and foolish, Stapledon's narrator visits a variety of species which exhibit, like individuals, cultural patterns that are wise or foolish or a mix.  And, at the end of their journeys, Dante and Stapledon's narrator meet the Creator. 

Both works provide the reader with three levels, explicitly in Dante's work, of course, and implied in Stapledon's novel.  The first level would include Dante's Inferno, whose inhabitants' behavior has condemned them to eternal torment, and in the Star Maker, the narrator visits those species that will never achieve contact with the Star Maker and are doomed to a miserable extinction.   The second level includes Purgatorio and those species that have survived their mistakes, and now the individuals in Purgatorio and those species in Star Maker are on their way to achieving contact with the Creator/Star Maker some time in the future. The third and desired level would be Paradiso and those species that have achieved the ultimate goal: direct contact with the Creator/Star Maker.

At the end, after finally meeting the Star Maker, Stapledon cleverly sidesteps the issue as to which of the various creation myths promulgated by religions is "true" by  showing that all are true, for the Englishman (as the anonymous narrator refers to himself) recounts many of the creations of the Star Maker that he experienced in the encounter. Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, and Gnosticism show up in various guises throughout.

Stapledon also includes every scientific theory  promulgated (as well as a few he made up, I suspect) about the creation of the universe.   Some, I think, he made up were later seized upon by cosmologists.  To be sure of  this, I'd have to research just when these theories appeared. 

The novel is heavy going, not only because of the content--ideas, theories, philosophy, speculations--but also because of the style, which is mostly narrative and has very little dialogue throughout.

Again, I find the imaginative sweep of the novel to be worth the effort of working one's way through a work that is not an easy few hours' read.

Recommended for those looking for something radically different, unlike anything published today. In fact, I doubt it could be published today, unless it was self-published.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Edward Thomas: Birdsong

I had just learned of Edward Thomas a few years ago, thanks to Stephen Pentz, at his blog, First Known When Lost  (see sidebar for link).  Consequently I knew little of him except for his poetry.  According to the brief biography, he was already known for his many fine essays, critiques, and writings in natural history, when he met Robert Frost in 1914 who encouraged Thomas to write poetry.  Thomas took his advice and had produced many fine poems when, unfortunately, he was killed in action in WWI in 1917.

Therefore, I was surprised to find him in Nature Writing: The English Tradition, another of the unexpected authors in that anthology whom I had known from other genres.  The following comes from the excerpt found in that anthology, and I can see why Frost had encouraged him to write poetry.

"At the lower margin of the wood the overhanging branches form blue caves, and out of these emerge the songs of many hidden birds.  I know that there are bland melodious blackbirds of easy musing voices, robins whose earnest song, though full of passion, is but a fragment that has burst through a more passionate silence, hedge-sparrows of liquid confiding monotone, brisk acid wrens, chaffinches and yellowhammers saying always the same thing ( a dear but courtly praise of the coming season), larks building spires above spires into the sky, thrushes of infinite variety that talk and talk of a thousand things, never thinking, always talking of the moment, exclaiming, scolding, cheering, flattering, coaxing, challenging, with merry-hearted, bold voices that must have been the same in the morning of the world when the forest trees lay, or leaned, or hung, where they fell.  Yet I can distinguish neither blackbird, nor robin, nor hedge-sparrow, nor any one voice.  All are blent into one seething stream of song.  It is one song, not many.  It is the spirit that sings.  Mixed with them is the myriad stir of unborn things, of leaf and blade and flower, many silences of heart and root of tree, voices of hope and growth, of love that will be satisfied though it leap upon the swords of life." 

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
from The South Country
Excerpt comes from Nature Writing, edited by Robert Finch and John Elder 

What do you think?  Is there something "poetic" about the above excerpt?  Was Frost being perceptive?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Nature Writing: The Tradition in English

Robert Finch and John Elder, Editors
Nature Writing:  The Tradition in English
1100+ pages
131 authors and 157 selections

I came across this by chance while browsing the local library catalog.  It's actually the second edition.  The first edition was titled The Norton Book of Nature Writing and was published in 1990.  This is an expanded version which was published in 2002.  It's a large volume, as you can see, and unfortunately there are eight holds on the only copy the local library possesses.  My plan is to read it until I have to return it and then immediately put it on hold again, and hope I will see it again sometime this year. As there is only one copy, there's a good chance it will go "missing."

The range of authors is extensive, beginning with the Englishman Gilbert White (1729--1793) and ending with Janisse Ray  (b. 1962) of the United States.  The selections by Gilbert White were first published in 1789 while the selection by Janisse Ray came out in 1999, which is about right since this volume was published in 2002.

Many of the names are familiar:  Loren Eiseley, Joseph Wood Krutch (two of my favorite all-time writers), John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, N. Scott Momaday,  and Edward Abbey are among those I thought might be included.  However, there were others whose names I recognized, but I didn't expect them to be in here as I was familiar with them from other genres.

I wasn't aware of the prose works of the following poets:  Edward Thomas, Walt Whitman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I was surprised to find a number of contributors whom I know through their fictional works: W. H. Hudson, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Steinbeck, as well as a number of others.  In addition, there are some whose names I have run across but have yet to read anything by them, or if I have, it is lost:  Aldo Leopard, Ernest Thompson Seton, Edwin Way Teale, Peter Matthiessen, and Barry Lopez are among those I'm looking forward to getting at least a brief exposure to their works.

For the most part though, a  majority of the names are unfamiliar, so this will a two-fold exploratory expedition.  First, I will be exploring a variety of subjects covered in the selections, and second, I will be exploring the world of nature writing, or what used to be called natural history, if I'm not mistaken.

Even though my TBR list is impossibly long right now, I expect to add a few more names.  One will be Aldo Leopold whose excerpt from A Sand County Almanac interested me.

Well, I'm now at page 416 and the book is due today,  March 16.  Eight people are waiting for this the only copy.  I will return it and go back on the waiting list and expect to see it again in five or six months, if it doesn't go "missing" before then.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Second Edition, Quatrain LXIII

The following is another of the quatrains Edward FitzGerald introduced into his Second Edition of the Rubaiyat and remained through all subsequent editions.   

Second Edition, Quatrain LXIII

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
      A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse--why, then, Who set it there?

Fifth Edition, Quatrain LXI

Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
      A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse--why, then, Who set it there?

I see no differences between the Second and the Fifth Editions.

This is probably one of the quatrains that caused Khayyam to be attacked and reviled as a heretic and destined for eternal damnation by religious authorities.  Wine, of course, was forbidden the faithful as the handiwork of Satan, and, in this quatrain, Khayyam not only defends drinking wine and calls it "A Blessing" but insists God, not Satan, created it.

If Allah created everything, that must include grape vines, so how could that be bad or evil?  Would God create something evil?  I have read attempts to defend Khayyam from the charges of heresy by insisting that he really didn't mean wine at all.  When Khayyam refers to wine, he really means God's grace!  What is never explained is why Khayyam didn't simply refer to God's grace and, instead, substituted something forbidden, something condemned as evil for God's grace.

There are some quatrains where this interpretation could work, but there are too many where it makes no sense at all.  And in this quatrain, it doesn't even come close to being reasonable for I don't see how one could argue that Khayyam really meant God's grace.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: "The Philosophy of Umbrellas"

Robert Louis Stevenson
"The Philosophy of Umbrellas"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays

I stumbled across an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson some time ago which surprised me.  I was most familiar with his fiction and wasn't aware that he had also written a number of essays.  I searched around and found a collection of a number of his essays, The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays.  "The Lantern-Bearers" was the essay that I had encountered, so I decided to invest some money and, now, some time in the book.  My tentative plan is to work my way slowly through the book and occasionally report on an essay that strikes me fancy.  It turns out that this, the very first essay in the collection, is one that does so.  The following is the first paragraph of the essay.

"It is wonderful to think what a turn has been given to our whole Society by the fact that we live under the sign of Aquarius, -- that our climate is essentially wet.  A mere arbitrary distinction, like the walking-swords of yore, might have remained the symbol of foresight and respectability, had not the raw mists and dropping showers of our island pointed the inclination of Society to another exponent of those virtues.  A ribbon of the Legion of Honour or a string of medals may prove a person's courage; a title may prove his birth; a professorial chair his study and acquirement; but it is the habitual carriage of the umbrella that is the stamp of Respectability.  The umbrella has become the acknowledged index of social position."

While reading this I couldn't help but think of the Avenger's John Steed, the epitome of respectability, even though he is a secret agent.   The leather-clad Mrs. Peel presents a somewhat different image.

The remainder of the essay follows along the course set by the  first paragraph--a mock solemnity with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  Stevenson tells us that Robinson Crusoe, instead of rigging up a belfry and "a mimicry of church-bells," shows that "Crusoe was rather a moralist than a pietist, and his leaf-umbrella is as fine an example of the civilised mind striving to express itself under adverse circumstances as we have ever met with."

However, Stevenson also warns us that the umbrella isn't an infallible sign of one's civilized or respectable status for "...alas! even the umbrella is no certain criterion.  The falsity  and the folly of the human race  have degraded that graceful symbol to the ends of dishonesty.  .  .(some umbrellas) from certain prudential motives, are chosen directly opposite to the person's disposition.  A mendacious umbrella is a sign of great moral degradation . . . Might it not be said of the bearers of these inappropriate umbrellas that they go about the streets 'with a lie in their right hand?'

All in all, "The Philosophy of Umbrellas" is a fine, worthy, and instructive effort with which to begin this assemblage of reflections on the human condition.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Theodore Sturgeon: "Helix the Cat"

Theodore Sturgeon (1918--1985)
"Helix the Cat"   a short story
from The Ultimate Egoist:  Volume 1, The Complete Stories

This is one of Theodore Sturgeon's short stories, one that I hadn't read before.  As usual, it's a bit quirky, as most of his tales are. It is an early story, written in 1939 and rejected at that time and finally published in 1979.  Why? I don't know.  I think it's a delightful little tale with an interesting cast.

It's a first person narrative, and it takes place in the home of Pete Tronti, the narrator.  Pete has a small lab at his place, and that's the cause of what happens in the story.  Most of the story happens there.

Another character in the cast is Helix.  Pete tells us, "Ah, he was a cat.  A big black tom, with a white throat and white mittens, and a tail twice as long as that of an ordinary cat.  He carried it in a graceful spiral--three complete turns--and hence his name.  He could sit on one end of that tail and take two turns around his head with the other.  Ah, he was a cat."

The third character is a soul, the soul of a dead man, Wallace Gregory, and he, or actually his soul, turns up because he was trying to escape from Them, the Soul Eaters!  This is why we find Pete in his lab, apparently talking to an empty bottle.

To be brief, Pete has invented a new type of glass and has just completed making a bottle of  it.  It is a flexible glass that bounces when dropped, and it has other properties, as Pete unfortunately discovers.  Wallace, or his soul,  explains that when a person dies, the soul leaves the body, and this is when They, the Soul Eaters, enter the scene.  They eat the souls of dead humans, but not all dead humans.  Something happens to the souls of people who know they are about to die.  Wallace doesn't know what--maybe grow a protective cover or something.  Any way, They don't go after the souls of those who had known they were about to die.

Wallace explains that he didn't know he was about to die, and therefore his soul didn't have enough time to get protected.  They were about to grab him when he spotted Pete's latest invention and somehow realized that the glass bottle would protect him, so he dived into the bottle.  As long as he stays inside the bottle, he will be safe from Them.  Perhaps some time in the future, he will find a human who is willing to die and let Wallace occupy the now empty body.

All goes well until Wallace gets bored.  The thought of spending an eternity in a bottle doesn't excite him any more than it excited the various djinn or genies we hear about in various tales.  He is getting desperate trapped there. But, he has an idea.  He tells Pete that by making some appropriate changes, he could occupy the body of a small animal, such as a dog or a . . . cat.

Pete looks at Helix and is horrified.  " 'You 're being emotional,' said Wally scornfully.  'If you've got any sense of values at all, there'll be no choice.  You can save my immortal soul by sacrificing the life of a cat.  Not many men have  that sort of an opportunity, especially at that price.' "

Pete makes his choice, and sadly, he makes the wrong one.  He's somewhat appeased when Wally tells him that Helix's soul is in no danger from Them.  His soul will just leave and go where animal souls go.  And, since Wally's soul is in telepathic communication with Pete's soul, Helix is unaware of Wally's existence and therefore, Wally's plans for him.

Wally modifies Helix (souls can do all sorts of things that they can't do while in a live body), so that eventually Helix is able to talk and read and write, and now it's time for the Great Transformation.

But, things did not progress as planned, by anybody. This should have been expected since deception was a part of the plan and that never bodes well.  In fact, everybody involved was deceiving somebody--the double-cross was SOP in the Great Transformation.  Another complication is that several of the cast knew things that the other members didn't know that they knew, but they didn't know everything.  The outcome, once again, disproved that old adage, because, let's face facts,  "what you don't know CAN hurt you."

But it did show, as usual, that another old adage is true:

 "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
       (and cats and souls and Them)
   Gang aft a-gley."

However, the situation ended, and contrary to Shakespeare, it did not end well.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Rubaiyat, Second Edition: Quatrain LIX

This is another in a series of brief posts about quatrains that Edward FitzGerald added to the second edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and included, perhaps in a modified form, in the fifth edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LIX

Ah, but my Computations, People say,
Have squared the Year to human compass, eh?
     If so, by striking from the Calendar
Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.

 Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LVII
Ah, but my Computations, People say,
Reduced the Year to better reckoning?--Nay
      'Twas only striking from the Calendar
Unborn To-morrow, and  dead Yesterday.

FitzGerald made no changes to the first and fourth lines of this quatrain, but made several to the second and third lines that clarify his intentions.  "If so"  in the second edition suggests that the poet has doubts about what people say, but if they were right, then it was the result of removing
                .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   from the Calendar
                Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.

He changes that If so to 'Twas, which removes the doubt and replaces it with the dismissive 'Twas.  In other words, he did what people say, but it really wasn't that important or significant.

Not knowing Persian, I don't know if the pun? joke? in the second line of the second edition was Khayyam's or was introduced by FitzGerald, whom many critics have accused of taking considerable liberties in his rendering of the Rubaiyat, or simply another example of over-reading on my part.  "Compass" has several meanings:  one refers to a tool that makes circles while another refers to an area of human understanding,  The year is frequently referred to as cyclic, so he could be saying that the people say that he squared the  circle, an exceptional feat indeed. 

In the fifth edition, he changes that to simply stating that they claimed he had     Reduced the Year to better reckoning.  Regardless of his reaction, what had he to do with the calendar?  In  the Introduction to my copy of the Rubaiyat, we are told that Khayyam was a highly respected astronomer, so much so that "(w)hen the Malik Shah determined to reform the calendar, Omar was one of the eight learned men employed to do it. . ."

What I get from quatrain is that he manages to fit those changes in the calendar into one of the prevailing themes of the Rubaiyat: only the present exists, for yesterday is dead and to-morrow is yet unborn.  Longfellow would agree here,  for in his poem  " A Psalm of Life,"  he tells us    

                                 "Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
                                   Let the dead Past bury its  dead!
                                   Act,--act in the living Present!"

To be brief, this quatrain holds forth once again on the theme that living in the present is really all that we can do, for it is all that we actually have.  

Introduction to text
No editor listed
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Rendered into English verse by Edward FitzGerald
Garden City Books, Garden City, NY