Friday, September 30, 2016

Confucius and Wisdom

Confucius met two boys who were arguing.  One said: "When the sun rises it is closer to the  earth and at midday it is farther away.  I know this because it looks bigger when it rises in the morning annd smaller at midday and distance makes objects seem smaller."  The other boy disagreed furiously, insisting: "No. No. When it rises the sun is cool, but at midday it is hot.  Therefore it must be nearer at midday because near things are warmer than distant things."  The two boys asked Confucius to settle their disagreement.  Having thought for a while, Confucius had to admit, "I don't know."  "So why do they call you wise?" demanded the boys.  "Because I know that is is possible to prove anything with clever arguments," replied Confucius.

from Taoist Wisdom:  Daily Teachings from the Taoist Sages
Timothy Freke, editor.

Wise he is, but there's something else that demonstrates Confucius' wisdom in this story, something rarely seen in the wise of all ages and eras, especially today.  He is able to say, "I don't know." 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ray Bradbury: Long After Midnight, "The Blue Bottle"

Ray Bradbury
Long After Midnight

Long After Midnight is a  collection of short stories that I had read many years ago, but as usual, I had forgotten what stories it contained.  I sat down yesterday and began. What I found surprised me.  I am a great admirer of Bradbury's short works, but I missed recognizing just how good these simple little tales are.

Since this collection contains 22 stories, I will comment on a number of them in several subsequent posts.  "The Blue Bottle" is the first story in the collection. .

"The Blue Bottle"
 This story takes place on Mars.  To be sure, I checked my copy of The Martian Chronicles, but it wasn't in there.  After reading the story, I wouldn't have been surprised to find it there because it contained elements reminiscent of those tales.

The story begins with two men searching for the Blue Bottle.

  "The sundials were tumbled into white pebbles.  The birds of the air flew in ancient skies of rock and sand, buried, their songs. stopped.  The dead sea bottoms were currented with dust which flooded  the land when the wind bade it reenact an old tale of engulfment.  The cities were deep laid with granaries of silence, time stored and kept, pools and fountains of quietude and memory.
  Mars was dead.
  Then, out of the large stillness, from a great distance, there was an insect sound which grew large among the cinnamon hills and moved in the sun-blazed air until the highway trembled and dust was shook whispering down in the old cities.
  The sound ceased.

  In the shimmering silence of midday, Albert Beck and Leonard Craig sat in an ancient landcar, eyeing a dead city which did not move under their gaze but waited for their shout:
  A crystal tower dropped into soft dusting rain.
  'You there!'
  And another tumbled down.
  And another and another fell as Beck called, summoning them to death.  In shattering flights, stone animals with vast granite wings dived to strike the courtyards and fountains.  His cry summoned them like living beasts and the beast gave answer, groaned, cracked, leaned up, tilted over, trembling, hesitant, then split the air and swept down with grimaced mouths and empty eyes, with sharp, eternally hungry teeth suddenly seized out and strewn like shrapnel on the tiles."

They were searching for the Blue Bottle, a mysterious Martian artifact which legends claimed that it held that which one most wanted.  Craig came along for the ride; it was Beck who drove the two of them from one deserted city to the next.  Many had found the bottle, according to various tales, and many had died, but still the Blue Bottle remained elusive.

Beck's search, though intensive and driven, was a strange one: "Only after he had heard of the Blue Bottle. . .had life begun to take on a purpose.  The fever had lit him and he had burned steadily ever since.  If he worked it properly, the prospect of finding the bottle might fill his entire life to the brim.  Another thirty years, if he was careful and not too diligent, of search, never admitting aloud that it wasn't the bottle that counted at all, but the search, the running and the hunting, the dust and the cities and the going-on."

It is Craig who finds the Blue Bottle, but he doesn't recognize it. He opens it to discover that the bottle is filled with bourbon; he takes a drink from it and discards it.  Beck, however, realizes what it is and places "it on the table.  Sunlight spearing through a side window struck blue flashes off the slender container.  It was the blue of a star held in the hand.  It was the blue of a shallow ocean at at noon.  It was the blue of a diamond at morning."

Beck picks it up and shakes it: Craig hears it gurgle (some bourbon is still in there), but Beck hears nothing.  He is about to open it when a man appears with a gun  (another fanatic searcher obviously), takes the bottle, and drives off.  Beck and Craig give chase.  They find him, by the side of the road, his body dissolving away. They see three men hurrying up a hill. Craig decides enough is enough and is no longer interested in the search, but Beck goes on after them.  He finds them, dead, their bodies also dissolving.  Beck now realizes what is in the Bottle.  It is what each searcher most desires, and now he knows what he most desires.

Beck's search for the Blue Bottle reminds me of the Arthurian tales of the Search for the Holy Grail. Those who find it will recognize it, as Beck recognizes the Blue Bottle, his Holy Grail, but that's only part of the story.  Why the search that absorbs so many people?  The mystery of both is the meaning of the Bottle and the Grail--what the Blue Bottle and the Holy Grail signify and that seems to differ for each searcher.

I think this story could well have been included in The Martian Chronicles.  The tone, the setting, the causal destruction of Martian cities and structures by humans, and those strange almost recognizable artifacts that possess an alien aura.  In this story it is the Blue Bottle.  Blue bottles are not alien to earth cultures, but what it contains may be.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Missed cultural signals

No. 93

well nothing happened
yesterday has passed away
with globefish soup
                -- Basho --
from The Complete Haiku

Texts written in a foreign language always present a translation problem for anyone not familiar with the original language.  However, another problem is also present--lack of knowledge about the text's culture.  I find this a regular obstacle because I frequently read stories and poems in translation.  Regardless of my knowledge, limited or otherwise, I was not born in that culture and therefore miss much.

The haiku, brief as it is, presents that problem: many times I have read a haiku, get what it expresses and, yet, feel I'm missing something.  What's even more worrisome is that I wonder how many times I never suspected I missed something.

Fortunately, Jane Reichhold, the editor and translator of Basho: The Complete Haiku has provided an appendix which includes notes for every single haiku.  You can guess how much this helps.

I read the above haiku and was a bit puzzled for it appeared as though the point was that it's been an empty day, with its high point being a bowl of globefish soup the day before.  However, turning to the notes, I find the following:

"1678--spring.  The globefish, or puffer fish, is a popular delicacy.  If a globefish isn't prepared properly it can be deadly.  It remains an expensive dish because chefs have to be specially trained and licensed.  The expense and idea of tempting death add to the thrill of eating this food."

Now I understand.  This haiku is a sigh of relief.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Minute Meditation

"Don't worry and everything will naturally sort itself out."
                                                                     -- Lao Tzu --
from Taoist Wisdom, September 23

I wonder if this is one of his most misunderstood sayings. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Autumn Poems

Today, September 22,  2016 is the first day of Autumn, or the Autumnal Equinox, or if you prefer, the Fall Equinox.  In recognition of this, here are a few poems about autumn. 

No. 12

The morns are meeker than they were --
The nuts are getting brown --
The berry's cheek is plumper --
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf --
The field a scarlet gown --
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

-- Emily Dickinson --
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

With the moon-rising .. .
   Leaf after leaf after leaf
        Falls fluttering down
                     -- Shiki --
from Cherry-Blossoms: Japanese Haiku Series III
tran. not given

     The mountain grows darker,
Taking the scarlet
    From the autumn leaves.
                     -- Buson --
from Silent Flowers
trans R. H. Blyth

Clear autumn sky
   One pine tree
Soaring on the ridge.
               -- Soseki --
from Zen Haiku
Trans and edited by Soiku Shigematsu

Song at the Beginning of Autumn

Now watch this autumn that arrives
In smells.  All looks like summer still;
Colours are quite unchanged, the air
On green and white serenely thrives.
Heavy the trees with growth and full
The fields.  Flowers flourish everywhere.

Proust who collected time within
A child's cake would understand
The ambiguity of this--
Summer still raging while a thin
column of smoke stirs from the land
Proving that autumn gropes for us.

But every season is a kind
Of rich nostalgia.  We give names--
Autumn and summer, winter, spring--
As though to unfasten from the mind
Our moods and give them outward forms.
We want the certain, solid thing

But I am carried back against
My will into a childhood where
Autumn is bonfires, marbles. smoke;
I lean against my window fenced
From evocations in the air.
When I said autumn, autumn broke. 

-- Elizabeth Jennings --
from Collected Poems

 When I think of autumn, I do not think of autumn in Tucson, where I've lived for over 45 years.  Instead, I think of autumn in Chicago, where I grew up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

John Muir: immortality, sort of anyway


Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters.  A bear's days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours, and was poured from the same First Fountain.  And whether he at last goes to our stingy heaven or no, he has terrestrial immortality.  His life not long, not short, knows no beginning, no ending.  To him life unstinted, unplanned, is above the accidents of time, and his years, markless and boundless, equal Eternity.

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

Many have said that only humans are "mortal" for we alone know we have a beginning and an end.  Others on this planet are unaware of this and, therefore, have a form of immortality.  While this idea is not unique to John Muir, I don't think I've ever heard anyone put it as clearly and concretely as this. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882): The Two Longfellows

Presented are two poems written by Longfellow,  one published in 1836 and one published some forty years later.  I wonder what has happened to bring about such a change in perspective.

Longfellow the Younger

A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
   Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
   And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
   And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
   Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
   Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
   And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
   Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
   In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
   Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
   Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
   With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
   Learn to labor and to wait.

This was published in  1838 when Longfellow was 31.

Longfellow the Elder

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown,
The traveller hastens toward the town,
       And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
       And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
       And the tide rises, the tide falls.

This poem was published in 1879, when Longfellow was 72 years old.  He died three years later in 1882.

An image brought up in both, but with a different conclusion to the latter.

 Longfellow the Younger

"Lives of great men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
   Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
   Seeing, shall take heart again."

 Longfellow the Elder
"Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
       And the tide rises, the tide falls."

His view of those footsteps in the sand has changed somewhat, it appears.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Minute Meditation: a paradox or a contradiction or. . .?

August 6

All theories are completely false.

-- Chuang Tzu --
from Taoist Wisdom:  Daily Teachings 

Does this include his theory? 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXI

And yet another quatrain that FitzGerald introduced in the Second Edition.

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXI

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
     And after many days my Soul return'd
And said, "Behold, Myself am Heav'n and Hell:"

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXVI
I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
     And by and by my Soul return'd to me,
And answered, "I Myself am Heav'n and Hell:"

Note the colon that ends each version of the quatrain.  That signifies that the quatrain that follows will provide a further elaboration to that last line. 

FitzGerald has modified the last two lines of the quatrain.  He has substituted "by and by" for "after many days" in the third line.  The first version suggests that the Soul returned a long time later (many days) while the second is far more indeterminate (by and by).  That could be many days or hours or weeks or . . .?
Perhaps he felt that after many days was too prosaic and that by and by flowed more smoothly.

The second change, from  Behold, Myself am  to I Myself am,  seems, to me anyway, to eliminate the awkwardness of  Myself am and replacing it with the much more standard I Myself am.

The Poet/Narrator does not say how he sent his Soul searching for information about the Afterlife.  Perhaps he uses some form of meditation or maybe even wine.  He does not say.  But, his Soul does return with an answer, a rather disconcerting one at that: "I Myself am Heav'n and Hell:".

This reminds me of Milton's Paradise Lost in which Satan says, "Which way I fly is Hell:  myself am Hell."   This is the wording of the last line in the Second Edition, only FitzGerald has added "Heav'n" to the equation.  Actually, it now seems to me that the entire quatrain seems to echo that line in Milton or perhaps is FitzGerald's incorporation of that line from Milton into the Rubaiyat..

But, the addition of  Heav'n changes radically Satan's realization.   Satan is doomed to Hell with no escape, but humans, some anyway, have another possibility.   Yet, the operative verb is am which signifies identity in both FitzGerald's and Milton's poems.  It is not that they are destined for Hell but that they are Hell itself, or possibly Heaven also for FitzGerald. 

Is there a suggestion here that the nature of the Afterlife is not determined by the Creator but by ourselves?  Since we are Heaven and Hell, does that mean that Afterlife will be as we are, both Heaven and Hell?  Or perhaps, the Afterlife for the Good will be as they are, Heaven, and for the Evil, it is Hell?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Cats: a poem and a painting

                                                  Cat and Yellow Butterfly
                                           Hsu Pei-hung, Chinese, (1895-1953)
                 Garden Lion 
O Michael, you are at once the enemy
And the chief ornament of our garden,
Scrambling up rose-posts, nibbling at nepeta,
Making your lair where tender plants should flourish,
Or proudly couchant on a sun-warmed stone.

What do you do all night there,
When we seek our soft beds,
And you go off, old roisterer,
Away into the dark?

I think you play at leopards and panthers;
I think you wander on to foreign properties;
But on winter mornings you are a lost orphan
Pitifully wailing underneath our windows;
And in summer, by the open doorway,
You come in pad, pad, lazily to breakfast,
Plumy tail waving, with a fine swagger,
Like a drum-major, or a parish beadle,
Or a rich rajah, or the Grand Mogul.

-- Mary Ursula Bethell --
New Zealand, (1874-1945)

Just a slight change of pace.  The poem and the painting remind me of Molly and Dusky, both of whom have moved on to wherever they go after their stay with me:  Molly for about 16 years and Dusky about three weeks shy of 18 years.  Both had very active fantasy lives as I watched them out in the front and back yards.

Note:  Both the poem and the painting are featured in Art and Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of  Nature Poetry  

Friday, September 9, 2016

Elizabeth Jennings: "The Enemies"

Here is a strange, enigmatic poem by Elizabeth Jennings, a poet of whom I know nothing.  I shall have to do some digging around.

The Enemies

Last night they came across the river and
Entered the city.  Women were awake
With lights and food.  They entertained the band,
Not asking what the men had come to take
Or what strange tongue they spoke
Or why they came so suddenly through the land.

Now in the morning all the town is filled
With stories of the swift and dark invasion;
The women say that not one stranger told
A reason for his coming.  The intrusion
Was not for devastation:
Peace is apparent still on hearth and field.

Yet all the city is a haunted place.
Man meeting man speaks cautiously.  Old friends
Close up the candid looks upon their face.
There is no warmth in hands accepting hands;
Each ponders, 'Better hide myself in case
Those strangers have set up their homes in minds
I used to walk in.  Better draw the blinds
Even if the strangers haunt in my own house.

-- Elizabeth Jennings --
from Penguin Modern Poets: I

Who are the invaders? 

What is the role of the women here?  Why were they "awake/With lights and food?"  Why didn't they ask any questions of the invaders?  Did the women invite them?

Who are the enemies?  Who are the real enemies?

The last stanza suggests that the men, assuming that the term "man" is not a generic term that refers to both men and women,  now fear their neighbors more than they do the invaders.  How has this come about?

Is this a "feminist" poem?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Minute Meditation

No. 36

inside the temple
  visitors cannot know
     cherries are blooming                  
-- Basho --
from  Basho:  The Complete Haiku 

Just a simple observation?

Or, is Basho making a point here?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A few words about Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey

This was one of the two novels published posthumously, shortly after her death in 1817.  The other was my favorite: Persuasion.  However, the publication date is misleading for Northanger Abbey was actually the first novel she sold to a publisher.  The publisher, Crosby and Co.,  purchased the novel in 1803, but decided against publishing it.   In 1816, Henry Austen, Jane Austen's brother, bought it back from the publisher and then published it in 1817.  It wasn't until 1811, eight years after she sold NA, that Austen finally saw her first novel in print,  Sense and Sensibility.

 As I mentioned in an earlier post, I believe this is really two novels, one being a comedy of manners and the second part a satire on Gothic novels.  What links them is that the satiric look at the Gothic novel was set up in the first half.

I posted, earlier, some thoughts about the Predator and Prey relationships, as I saw them, in Pride and Prejudice.  Naturally I was curious to see if some of the other novels could be looked at in the same way.  Following are some of my impressions of the major characters of NA:

Frederick Tinley:  a Predator.  His prey are vulnerable females, for he's not looking for a rich wife.  He is the eldest son and therefore will inherit his father's estate.  However, he may also be seen as Prey as long as he is unattached and the presumed heir to his father's fortune.

Isabel Thorpe:  a Predator.  She first sets her sights on Catherine's brother, James.  However, she is considerably disappointed when she learns of the small portion James will get upon their marriage.   At this point she discovers Frederick Tinley, a much more lucrative prize.

This is an interesting situation in that Predator Frederick meets Predator Isabel.  Unfortunately, Isabel is handicapped for she is looking for a marriage proposal while Frederick is just interested in a short term conquest, at the end of which he can simply ride off into the sunset.   

John Thorpe:  Predator who sees Catherine as far wealthier than she really is and also as the heiress presumptive of her neighbors, the Allens.

Isabel and John Thorpe are the first attempts at depicting a predatory brother and sister.  They, therefore, are the precursors of a later and more complex predatory brother and sister, Mary and Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park.

General Tinley:  he's looking for a rich wife, but not for himself but for his second son Henry.

Catherine Morland: Prey, as she is the target of John Thorpe who is looking for a rich wife to support him.

James Morland:  Catherine's brother who thinks he is in pursuit of Isabel, but he really is Prey.

Henry and sister Eleanor, do not seem to fit my definition of Predator, and nor is there any suggestion in the novel that they are actively sought after, therefore, they are not Prey either.

 I am just completing my rereading of Austen's works, and as it turned out, the last two novels just happened to be Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, apparently the first and the last of Austen's six novels.  It is interesting? informative? curious? ironic? to read these two back-to-back.  In NA we find Catherine, surely the youngest of Austen's heroines, so innocent and naive that she doesn't even realize at first that she's in love with Henry, while in Persuasion, Anne is not only not in her first love, but has long since lost it through her own actions and now regrets her decision.  The juxtaposition of the two novels reveals the increased depth and complexity of Austen's perception of her characters and the struggles they face in finding their futures, from dealing with First Love to being faced with that rarest of possibilities, a second chance, or as a recent poet once put it, to take "the road not taken.". .

Overall I would rank this as the lightest of the Six.  Catherine is the youngest and most naive of Austen's heroines, and she certainly violates several rules of feminine decorum as set out at that time, but her innocence and earnestness excuse her.  All can see that she means no harm as she is unaware, for the most part, of her errors in decorum.

Simply put, it's a light-hearted and enjoyable tale.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Minute Meditation

August 30

Nothing is wrong.  Everything is right.

-- Lao Tzu --
from  Taoist Wisdom

Why are those who go around denying the validity of universal statements so prone to making universal statements?

In the above statement, the Taoist insists there is no need to make judgements since all things are right.  Are rape, murder, child abuse good?

Here's an interesting and informative little task.  Those who have a copy or access to a copy of  Lao Tzu's definitive work,  the Tao Te Ching, should count the number of chapters in which the Taoist makes a judgement about what is right and what is not right, the number of chapters in which the Taoist insists that all things are right, and the number of chapters in which the Taoist makes no judgement about anything.

Any guesses on the results?