Thursday, August 10, 2017

Loren Eiseley: The Star Thrower

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

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

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

The Judgment of the Birds  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 7, 2017

George R. Stewart: Earth Abides

George R. Stewart
Earth Abides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder how future generations will view Ish. 

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

Emily Dickinson: "I reason"

No. 301

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

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

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

-- Emily Dickinson --
The Complete Poems

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nathaniel Hawthorne: King Arthur in Boston?

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

"The Gray Champion"

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

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

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

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

This, of course, drew a crowd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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