Saturday, May 27, 2017

Chaim Potok: Two novels

Chaim Potok
The Chosen
The Promise 

One of the reasons I belong to several book discussion groups is that I get an opportunity to read and discuss works that I probably would not read on my own, either because I have never heard of the book or the author or because the book or author didn't sound interesting at that time.  I had heard of Chaim Potok but not in such a way as to suggest that I might be interested in reading him.

Several months ago,  Chaim Potok''s The Chosen was the selection of one of the discussion groups.  I was so impressed that I immediately borrowed the sequel, The Promise, from the library.  At the end of the year, one of the discussion groups always asks the same question: What new authors have impressed you the most this past year?  If that question were asked today, I would say Chaim Potok.

The comments about the two novels will be brief as I think I need to reread them to be able to stand back and view them somewhat objectively.

The place is Brooklyn and the time is during WWII.

The Chosen:
Reuven, the POV character, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family.  His father was a highly respected scholar and teacher.  Reuven was free to choose his life's work, and he decided to become a rabbi.

Danny grew up in an Hasidic household and his father was a rabbi with a devoted following.  Danny actually was groomed to become the leader after his father had either retired or died, but he had different ideas.

Reuven and Danny met through a baseball game in which Danny injured Reuven and almost cost him his vision in one eye.   They became close friends, in spite of  Danny's father who believed that the Hasidic Jews were the only true Jews and those who were not Hasidic were followers of Satan, or at least dupes working for Satan.   Another problem was that Reuven's father was an outspoken Zionist while Danny's father hated the Zionists because they wanted to set up a secular Israel, which went against the word of the Lord, as they interpreted it.

The Promise:
This novel takes place several years later.  Reuven and Danny are both well along in their struggle to achieve their goals.  Reuven is finishing up his studies to become a rabbi, in spite of opposition to him from one of his teachers.  The opposition comes primarily from a Hasidic rabbi who has survived the concentration camps and has emigrated to the US.  His experiences in the camp has only made him more intolerant of those who disagree with his views, and he works especially hard to block Reuven,  again partially because of Reuven's father and partially because he is terrified by the ways Reuven discusses and interprets the Torah, ways which Reuven learned from his father.

Danny is finishing up his course of study to become a  clinical psychologist and is now an intern at a psychiatric institution.  One of his patients is a young boy whom Reuven brought to him.  Reuven had met the boy through his friendship with the boy's cousin, Rachel.

The major problem for both is the struggle between the old ways and the new.  Reuven uses but does not accept completely the historic method of Talmudic exegesis,  just as Danny, while highly impressed with Freudian psychoanalytic techniques and theory, does not accept all of it.  Both select what they feel fits them and their unique situations.

The novels constitute a fascinating tale of two boys growing up in an environment  I know little about.  Both novels are filled with rich details regarding Jewish rituals, beliefs, joys, and sorrows.   One of the surprises, although it shouldn't have been, was the rupture between the Hasidim and all other Jews.  But, fundamentalists, regardless of their beliefs, are much alike, as Eric Hoffer points out in his book, The True Believer.   They alone have the Truth, and all who disagree are traitors or heretics and hated by God. 

Chaim Potok is now on my Search List, and I will be looking for more of his writings.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Minute Meditation

Language is the stuff of the imagination.  The imagination is the creative aspect of language.  It enables us to use language to its highest potential.  It enables us to realize a reality beyond the ordinary, it enables us to create and to re-create ourselves in story and literature.  It is the possible accomplishment of immortality.

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from  The Man Made of Words

Can we imagine anything without words?  

Friday, May 19, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness

Lawrence Durrell
Monsieur or Prince of Darkness
Book 1 of  "The Avignon Quintet"  (aka The Quincunx)

Please do not expect an organized, coherent, illuminating post on this work; instead, you will find some random, chaotic ramblings about a work I am fascinated by.  It is probably this fascination that keeps me from stepping back and objectively looking at Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness.

I have now finished Lawrence Durrell's Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness, the first book in his "Avignon Quintet."  This is a reread, but it's been some time since I last read it, and therefore I remember little aside from the general overall structure of the Quintet.

The title can be misleading.  Monsieur is ambiguous for it could refer to any man, but the subtitle clarifies it.  There are those who believe that to say the devil's name out loud will act as a summons and the devil will appear.  Therefore, to prevent this, certain agreed upon circumlocutions are used, and  "Monsieur" is one of them.  However, the rest of the title, The Prince of Darkness, makes it very clear who is meant because that is one of the devil's titles, along with The Prince of Lies and The Lord of Flies. 

My overall reaction was that of meeting an old and familiar friend, one very comfortable to be with.  This, of course, is strange because I remember little of the book so far.  I think that familiar,  comfortable feeling comes from just having recently finished his "Alexandria Quartet.   As I turned the pages of Monsieur, certain similarities came to mind between it and Justine,  the first book in the "Alexandria Quartet."

To begin with, the first novels of the two sets, Monsieur and  Justine, are first person narratives, and, therefore, we will see all from that limited viewpoint.  Of course, one significant difference is that we don't learn the name of the narrator until the second book in the Quartet, while we learn the narrator's name on the first page of the first book in the Quintet.

Both works include considerable flashbacks, works involving memories as they intrude upon and influence the present.  Characters in both are mentioned with little or no introductory information as to who they are and why they are important.  That will be revealed later, sometimes much later.  In both, within the first three pages, the reader learns that someone has died, and that is all that the reader is told.  That this person must be important in some way is suggested by being mentioned so early in the work.

In Monsieur, several of the characters are members of the diplomatic corp of France and England, or are attached in some way to French and English embassies.  This is also true of characters in Justine.

Again, in each work, a novelist is mentioned and quoted frequently.  But, again, it is later that the reader is given more information about the writer and his relationship with the narrator.  And in both novels, that writer is dead at this point in the novel.

Alexandria, the City, is a significant character in the Quartet, so important that the human inhabitants seem to be only puppets controlled by the city.

                         " 'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
                           Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
                                Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
                            And one by one back in the Closet lays."
                                           -- The Rubaiyat:  Quatrain XLIX  
In this case, read Alexandria for "Destiny."  I am only guessing about Avignon at this point, but the treatment of the city suggests that it too will be an important character throughout the work.

Because of the above, I wasn't too surprised to find myself, along with many of the characters, in Alexandria at the beginning of the second part of Monsieur.  


However, there exists a complication which I haven't mentioned yet.  The structure of this, the first book, is a novel-within-a-novel.  And, this we don't find out until the last chapters, when we suddenly emerge out of the internal novel into the external novel, or the frame.  Actually, it isn't much of a frame as the frame only appears at the very end of this book.  The internal novel is also called Monsieur, which illustrates the link between the "two" novels. 

In the last few chapters, we meet Aubrey Blanford, who claims to have written  the internal Monsieur.  Future volumes will then tell the story of Blanford's life and his relationships with his wife, his friends, and relatives.  In those volumes we will see how Blanford changed and modified what he knows about the people and events of  his life into the characters of the internal novel.

After finishing the first volume, it appears as though this is a novel about writing a novel.  And no, it isn't dismal at all.  I dislike those sorts of novels, but Durrell does it so well that I really don't notice it.  Perhaps my dislike for this meta-fictional cliche is the result of finding that it is so often poorly done, and that may be my argument with it.

One more note:  sometimes "The Avignon Quintet" is called "The Quincunx."   A quincunx is a landscaping feature of five trees.  Four of the trees are placed at the corners of a square, while the fifth tree is placed exactly at the center.  The first book of the quintet, Monsieur, is placed at the center with the other four at the corners, a suggestion of the relationship among the five novels. 

I now regret only waiting so long to revisit "The Avignon Quintet."

Monday, May 15, 2017


Willa Cather
Youth and the Bright Medusa
short stories

The title is a bit deceptive, for it isn't just about youth.  The eight short stories feature artists, or those who are closely connected in some way to artists,  in several of the arts.  The stories begin with those who are just beginning their careers in the arts while subsequent tales are of older artists until the end when the last couple of tales feature death, either of the artist or of someone closely connected to an artist.

"Coming, Aphrodite!"

The two artists in this tale are Eden Bower and Don Hedger.  They are early in their careers, she a singer and he a painter, and they live on the same floor in an old apartment house.  Nature does as expected when two young and unattached people live next door.  However, all does not go smoothly for they have differing ideas and goals in mind.  As a singer, she courts her audience and, seeks to please them by giving them what they want.  She assumes that Don feels the same way and arranges appointments with a very popular painter and also an art broker who has been very successful in marketing the work of other artists.  His reaction is not what she expected.

 "'I know exactly what it's like,'  he said impatiently. 'A very good department-store conception of a studio.  It's one of the show places.'

'Well, it's gorgeous, and he said I could bring you to see him.  The boys tell me he's awfully kind about giving people a lift, and you might get something out of it.'

Hedger started up and pushed his canvas out of the way.   'What could I possibly get from Burton Ives?  He's almost the worst painter in the world; the stupidest, I mean.'"

Hedger then explains:  "'. . . I work to please nobody but myself.'

'You mean you cold make money and don't'?  That you don't try to get a public?'

'Exactly.  A public only wants what has been done over and over.  I'm painting for painters,--who haven't been born.'"

Two different worlds.  .  .


"The Diamond Mine"

The diamond mine of the title is not a place, but a person.   The narrator of the tale tells us--

"Only a few days before, when I was lunching with some friends at Sherry's, I had seen Jerome Brown come in with several younger men, looking so pleased and prosperous that I exclaimed upon it.

'His affairs,'  some one explained, 'are looking up.  He's going to marry Cressida Garnet.  Nobody believed it at first, but since she confirms it he's getting all sorts of credit.  That woman's a damned diamond mine.'"

And Jerome Brown is not the only one who sees her that way.  Unfortunately her family agrees: "The truth was that all the Garnets, and particularly her two sisters, were consumed by an habitual, bilious, unenterprising envy of Cressy."

And now after Cressy had struggled for twenty years to achieve her preeminent position among singers ". . . they expected Cressida to make them equal sharers in the finer rewards of her struggle."

And, Cressida hadn't any better luck with her four husbands, either.


"A Gold Slipper"

"Marshall McKann followed his wife and her friend Mrs. Post down the aisle and up the steps to the stage of the Carnegie Music Hall with an ill-concealed feeling of grievance.  Heaven knew he never went to concerts,  and to be mounted upon the stage in this fashion, as if he were a 'highbrow' from Sewickley, or some unfortunate with a musical wife, was ludicrous.  A man went to concerts when he was courting, while he was a junior partner.  When he became a person of substance he stopped this sort of nonsense."

This "sort of nonsense" happened to be a recital by Kitty Ayrshire.  Since all tickets had been sold, McKann had decided the concert was off and made reservations on the train for New York City.  Unfortunately for him, his wife's friend, a devoted admirer of Kitty Ayrshire, had found some available tickets on stage.   He was trapped, but he would still have time, if there were no encores, to make his train.

As he was so close to her on stage, Kitty Ayrshire noticed he was unhappy and once caught him "yawning  behind his hand."  She soon realized there was little she could do to please him.

As it turned out, there was only one encore because she also had to be in New York that night.   Of course, coincidences do happen in the real world, so it was inevitable that McKann discovered that he had to share a state-room with Kitty Ayrshire.

It was a strangest journey McKann had ever taken, for Kitty Ayrshire had noticed his displeasure during her performance and she wanted to know just what made him unhappy.  The ensuing conversation reveals that the McKanns of the world are insensitive to anything that goes beyond the practical and the profitable.  All the arts, including singing, happen to be just so much nonsense, a waste of time.  Since he has no appreciation for the "fluffy-ruffles people" and what they do, he assumes that those who claim to appreciate the arts, music for example, really know nothing about music and only claim to enjoy it because "it's the proper thing to do."  But, he is a "hard-headed business man" and has no interest in such nonsense.  And he maintained his opinion throughout their conversation.

But, he may not be as hard-headed as he thinks he is.



This story and "A Gold Slipper" are a bit unusual, for they both feature Kitty Ayrshire.  The other six have no characters in common.

Kitty has a protege, one whose career she is attempting to promote.   One day he comes to her and says he has a chance to perform at a house party for a rich businessman, but only if she will agree to accompany him. As it is an excellent opportunity to become known among the wealthy in NY, Kitty agrees, even though she normally does not perform at private parties.  When she arrives, she finds that the people treat her very familiarly, as if they are all well acquainted with her, though she knows none of them. As the performance and the evening progress, she begins to feel trapped, and she wonders if she even will be allowed to leave.  Finally, almost panic-stricken, she runs from the house and the strangely-acting company.

It is only some time later, that a friend tells her of a story from several years ago, that supposedly involved the business man and her.
This story is more about the way fans or admirers seem to believe they own in some way a performer or a celebrity.  Because of this sense of ownership, they feel they can use a performer or celebrity to enhance their own stature and position among others, even to the extent of stealing their identities.  They have no concern about the effect their behavior will have on their victims.

To be continued .  .  .

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Minute Meditation

To really appreciate a place or time----to extract the poignant essence of it--one should see it in the light of a departure, a leavetaking.  

-- Lawrence Durrell --
from Livia, Book 2 of  The Avignon Quintet

Is this true?  If so, it's sad that one can only appreciate a time or a place when one leaves it. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Wallace Stevens: "The Poems of Our Climate"

Wallace Stevens is a very unique and perplexing poet, or so he seems to me.   Some of his poems are straightforward while others force me to struggle to gain even a glimmer of his point.  Some grab me immediately while others move me not at all.  And this one?

The Poems of Our Climate
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations.  The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow.  A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations--one desires
So much more than that.  The day itself
is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-ending mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

-- Wallace Stevens --
from Wallace Stevens: The Collected Poems

I see a strong element of  Eastern religious, aesthetic or cultural traditions.  The water, the bowl, the flowers create an  image that reminds me of many Japanese paintings: very simple,  only a few items, uncluttered, with light being important.

While my knowledge of Buddhism is minimal and incomplete, I think its main theme is that if one removes all desires, to want nothing, even the need to remove all desires, one  would free oneself from the world's pains.  That seems to be the point of the first stanza.

Yet, in the second stanza  

Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than world of white and snowy scents.

It is the ego, the I, that delights in variety and desires.  It would reject that peace of the simple and uncluttered life for what?  The third stanza seems to answer that question:

The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

Is this a poem that reflects the difficulty and the obstacles to enlightenment or is it an outright rejection of that way of life?


Friday, May 5, 2017

A Time to Die?

Generally speaking, killing another human is banned by most societies and religions.  There are exceptions of course--self-defense or defense of someone else. War also is another exception.  Murder is considered to be one of the most serious crimes or sins one can commit.  However, it is also true that various states and religions have reserved the right to kill another human being for themselves.  Executing someone for various crimes or heresy has been and still is common today, although it is gradually going out of favor among various countries, permanently I hope.

As I mentioned, execution has been prescribed for a variety of crimes and religious unorthodoxy, but so far I have yet to find any society or religion that has decreed age to be a crime requiring execution, except, that is, in literature.    And,  I hope it remains so, for I am nearing 80, and therefore a prime candidate.

Following are accounts of several fictional works in which age becomes a crime.

Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger
The Old Law: a new way to please you, a comedy

The Old Law is a seventeenth century English play which is set in a mythic Greece.   Evander, the Duke of Epire, has issued a decree.  Any man reaching the age of eighty and any woman at the age of sixty shall be executed by the state.  The main plot, involving Duke Evander, his decree, and the effect on his court, comes from a story found in  "a version of The Seven Sages or The Seven Wise Masters of Rome translated from the Greek by the medieval monk Jean de Hauteseille" sometime around 1200 AD..

The Law: 
.  .  . that every man living to
Fourscore years, and women to threescore, shall than
Be cut off as fruitless to the republic,
And law shall finish what nature lingered at. 

There were those who argued that this sweeping law mandated the death of many innocent people, while those supporting the law (the young who are awaiting their parents' death and therefore their inheritance) argued in return:

What man lives to fourscore and woman to three
That can die innocent.

The wording of the law:

That all men living in our dominions of Epire in their decayed nature to the age of fourscore, or women to the age of threescore, shall on the same day be instantly put to death, by those means and instruments that a former proclamation had to this purpose, through our said territories dispersed. 

The rationale for the law:

That these men, being past their bearing arms to aid and defend their country, past their manhood and livelihood to propagate any further issue to their posterity, and, as well, past their counsels (which overgrown gravity is now run into dotage) to assist their country; to whom, in common reason, nothing should be so wearisome as their own lives; as, it may be supposed, is tedious to their successive heirs, whose times are spent in the good of their country, yet, wanting the means to maintain it, are like to grow old before their inheritance born to them come to their necessary use.  For the women, for that they were never defense to their country, never by counsel admitted to the assist of the government of their country, only necessary to the propagation of posterity, and, now, at the age of three score, be past that good and all their goodness;  it is thought fit, then, a quarter abated from the more worthy member, [they] be put to death as is before recited; provided that, for the just and impartial execution of this our statute, the example shall first begin in and about our court, which ourself will see carefully performed, and not for a full month following extend any further into our dominions.  Dated the sixth of the second month at our Palace Royal in Epire.


Cleanthes:  a courtier who loves his father,  claims that his father died shortly before his 80th birthday.  He has set up a phony funeral ritual.

Simonides:  a courtier who joyfully handed his father over to the executioner and is now looking forward to enjoying his inheritance.  He also searches around for those who violate the decree.


The cook, the baker, the tailor, and the butler have searched the birth records, looking for rich widows who are very close to their 60th birthday.  They plan to woo and marry them and then wait for their 60th birthday when they will become rich widowers.  Gnotho, the clown,  has a different plan for he is married.  He has persuaded the clerk to change his wife's birth year so that his wife now has only a a very short time instead of a few years of life. The title page of the book that contained this play lists this as a Comedy, so all's well that ends well.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Several centuries later, also in England, we find the following:

Anthony Trollope:
The Fixed Period, a novel
published in 1882,

Anyone who has read The Old Law and The Fixed Period will recognize a strong similarity between the two, especially in the rationale given for the law.  According to the Introduction, Trollope had definitely read The Old Law in 1776, just six years before his novel was published. 

Anthony Trollope's novel, The Fixed Period, is set on the island of Britannula, a former colony of England which has been granted its independence.  Shortly after gaining freedom, the legislature, under the guidance of  Neverbend, its prime minister, passed a law decreeing the death of men and women who reach the age of  67.

The  rationale for the legislation:

". . . it consists altogether of the abolition of the miseries, weakness, and faineant imbecility  of old age by the prearranged ceasing to live of those who would otherwise become old.  Need I explain to the inhabitants of England, for whom I chiefly write, how extreme are those sufferings, and how great the costliness of that old age which is unable in any degree to supply its own wants.

The arguments presented are the same as those provided in The Old Law.  Old people should be killed to prevent the sufferings and infirmities of being old.  The second reason is the financial burden they pose for society and to their relatives.  Prime Minister Neverbend goes on to argue that the young "should be nourished in order that they may do good work as their time shall come.  But for whose good are the old and effete to be maintained amid all these troubles and miseries?"

"It is self-evident that at sixty-five a man has done all that he is fit to do.  He should be troubled no longer with labour, and therefore should be troubled no longer with life."

At the end, the legislature decreed the construction of comfortable dwellings, called the college.
Those men and women who reach the age of sixty-seven shall go to the college and live there " . . .and that before their sixty-eighth birthday they should have departed."


Years have passed, and now the first person to reach the age of sixty-seven is about to move to the college. It just happens to be Gabriel,  Neverbend's best friend.  Gabriel now has second thoughts about the law and tries to extend the remaining time he has left.  Neverbend is very upset because he believes Gabriel should be proud to be the first one in the world to profit from his forward-thinking  law.   Meanwhile, word has reached England about the legislation and that it is about to be implemented.  England responds by sending its most advanced battleship.  The novel focuses on Neverbend's dismay at the inability of many of his fellow citizens' to see the marvelous advantages of his law.   The battleship has arrived, and those aboard are about to play a role in the drama.   There's also a minor romantic subplot. 

We generally admire those who show persistence in refusing to surrender their beliefs in the face of opposition.  Fortitude is a virtue, and it is honored by most.  However, the downside is that the belief that its holder adamantly holds to can be evil as well as virtuous.  Neverbend himself wonders if his persistence is based more on the need to make a mark that will resound to his honor and glory long after he is dead, but he dismisses such thoughts as being unworthy of him and his grand idea.  Perhaps he should spend more time thinking about his motivation.

 = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Jack London
"The Law of Life"
a short story published in 1901,

My third example is a short story by Jack London.  Perhaps I should call it a short-short story, for it is only four pages long.   Although much shorter than the previous two works, London makes his point, plainly and simply.   The setting seems to be the far North.   Old Koskoosh is a member of a group of  Inuit or Eskimos.  It is not clear since London provides no clues.  We are told that Old Koskoosh is blind and can no longer help provide food for his group.  He is a drain on their limited resources.  His people are breaking camp now and moving on.  They will leave some firewood there for him.

His son comes to him..

"The tribesmen hurry.  Their bales are heavy and their bellies flat with lack of feasting.  The trail is long and they travel fast.  I go now.  It is well?"

"It is well.  I am as a last year's leaf, clinging lightly to the stem.  The first breath that blows, and I fall.   My voice is become as an old woman's.  My eyes no longer show me the way of my feet, and my feet are heavy, and I am tired.  It is well."

Although the issue, the productivity of the individual, is the same as in the first two works, there are major differences between London's story and the other works.  In the first place, there is no arbitrary set age as in the play and the novel; the decision of the group results solely from Koskoosh's condition.  He is blind; he will require someone to care for him on the trip.  He is unable to bring in food; he reduces the food available for those who can hunt and for the children who will be productive in the years to come.

Secondly, the drain upon the group in the first two stories would not be sufficiently serious  to threaten the group's survival: the increase in taxes for each individual would be minimal, whereas the cost to the group in London's story would be far more threatening to the group's existence.  In the harsh conditions in which they live, every one must provide if the group is to survive.

Thirdly, it is not an arbitrary bit of legislation imposed upon the group.  It is part of the group's traditions that go back many generations.  Koskoosh can remember old men and women who were left behind in the past when they too could no longer work to help the group survive.  This is a part of life, whose only law is to perpetuate the group.  That's why in the previous stories, there were Runners, those who protested against the law.   In this tale,  Koskoosh  says, "It is well." 


William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
Logan's Run, a novel
first published in  1967

Because of overpopulation,  the legislature passed a law limiting births.  The younger generation revolted, and the result was "the little war" between the generations.   The younger generation won and passed their own law to handle the problem of overpopulation:  death for all on their 21st birthday.  But, as in the first two stories, there were some objected and they became Runners.  An agency was created to handle this problem, the Sandmen.  Their task was to track down and execute the Runners on the spot.

Logan was a Sandman, and he had no difficulty catching and executing with Runners.  However, when he reached 21, the situation became a bit more complicated, and he then became a Runner (perhaps).


Logan is on the run and searching for a mythical place called Sanctuary, the goal for all Runners.  Even after he has left the city, he finds others living outside, something the city dwellers thought impossible.      

This is an action-oriented tale, which the title makes clear.  There is no real discussion of the principles involved.  It is also far more unbelievable than the previous three works.   Machinery will break down, especially if it's unattended.  And essentially, the society in this tale does nothing and knows nothing about the mechanisms which support their idyllic way of life.  The only ones who do work of any sort are the Sandmen, and they are executioners.  I doubt any society could exist for any length of  time on that foundation.

Some General  Comments 

The Old Law and The Fixed Period are satirical: the sometimes arbitrariness of laws and the impatience of the young with the older generation.  Or, so it seems to me.   Greed and desire for power seem to be the main motivation for the actions of most in these two works.  Few come out looking well in them.  In The Fixed Period it seems as though those who voted for the law were looking forward to gaining their inheritance and power earlier than expected, but they didn't look any farther into the future to when they approached their own mid 60s. 

Logan's Run struck me as a typical tale of the "man-on-the-run" genre.  As usual, it features someone who has committed a crime or accused of committing one and who is desperately trying to escape the authorities.  This plot is inserted into the futuristic setting, which makes it an SF story.  I suspect the real interest of the tale lies in its man-on-the-run element, rather than any SF elements it may have. 

Jack London's "The Law of Life" is, by far, my favorite of the four.  It has a reality to it that is inescapable.  It is a harsh rule that's a necessary part of survival in a harsh landscape.  It is not an arbitrary law that is imposed, but a longstanding tradition that goes back generations.  Koskoosh is blind, he is a drain on the meager resources of the community.  Koskoosh knows this: "It is well."   


Monday, May 1, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain XCIX

Quatrain XCIX links back to the previous quatrain, especially the last two lines of that Quatrain:  And lay me, shrouded in the living Leaf,/By some not unfrequented Garden-side.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XCIX

Whither resorting from the vernal Heat
Shall Old Acquaintance Old Acquaintance greet,
     Under the Branch that leans above the Wall
To shed his Blossom over head and feet. 

This quatrain was removed and does appear in the Fifth Edition.  Just why he removed it is not known.  However, Quatrains XCIIIX and XCIX are prophetic, according to an anecdote related by one of Khayyam's pupils, Khwajah Nizami:

"I often used to hold conversations with my teacher, Omar Khayyam, in a garden; and one day he said to me, "My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses over it.'  I wondered at the words he spake, but I knew that his were no idle words.  Years after, when I chanced to revisit Naishapur, I went to his final resting place, and lo! it was just outside a garden, and trees laden with fruit stretched their boughs over the garden wall, and dropped their flowers upon his tomb, so that the stone was hidden under them."

 from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Illustrations by Edmund Dulac
Garden City Books  

What's a bit unusual in this quatrain occurs in line two where "Old" is capitalized.  That "Acquaintance" is capitalized is not unusual for FitzGerald usually capitalizes nouns, but this is the only time, as far as I can remember, that an adjective was capitalized.  For example, "vernal,"  an adjective in the first line is in lower case.  I don't know if this is true for other readers, but the first thought that entered my mind when I read "Old Acquaintance" was of Robert Burns' first lyric to his very popular song that appears every New Year's Eve: "Auld Lang Syne.   The problem, of course, is that Burns wrote "auld acquaintance,"  not "old acquaintance."

Just a thought. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Minute Meditation

Some ride in palanquins
Some bear palanquins:
Some weave sandals
For palanquin bearers

                   -- Anon --
from Japanese Proverbs

It seems to me that the poem refers to three classes of society: those supported by society, those who support society, and those who accommodate the supporters.

"A palanquin is a covered litter, usually for one passenger. It is carried by an even number of bearers (between two and eight, but most commonly four) on their shoulders, by means of a pole projecting fore and aft. The word is derived from the Sanskrit palyanka, meaning bed or couch."
-- Wikipedia Definition --

Sunday, April 23, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: on stories

Another quotation from N. Scott Momaday on storytellers and storytelling.  I think there are some ideas expressed in them that wouldn't be accepted favorably by modern critics, and, perhaps, by some not-so-modern critics and scholars. . 

  Stories are composed of words and of such implications as the storyteller places upon the words.  The choice of words, their arrangement, and their effect are by and large determined by the storyteller.  The storyteller exercises nearly complete control over the storytelling experience.

.  .  .  .  .

   Stories are true to our common experience; they are statements which concern the human condition.  To the extent that the human condition involves moral considerations, stories have moral implications.  Beyond that, stories are true in that they are established squarely upon belief.  In the oral tradition stories are told not merely to entertain or to instruct; they are told to be believed.  Stories are not subject to the imposition of such questions as true or false, act or fiction.  Stories are realities lived and believed.  They are true. 

-- N. Scott Momaday --
The Man Made of Words

Aside from John Gardner, I wonder how many critics, scholars, and readers will accept Momaday's statement that stories have moral implications.  

I'm not sure exactly what Momaday means by Stories are not subject to the imposition of such questions as true or false, act or fiction.  Stories are realities lived and believed.  They are true.   I think he suggests the stories somehow are not to be judged by our ordinary commonsense ways of thinking, but exist somehow in another place. 

Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Han Shan: solitude

One reason why I admire Han Shan (Cold Mountain) is his humanity.  He comes across as very human, and this is one that reveals him as being human, and not some mystic saint.

Sitting alone I keep slipping away
far off with the cares of my heart
clouds wander by the mountainside
wind rushes out the valley
gibbons swing from the trees
birds call through the forest
time slips past my temples
yearend finds me old with regrets

-- Han Shan (Cold Mountain) --
The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
Red Pine: trans and ed.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Pt. 3

Lawrence Durrell

As many have said before and many will repeat in the future, one of the joys and benefits of rereading some works is the discovery of the "new" or actually unnoticed elements in the work.  Sometimes the "new" brings out new themes or motifs in the work.  Sometimes it forces a re-thinking about of the work.  This is rare, but it does occur, and this is what has happened with this rereading. In spite of three? or four? readings, I never noticed this before or never realized the significance of it.

Justine is Darley's attempt to reconstruct the events of his life in Alexandria and make sense of it.  It is flashback, but with a very interrupted and convoluted narrative.  He does not go back and start with his arrival in Alexandria and move forward in a chronological straightforward  way to the present.  Instead, it is almost impossible to construct a chronology without considerable effort, and perhaps considerable guesswork by the reconstructor.  I had always taken this as an example of what many modern writers insist is the way that memories work--not in a chronological fashion, but somewhat randomly and those random memories bring up related memories. This is what it seemed was happening in Justine.   But, then I read this, seemingly for the first time.

(What I most need to do is to record experiences, not in the order in which they took place--for that is history--but in the order in which they first became significant for me.)

If this is so, then the events presented us are those which became significant in his reconstruction of his past life in Alexandria, and are not simply the random productions of memory.  I don't have time now, but I shall leave a note for my next rereading of Justine.  I wonder how this will affect my reading.  

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Minute Meditation

The storyteller is the one who tells the story.  To say this is to say that the storyteller is preeminently entitled to tell the story.  He is original and creative.  He creates the storytelling experience and himself and his audience in the process.  He exists in the person of the storyteller for the sake of telling the story.  When he is otherwise occupied, he is someone other than the storyteller.  His telling of the story is a unique performance.  The storyteller creates himself in the sense that the mask he wears for the sake of telling the story is of his own making, and it is never the same.   He creates his listener in the sense that he determines the listener's existence within, and in relation to, the story, and it is never the same.  The storyteller says in effect: "On this occasion I am, for I imagine that I am; and on this occasion you are, for I imagine that you are.  And this imagining is the burden of the story, and indeed it is the story."  

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from The Man Made of Words

N. Scott Momaday obviously possesses a different philosophy regarding storytelling than do many of his contemporaries.   Some commentaries I had read a short time ago imply that there is no such thing as a good book or a bad book, that there is no such thing as a good storyteller or a bad storyteller, that there are only good readers and bad readers.

Sheer unadulterated twaddle.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Nikos Kazantzakis: Toda Raba

Nikos Kazantzakis
Toda Raba
Published 1931
English Translation, 1964
Amy Mims,  trans.


The focal point of this tale is the Soviet Union's celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the October Revolution in 1928.  Nikos Kazantzakis received an invitation from the Soviet government to attend a general meeting being held at that time.  Although Kazantzakis never became a member of the Communist Party, he apparently saw them at that time as the best hope to improve the condition of   the mass of humanity and to fight the ever increasing threat of fascism.  Like many others during the 20s, he seemed, to me at least, to be more of an admirer of the Ideal Communism.   He attended the meeting and traveled once again extensively throughout the Soviet Union in 1928. Toda Raba was written in 1929 and first published in 1931.   According to what I have read, he later witnessed the rise of Stalin and became disillusioned by communism as practiced in Russia.

The narrative is split, for it follows the travels of six or seven people who were invited to attend that Tenth Anniversary meeting in Moscow.  The travelers are varied:  there is Rahel, a Polish-Jewish young woman who is a member of the Cheka (Soviet secret police): Azad, a ex-member of the Cheka and a murderer; Geranos, who, like Kazantzakis,  is from Crete; Sou-ki, a Chinese living in California; Amita, a Japanese writer;  Amanda, a monk from India; and Toda Raba, a black African.

The characters are forcefully drawn and come alive.  This is one of Kazantzakis' strengths--his ability to make his characters come off the page, even minor characters who only appear briefly for a page or two, and are never seen again.  For example:

Geranos turned around.  .  .  He saw a man dressed very soberly and elegantly, who moved with short, fiery movements.  His eyes were exalted and cold.  Only his smile, broad and controlled and showing beautiful carnivorous teeth, betrayed the hungry sensuality in this disciplined man. 

Some parts of the novel might be mistaken for a travelogue for Kazantzakis provides us with beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside and the varied cities and towns and the many nationalities along with their native dress and customs as the travelers take different routes to reach Moscow.

But, above all, Kazantzakis gives us the varying political and ideological flavors of the travelers, from idealistic believers to those who see various problems arising within the system to those who see Communism as the wave of the future and wish to be part of it.  Azad, at one point, says:

"But are you blind?  Don't you see?  There's something not right in our Russia!  What it is I don't know . . . . There's a stream of mire . . . . of red mire . . . . Let's get together, we old fighters, we honest men, the ones with fire.  Let's create a different stream, even if we have to make it out of blood.  Let's climb the hill again.  Let's purge the earth once more! Can't this little band sign the death warrant any more . . ."

Azad sees what he considers flaws in the system.  He is not blinded by his faith in this way.  However, he believes that the flaws are the result of those in power and that the solution is to remove them and put in better people.  He doesn't realize that all human created systems are flawed, that there really is no such thing as the perfect system.   

As you can see, Kazantzakis' travelers are anything but a monolithic bloc of true believers as they debate and argue about the state of communism in the Soviet Union.  The flyleaf to the novel suggests that the characters all represent Kazantzakis' own deeply conflicting views of  the Revolution.  If so, it is easy to see why he never have joined the Communist Party.

I have read many of Kazantzakis' works over the years, but I had never heard of this work until last year, and  I was curious about it. I had to find out why it had been so neglected and ignored by the scholars and critics I had read over the years and I wanted, naturally to read it.  I haven't read much actually of the scholarship, to be honest, but I would have thought this one would have mentioned by at least one or two.  Perhaps it is Kazantzakis' communist leanings that scholars wished to ignore, to pretend it never happened.  But, to me anyway, the book shows Kazantzakis to be in no way a true believer, but a one who feels that communism, at least in 1929, is the best hope for humanity, even though very skeptical as to the direction it seemed to be taking.  And history has shown that his skepticism was justified.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain XC

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain  in which the narrator eavesdrops on the Potter's creations as they comment in the Potter's absence.  The Potter, to me, suggests the Creator.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XC

And once again there gathered a scarce heard
Whisper among them; as it were, the stirr'd
    Ashes of some all but extinguished Tongue,
Which mine ear kindled into living Word.   

According to another Rubaiyat collection that I have, the Fifth Edition version of this quatrain is LXXXIII.  However, I don't see the relationship between XC and LXXXIII.  It seems to me, therefore, that this is one of the quatrains that FitzGerald added in the Second Edition but had removed by the time the Fifth Edition was published.  I can see why, for this quatrain really doesn't say much.  Although one might expect the following quatrain to tell us what that living Word might be, the first line of the following quatrain, Said one among them--"Surely not in vain," strikes me as ambiguous or awkwardly expressed.  It really doesn't flow smoothly from the previous quatrain.

Among the Potter's creations, one is speaking so quietly that it sounds as if it were just some ashes being stirred.  The reference here is obvious: ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  Possibly some long deceased human's ashes were gathered up in the clay used to create this pot.  I wonder if this is a vague reference to reincarnation.  That voice, Which mine ear kindled into living Word, was so faint that I wonder if he really heard anything at all

I think this was supposed to be an introductory quatrain, leading to some idea expressed in the following quatrain.  However, this didn't happen, so FitzGerald decided to remove it. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

John Muir: Destruction or Creation?

No. 66

How lavish is Nature, building, pulling down, creating, destroying, chasing every material particle from form to form, ever changing, ever beautiful.   


.  .  . One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made.  That this is still the morning of creation.  That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.  That moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants .  .  . while the finest part of the grist, seen hastening far out to sea, is being stored away in the darkness, and builded, particle on particle, cementing, and crystallizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains of other landscapes, which, like fluent pulsing water, rise and fall, and pass on through the ages in endless rhythm and beauty. 

All quotations are from John Muir: In His Own Words 

It certainly is a different way to view nature, especially when in a mountainous area.

Is there a difference between the acts of nature--earthquakes, landslides, storms, volcano eruptions, mountain building, etc.-- when what was there before is gone and replaced with something else on the one hand and taking down old buildings and fine old neighborhoods whose only sin is that they are old and replacing them with condos, apartment complexes, big box stores, and parking lots?

But, I guess I will be told that that is progress, and that one shouldn't stand in the way of progress,  should  one?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Pt. 2

For some reason, the narrator neglected to introduce us to Balthazar, who will be a very important character, as suggested by his name given to the second book in the Quartet.

Balthazar's importance is considerable.  To be precise, Darley has sent the manuscript to Balthazar.  Balthazar then "corrects" or adds what he knows, from a different perspective,  about the events Darley has portrayed and returns the manuscript and the interlinear to Darley.  The second novel, Balthazar, Darley's attempt to rewrite Justine based on Balthazar's information. 

In Part II, the narrator recognizes this and quickly describes him and their strange meeting.

I see a tall man in a black hat with a narrow brimPombal christened him, "the botanical goat".  He is thin, stoops slightly, and has a deep croaking voice of great beauty, particularly when he quotes or recites.  . . It is a mystery how he can have, suspended from his trunk, hands of such monstrous ugliness.  I would long since have cut them off and thrown them into the sea.  Under his chin he has one dark spur of hair growing, such as one sometimes sees upon the hoof of a sculptured Pan.
                                                  .     .     .      .     .
.  .  .  .  .

I remember meeting him, too , one bleak winter evening, walking along the rain-swept  Corniche, dodging the sudden gushes of salt water from the conduits which lined it.  .  .  . We had met before, it is true, but glancingly:  and would have perhaps passed each other with a nod had not his agitation made him stop me and take my arm.  "Ah! you can help me!" he cried, taking me by the arm.  "Please help me."  His pale face with its gleaming goat-eyes lowered itself toward mine in the approaching dusk.

Balthazar had lost the key to his pocket-watch, which had belonged to his father.  While he could have had another key cut for it, it wouldn't be the same for that key--"It belonged to this watch.  It was part of it. They searched briefly, but it got too dark and they went to a cafe and got acquainted.
The key was found, but the circumstances surrounding it were strange and never fully explained, at least in Justine.  Perhaps we will learn more about the key and the mystery that enveloped it in the next volume, Balthazar.

We do find out later.

Balthazar has his counterpart in Durrell's "The Avignon Quintet,"  in Akkad, the leader of a cult of Gnostics who is also a very talented and convincing speaker/reader at the meetings.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Eagle


 Hokusai:  Eagle in Flight

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson --

While the painting by Hokusai doesn't quite exactly match Tennyson's poem, I think it does portray the spirit of the poem.  

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Favorite SF novels or short works--2016

These are those SF/F works that I read and enjoyed during 2016, and many of which I might read again, sometime down the road.


First Reads:

Kim Stanley Robinson:      Aurora
--my favorite new SF novel read during 2016
--a grim, gritty, and discouraging tale of life aboard a generation ship.
--Robinson's theme seems to be that while travel in the solar system may be possible, travel to another star to set up a colony by humans is impossible with today's technology and what seems potentially possible in the future.  
--perhaps his Red, Green, and Blue Mars trilogy presents the most we can hope for,  but who knows what future research may bring--FTL anyone?
--for my longer commentary, see

Gene Wolfe:      A Borrowed Man
--A very unique concept--writers are cloned after death and the clones are placed in libraries to be used as resource materials where they can be borrowed just like any other material in the library.
--see my longer post on this work at

Sylvain Neuvel:      Sleeping Giants
--this is the first novel I've read by him.
--a young girl falls into a sinkhole and lands in the palm of a huge metallic hand, one obviously not made by humans.
--some decades later, she becomes involved in a research project devoted to answering questions about the giant robot:  who, what, where, why.  .  .  and where's the rest of it?
--the story is told through a series of interviews conducted by an unknown, unnamed, and mysterious questioner.
--the sequel Waking Gods is the second in the series, and I will definitely read it.

Kazuo Ishiguro The Buried Giant
--a fantasy set in England shortly after the death of King Arthur
--an elderly couple set out to find their son who left after a quarrel with the father.
--on their journey, they and the reader encounters dragons, evil monks,  Sir Gawain, and a mysterious disease that affects the memory.
--for a longer commentary, see my post at

Iain M. Banks:    Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games
--two novels set in Banks' "Culture" Universe.
--diverse topics with little if any overlap between these two novels, and from what I've read this holds true for the other novels set in this universe.  Culture is not really an organized government, as such, but a union of like-minded planets and cultures.  It's purpose is to envelope all cultures but not through military means.  

Thea von Harbou:      Metropolis
--the basis for the classic SF film by the same name.
--the problem is the gap between the head (capitalists owners) and the hand (the workers).

Olaf Stapledon:          Odd John
--the life of a mutant superman, who is one of the most unpleasant "superman" I've ever read about.

Stanislaw Lem:         Solaris
--the basis for the two films of the same name
--the best novel I've ever read that portrays aliens as really alien and not humans    
   dressed up in funny suits.

M. John Harrison:     The Pastel City
--a novel set in the far future on Earth, but an Earth that no longer resembles anything we know
--so much time has passed that several alien species are no longer considered aliens
--two rival queens vie for control of Viriconium, the strangest city I've ever visited in print.

Ursula LeGuin:          The Left Hand of Darkness
--this novel is a permanent fixture on that desert island list.
--it's one I always recommend when someone asks for a recommendation
--for more information, see my post at

Wilson Tucker:          The Long Loud Silence

--this may not be the first post-holocaust novel I ever read, but it's the first one I remember.
--probably outdated today, but still it's a nostalgic favorite I go back to every once in a while.

Dan Simmons:          Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion
--two of his best works-complex plot and characters.
--it begins as the story of a war between a galactic empire and the barbarians who left the empire and
   have now returned to exact revenge.  It is much more than that, as we read on.
--for more information, see my posts at, and

John Brunner:           Stand on Zanzibar
--rather than struggle with trying give you an idea of what this complex novel is like, go to my post
  for a brief summary at

Roger Zelazny:     The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth
--a favorite short work by Zelazny.  A man earns his living by being hired to act as bait.

Kevin Anderson and Gregory Benford:    Mammoth Dawn
--a husband and wife encounter problems while trying to bring back extinct animals, especially the
--for more information, see my post at


Friday, March 24, 2017

Li Po: "Drinking Alone in Moonlight"

I have already posted this poem, but it was a different translation.  I have heard the saying, "In vino veritas,"when means, I guess, in wine there is truth.  But enlightenment. . .?

Drinking Alone in Moonlight

If Heaven had no love for wine,
There would be no Wine Star in Heaven;
If earth had no love for wine,
There would be no city called Wine Springs..
Since Heaven and Earth love wine,
I can love wine without shaming Heaven.

They say that clear wine is a saint,
Thick wine follows the way of the sage.
I have drunk deep of saint and sage:
What need then to study the spirits and fairies?
With three cups I penetrate the Great Tao,
Take a whole jugful--I and the world are one.
Such things as I have dreamed in wine
Shall never be told to the sober.

-- Li Po --
from A Treasury of Asian Literature
John  B. Yohannan, editor

Sounds very modern to me.  Just substitute LSD or peyote or any other mind altering drug for wine.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Robert Frost: Spring Pools

Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods--
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only recently.

--Robert Frost --

Another of Frost's enigmatic poems.  Those summer woods, celebrated by other poets and writers, are portrayed somewhat differently here for they "darken nature."  Even more ominous is Frost's warning to those trees with "their pent-up buds."
"Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only recently."

What is dangerous about that snow that melted only recently"?  Or, is it something other than that melted snow?

As usual, his poem is characterized by a straightforward, almost conversational sentence structure and simple, everyday words, and yet he manages to hint at something behind all this deceptive simplicity.   

Now that I've finished my brief ramblings, go back and read the poem again.  That's what's important--the poem..

Friday, March 17, 2017

Basho's frog

This is probably one of Basho's most famous haiku.   I have a book titled Basho's One Hundred Frogs,  a collection of 100 different translations of this one haiku.  Surely, that must be a record of some sort.

Old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

This is my favorite translation.  I can picture myself sitting near a pond or river, with a frog nearby.  I can't see the water directly below the frog because of the bank.  The frog jumps and disappears in the sound of water.  I never do see the frog enter the water; he just jumps into the sound.  Oh, I know very well what happened, or think I do anyway.  However, maybe that frog really did jump into the sound of water. Just why this grabs me, I have no idea.  Perhaps you may have some suggestions. 

Basho: The Complete Haiku
Jane Reichhold, ed. and trans.

Following is a much more mundane (to me anyway) translation:

The quiet pond
  A frog jumps in,
    The sound of the water.

The comma provides a pause between the frog jumping in (and not "into")  and the resulting sound of water.
 tran.  Edward G. Seidensticker
from  One Hundred Frogs.
ed.  Hiroaki Sato

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Minute Observation

Nothing very profound here--just an observation by Joseph Wood Krutch on the long northern winters and various ways that some animals have found to handle them. usual it is the cats who are provided with the most perfect mechanism.  They are, to be sure, capable of a kind of short-range impatience--when, for example, food is being prepared.  They seem at time to suffer momentarily from boredom, as a wild animal perhaps never does.  But when the weather is too bad to go out, or when for any reason there is absolutely nothing to do, they can simply curl up and sleep almost endlessly, for days at a time if necessary, with perfect ease.  Even going to sleep seems to be a process entirely under their control, as voluntary as shutting the eyes is for us.  Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many different ailments, but I never heard of one who suffered from insomnia. 

Cats with insomnia:  sounds self-contradictory or mutually exclusive to me. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Eric Hoffer: totalitarianism in free societies

No. 28

There is a large measure of totalitarianism even in the freest of free societies.  But in a free society totalitarianism is not imposed from without but is implanted within the individual.  There is a totalitarian regime inside everyone of us.  We are ruled  by a ruthless politburo which sets our norms and drives us from one five-year plan to another.  The autonomous individual who has to justify his existence by his own efforts is in eternal bondage to himself.  

-- Eric Hoffer --
from  The Passionate State of Mind

If autonomous individuals are in bondage to themselves, then the non-autonomous individuals must be in bondage to outside forces.  Since there is no escape from bondage, according to Hoffer, then I would prefer to be in bondage to myself.

Aside from death, is there another option which could free us from this bondage?  Or, does this bondage really exist?   

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Favorite Fiction--2016

Some favorite works of fiction I read during 2016,


Sarah Orne Jewett:
                  The Country of Pointed Firs
                   --my first reading of her masterpiece.  Why did I take so long to get to it?
                   --this is on my must reread list.

                   A Country Doctor
                   --this one is a bit weaker than the first, but still an excellent read. and better     
                      than 90% of the other works I've read this year.

Joseph Conrad:  Suspense
 --an unfinished novel set in the Napoleonic era.
 --a traveler gets involved with a plot of Napoleon's escape from Elba.

Ray Bradbury:         Farewell Summer
--the sequel to Dandelion Wine.  The tone is different in this one.  The boy resists growing up.

Graham Greene:    The Human Factor
--a spy novel.  The unmasking of a mole in the British secret service, told from the mole's point of view.

Nathaniel Hawthorne:: The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories
--a collection of some of Hawthorne's most well-known short works.
--decided to leave this in the First Reads grouping as there were several short stories that I hadn't read before.

Kazuo Ishiguro:   The Remains of the Day
--a great novel of repression and fear of commitment, set against the backdrop of WWII.   
--his master is a Nazi sympathizer and the butler refuses to go against his master for he  is the master.


Jane Austen:
                   Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon
                   Northanger Abbey
                   Mansfield Park
                   Sense and Sensibility
                   Pride and Prejudice

--as always, great reading.  This was my fifth? sixth? who knows how many readings I've had of her works over the years.  They are just as good, if not better, the fifth? time around as the first.

A. Solzhenitsyn:   One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
--the title says it all--one day in a Soviet Union era gulag in Siberia, based loosely on his time there.  I like to pair this one with Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead, his experiences in a Siberian prison camp during the reign of the Tsars.  Forced to make a choice, I would choose life there under the Tsars.  The treatment was cruel but  much more humane than under the commissars. 

Dostoyevsky:   "The Gambler"
--Dostoyevsky's great novella depicting the downfall of an gambling addict.
--great character study of numerous Russians traveling abroad. sometimes just for travel and sometimes to avoid debt collectors back home.  Comic figures trapped within a tragic story.

Evelyn Waugh:   Brideshead Revisited
--Flashback:  an English army officer finds his unit stationed  on one of the grand   
   estates and recognizes it as the one that had a great influence on him, beginning with
   his stay at Oxford.

--there's a great BBC TV adaptation of the book.  After watching it, I went out and 
   got the book.

Herman Melville:  “Benito Cereno”
--Melville's great novella regarding the slave trade and a very naive American ship captain.

Nikos Kazantzakis:   Freedom or Death

--his powerful novel set in Greece during the time of the Greek war for independence.
--as usual his characters come off the page at you.

Oscar Wilde:   The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray
--This is the first and censored version of Gray's novel.  To be honest, I can not see anything that
   would be more offensive than anything in the published version.  A classic example of changing
    tastes, I will includ this among the rereads for I have read this several times.

There were a number of enjoyable works that I read during the past year, but these are the ones that stand out.  While there  appears to be a large number of first reads, equal to the rereads, one should note that Bradbury, Greene, Hawthorne, and Conrad are all favorites of mine from way back when.  These are works by them that I've never read before.

Only two of the authors in the First Reads Section are new to me:  Kazuo Ishiguro and Sarah Orne Jewett and are now on my reread list.  Coincidentally, I read two books by both.  The other book by by Ishiguro will appear on my Favorite SF novels of 2016 list.

Forgot to mention, but if you have questions about any of the authors or books, please ask.  I may not know the answer, but it's worth trying anyway.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXVI

A confusing quatrain:  the syntax is not clear to me.


Nay, but for the terror of his wrathful Face,
I swear I will not call Injustice Grace;
    Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but
Would kick so poor a Coward from this place. 

Perhaps FitzGerald felt there were problems with this quatrain, for it had disappeared by the time the Fifth Edition was published.

I think the meaning is that the  "terror of his wrathful Face," what is what would prevent him from calling  "Injustice Grace."  This refers back to the theme of those pleasures that God set before us and then forbade us from tasting them under pain if eternal punishment. 

I think he refers to himself as so poor a Coward  for being afraid to stand up and say what he thinks.  Those in the Tavern understand his fear and therefore would not reject him. If this is an adequate reading, then the quatrain is a very strange one: one that suggests that it is fear of God that keeps him from speaking the truth.  Perhaps FitzGerald had similar problems with it, for it was removed by the fifth edition, if not earlier.

Any other meanings possible?  Am I missing something?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Minute Meditation

I realized then the truth about all love:  that it is an absolute which takes all or forfeits all.  The other feelings, compassion, tenderness and so on, exist only on the periphery and belong to the constructions of society and habit.  But she herself--austere and merciless Aphrodite--is a pagan.  It is not our brains or instincts which she picks--but our very bones.

-- Lawrence Durrell --
from Justine, Part II

I think that there are a number of examples of this in the novel:  Darley, Melissa, Justine, Nessim, Mountolive, Leila, although it is not clear just whom these characters are in love with. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Robert Hayden: Those Winter Sundays

Sometimes while reading a poem, a stanza or even a line may resurrect memories long forgotten or at least not recalled in many years.  This is what happened yesterday when I read Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."   According to the brief bio note with the poem, Hayden was born in Detroit.  I was born and raised in Chicago, so my winter mornings were much like Hayden's in Detroit. 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

I remember my dad getting up in those cold, dark winter mornings and going down into the basement to remove the cinders and shovel coal into the furnace.  I too never said anything about it for I just took it as a part of living and never considered what it meant, until I read this poem.  Hayden says so little, yet suggests so much in this brief poem.

"No one ever thanked him."

"fearing the chronic angers of that house."

"Speaking indifferently to him,"

And of course, the last two lines:

"What did I know, what did I know
  of love's austere and lonely offices?"

How much regret, how much regret is contained  within those fourteen words?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ryokan: the ultimate enlightenment?

Is he enlightened or just lazy?

Without a jot of ambition left
I let my nature flow where it will.
There are ten days of rice in my bag
And, by the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
Who prattles of illusion or nirvana?
Forgetting the equal dusts of name and fortune,
Listening to the night rain on the roof of my hut,
I sit at ease, both legs stretched out.  
                           -- Ryokan --
from  Zen Poetry
edited and translated by Takashi Ikemoto and Lucien Stryk

What I find most intriguing is that he rejects both the spiritual world (illusion and nirvana) and the material world (name and fortune).  Is this the ultimate enlightenment? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 65

Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, calm and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation--a change from beauty to beauty.

-- John Muir --

from   John Muir:  In His Own Words

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favorite Films: 2016

These are the films that I watched and most  enjoyed in 2016 and would like to view again.  The first group are those films I watched for the first time, and probably not for the last time either.  As you can see, there were 20 film which I would like to view again some time, but only four of them were films I had viewed for the first time.  Sixteen of the twenty were films I had already viewed in the past, viewed again in 2016 and would like to watch again some time in the future.

First Viewings:

Symphonies of Beethoven 
a Teaching Company set of 48 lectures on Beethoven's symphonies.  The only downside was that they were too short.  It's on my "must watch again" list.
The Martian   
a very realistic depiction of being marooned on Mars.  

 Love and Friendship  
a marvelous transformation of Jane Austen's novella, _Lady Susan_.  It is the best adaptation of a work by Austen that I have ever seen.  Why they changed the name, I don't know.
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl  
Ken Burns' usual production, which would be extraordinary for anyone else--a great and moving documentary on a sad period in our history.  

Repeat Viewings:

THX 1138
George Lucas' first film, directed when he paid attention to character and plot and kept the action sequences at the appropriate level--but, as usual, he just had to get a car chase sequence in there.

Museum Hours
a great film, simple plot and two main characters.  The sights and scenes of Vienna are matched by the dialogue and paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  This is a link to my post on this film.

Man from Earth
one of my favorite SF films--John Oldman tells his friends that he's over 10,000 years old.  What follows is their attempt to determine if he is lying or deceiving them.  They of course rule out the possibility that he's telling the truth.  This is a link to my post on this film:

The Name of the Rose
a limited but excellent adaptation of Umberto Eco's great novel of the same name--a mystery set in an isolated monastery in Italy?  moody and dark, an interesting mix of religion and politics, and religious politics. 

Witness for the Prosecution
my all-time favorite  courtroom drama film: strangely, I liked the film better than the Christie story it was based on.

The Qatsi Trilogy
all photography, with no dialogue or plot; the  sound track of music composed by Philip Glass is an integral part of the overall effect.  Must be seen and heard to be appreciated.

pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect: -a contrast between wilderness and urban settings--the viewer decides

again, pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect:  the contrast is between the developing parts of the Southern Hemisphere and the still undeveloped parts

--Life as War is a rough translation of the title.  Released some 14 years after the first two--the technology wasn't available at the time.  This is almost all digitized photography. 

Brideshead Revisited
an excellent adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel.  Seeing this on PBS Masterpiece Theatre got me to go and read the novel.

Wages of Fear
one of the most tense and nerve racking films I've ever watched.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Smiley's People
two great BBC adaptations of the Smiley novels by John le Carre'
Alec Guinness is in top form here

The Big Sleep (Bogart and Bacall)

It's Bogart and Bacall in a film adaptation of a novel by Raymond Chandler.  What else need I say?.

If you're in the mood for a film and don't have anything particular in mind, try one of these, and let me know what you thought.  They are all great films and well worth the time spent.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

Jack London:   The Scarlet Plague

Edgar Allan Poe published a short work titled "The Masque of the Red Death" (aka "The Mask of the Red Death) in 1842 about a virulent plague that caused instant bleeding from the pores and immediate death.  In 1912, some 70 years later, Jack London published a novella, The Scarlet Death in which he depicted a plague that caused a bright reddening of the skin and almost instantaneous death.  Did London borrow the idea from Poe?  I don't know as I've never read anything that suggests such a possibility.  Aside from the symptoms and the high mortality rate, the two tales are very different in time and place.  Poe's tale takes place in Renaissance Italy (or so I guess) while London's is set in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013. 

Poe's story focused on a small group of people who fled the city for an isolated "castellated abbey," hoping to escape the plague.  It had a high wall and an iron door.  They sealed the door in an attempt to keep the plague or plague bearers out.  However, as those who have read the tale know, they were unsuccessful  What happened after the plague appeared and apparently killed all in the abbey is not told.

London's tale, however, is a flashback, a reminiscence of one of the few survivors, called Granser by the boys,  told to the next generation, a small group of young males who are the descendants of those few who were immune to the plague.  While the story was written in 1912, London set it in 2013, in the San Francisco Bay area. 

The frame tells us what life is like several decades after the plague.  Granser's  audience consists of teen-aged boys, whose language consists mostly of a very basic vocabulary and they see no reason why there should be more than one word for something.  They deride the old man for referring to something as "scarlet" when "red" is a perfectly good word.  While we never really get a close look at the way the people live then, London does provide sufficient information to suggest that humanity has reverted back to the hunting and gathering stage, a period of savagery, as Granser complains.  But, this is all part of the cycle, for the old man tells the boys:

 "You are true savages.  Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth.  In another generation you will be perforating your nose and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell.  I know.  The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization.  When we increase and feel the lack of room,  we will proceed to kill one another." 

Most of the tale, though, consists of the horrors experienced during the outbreak of the plague and the breakdown of society, the rioting, looting, and killing that occurred as the terrified population thought only of their own survival at any cost.  What's intriguing is that Granser, a literature professor at the University of California,  and numerous colleagues in the university community attempted to barricade themselves in the Chemistry Building, bringing in supplies and weapons and prepared to do whatever they had to do to keep the plague and plague bearers out, just as the Prince and his friends had done in Poe's tale. And, they were just an unsuccessful.  At the end, the few survivors fled the building.

London doesn't go into any great detail about what had happened during the sixty years that had passed since the outbreak.  He is most concerned with the breakdown of society at the time of the plague and some depiction of life today.

Interwoven though is London's socialist philosophy as the old man tells of society in 2013 as consisting of Masters and Slaves (capitalist owners and workers).  He, in speaking of the events of 2013, tells us  "(t)hat was the year that Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates."

London also makes the point, over a century ago, that he was aware of what we today are only too aware of--the relationship of a large population and the appearance of new diseases and the role of rapid global  transportation in the spread of these diseases.  Improved methods of food production led to an increase in population.  "The easier it was to get food, the more men there were; the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth; and the more thickly were they packed, the more new kinds of germs became diseases."

We are certainly well aware of the problem today, especially when we consider the onset of AIDS, Ebola, and most recently the Zika virus.  So far we've been lucky as rapid transmission of information has allowed us to stay ahead of the threat, even though several countries were placed under quarantine during the last Ebola outbreak.

London's tale is a disquieting one, even though it is considered science fiction.  It is not an highly improbable invasion by aliens that poses the threat but invaders from Earth itself.  We see examples of it perhaps every decade or so.

At one time I had considered calling this post "The Three Plagues."  I had planned to write about three plague stories--the two mentioned above and George R. Stewart's great novel, The Earth Abides.   However, the length of this commentary on the first two is long enough, so I will post on Stewart's work separately.

 I would recommend, if you have the time, to read all three stories:  first Poe, then London, and then Stewart's novel, for together they provide an thorough exploration of the theme--the plague and its aftermath.  .