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 in 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?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Minute Meditation

"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 --
  Constance or Solitary Practices

One of the joys of rereading--discovering little gems anew. This is the germ of the idea that describes part of the charm of  "The Avignon Quintet,"  for several of the characters in Blanford's novel interact with Blanford and  his friends.  Constance, for example, remarks upon meeting Sutcliffe that she was surprised because she thought Sutcliffe was a fictional character.

I wonder how I would react if I met characters from a novel I had read. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Willa Cather: Youth and the Bright Medusa, Pt. 3

Willa Cather
Youth and the Bright Medusa

These are the last two stories in the collection.

"The Sculptor's Funeral"

Prophets are not honored in their home towns and, so it seems, it is also true about sculptors.  Harvey Merrick, a highly respected award-winning sculptor, has died.  His body is  brought back from the East to the small town in Kansas where he was born and raised.  His coffin is accompanied by Steavens, one of  Merrick's students.  They are met at the station by a group of townspeople who take the coffin to the Merrick home.

Steavens is  shocked by Merrick's family, especially the mother.  However, the father utters what must be the understatement of the century:  "He was a good boy, Jim; always a good boy.  He was ez gentle ez a child, and the kindest of 'em all--only we didn't none of us ever understand him."

Later, Steavens joins the townspeople and is dismayed by the way they talk about Merrick.  He was a failure, a disappointment to them all, as they jokingly and gleefully and maliciously  recounted his life there as a child. He never paid attention to where he was, always daydreaming, he wasted his father's money on  book learning,  he drank too much,   One "mourner" commented, "'Where the old man made his mistake was in sending that boy East to school,' said Phelps, stroking his goatee and speaking in a deliberate, judicial tone.  'There was when he got his head full of nonsense.  What Harve needed, of all people, was a course in some first-class Kansas City  business college.'"

Yet, there is one there who speaks up for Merrick and utters his own critique of the town and its inhabitants.

"It's not for me to say why, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, a genius should ever have been called from this place of hatred and bitter waters; but I want this Boston man to know that the drivel he's been hearing here tonight is the only tribute any truly great man could have from such a lot of sick, side-tracked, burnt-dog, land-poor sharks as the here-present financiers of Sand City--upon which town may God have mercy!"

I think Marshall McKann, who appeared in Cather's "The Gold Slipper" would feel comfortable with these people.


"A Death in the Desert"

I found this story, the last in the collection, to be the most complex tale, even though it is far from being the longest.  In Cather's "The Diamond Mine," the theme is the exploitation of the successful performer or artist by family, friends, and various parasites, as they selfishly use the performer to gain their own goals, be it psychological, emotional, or financial.  This story, "A Death in the Desert," tells the other side of the story, the way that some performers use, abuse, and finally abandon those who aid them as they strove to achieve their goals, be it for the art itself, fame, or financial rewards..  

Adriance  Hilgarde is a well-known composer and concert performer.  Everett is his younger brother who is cursed/blessed by his appearance: he resembles Adriance so closely that he can't go anywhere without being mistaken for him.

While stopping in Cheyenne, Wyoming on a business trip, Everette is mistaken for Adriance by Katharine, who becomes quite upset.   The next morning her brother comes to apologize, and it is at this point that Everette recognizes Katharine whom he hasn't seen in many years.  He had fallen in love with her when she was Adriance's student.  Adriance considered her to be the most talented of his pupils, and shortly afterwards, they left for a concert tour which eventually took them to Europe, and that was the last time he saw her.  Now, she was back, suffering from an incurable case of  consumption (TB).

Although he has finished the business that brought him to Wyoming, he stays because "No matter what his mission, east or west, by land or sea, he was sure to find himself employed in his brother's business, one of the tributary lives which helped to swell the shining current of Adriance Hilgarde's.  It was not the first time that his duty had been to comfort, as best he could, one of the broken things his brother's imperious speed had cast aside and forgotten.  He made no attempt to analyse the situation or to state it in exact terms; but he accepted it as a commission from his brother to help this woman to die. "

It isn't that Adriance is an evil or malicious person:  he is just so absorbed in himself that he never notices the way he uses those around him.  When Everett writes him about Katharine,  Adriance writes her a letter "full of confidences about his work, and delicate allusions to their old happy days of study and comradeship"  Everett thought that the "letter was consistently egotistical, and seemed to him even a trifle patronizing, yet it was just what she had wanted." 

 I wasn't sure until the very end as to who the protagonist was:  there are three for which some argument could be made.  The first, Everett Hilgardeis the point-of-view (POV) character, and, most often, the POV is the main character.  The second is Katharine Gaylord, and the title refers to her.  The third, Adriance Hilgarde, is the link that brings Everett and Katharine together, once in the past and now once again.  I would have to go with Adriance, even though he never appears, except through the memory of Everett and Katharine and that one letter. 

  In one sense, this is a variation of the popular plot referred to frequently as the eternal triangle (aka infernal triangle) in which A loves B, B loves C, and C loves A; only in this situation A loves B, B loves C, and C apparently loves C..

The story leaves some questions open:  what does Everett think about his role, going about comforting those injured by his brother?  What does he get out of it?  Why are people so willing to be used by Adriance, even though they get nothing out of it?  Or, do they?

It's a story to come back to again, perhaps after percolating deep down under for a year or so. 

Friday, June 9, 2017


Willa Cather
Youth and the Bright Medusa

The following are two more stories found in Cather's collection--Youth and the Bright Medusa

"Paul's Case"

The title provides a clue, for this story can be seen as perhaps a medical case or a psychological case or even a criminal case history.  Paul attempts to recreate himself with his lies about his parentage.  Perhaps he is a foundling, abandoned by rich and powerful parents for some reason.  He spends his time trying desperately to prove to all that he is superior to all: to his teachers, to his fellow students, to all about him.  His life is ruled by his desire to live life the way he thinks life should be lived, with every desire met. 

He steals money from his employer one Friday afternoon, knowing that his theft won't be discovered until Monday.  He leaves Pittsburgh for New York where he registers in at an expensive hotel and goes on a shopping spree for clothing.  He returns to the hotel, rests, and then changes into his new clothing.  It is now dinner time.

"When he reached the dining-room he sat down at a table near a window.  The flowers, the white linen, the many-coloured  wine glasses, the gay toilettes of the women, the low popping of corks, the undulating repetitions of the Blue Danube from the orchestra all flooded Paul's dream with bewildering radiance.  When the roseate tinge of his champagne was added--that cold, precious, bubbling stuff that creamed and foamed in his glass--Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all.  This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected: this was what all the struggle was about.   .    .    .    .    .  He had no especial desire to know any of these people; all he demanded was the right to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant.  The mere stage properties were all he contended for."

I must admit that I don't understand Paul, for it seems that he is satisfied just by being able to exist on the periphery of this bright, glittering world.  He does not appear to want to become an active part of it.  Just being able to sit there with the others seems to be sufficient for him.

This story fits the title for Paul is the youth and his dream is the bright and deadly Medusa.

One can surmise that there will not be a happy ending to this tale.


"A Wagner Matinee"
A sad story wherein a well-meant gesture goes sadly wrong. 

One morning Clark received a letter from Nebraska.  His Aunt Georgiana had received a small inheritance and was coming to Boston for the settling of the estate.  He wondered what she would make of Boston after being gone for thirty years.  She had been a piano teacher when she met Harold Carpenter who wooed her and took her out to a Nebraska farm.  He himself had gone out there some years ago and worked for his uncle, so he knew what life on the Nebraska prairies was like.

Thinking to be kind, he purchased tickets for a matinee performance of the music of Wagner, but he wondered if perhaps he should forget about the concert.  Eventually he dismissed that thought and they went.   But. . .

"The first number was the Tannhauser overture.  When the horns drew out the first strain of the Pilgrim's chorus, Aunt Georgiana clutched [his] coat sleeve.  Then it was [he] first realized that this for her broke a silence of thirty years.  .  . . and [he] saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond whee I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain gullied clay banks about the naked house.  .  ."   

And he now remembered that "(f)or thirty years [his] aunt had not been farther than fifty miles from the homestead."

While he lived with them she  taught him "scales  and exercises on the little parlour organ which her husband had bought her after fifteen years during which she  had not so much as seen a musical instrument."  Once, when he had spent considerable time trying to learn a favorite piece, she told him  : "Don't love it so well, Clark, or it may be taken away from you."

She said little during the concert, but he often could see tears in her eyes.  When the performance was over, the audience filed out and the performers put their instruments away.  She still sat there quietly, unmoving.  Finally he spoke to her, and he realized just what he had done when she "burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly, 'I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!'  [He] understood.  For her, just outside the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall, unpainted house, with weather-curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door."

John Keats once said:

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."
from  Endymion

But, what happens when that "thing of beauty" is lost or taken away?  What happens to that joy?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Minute Meditation

 Today is the birthday of Thomas Mann, the author of one of my top ten favorite novels:  The Magic Mountain.  
"Music awakens time, awakens us to our finest enjoyment of time."
-- Thomas Mann --
The Magic Mountain
I would add this: Music is the Voice of Time.  



Monday, June 5, 2017

Gregory Benford: The Berlin Project

Gregory Benford
The Berlin Project

 The Berlin Project is an alternate universe tale that up to a certain point reads more like a docudrama, a depiction of real events that have been filled out in places by the writer.  The first part takes place in the days before WWII, of the beginnings of what was to become the Manhattan Project.   The movement of the scientists from the first implications of what "splitting the atom" to the realization that this could be a source of power and a destructive weapon unlike anything possible at that day.  There was at the same time the fear, supported by rumors and certain actions by German scientists, that Germany was also going along the same path.  Eventually it was decided to try to beat the Germans to the bomb.

Research then suggested that U235 would be the best for such a bomb.  The project then came to a decision point: what method would be most effective in separating out U235 from U238?  It is at this point, that the novel moves, at least as far as I can tell, completely into the alternate universe.  In the real world, it was decided to use the gas diffusion method, whereas in The Berlin Project, the powers-that-be went with the centrifuge method.

In the Afterword to the novel, Benford says that even by the '60s we knew that the centrifuge method would have been the best choice.  The decision in favor of the gas diffusion method  resulted in a delay of a year or more in developing the bomb, which then had little effect on the war in Europe.  The decision in the novel to use the centrifuge method gave the Allies the bomb a year earlier; in fact the bomb was ready just before the Normandy invasion.  This changed the outcome of the war.

I felt, to some extent that the novel had two parts.  The first, as I mentioned above, reminded me of a docudrama as it had considerably more detail leading up to the production of the bomb than I would normally expect in an alternate history tale.  What happens after the production and use of the first bomb is similar to what I usually find in an alternate history--a wide divergence from the events of the real world.   The detailed account of the scientific struggles to produce the bomb is over and is followed by a more action-oriented story and speculation as to the long-term effects of its use in the other world.

In the Afterword,  Benford tells us that most of the characters in the novel were real, including Karl Cohen, the POV character, who happens to be his father-in-law.  Considerable information obviously came from him.  In addition to physicists and mathematicians, other real people appear or are mentioned: James Benford (Benford's father was in the army during WWII) who appears in a walk-on role, as do these people who would be familiar to some, I suppose--Cleve Cartmill (author of a story that got the FBI interested), Anson McDonald (better known as Robert Heinlein, who also was the author of a story that got the FBI interested), John W. Campbell (who published both stories), Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and Arthur C. Clarke.

And, at one point in the novel, a character remarks: "tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun."   Those familiar with the work of Alfred Bester will recognize this.

Overall I found it a very interesting read.  While the details of the research and succeeding struggle to produce the bomb did not happen that way in our world, it gave me more of an idea of what those efforts were like, and also a closer look at the politics and in-fighting that tool place within the Manhattan Project, something I had never heard of before.

As I mentioned above, Benford provides an 18 page afterward  with a brief discussion of  the major events as it happened in the real world, and a brief biography of the major characters in the work.  Benford says that several of the characters are still alive today.  He also points out the irony of the development of the bomb in that many of the important scientists in the Manhattan Project were refugees from Europe, fleeing the Nazis. 

If you have read a number of novels and short stories by Greg Benford, I think you will be surprised by this one.  It's not like anything I have read by him so far.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain CV

Second Edition:  Quatrain CV

Would but the Desert of the Fountain yield
One glimpse --if dimly, yet indeed reveal'd,
     Toward which the fainting Traveller might spring,
As springs the trampled herbage of the field! 

Fifth Edition: Quatrain  XCVII
Would but the Desert of the Fountain yield
One glimpse --if dimly, yet indeed, reveal'd,
     To which the fainting Traveller might spring,
As springs the trampled herbage of the field! 

FitzGerald made only minimal changes to this quatrain over the next three editions.  He added a comma in the fifth edition after "indeed," but that might have simply been adding one that had been left out in the second edition.  The other change was the substitution  of  "To" for "Toward" in the third line.  I think "To" makes it more specific as "Toward" suggests only moving in that direction, but not necessarily that being the destination.

Again, this quatrain brings up the theme that we don't know where we are going and laments that we can't even get a glimpse.  Robert Frost expresses the same idea in his poem "For Once, Then, Something." 

For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

The mystery of existence has tormented and bedeviled the human race for thousands of years. This has brought about the various religious traditions, each with their own unique answer.  Each of these answers have their own adherents, but no answer to date has been shown to be satisfactory to the human race as a whole, except, of course, to its followers.

 Do I have an answer?  No.  But, like Khayyam and Frost, I keep looking and hoping.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Walt Whitman: In Memoriam-- the defeated

I was surprised to read this poem by Walt Whitman.


With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only,  I play marches for conquer'd and slain persons.

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

I beat and point for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

Vivas to those who have fail'd!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!

And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!

-- Walt Whitman--
"Song of Myself"  from Leaves of Grass

These are the forgotten ones, the ones who were defeated, those who, if they were remembered, would be remembered as failures.  I don't think I've ever encountered another poem that remembered  those who were defeated.

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."