Sunday, April 23, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: on stories

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



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

.  .  .  .  .

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

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


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

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

Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Han Shan: solitude


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


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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Pt. 3

Lawrence Durrell
Justine

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

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

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

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


Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Minute Meditation


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

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


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

Sheer unadulterated twaddle.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Nikos Kazantzakis: Toda Raba

Nikos Kazantzakis
Toda Raba
Published 1928
English Translation, 1964
Amy Mims,  trans.

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain XC

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


Second Edition:  Quatrain XC

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



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

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

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

John Muir: Destruction or Creation?



No. 66

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



181

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


All quotations are from John Muir: In His Own Words 


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

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

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Pt. 2

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

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


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

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

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


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

 PS
We do find out later.

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