Monday, September 18, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: The Black Book

Lawrence Durrell
The Black Book

The Black Book is the novel that gained Lawrence Durrell notice in the literary world.   T. S. Eliot called it "the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction."  Henry Miller worked to get a private edition printed in Paris when Durrell had difficulty finding a publisher.

I find some interesting parallels between The Black Book and the Alexandria Quartet  (AQ).  It's almost as if this was a first attempt which gave him the experience to produce the much larger work, four novels in the Alexandria Quartet, instead of one. 

Both novels are 1st person narratives,  and the narrators of both are now on islands in the Mediterranean, writing of  their experiences of the past year or two.   While the narrator in the AQ writes of his experiences in Alexandria just before WWII, the narrator of The Black Book tells the reader in the past year he has spent in a tired, rundown  hotel in London.  Both narrators struggle as they are in the process of learning their craft.

We don't find out the narrator's name in the AQ until the second novel, Balthazar.  And then, it's only his last name, Darley.  However we do get a clue in the first novel when Darley is told that he's referred to as Lineaments of Gratified Desire.  These are his initials, which coincidentally happen to be the same as the author's: Lawrence George Durrell.   The narrator in The Black Book jokingly refers to himself several times as Lawrence Lucifer. 
Those are not the only parallels.   As in the AQ, various forms of love or lust are portrayed in The Black Book, although limited in comparison to the AQ. Another is that at least one other writer is featured prominently in both works.  Journals and diaries also play an important role in both works.  One last commonality is the broken narrative structure in both works wherein the time line is fractured.  Characters are brought into the narrative, and we learn that they are dead or have left before we find out anything about them, including their relationship to the narrator.  It is only later that we learn their significance

Of course, differences exist.  Aside from the size of the two works, one major difference is tone.  The AQ seems to be, to me anyway, a celebration of Alexandria, with all its marvelous characters, its romantic and tragic tales, and its history.  On the other hand, The Black Book is a bitter, biting satire on England between the two world wars.  The narrator refers to "the English death" frequently when speaking of the England of the 1930's.  In the AQ, the golden, if sometimes harsh, light of the sun is an important characteristic of the natural world, while England is usually portrayed as dark, gloomy, and rainy. 

I had first read The Black Book only after reading The Alexandria Quartet, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to judge it on its own merits.  How much of my interest in the work is the result of having read it after The Alexandria Quartet and, therefore, seeing the relationship of this work to the larger work is debatable. I just don't know.  What my feelings toward this work would be if I had read it first is difficult to say right now.

Friday, September 15, 2017

W. H. Auden: "Their Lonely Betters"


As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

No one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

-- W. H. Auden --
from Art and Nature: An Illustrated Anthology of Nature Poetry

And miles to go before we sleep.
And miles to go before we sleep.

Does being able to create poetry make up for this loneliness?  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A History of India: a series of lectures presented by the Teaching Company

A History of India
A Great Courses Set on DVD
The Teaching Company
6 DVDs, 18 hours of lectures

I've long been impressed by the lecture sets produced by the Teaching Company, called The Great Courses.  They are a series of lectures, four or six to a DVD, each lecture being 30 or 45 minutes in length.  The sets range from 2 to 8 DVDs, and each DVD contains three hours of lectures.  The format is that of the ordinary classroom lecture, supplemented by appropriate visual and auditory aids.    Discussions of the arts will include photographs of the paintings  or sculptures under discussion while excerpts of music are presented during lectures on the work being discussed.

The topics covered include the sciences, mathematics, literature, religion, economics and finance, history, music, the fine arts, meditation, gardening, cooking, home decoration, various self-help topics, and a number of subjects I've forgotten to mention.  I think there's something here for just about everybody.

The lectures are geared for the average student who may know a little about the subject, but those who know nothing about the subject will have little or no difficulty understanding the lectures.   For example, I've viewed a number of lecture sets on astronomy and have found that most, if not all, begin with an introductory lecture on the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang theory or its variants.

This set of lectures on the history of India, presented by Professor Michael H. Fisher of Oberlin College,  begins with what is known about the earliest inhabitants of the subcontinent.  Most agree that they were there at least 35,000 years ago and some argue for a date of 70,000 years.  It appears as though, later, that there were three distinct cultural threads forming the early population, and DNA tests suggests that the survivors are still present today, though mixed and interspersed among the general population today.

Subsequent lectures include the various attempts to unify India, the development of  various religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism), and the effects of the interactions with other cultures and religions, including Islam and Christianity.  The last set of lectures include the results of the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India,  Pakistan, and eventually Bangladesh and the violence that resulted.  The set came out in 2016, so it is quite up-to-date to that point.  However, it appeared prior to recent events in Pakistan, so the effects of the attempted coup are not covered. 

Viewing the lectures will not make me an expert on India, and they are not designed to do that.  They do provide an excellent overview of the subject, though, much like an introductory course on any subject.   One of the topics covered was Hinduism, of which I know little.   Another was Sikhism.  So, in the future, I will be looking for more information on those subjects.  I have already viewed its set of lectures on Buddhism and have some ideas about further research on that topic.  That's one of the benefits of courses such as this: it provides areas for further investigation.

I get these sets from the local library which has a wide variety of the Teaching Company offerings.  I have probably viewed around 50 of the sets over the past ten to fifteen years.  At present I have the following sets awaiting me:  The Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology,  How to Read and Understand Shakespeare, and The Great Tours:  Experiencing Medieval Europe.

The following is a link to the Teaching Company's web page where you can peruse its extensive collection.  The sets are for sale and can be purchased in a variety of formats, including downloads.

I hope some of you are interested sufficiently to browse through the Teaching Company's offerings.  It's free.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

A Minute Meditation

Outwardly the enlightened seem the same as everybody else.  Inwardly, however, their distinctive trait is that they have no goal, but simply allow life to enfold with no concern for where it is going.  For them, effort, cunning, and purpose are the results of having forgotten one's true nature.

-- Zi Gong --
from Taoist Wisdom
Timothy Freke, editor

No goal?  No plans for the future?  Just drift with what is happening at that time?   It seems to go against everything we in the West are taught, or so it seems to me.

This sounds strange to me.   But, then again, when people asked me long ago what I was going to be when I grew up, I never had an answer.  I can look back and see how one thing led to another; however, I never imagined my life would go as it did. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Loren Eiseley and Robert Silverberg: a strange pairing?

Robert Silverberg
Downward to the Earth
an SF novel

Loren Eiseley
The Star Thrower

I found the following conversation in Downward to the Earth,  a science fiction novel by Robert Silverberg.  It is set on an alien planet which Earth had colonized and then had to leave because it was discovered that there was a sentient/intelligent race native to the planet, something that should have been obvious from the beginning.  Why it wasn't is explained in the discussion between Gunderson, once head of the Company's operation on the planet and a tourist. 

"Watson asked, 'Why don't they have a civilization, then?'

'I've just told you that they do.'

'I mean cities, machines, books--'

'They're not physically equipped for writing, for building things, for any small manipulations,' Gunderson said.  'Don't you see, they have no hands?  A race with hands makes one kind of society.  A race built like elephants makes another.'''

At about the same time I read  Downward to the Earth, I also read a collection of essays, The Star Thrower,  by Loren Eiseley--anthropologist, poet, essayist.  In one of the essays, he brought up the research findings by Dr. John Lilly about the intelligence of the porpoise.  Eiseley asked an interesting question. 

"We are forced to ask ourselves whether native intelligence in another form than man's might be as high as or even higher than his own, yet be marked by no such material monuments as man has placed on the earth."

Eiseley then proposes a thought  experiment.   We will trade in our hands for flippers and the land for the ocean, bringing with us only our intelligence.

"The result is immediately evident and quite clear.  No matter how well we communicate with our fellows through the water medium we will never build drowned empires in the coral .  .  .  Over all that region of wondrous beauty we will exercise no more control than the simplest mollusk.  Even the octopus with flexible arms will build little shelters that we cannot imitate.  Without hands we will have only the freedom to follow the untrammeled sea winds across the planet."

And later, Eiseley paraphrases Melville's commentary about the sperm whale and in which he substitutes the porpoise: "'Genius in the porpoise? Has the porpoise ever written a book, spoken  speech?  No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it.  It is proved in his pyramidal silence.' "

"If man had sacrificed his hands for flukes, the moral might run, he would still be a philosopher, but there would have been taken from him the devastating power to wreak his thought upon the body of the  world.  Instead he would have lived and wandered, like the porpoise, homeless across currents and wind and oceans, intelligent, but forever the lonely and curious observer of unknown wreckage falling the through the blue light of eternity.   This would now be a deserved penitence for man.  Perhaps such a transformation would bring him once more into that mood of childhood innocence in which he talked successfully to all things living but had no power and no urge to harm.  It is worth at last a wistful thought that someday the porpoise may talk to us and we to him.  It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even to himself."

It is coincidence, of course, to find a similar topic in an SF novel and in a collection of essays.   But, finding the same topic in both made me think about it in a way that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't encountered it in two such different works.

It is a fascinating question; what would my life be if I had flippers instead of hands and feet and if I lived in the sea? 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Thomas Mann: "Disillusionment" Part 2

Thomas Mann
a short story

After rereading the post, I realized that I had focused on the relationship between the story and the song and had ignored some interesting points in the story, or at least, they seemed interesting to me.
I wondered about  the source of his disillusionment.    He apparently believes that the problem lies in the situations themselves rather than in any deficiency in himself:  the problem is external rather than internal.  I think it is an internal problem: it is inside him.  Either he has excessive expectations or he is deficient in some way.  

Another of those ignored points is that the disillusioned man brought forth both types of disappointments:  he recognized that he was disappointed not only in those situations where the joy did not reach the hoped for expected levels, but also in those situations where the grief or sadness also did not achieve those heights.  It is almost as if he recognized that both had to be necessary: the great joy as well as the great sadness or grief.  Is this true:  one must be able to experience both? 

I think there may be those who would have regretted missing out on the great joys of life while being happy to have escaped those situations of grief or sadness.   Could there be those who never missed feeling even the great joys of life?  In other words, are there people who would envy the disillusioned man?

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Thomas Mann and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and Peggy Lee?

Thomas Mann
a short story included in Stories of Three Decades
H. T.  Lowe-Porter, translator 

I, after a few decades of my own, dug out my copy of Thomas Mann's Stories of Three Decades, a collection of twenty-four short stories.  It was while reading the second story in the collection, "Disillusionment," that something strange happened.

It's not a complicated tale at all.  The first person narrator is sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Venice, enjoying the evening, when a man seated at the next table, begins to talk to him.  After a few opening pleasantries, the stranger suddenly  becomes quite serious.

"Do you know, my dear sir, what disillusionment is?"  he low, urgent tones, both hands leaning on his stick.  "Not a miscarriage in small, unimportant matters, but the great and general disappointment which everything, all of life, has in store?  No, of course, you do not know.  But from my youth up I have carried it about with me; it has made me lonely, unhappy, and a bit queer, I do not deny that." 

One night, when he was a small child, his parents' house caught on fire, and it was only with some difficulty that the entire family was saved.  After it was over, he thought:

"So this,' I thought, 'is a fire.   This is what it is like to have the house on fire.  Is this all there is to it?"

Later, the inevitable happens: romance enters his life.

"'Years ago I fell in love with a girl, a charming, gentle creature, whom it would have been my joy to protect and cherish.  But she loved me not. . .and she married another. . .Many a night I lay wide-eyed and wakeful; yet my greatest torture resided in the thought: 'So this is the greatest pain we can suffer.  Well, and what then--is this all?'"

Even the sea and a vast gorge disappoints him.  And the last disappointment hasn't occurred yet, but when it does:

"'So I dream and wait for death.  Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment!  At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: 'So this is the great experience--well, and what of it? What is it after all?'"

It was a sad story, and I felt sorry for the disillusioned man to some extent.  However, it seemed to me, though, that he had suffered from an exaggerated or excessive expectations about the upcoming events.  He was much like a child, or so it seemed to me.

As I read the story, it not only seemed familiar to me (very possible as I had read it a long time ago), but I also associated a tune with it.  Finally, at the end of the story, I remembered a hit song from the late '60s.   The song, of course, is "Is That All There is?" sung by Peggy Lee.

Some of the lyrics:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire
I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement
And I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames
And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire?

And then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world
We'd take take long walks down by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other's eyes
We were so very much in love
And then one day he went away and I thought I'd die, but I didn't
And when I didn't I said to myself, is that all there is to love?

I know what you must be saying to yourselves
If that's the way she feels about it why doesn't she just end it all?
Oh, no, not me I'm not ready for that final disappointment
'Cause I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you
When that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself

Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is

I went a bit further and found the following in a Wikipedia article titled "Is That All There Is?"  The following is an excerpt from that article.

"The song was inspired by the 1896 story Disillusionment (Enttäuschung) by  Thomas Mann.   Jerry Leiber's wife Gaby Rodgers (née Gabrielle Rosenberg) was born in Germany, lived in the Netherlands. She escaped ahead of the Nazis, and settled in Hollywood where she had a brief film career in films noir.  Gaby introduced Leiber to the works of  Thomas Mann. The narrator in Mann's story tells the same stories of when he was a child. A dramatic adaptation of Mann's story was recorded by Erik Bauserfeld and Bernard Mayes; it was broadcast on San Francisco radio station  KPFA in 1964."

The three events mentioned in both, of course, are the house fire, the unrequited love, and death.   Of course, not all of the incidents in the story were included in the song, and the visit  to the circus in the song was not in Mann's story.  Two disappointments in the story that are not included in the song are visits to a magnificent river gorge scene in the mountains and a visit to the seashore.   The river gorge scene could have become a trip to the Grand Canyon wherein Peggy Lee remarks that it's just a big hole in the ground and "Is that all there is?"

Rereading for me is positive pleasure.  Of course, after all these years, it will almost be like reading them for the first time--one of the advantages of a slowly decaying memory.   I wonder what else I shall find in the remaining 20+ stories.  If you are looking for a collection of literate and intriguing short stories, I would like to recommend  Stories  of  Three Decades  by Thomas Mann.

I know there have been many poems that were adapted for songs, but this is the first short story that I have found that has been turned into a song.  There probably are others, but so far I haven't come across them.

Do you know of any stories that became songs?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Deng Ming-Dao: invisibility

No. 203

In this competitive world, it is best to be invisible.  Go through life without showing off, attracting attention to yourself, or making flamboyant gestures. These will only attract the hostility of others.  The wise accomplish all that they want without arousing the envy or scorn of others.  They make achievements only for the sake of fulfilling  their inner yearnings.
       -- Deng Ming-Dao --
from  365 Tao: Daily Meditations 

Is this best today?  I wonder what kind of world we would have if people followed this as a general rule?


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lawrence Durrell's The Avignon Quintet: an overall view (my view anyway)

The Avignon Quintet  (five novels)


The following quotation from Constance provides a glimpse into the workings of  The Avignon Quintet. 

"If real people could cohabit with the creatures of their imagination--say, in a novel--then what sort of children would be the fruit of their union: changelings?"

Lawrence Durrell
"The Avignon Quintet" (aka The Quincunx)

The following is my reading of the structure of  "The Avignon Quintet."  I don't know if it will make sense to anybody else, but it helps me keep the characters and events of the Quintet straight.    FL is the abbreviation for Fiction Level.

FL0:  Lawrence Durrell, the Person.

FL1:  Lawrence Durrell, the Novelist.   I read somewhere that the Person creates a fictional construct who is the writer, sometimes referred to as the second self or the implied author.  So, Lawrence Durrell, the Novelist, is a creation of of Lawrence Durrell, the Person, and it is this fictional construct who wrote  "The Avignon Quintet."   One might wonder about the common practice of pseudonyms or aliases adopted by many writers in this context.

FL2:  The Avignon Quintet:

Monsieur, the first novel, has a unique structure. It has five parts.  These five parts constitute the external or the Durrell Monsieur.   I call the first four parts the internal or Blanford Monsieur.  These four parts  contain the story of  Piers, Sylvia, and Bruce.  The fifth part of the Durrell or external Monsieur introduces the reader to Aubrey Blanford, who has "written" the internal Monsieur

The remaining four novels tell the reader of the lives of Aubrey Blanford and those around him.  As the readers go through these four novels, they see how Blanford has modified and combined the personalities of the people he knows and the events of their lives to create the characters in the first four parts of Monsieur.  
Major Characters in the Avignon Quintet:  Aubrey Blanford, Constance, Hillary, Sylvia,  Sam 

FL3:  Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness  (the internal or Blanford Monsieur)

This is the internal novel "written" by Aubrey Blanford.  It takes up the first four parts of the external or Durrell Monsieur.  The three most significant characters are Piers de Nogaret, his sister Sylvie, and Bruce Drexel, the narrator of the internal novel.  The three share a long, complex, and intimate relationship.  

Important characters:  Piers, Sylvie, Bruce, Sutcliffe, Pia, Toby,

What is most confusing is that the reader encounters FL3, the internal Monsieur, first and, moreover, doesn't realize what is going on until Part 5 when Aubrey Blanford is introduced.  At this point the reader then moves from FL3 to FL2.

But, these fiction levels are permeable.  Characters from FL3 frequently cross the line and interact with characters in FL2.  Some examples--

FL2:   Aubrey Blanford talks to Sutcliffe, the novelist he created in Monsieur, the internal novel.  At times it's difficult to determine whether Sutcliffe is only Blanford's sounding board, existing only in his mind, or whether Sutcliffe has  somehow become an independent person at Blanford's level. However, in Constance, the third novel in the Avignon Quintet,  Constance meets Sutcliffe and Pia, who have now  moved from FL3 to FL2. 

FL3:  Sutcliffe, a character in Blanford's internal novel,  says he wrote a novel about Bruce, Piers, and Sylvie.  His novel  begins with the same words that Blanford begins his novel, the internal Monsieur in FL2.

While reading the Quintet, I couldn't help thinking about Philip K. Dick, the SF writer who delights in creating works in which the boundary between reality and fantasy blurs and frequently disappears.

To add to the fun, Durrell sends several of his characters to Alexandria during WWII and also brings  in several characters from The Alexandria Quartet: Pursewarden and Melissa, while two members of the British military in Egypt, Maskelyne and Telford, make brief appearances. The two series, The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet, overlap chronologically, both taking place during WWII.

Some of the themes and issues brought up in The Avignon Quintet

--the German occupation of France during WWII
--the Knights Templar and their lost treasure
--various forms of love
--Provence and Alexandria, although Provence is the place where most of the novels take place
--Freud and psychoanalytic theory

I find The Avignon Quintet a complex and, at times, a confusing work, which may account for much of my interest in it.  I've now read it at least twice, and possibly three times now.  No doubt, I shall reread it in the near future.

I hope I haven't confused you too much.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Han Shan (Cold Mountain) a question


Is there a self or not
is this me or not
this is what I contemplate
sitting in a trance above a cliff
between my feet green grass grows
and on my head red dust settles
I have even seen pilgrims
leave offerings by my bier 

-- Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
edited and translated by Red Pine 

This is a strange one from Han Shan.  The poem has him meditating up in the mountains, a common enough occurrence, regardless of culture, religious tradition or continent.  But then, there's those last two lines--I have even seen pilgrims/ leave offerings by my bier.   Does this suggest that he is dead but still wondering about a question asked long ago by the Buddhists, and is now taken up by some contemporary psychologists.

Those last two lines bring poems by another poet, Emily Dickinson, to mind.  She also posits an awareness after death.  However, I don't remember that asked any questions; it seemed as though her reaction was a calm and detached acceptance.

Is there a self or not

I know what my answer would be, and as usual I'm from another era, one that's thousands of years before those early Buddhists and some contemporary psychologists.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Minute Meditation

In the arts, one must distinguish, of course, between the lie and the tall story that the audience is not expected to believe.  The tall-story teller gives himself away, either by a wink or by an exaggerated poker face: the born liar always looks absolutely natural.

-- W. H. Auden --
from his Introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy

Born liars look like they are telling the truth and that they actually believe what they are saying, even to the point that contradictory lies never bother them.  They just blame the ones who expose their contradictory tales.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Loren Eiseley: The Star Thrower

The blurb on the back page says it better than I can:

Long admired for his compassionate, probing meditations on the natural world, Loren Eiseley completed this volume of his favorite writings shortly before his death in 1977.  In includes many selections never before published in book form and spans Eiseley's entire writing career--from his early poems through The Immense Journey and The Unexpected Universe to his most recent essays--providing a superb sampling of the author as naturalist, poet, scientist, and humanist. 

 If there is an overriding theme in the twenty-three essays and ten poems that comprise this work, it is that the facts and data elicited by science are not the final statement  of our view of the natural world.  Those facts are the frontiers that we must go beyond in our study of the natural world.  His essays show us just what this means if we are to gain a fuller understanding, even if it is only a limited understanding of the natural world.

The Judgment of the Birds  

It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness. If he is of the proper  sort, he will return with a message.  It may not be a message from the god he set out to seek, but even if he has failed in that particular, he will have had a vision or seen a marvel, and these are always worth listening to and thinking about.

The world, I have come to believe, is a very queer place, but we have been part of this queerness for so long that we tend to take it for granted.  We rush to and fro like Mad Hatters upon our peculiar errands, all the time imagining our surroundings to be dull and ourselves to be quite ordinary creatures.  Actually, there is nothing in the world to encourage this idea, but such is the mind of man, and this is why he finds it necessary from time to time to send emissaries into the wilderness in the hope of learning of great events, or plans in store for him, that will resuscitate his waning taste for life.  His great news services, his worldwide radio network, he knows with a last remnant of healthy distrust will be of no use to him in this matter. No miracle can withstand a radio broadcast, and it is certain it would be no miracle if it could. One must seek, then, what only the solitary approach can give--a natural revelation.

The above are the opening paragraphs of some thoughts about several experiences  he had involving   ravens, pigeons, and various species of small birds in the countryside and from his room on the twentieth floor of a hotel in New York City.

Normally I don't bother with the back cover blurbs, except to wonder frequently whether the author(s) of the blurbs had actually read the work, but I have to quote another one:

This book will be read and cherished in the year 2001.  It will go to the MOON and MARS with future generations.  Loren Eiseley's work changed my life.  -- Ray Bradbury --

As I have said before, numerous times I believe, Loren Eiseley is an author who has been a major influence on my ideas, beliefs, and philosophy.  His works are those that would join me on that famous (infamous?) desert island.

The essays in   The Star Thrower  are too varied to try to summarize it, so I will limit myself to posting quotations from and brief commentaries on various essays in the book over the next few weeks or months.

Monday, August 7, 2017

George R. Stewart: Earth Abides

George R. Stewart
Earth Abides

This is the second of my plague posts, the first being on Feb. 16, 2017. ( which included a brief discussion of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" and Jack London's novella, "The Scarlet Plague.

One intriguing overlap is that Jack London's "The Scarlet Plague" and Stewart's Earth Abides were set in the San Francisco area and that the POV characters in both stories had been professors at a local university.   It may simply be coincidence since Stewart taught at the University of California at Berkeley and London was born in San Francisco and died in northern California, as did Stewart. 

Earth Abides is one of the best post-holocaust novels I've ever read. It's a quiet novel which focuses on the effects on those who survived a war in which over 99% of the human race died. The title comes from Ecclesiastes:

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities: all is vanity.
 What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh;
 but the earth abideth for ever. "

Ish comes across in the first chapter as the quiet, reflective type who seems to prefer being an observer than a participant (an observation he makes himself at one point).. I wonder how much of this detachment is him and how much is shock at seeing his world ended.

The story has two narrative structures.  The first is the one in regular print, and that's mostly the story of Ish and his doings--his attempt to deal with the drastic change in the status of the human race.  During the past century or so, humans had become the dominant species on the planet, and its favored animals and plants were slowly pushing the unfavored ones to the sidelines.  Now, Ish has to change his behavior to reflect that of humanity's new status, a vastly reduced position, both in dominance and in numbers.   Technology, his greatest asset, is slowly disintegrating and would soon be useless.  The safety net that technology and the civilization based on it was gone.  He finally realized it to some extent when his fears returned shortly after starting out.  Before the catastrophe, if his car had broken down for any reason, he could just wait for a passing motorist, even on remote roads, or perhaps a state highway patrol officer.  Now, he was on his own.  Nobody would come to rescue him.

The second narrative is the one in italics.  It is there for a very good reason.  Ish is only human and has only a limited perspective, centered mostly on himself and his concerns.  He has little if any idea of what goes on around him, especially if it's out of sight.  The title of the novel is not Ish Abides, or Humanity Abides., but Earth Abides.  The focus of the novel is, therefore, on the effects on Earth and the plants and animals that share the planet with humans.  Humans are once again back on the same level as other creatures:  it must take the Earth as it is and learn how to survive with what is provided by Earth.   He can no longer reshape the Earth to fit in with his desires and presumed needs. 

For example, we take fences for granted.  They are one of humanity's means of  control of the environment.  Fences are humanity's way of saying these animals must stay here and not go somewhere else, while other animals occupy other places specified by humans.  Now, the fences are breaking down, and those animals are now free to go as their natures dictate, regardless of  human plans. 

The novel is an account of the way the group survived several crises, grew, and changed over the years.  There are no bloodthirsty mutants or no spectacular scientific advances, nor do they set up an Edenic society, in which all are wise, reasonable, and loving.  Stewart has given us humans who lose almost everything they had taken for granted and that includes friends and relatives.  Of the survivors, all have lost everybody they knew, the one exception in Ish's group being a young mother and her infant child. They are the only two with a connection that survived the Plague. 

What we see in the novel is the gradual acceptance of their situation and an attempt to survive. It is a low key novel with expected challenges: the search for food, water, shelter, and companionship.  The most significant change over the years is the passing of the first generation and the gradual assumption of control by the next generation, those that had no experience or knowledge of what life had been before the Plague.

Ish attempted to teach the new generation, but they were not interested in sitting around a classroom and being lectured on things which seemed to have little relevance to life now.  Perhaps Ish's greatest contribution to their physical survival was the introduction of the bow and arrow.  Ammunition supplies were dwindling and they lacked the knowledge and technology to make more or to repair or manufacture gun or ammunition.

Stewart has provided the reader with what I can only call a very human  and a very ironic and a very satisfying ending, though it is not the ending of Ish's group.  Those who have read the book will recognize the irony of the following statement:  a foreshadowing of the slow development of a Myth. Early in the book, the question of his relationship to the group arises.  He provides them with stability, and he alone, in the early days at first, is able to function.  They look up to him, for his detachment to some extent sets him apart from the others.  But, at one point he thinks to himself:  "'No,' he thought.  "Whatever happens, at least I shall never believe that I a god.  No, I shall never be a god!'"

I wonder how future generations will view Ish. 

At the beginning of this post, I wrote that this was one of the best post-holocaust novels I had ever read.  I would like to modify that by saying it is one of the best SF novels I had ever read.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Emily Dickinson: "I reason"

No. 301

I reason, Earth is short--
And Anguish--absolute--
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die--
the best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven--
Somehow, it will be even--
Some new Equation, given--
But, what of that?

-- Emily Dickinson --
The Complete Poems

Is the fourth line of each stanza dismissive of the previous three lines?

Is Emily Dickinson, therefore, being dismissive of the commonly expressed belief by many Christians that in the afterlife, the good will be rewarded for leading a good life, while the evil ones will finally be punished, even though they may have flourished while they were alive?  That justice will be done in the afterlife?

Is she suggesting that there is no justice either during this life or afterwards?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nathaniel Hawthorne: King Arthur in Boston?

Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Gray Champion"
in The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories

"The Gray Champion"

There was once a time when New England groaned under the actual pressure of heavier wrongs than those threatened ones which brought on the Revolution.  James II, the bigoted successor of Charles the Voluptuous, had annulled the charters of all the colonies, and sent a harsh and unprincipled soldier to take away our liberties and endanger our religion.

There is just a touch of irony in this opening paragraph of the story with respect to the loss of religious liberty.  The Puritans understood religious liberty to mean the freedom to practice their own brand of Christianity, which they certainly didn't extend to other brands  (see Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of religious differences with the ruling Puritan clergy).

Because of the loss of the charter and the presence of mercenary troops, tensions were rising among the general populace.    The Governor and his councilors decided on a show of force to forestall  possible incidents of public unrest.

One afternoon in April, 1689, Sir Edmund Andros and his favorite councilors, being warm with wine, assembled the redcoats of the Governor's Guard, and made their appearance in the streets of Boston. The sun was near setting when the march commenced.

This, of course, drew a crowd.

There were the sober garb, the general severity of mien, the gloomy but undismayed expression, the scriptural forms of speech, and the confidence in Heaven's blessing on a righteous cause , which would have marked a band of the original Puritans, when threatened by some peril of the wilderness.  . . . Old soldiers of the Parliament were here, too, smiling grimly at the thought that their aged arms might strike another blow at the house of Stuart.   Here, also, were the veterans of King Philip's war, who had burned villages and slaughtered young and old, with pious fierceness, while the godly souls  throughout the land were helping them with prayer. . . .

"Satan will strike his master stoke presently," cried some, "because he knoweth that his time is short.  All the godly pastors are to be dragged to prison!  We shall see them, at a Smithfield fire in King Street!".  .  .

Hereupon the people of each parish gathered closer round their minister, who looked calmly upwards and assumed a more apostolic dignity, as well befitted a candidate for the highest honor of his profession, the crown of martyrdom.

With the Governor, his councilors, and the Governor's Guard at one end of the street and the crowd of godly and righteous Bostonians at the other, a bloody conflict seemed inevitable, until --

Suddenly, there was seen the figure of ancient man,  who seemed to have emerged from among the people, and was walking by himself along the center of the street, to confront the armed band.  He wore the old Puritan dress, a dark cloak and steeple-crowned hat, in the fashion of at least fifty years before, with a heavy sword upon his thigh, but a staff in his hand to assist the tremulous gait of age.

 I am here, Sir Governor, because the cry of an oppressed people hath disturbed me in my secret place, and beseeching this favor earnestly of the Lord, it was vouchsafed me to appear once again on earth, in the good old cause of His saints. . . .

This, to me, seems to be a variation on the legend of King Arthur, who, suffering from a mortal wound in his battle with his son/nephew? Mordred, was taken away in a small boat.   In some versions he had died, while others claimed he was still alive.  However, all agree that he went to the Isle of Avalon  whereupon he rests until the day that England needs him, and he will again come to its aid.  The words spoken by the Gray Champion could have come straight from many of the variations of the legend of King Arthur, or so it seems to me.

Of course, it's clear that the Gray Champion is not King Arthur.  I wonder why, though, Hawthorne thought it necessary to borrow a legend from the old country, rather than use an home-grown one.  Is this a commentary on or perhaps a recognition of the reality of the brevity of the English history in New England?

It seems a straightforward variation, but Hawthorne frequently has a hidden message in many of his tales.  Is there a touch of irony here--perhaps one variation of an intolerant Christianity trying to enforce its will upon another equally intolerant variation?

Saturday, July 29, 2017

William Oldys: "On a Fly Drinking Out of His Cup"

On a Fly Drinking Out of his Cup

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:
Thine's a summer, mine's no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they're gone,
Will appear as short as one!

William Oldys --
from A Poem a Day
Eds. Karin McCosker and Nicholas Albery 

Carpe diem is a very common theme, but I was struck by this one for some reason.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Angus Wilson: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Angus Wilson
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
a novel

I have often thought that the full title of this novel should be Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: A Psychoanalytic Case Study.  Angus Wilson had undergone therapy himself,  after suffering a "nervous breakdown,"  probably the result of the tension endemic to his work at the famous code-breaking institution Bletchley Park during WWII.

I will reveal a significant episode that occurs approximately half way through the novel.  The commentary would make little sense if I did not bring this up.

The novel is structured along the lines of a classic psychoanalytic case.  There are several components to be considered here. 

One is that the patient has unhappy  or dissatisfied with life for a significant period of time.

"Gerald Middleton was a man of mildly but persistently depressive temperament.  Such men are not at their best at breakfast, nor is the week before Christmas their happiest time.  .  . The prospect of speaking to his wife on the telephone and, even more, of the family Christmas party greatly heightened his depression."

Middleton has been separated from his wife for some time now.  Moreover, his children either do not like him or respect  him.  His wife, Inge, has convinced the children that he is to blame for the separation.

Middleton now is sixty years of age and has retired from his university position as a lecturer in history.  Early in his career he had published a book which promised a great future for him, but he never lived up to that brilliant beginning.   At present he still maintains membership in a professional society of historians and is regarded highly enough to be considered for the position of editor for the major publication planned to come out in a few years.  The present editor is retiring at the end of the year and  he, along with other members of the society, wants Middleton  to take on the position and the huge task of editing the work.

Middleton, so far,  had rejected the suggestion, feeling that he hadn't the energy to handle the workload, and used as an excuse his own project,  a definitive work on the life of Edward the Confessor which he had supposedly been working on for years, and had done very little on it for years.  Many believed he would never finish the work while some even doubted its existence.

In the first half of the novel, we follow Middleton in his encounters with friends, family, and colleagues and see the growing disgust with his life.

He sums up his life as follows:  "a family man who had had neither the courage to walk out of the marriage he hated, nor the resolution to sustain the role of father decently.  A ex-professor of medieval  history who had not even fulfilled the scholarly promise of studies whose general value he now doubted."

It is in this state of mind that Middleton travels down to his wife's residence to spend the Christmas holidays with her and his three grown children, two sons and a daughter, and their spouses.  The family squabbling and the disdain shown him only increases his unhappiness.

After the Christmas Day dinner, the family gathers in the drawing room, and Middleton settles down "in a deep armchair. . .hunched up as far as his great height would allow him, and remote.  He seemed even to have barricaded himself form the rest of the family with little tables on which were his brandy glass, his coffee cup, his ashtray."

One psychoanalytic technique is free association, the mental process by which one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any apparent connection. Therapists, especially those of the Freudian flavor,  ask the patient to respond freely and without conscious thought to words uttered by the therapist, and those responses then become the basis for discussions in future sessions.

As the family discussion continues,  several phrases at random stir memories of past events which relate to significant events in his personal and professional life.  As he considers these events, he drifts off each time into sleep in which each of those memories becomes a dream in which he undergoes a complete recall of those memories.

Another standard treatment element in a psychoanalytic session is dream work.  The patient recalls for the therapist any dreams he or she has had since the session.  In psychoanalytic theory, dreams are the repressed memories of past traumatic events which are too painful for the patient to confront.

Up to this point, Middleton has progressed through the various steps of a classic case study: he has recognized that he is extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with his life, he has brought up memories of his past through free association, and he has fully relived those events through his dreams.

One step remains: the gaining of insight, without which there can be no change, no resolution, no escape from his present situation. At the end of his last dream. . .

"So that, he thought, was the whole of it.  Suspicions engendered by the words of a drunkard, and the actions of a hysterical woman.  He had never dared to confront Gilbert with his words again nor face Inge with his suspicions about Kay's hand.  And from these slender foundations it seemed he had woven a great web of depression and despair to convince himself that his chosen study of history was a lie and the family life he had made a deception. . . It seemed to him  suddenly as though he had come out of a dark narrow tunnel, where movement was cramped to a feeble crawl, into the broad daylight where he could once more walk or run if he chose."

The last lines of Part One show how much he has changed as a result of the insight that he has gained into the sources of his unhappiness.

"Inge's voice came to him. 'Now there is your father, who has slept all through our wonderful talk.'

'No, I hear you, my dear,' he said.

'We have been talking about truth.  But you are the one who can tell us.  The great scholar!'  Her voice was sarcastic.  He got up and,  walking over to her, he kissed her on the cheek.  It was an action only little less sarcastic than her words.

'You know all about the truth, don't you, Gerald? she asked.

'Yes, my dear, I do.' he answered, 'but I'm going off to bed..'

When he got upstairs to his room, he sat down and wrote to Sir Edgar, accepting the editorship of the History."

Now that he has faced the truth, now that he has gained insight, all that energy he had expended on repressing those memories, is now freed up.

Psychoanalytic case studies usually end at this point, with perhaps a brief summary of the resolution of the sessions. But, this is only the halfway point in the novel.  What can follow?   What follows is what doesn't get into a case study and is seldom if ever discussed.  The patient has gained insight into the sources of the present situation and needs to change past behaviors and re-establish relationships on a different footing.

Herein lies the problem: the patient has changed, but the family, friends, colleagues haven't.  While the present relationships may not be ideal, they are at least comfortable and predictable.  In addition, each of Middleton's three children has a subplot in which Middleton attempts to help them.
This, then,  is the theme of the second part of the novel: Gerald Middleton attempts to change the nature of his relationships with others. To change a relationship requires a change in both parties, and change, as we all know too well, is difficult, and frequently impossible.

One of the joys of this novel is Wilson's skill in characterization.  Many of the secondary characters are sketched out: each is unique, each speaks with a different voice, and each has a distinct relationship with one or more of the other characters.  If any cast of characters can be described as Dickensian, the cast in this novel is one.

Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is one of the few novels on my permanent must-be-reread list.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 227

In God's wildness lies the hope of the world--the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.  The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware.  

-- John  Muir --
In His Own Words 

There's nothing I can add to this.   

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Paul Lawrence Dunbar: "The Mystery"


I was not; now I am--a few days hence
I shall not be; I fain would look before
And after, but can neither do; some Power
Or lack of power says "no" to all I would.
I stand upon a wide and sunless plain,
Nor chart nor steel to guide my steps aright.
Whene'er, o'ercoming fear, I dare to move,
I grope without direction and by chance.
Some feign to hear a voice and feel a hand
That draws them ever upward thro' the gloom.
But I--I hear no voice and touch no hand,
Tho' oft thro' silence infinite I list,
And strain my hearing to supernal sounds;
Tho' oft thro' fateful darkness do I reach,
And stretch my hand to find that other hand.
I question of th' eternal bending skies
That seem to neighbor with the novice earth;
but they roll on, and daily shut their eyes
On me, as I one day shall do on them,
And tell me not the secret that I ask. 

-- Paul Lawrence Dunbar --
The Complete Poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Lawrence's mystery has many names:  the perennial question, the human predicament, the human condition. Who am I?  Where am I?  Why am I here?  Where is here?  Where did I come from?  Where am I going?

This is one of the dominant themes of the Rubaiyat, which is probably why this poem has such an impact on me.  But, then again, it is Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and this isn't the first poem of his that I have strongly reacted to and commented on here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gregory Benford: "Nobody Lives on Burton Street"

Gregory Benford
"Nobody Lives on Burton Street"
from The Best of Benford
David Hartwell, editor 
a short story first published in 1975

Nobody Lives on Burton Street  (1970)

"I was standing by one of our temporary command posts, picking my teeth after breakfast and talking to Joe Murphy when the first part of the Domestic Disturbance hit us.

People said the summer of '78 was the worst ever, what with all the pollution haze and everything was kicking up the temperatures,  than '78.  Spring had lost its bloom a month back and it was hot, sticky--the kind of weather that leaves you with a  half-moon of sweat around your armpits before you've had time to finish morning coffee.  The summer heat makes for trouble, stirs up people. . .

.  .  .  . 
I turned and walked back out onto the roof where we had our command post.

We knew the mob was in the area, working toward us.  Our communications link had been humming for the last half hour, getting fixes on their direction and asking the computers for advice on how to hand them when they got there."

The above quotation from the beginning of the story seems fairly straightforward.  The story takes place in an urban setting, a mob is on the loose, and the authorities are getting ready to handle the situation.  The mob appears, waving clubs and torches and setting some of the building ablaze.

But then, I get the feeling something was wrong.  Those in the command post didn't seem strongly affected when several police officers and firefighters who had arrived on the scene were brutally attacked by the mob. Those in the command center acted as though all was going as expected.   In fact the arrival of the police and firefighters was carefully orchestrated from the command center.  There was some suggestion that the police squad car was controlled from the command center.  


All is not what it appears to be.  What the reader perceives is not the real situation.  This is not an out-of-control rampaging mob but a carefully staged cathartic event.

The reader eventually learns that the mob action is actually a planned event.   Citizens can register to take part in an upcoming planned riot, after a psychological screening to determine if they would benefit from participation.  Moreover, the command post is not staffed by police officers, but members of the city's public relations department, and the police and fire personnel are androids.

While there's been a long-standing debate on the precise meaning of catharsis, in popular usage today, it usually refers to the purging of strong, possibly disruptive or dangerous emotions through the vicarious experience of similar tragic or violent events.  Simply put, it suggests that viewing violent destructive actions will reduce the possibility that the viewer will engage in such actions in the future, an emotional escape valve.  This staged riot carries the theory a step beyond vicarious observation.  It allows the participants to partake in a riot, although carefully monitored and controlled.  The assumption is that participants will have purged the anger, hostility, tension sufficiently to reduce the possibility that they might get caught up in a real riot.

While not brought up in the story, there is an opposing theory--desensitization. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, desensitization actually extinguishes or at least reduces an emotional response (as of fear, anxiety, or guilt) to stimuli that formerly induced it. Consequently, participating in an activity increases the chances that one will engage in it again.   As you can see, this directly contradicts the cathartic theory.  Not only does it contradict the cathartic theory, but it also insists that putting the cathartic theory into practice will make the problem even worse.  Those who take part in the staged riot will be desensitized to the destruction and the killing of the police and fire personnel on the scene  and, therefore, are more likely to do it again.

One can wonder whether the cathartic process is actually working, for in the first paragraph of the story, the director of the staged riot remarks that last year was the worst ever for riots and now "it was a year later and getting worse."  Does this suggest that the staged and managed riots are making the situation worse?

This is just another example of that short-sighted behavior we humans are not only capable of  but far more likely to engage in, instead of intelligent problem solving behavior.   As usual, the powers-that-be prefer to attack the symptoms of a problem, rather than the causes.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Three Films


Kwaidan is a Japanese film with subtitles directed by Masaki Kobayashi.  The title comes from a collection of short Japanese tales translated by Lafcadio Hearn .  The film includes four stories from the book.  The photography is beautiful and the colors vibrant, and it is hard to believe the film came out in 1965.  It must have been reworked to bring back the original colors.

The four tales include the following:

 A woodcutter's life is spared by the Snow Woman who killed his comrade on condition that he never speak of what happened to anyone at any time.  However, humans being human . . .

Hoichi is a young, blind Buddhist monk who is also talented musician and singer.  One night a man comes to guiide him to the court of a noble who wishes him to sing about the last great battle his clan lost to the Genji. Since he is blind, he doesn't know who comprises his audience.  His attempt at freedom, aided by his fellow monks, costs him dearly.

A samurai leaves his wife to marry a rich woman in order to escape their poverty and his insignificance.  Over the years, he learns that this was a bad decision.  Finally he leaves his rich wife and his comfortable position with her father and returns to his former wife.  Unfortunately he learns  that not only one can't go back,  but that it is far better that one never even tries.

A samurai upon pouring himself a bowl of tea discovers a strange face inside the bowl staring out at him.  Each time he empties the bowl without drinking it, the face becomes clearer and more ominous.  Finally he drinks the tea in spite of the face--a very poor decision.  Unfortunately, the reader never finds out what eventually happens to the samurai because every time a writer attempts to finish the story, he or she disappears, leaving it unfinished. What would happen if someone tried to adapt this tale for film?

If there's a moral to the stories, it is that it doesn't pay to get involved with spirits and demons.


The film is a collaboration, a fruitful one, between the Teaching Company and the National Geographic Society was first shown in 2015.  The lecturers are obviously knowledgeable, which is what I would  expect of a Teaching Company production, and the photography is stunning, again something I would expect from National Geographic.

It is a boxed set, which I got from the local library, consisting of 4 DVDs, each DVD with six 30 minute lectures.  The first set of lectures focuses on the various expeditions to the North and South Poles, the men who went on them and the many who did not return.  Subsequent lectures then centured on the geology, the geography, the climate, and the inhabitants of both regions, along  with commentary on the present situation at the Poles, which has been declared off-limits to resource development and territorial claims by countries.

The last set detailed the changes now taking place at the Poles.  In 2014, aerial photography disclosed a large crack in the Larson C ice shelf.  The lecturer discussed the possibility that the shelf might actually break from from the continent.  Several weeks after I viewed the DVDs, I read that the Larson C ice shelf had broken away from Antarctica. 


A Walk in the Woods is based on the book by Bill Bryson about his walk with a friend along the Appalachian Trail, a marked trail that stretches through the Appalachian Mountains some 2200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

It is really a buddy film as Bryson is joined by Stepen Katz, a longtime friend he hasn't seen or talked to in many years.  The film is not a travelogue, and those viewing it for the scenery will be disappointed.  While there are some shots of scenery, the real focus is on the reconnecting between the two friends, Bil Bryson played by Robert Redford and  Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz.   Actually that was my reason for watching the film; I wanted to see Redford and Nolte for I just couldn't picture them together in a film.  It turned out to be a great pairing. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Myoe: On the virtues of tea

An paean to tea

Tea has the blessing of all deities
Tea promotes filial piety
Tea drives away all evil spirits
Tea banishes drowsiness
Tea keeps the five internal organs in harmony
Tea wards off disease
Tea strengthens friendship
Tea disciplines body and mind
Tea destroys the passions
Tea grants a peaceful death

-- poem attributed to the Japanese Buddhist priest Myoe (1173--1232)
    who had it inscribed on a teakettle.

The poem is included in Beatrice Hohenegger's highly informative work:  Liquid Tea:  The Story of Tea from East to West.

How could anybody refuse to drink something so marvelous and miraculous?  I am sitting here with a cup of tea (Numi's toasted rice and green tea) by my side, and I feel better already. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Kenko: Essays in Idleness

No. 88

"A certain man owned a copy of Wakan Roei Shu which, he claimed, was in the hand of Ono no Tofu.  Another man commented, 'I am sure that there must be good reason for the attribution, sir, but does it not seem an anachronism that Tofu should have written the manuscript of a work compiled by Fujiwara no Kinto, a man born after his death?  It seems rather strange.'

The owner replied, 'That's precisely what makes the manuscript so unusual.'  He treasured it more than ever"

-- Kenko --
Essays in Idleness
Edited and translated by Donald Keene

I wonder if there really are such people.. It seems hard to believe.

Ono no Tofu (896-966)  was a celebrated calligrapher.
Fujiwara no Kinto (966-1041) was born in the year that Ono no Tofu died.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Simon Clark: The Night of the Triffids

Simon Clark
The Night of the Triffids
469 pages
published in 2001

It's been twenty-five years since Bill Masen with his family and others escaped the triffids by fleeing to the Isle of Wight, just off the  coast of England.  It was a wise move, for the triffids could not cross over to mount any sort of large scale attack.  Bill's son, David,  has grown up and is now a pilot of the few aircraft available to them.

This novel begins much like Wyndham's novel, with a celestial catastrophe.  Only instead of bright lights in the night which blinds all who see them,  David and the others now face a day of complete darkness. It is darker now this morning that it would ever be at night, for there is no sun, no moon, and no stars.  Only the Blind can function normally; the Sighted need lights.  In addition, some triffids have made it to the island, a rare occurrence, but still possible.  Is it a coincidence or is there a link there?

David is ordered to make a reconnaissance flight to determine if this darkness is caused by some sort of strange cloud.   At one point during the flight, he loses radio contact and becomes lost.  Forced to land, he finds himself threatened by triffids.  But he is rescued by a ship from New York City.  Initially they had promised to take him back to his island, but upon receiving a radio message, they head for their base, Manhattan Island to be exact.

He is not a prisoner and is treated well.  Of course he is trapped on Manhattan for the triffids are everywhere. But, then so is everybody else.   He is amazed at how well the people of NY live;  it's almost as though the triffid invasion and the Blinding never happened.  But there is a dark side to the life these people lead.

Shortly after David arrives, he is kidnapped by the Foresters, those who live outside NYC in small communities.   They lead a precarious existence for they are always under attack by the triffids.  At first David does not understand why they live out in the wilderness and not in NYC.   Shortly after he arrives, he learns that the triffids are not the only threat and that the communities are  threatened not only by the triffids but also by the military might of NYC.  It is from them that David learns of  the suffering and misery that underlies the apparent prosperity of NYC and the threat they present to those who oppose them. 

One point that wasn't resolved in the first novel was that of the intelligence of the triffids.  And, were they conscious?   David becomes increasingly convinced that the triffids are capable of planning and working together in their attacks on humans, especially on human settlements.   Another question  still remains unanswered: what, if any, is the relationship between the triffids and the blinding lights?

The Night of the Triffids has a different feel to it.  While it was interesting, I thought The Day of the Triffids was a better book.  But, then again, it's been years since I read it, so I might see it differently now. 


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Ray Bradbury: "The Parrot Who Met Papa"

Ray Bradbury
"The Parrot Who Met Papa"
from Long After Midnight

"The Parrot Who Met Papa" is the second story I have read by Ray Bradbury that centers on Ernest Hemingway, sometimes familiarly known as Papa.  The first I read was "The Kilimanjaro Device," a time-traveling tale.  My post on that story is at  I wonder if there's any more about Hemingway and why he chose to write about him.  I also wonder if he has any other stories about real people.  I guess I will just have to read more stories by Bradbury. 

I suppose most people back then knew that Hemingway spent considerable time in Cuba.  That was the problem, for so many people knew this that Hemingway became a tourist attraction when he was there.  When the staring got to be too much, Hemingway would absent himself from his usual watering holes and hide out in a small local bar, the Cuba Libre.   At one end of the bar was a parrot in a cage, an ancient parrot to be sure.  Hemingway grew to like the parrot and would spend much time talking to it.  In fact, the question was whether Hemingway ended up talking like the parrot or the parrot sounded like him. Rumor had it that Hemingway had taught the parrot a word-for-word record of his last unpublished novel.

This parrot became famous, almost as famous as Hemingway himself.  So, although it was a shock to many, the reasons why El Cordoba, that was the parrot's name, was birdnapped? should have been obvious.  But, the real reason wasn't known, until much later.

Ray (the name of the teller of the tale, a coincidence, no doubt) decids to investigate and flies down to Cuba.  Upon interrogating the bar owner, he decides he knows the identity of the birdnapper.  He had asked the bar owner if someone strange or peculiar or eccentric had recently been there. The bar owner then described such a person who had been there the day before the parrot had disappeared:

"What a creature!. . . He was very small.  And he spoke like this: very high-eeee.  Like a muchacha in a school play, eh?  Like a canary swallowed by a witch!  And he wore a blue-velvet suit with a big yellow tie. . .And he had a small very round face. . . and his hair was yellow. . .he was like a Kewpie doll."

Ray recognizes him and blurts out, "Shelley Capon!"  (a capon is a castrated domestic rooster fattened for eating).  Ray knew that Shelley Capon hated Hemingway and now was very concerned about the fate of El Cordoba.

Perhaps I'm wrong here, but that description and the name reminds me of Truman Capote. Unfortunately I don't know anything about the relationship between Hemingway and Capote, so I can't offer that as evidence.

Ray then decides to confront Shelley Capon and rescue El Cordoba.  Shelly Capon is the most interesting character in the story.  If you have read the story or read it sometime in the future, let me know if you agree or disagree with my speculation regarding the identity of Shelly. 

It took a while for me to realize this, but this is a detective story!  El Cordoba is a victim of a kidnapping, and Ray comes to his rescue.  Shelly Capon is the unique and fascinating bad guy with his henchmen about him in the hotel room when Ray confronts him.  Their meeting gives us a clue:

Shelly greets him:  "'Raimundo, sit down! No .  .  . fling yourself into an interesting position.'

Ray responds:  "'Sorry,'  I said in my best  Dashiell Hammett manner, sharpening my chin and steeling my eyes.  'No time.'"

The tone is almost noir.  Ray senses a threat from those gathered in the hotel room.  Will he be allowed to leave, on his own two feet?   He responds with a threat of his own, clearly a hard-boiled detective tale.  Bradbury later introduces a very familiar element from a Hammett story, just to remind us of this story's antecedents. 

Overall, it's a light-hearted work, not to be taken seriously.  But, on the other hand, it is written by Ray Bradbury .  .  .

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 225

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.  

-- John Muir --
In His Own Words 

This sounds strange today in a world of spaceships and trips to the moon and probes to many of the planets and moons in the Solar System.  Recently I read of a probe that has now gone beyond the boundary of the Solar System..  Perhaps he's talking about a different Universe?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Frank Herbert: The Exploits of Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary

Frank Herbert
Whipping Star  a novel

Once, long centuries past, con-sentients with a psychological compulsion to "do good" had captured the government.  Unaware of the the writhing complexities, the mingled guilts end self-punishments, beneath their compulsion, they had eliminated virtually all delays and red tape from government.  The great machine with its blundering power over sentient life had slipped into high gear, had moved faster and faster.  laws had been conceived and passed in the same hour. Appropriations had flashed into being and were spent in a fortnight.  New bureaus for the mos improbable purposes had leaped int existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.

Government had become a great destructive  wheel without a governor, whirling with such frantic speed that it spread chaos wherever it touched.

In desperation, a handful of sentients had conceived the Sabotage Corps to slow that wheel.  There had been bloodshed and other degrees of violence, but the wheel had been slowed.  In time, the Corps had become a Bureau, and the Bureau was whatever it was today--a organization headed into its own corridors of entropy, a group of sentients who preferred subtle diversion to violence. . . but were prepared for violence when the need arose.  

This, of course, goes against conventional wisdom which insists that slow, inefficient governments, those that are bound up with red tape, are bad governments.  It even suggests that slow and inefficient governments provide more freedom for its citizens than do fast and efficient governments.  It's an interesting question to meditate on. 

So what keeps the BuSab from turning into a juggernaut? Their promotion policy. The way you get promoted is to sabotage your boss.  The Bureau of Sabotage therefore slows itself down and makes itself more inefficient by regularly replacing its management. 

The Whipping Star is one of two novels that feature the exploits of Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary.  The other novel is The Dosadi Experiment,  one of my favorite novels by Frank Herbert, second only to Dune.  In addition, there are two short stories:  "A Matter of Traces" and "The Tactful Saboteur."   While none of the stories are sequels, they are all set in Herbert's ConSentiency Universe, which include a galactic government in which humans and aliens are equal, something a bit unusual for a story first published in the late 50s and early 60s.

Jorj X. McKie is the protagonist in all four stories, and he clearly is not the typical handsome heroic Anglo-Saxon hero found in most SF at that time.He is described as a "squat little man, angry red hair, face like a disgruntled frog."   If a film were to be made of one of these stories, I wonder who would play McKie.

The sentient races of the ConSentiency Universe  have been blessed by the appearance of the Calebans, an alien race that apparently looks like or possibly inhabits something like a beach ball.  Yet, this race provides the sentient races with a means of travel, the jump doors, that ignores the limitations posed by the speed of light.  What is most surprising is that, as best as anyone can figure, there are only 83 of them.  Well, there were 83 when they were first encountered, but they have disappeared lately so that now only one remains.  McKie's assignment is to track down the last one and find out why the others have disappeared.

This sounds simple except for several minor details.  The last Caleban has signed a contract with Mliss Abnethe,  a woman who has an obsession with whipping things.   Since she is one of the richest people in the galaxy, she was able to escape imprisonment for capturing and whipping other humans, but she had to agree to sin no more.   She took that to mean that she couldn't go around whipping humans, but there was no mention of aliens.  So, she decided to practice her obsession on a Caleban.

The other minor detail is that Calebans can't communicate too well with other sentients.  In fact, nobody is certain that there's any communication at all.  The parts I enjoyed most in the novel occurs when McKie meets up with the remaining Caleban and attempts to question him? her? it? about the fate of the other 82 Calebans.  When the Caleban speaks, I can't help but wonder if those really are coherent rational statements or words that were just randomly assembled.

When McKie finally locates the last Caleban,  he learns that the situation is much worse than he thought.  The whipping in some way reduces the Caleban's life force.  In fact, another five to ten whippings will destroy it, the last Caleban.  When that happens every being who has ever used the Caleban's jump doors will die.  Since everybody uses the jump doors regularly, including McKie, this means the end of sentient life in the Galaxy, or perhaps the Universe. 

What I enjoyed also was something that didn't appear.  Herbert didn't spend several chapters going into Mliss Abnethe's obsession, in other words a long-winded treatise how this obsession related to certain traumatic events in her childhood, something many contemporary writers find it necessary in order to expand the length of the story.  Nor did he provide us with pages of excruciating detail on why McKie had racked up over 50 divorces so far.  These were givens.   This is an SF novel and not a psychoanalytical case study.

I think you might enjoy the story as long as you don't spend too much time trying to understand the pseudoscience.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Carl Sandburg: "The Mist"


I am the mist, the impalpable mist,
Back of the thing you seek.
My arms are long,
Long as the reach of time and space.

Some toil and toil, believing,
Looking now and then on my face,
Catching an olden, vital glory.

But no one passes me,
I tangle and snare them all.
I am the cause of the Sphinx,
The voiceless, baffled, patient Sphinx.

I was at the first of things,
I will be at the last.
          I am the primal mist
          And no man passes me;
          My long impalpable arms
          Bar them all.

-- Carl Sandburg --
The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg

My first thought was that the mist was death, but that second stanza makes me wonder.  I find this an unusual poem for Sandburg, or at least unusual in that the few poems I've read of his seem to focus more on the physical world.   This has much more of a mystical or metaphysical theme, or at least more than I have encountered in the few poems that I have read by him.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Edward FitzGerald's The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: the Final Quatrain

 I've cheated a bit here, for this is a repeat of a previous post.  However, since this is the last post I will make on the Rubaiyat (as far as I know right now), I thought it appropriate.  These are the last quatrains for the First, Second, and Fifth Editions.

First Edition:  Quatrain LXXV

And when  Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made one--turn down an empty Glass!

                    TAMAM SHUD

Second Edition:  Quatrain CX

And when Yourself with shining Foot shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!


Fifth Edition:  Quatrain CI
And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
     And in your joyous Errand reach the Spot
Where I made One--turn down an empty Glass!


Fitzgerald made only minor changes over the five editions, and most of them occurred in the first line.  In the first edition we see  "Thyself" which becomes the less poetic  "Yourself" in the second edition.  Also, "shining foot" is changed to "silver Foot" in the second edition.  "Silver" is much more specific in that it denotes a white foot more clearly than does "shining."

In the fifth edition, we find the most drastic change to the first line.  The references to her personal appearance disappear and she is named Saki.  In addition, we find a reference--"like her"-- to the previous quatrain where the Moon is depicted as shining down on those in the garden.  The tie to the previous quatrain is much stronger in this edition than in the earlier versions in which the quatrain began with "And," which also ties this quatrain to previous one.  In other words, he substitutes a direct reference for a conjunction.

The second, third, and fourth lines of the various editions are identical except for a change that occurs in the second edition, when "thy" becomes "your" to match a similar change in the first line.

The sense of the quatrain seems quite clear--remember me with an empty glass, which refers back to earlier quatrains concerning the scene in the pottery shop in which a pot suggests that filling it with wine might restore it.  However, there seems to be no possibility of that happening here, for death is the final emptying of the glass.

 I started this project on September 26, 2008 and never realized that it would last for almost nine years.  I have now posted entries on all seventy-five quatrains in the First Edition and related quatrains in the Second and Fifth Editions.  I have also posted on all quatrains that were added by Edward FitzGerald in the Second Edition.  All quatrains in the Fifth Edition are identical to or are modified versions of quatrains in the First and Second Editions.   As far as I can tell, no new quatrains were added in the Third or Fourth Editions, or if any were, FitzGerald dropped them when the Fifth Edition came out.

This, therefore, will be the last posting I will make on Edward FitzGerald's version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.   It is with mixed feelings that I say this. 

Someone, I think, once said that endings were really opportunities for new beginnings.  

"The Arabic word sāqī ساقی (also written as saqi or saki) literally means wine-server or wine-pourer and is frequently used in Persian poetry to describe the glorious Server who continually pours out the wine everlasting to all of mankind, while implying that only a completely empty bowl is truly ready to be filled with such a fine wine. For the Sufi, the greatest task of life is to become empty enough, selfless enough, to be a suitable receptacle for the wine which the Sāqī  pours.

In some cases, the word sāqī   may be used as a reference to a specific spiritual teacher, but in the grand scheme of things, a spiritual teacher is merely a worldly symbol for the presence of the Beloved, the One and Only One."

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Editiion, Quatrain CVII

This is the second of two linked quatrains, the previous being Quatrain CVI, with a similar theme.

Second Edition:  Quatrain CVII

Better, oh, better, cancel from the Scroll
Of Universe one luckless Human Soul,
    Than drop by drop enlarge the Flood that rolls
Hoarser with Anguish as the Ages Roll.

This quatrain does not appear in the Fifth Edition.  Perhaps, since its theme is the same as in the previous quatrain, FitzGerald decided it was repetitive and therefore unnecessary, and consequently dropped it by the time the Fifth Edition was published.

The theme is the same as in Quatrain CVI, and it is not found in the First Edition.  This idea, that it would be better that humans were not created, does not appear in the First Edition as best as I can remember, nor is there any reference to the pain and anguish of existence.  The First Edition was published in 1859 while the Second Edition appeared in 1868, nine years later.  Not knowing what happened to Edward FitzGerald in those nine years, I can't speculate whether the addition of this quatrain, filled with despair and pain, has any personal significance for him or just may be a translation of a quatrain that he didn't include in the First Edition and has no personal meaning for him.    

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Robert Frost's Invitation

The Pasture

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha'n't be gone long,--You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother.  It's so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long,--You come too.

-- Robert Frost --
Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays
The Library of America

He's inviting us to go along, but to where or to what?

One place, obviously, is the pasture, to watch him do some simple, ordinary, uncomplicated things-- things of no great consequence. 

This poem is placed on a page immediately before the rest of his poetry, so I might say that this is an invitation to his poetry.  Perhaps I should read this first whenever I decide it's time for Frost.

Is there somewhere else he's inviting us to go?

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Minute Meditation

We are most likely to get angry and excited in our opposition to some idea when we ourselves are not quite certain of our own position, and are inwardly tempted to take the other side. 

-- Thomas Mann --

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho' a man may be in doubt of what he knows,
Very quickly he will fight. . .
He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!

"A Puzzlement"
Lyrics from the musical, The King and I

Obviously wrong, right?   For everybody knows that those who fight the hardest and shout the loudest have no doubts whatsoever . . . for they never give any sign that they might be wrong.   And those who admit that they have some questions or even doubts are the weakest in their faith.  It's obvious, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain CVI

This is the first of several linked quatrains which express the same theme: the pain of human existence.

Second Edition:  Quatrain CVI

Oh, if the World were but to recreate,
That we might catch ere closed the Book of Fate,
    And make The Writer on a fairer leaf
Inscribe our names, or quite obliterate!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XCVIII

Would but some winged Angel ere too late
Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,
    And make the stern Recorder otherwise
Enregister,  or quite obliterate!

FitzGerald has made considerable changes to this quatrain by the Fifth Edition.   The theme seems to be the same, though.  But, there is a subtle difference which I didn't catch the first time I read them.  The Second Edition was published in 1868, about nine years after the First Edition.  The Fifth came out in 1889, so there was a twenty year gap between the Second and the Fifth Editions.

The subtle difference may simply be an accidental result of the changes in wording (over-reading again on my part), or it may reflect a change in FitzGerald's own world view that took place over that twenty year gap.  In the Second Edition, it seems as though Creation is fixed.  Note that the World has to "recreate" in order for us to catch the Book of Fate before it is "closed."  I understand that to mean Creation or Fate is now fixed and to make any changes we would have to begin again before any changes could be made.

It appears to be a different situation, though, in the Fifth Edition.   He wishes that "some winged Angel ere too late/  Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,"  This suggests to me that Fate is not yet fixed and changes could be made to "yet unfolded Roll of Fate."  The Roll is not yet folded, and therefore different entries could be made.  This seems to me to be a movement away from predestination.  Based on some earlier quatrains this is a change since some quatrains did suggest that this is a predestined world, and we had little to say about our fate.

Another interesting change occurs in the third line.  In the Second Edition, it is The Writer who will Inscribe our names, or quite obliterate!  The reference is to an objective or neutral scribe, while in the Fifth Edition, it is a stern Recorder who records our fate.  In the twenty years between the two editions, the depiction of the one who records our fate has gone from neutral to stern

Of the various themes in the Rubaiyat, this is probably the most despairing.  FitzGerald proposes two options: one would be to have "The Writer on a fairer leaf/ Inscribe our names, and if that is not possible then the Writer should quite obliterate our names from the Roll.  In other words, it would be better if we weren't born. If the " stern Recorder" doesn't change the Roll of Fate, then again the poet/narrator would prefer to be  quite obliterate.  In other words, with life being the way it is, it would be better not to have been born at all.

One question I do have: the responsibility of the Writer and the Recorder.  Do they decide our Fates or do they just follow orders and record them as dictated to them by another higher power?  I can't tell from the quatrains for they do not give a clue, or at least none that I can find.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dylan Thomas's Cat: Do Not Go Peaceable to That Damn Vet

Do Not Go Peaceable to That Damn Vet

Do not go peaceable to that damn vet,
A cat can always tell a trip is due,
Hide, hide, when your appointment time is set.

Wise cats who watched, and learned the alphabet,
And never let men know how much they knew,
Do not go peaceable to that damn vet.

Young cats who want to keep their claws to whet
On sofa legs, and save their privates, too,
Hide, hide when your appointment time is set.

Sick cats, poor things, whose stomachs are upset,
But hate to eat some evil-smelling goo,
Do not go peaceable to that damn vet.

Old cats who have no wish to sleep just yet,
And plan to live another life or two,
Hide, hide, when our appointment time is set

And though your human sweetly calls his pet
Or rants and raves until his face is blue,
Do no go peaceable to that damn vet,
Hide, hide, when your appointment time is set.

--  Dylan Thomas's Cat --
Henry Beard: Poetry for Cats

I always had trouble finding my cats when it was "vet time.I finally figured it out:  I had gotten into the habit of bringing out the cat carrier from the closet in the morning of a trip to the vet.  When I stopped, I had no problems after that.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ryokan's Irony?

Done begging in a rundown village,
I make my way home past green boulders.
Late sun hides behind western peaks;
pale moonlight shines on the stream before me.
I wash my feet, climb up on a rock,
light incense, sit in meditation.
After all, I wear a monk's robe--
how could I spend the years doing nothing? 

                                                -- Ryokan --

  That last sentence makes me look again at the seven lines preceding it, and I have to wonder about them.  Is he being ironic here?  What, if anything, does this say about a monk's way of living?  Or, about Ryokan?