Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Kenko: on doubt

No 98

When in doubt whether or not to do something, generally it is best not to do it.

-- Kenko --
Essays in Idleness

Kenko is most assuredly a cautious fellow.

Generally, if I have doubts about doing something, I will wait.  After some time has passed, I frequently decide that I don't need to do it.  However, sometimes I will close my eyes and jump right in.  

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Gregory Benford: "White Creatures"

Gregory Benford
"White Creatures"
a short story
from The Best of Gregory Benford

The story begins:  

The aliens strap him in.  He cannot feel the bindings, but he knows they must be there; he cannot move.  Or perhaps it is the drug.   They must have given him something because his world is blurred, spongy.   The white creatures are flowing shapes in watery light.  He feels numb. the white creatures are moving about him, making high chittering noises. 

This appears to be an alien abduction story.   However, it isn't as straightforward as that.  The story has two narratives: one is of Merritt's experiences as a prisoner of the aliens and the second, of his memories that one would expect may explain what caused or led to his abduction.

When the second narrative begins we learn that Merritt is on Puerto Rico and is a technician involved with a seti project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), probably at the Arecibo Observatory, although I don't remember it being mentioned in the story. 

While the two narratives alternate between the inexplicable things being done to Merritt and Merritt's memories, something doesn't seem right.  His memories cover a considerable passage of time, decades possibly, from his affair with Erika, the seti project's director's wife, to his resignation and subsequent employment at NASA where he becomes immersed in the study of other star systems, searching for those which approximate earth-like conditions.  

He is totally dedicated to his work, and the only personal relationship he has is with Erika, the now ex-wife of the project director.  She has created a career out of conducting guided tours of  young, wealthy businessmen, and whenever she is in town, they get together.  Her charm and attractiveness are her strengths, but as the years pass, these begin to fade.  Finally she decides on the long sleep, to be awakened when effective rejuvenation techniques are developed.  

Merritt doesn't understand her.  They live in two worlds:  she in the physical here and now, while he in essence lives in the future, absorbed in searching the universe for answers.   Centuries ago Merritt might have been a theologian or philosopher searching the heavens for answers to the perennial questions.   Or, perhaps a priest/astrologer searching the heavens for signs of or hints from a divinity or divinities.  Is his now scientific search for signs of life in the universe that different?   What is also surprising is that Merritt never considers going for the long sleep, to be awakened when there is definite proof of intelligent life on other planets.  I wonder if, for Merritt, the search is what is important, not the result.

Some years later, seeking something, he visited the Krishna temple. . .they led him through a beaded curtain to the outside.  They entered a small garden through a bamboo gate, noisily slipping the wooden latch.  A small man sat in lotus position on a broad swath of green . . . Merrick explained his feelings, his rational skepticism about religion in any form.  He was a scientist.  But perhaps there was more to these matters than met the eye, he said hopefully.

The teacher picked up a leaf, smiling, and asked why anyone should spend his life studying the makeup of this leaf.  What could be gained from it?

Any form of knowledge has a chance of resonating with other kinds, Merrick replied.

So? the man countered.

Suppose the universe is a parable, Merrick said haltingly.  By studying part of it, or finding other intelligences in it and discovering their viewpoints, perhaps we could learn something of the design that was intended.  Surely the laws of science, the origin of life, were no accident.

The teacher pondered for a moment.  No, he said, they are not accidents.  There may be other  creatures in this universe, too.  But those laws, those beings, they are not important.  The physical laws are the bars of a cage. The central point is not to study the bars, but to get out of the cage.  

Merrick could not follow this.  It seemed to him that the act of discovering things, of reaching out, was everything.  There was something immortal about it.

The small man blinked and said, it is nothing.  This world is an insane asylum for souls.  Only the flawed remain here.

Merrick began to talk about his work with NASA and Erika.  The small man waved away these points and shook his head.  No, he said.  It is nothing.

(The italicized part above was actually one paragraph which I broke down) 

Merrick can not understand the teacher's dismissal of the physical universe just as he didn't understand Erika's immersion in it.  He seemed to be somewhere in the middle: the physical universe was important as something to study and learn from.  While he went beyond Erika's immersion in the physical universe, he could not leave it behind as the teacher had insisted that he must.

Later, he encounters a woman in the street whom he thinks is Erika.  However, when their eyes meet, she shows no reaction, and Merrick realizes that his interest is purely intellectual.  That part of his life was over, for he hadn't been with a woman in years.

It is ultimately a sad story, for Merritt has grown old, but he refuses to believe it.  He hadn't noticed the years passing by because of his obsession.  He doesn't even have the satisfaction of having his abduction prove the existence of aliens, for those white creatures are doctors and nurses, and in his drugged state he doesn't recognize an operating room.

Perhaps I'm going too far here, but it seems to me that differing attitudes to life and existence are presented here.  At one end of the spectrum is Erika's immersion in the physical world, while at the other end is the teacher's dismissal of it as unimportant, "it is nothing."  Merrick would seem to be in the middle somewhere: the physical world is important, not in itself, but as a means of finding its purpose, its design.   But, while it appears that three views are presented,  I can't see any conclusion to be drawn from them as to which would be the most fulfilling one.

I am unhappy with my reading of the story.  I wonder what I have missed or misread.  I shall have to return to this tale sometime to see how it has "changed."

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Minute Meditation

We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow-citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease.
           --  H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) --
             Prejudices: First Series, I: Criticism of Criticism of Criticism

Most of us, including me, believe that we have the best way of doing things--the best way of acting, the best way of thinking--and forget the most important last two words--FOR ME.  Your way may be different than mine, and if it works, great.  However, don't try to improve my life by trying to force it on me.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Russell Hoban: Kleinzeit

Russell Hoban
a novel

When I first began reading Kleinzeit I immediately thought of Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky."   Wrong!  It soon became clear that there was a significant difference.  In "Jabberwocky," Carroll creates words that almost make sense, so that one gets only a general sense of what is happening.   Hoban doesn't make up words; he uses real words  but he uses them in a strange way.  Fortunately they only occur in limited situations, usually when medical personnel are discussing Kleinzeit's symptoms.

For example . . .

Sister nodded with closed eyes, thought of Kleinzeit's blood in the phial she had held, warm in her hand.  The tests had shown a decibel count of 72, a film speed of 18,000 and a negative polarity of 12 percent.  She didn't like the polarity, it might go either way, and the decibels were on the dodgy side.  But his film speed!  She'd never had an 18,000 before.

And later. . .

'That's why I'm asking,' said Dr. Pink.  'I'm not worried about your diapason.  That sort of dissonance is quite a common thing, and with any luck we'll clear it up fairly soon.  The hypotenuse of course is definitely skewed, but not enough to account for a 12 percent polarity.'  Fleshky and Potluck nodded, Krishna shook his head.  'On the other hand,'  Dr. Pink continued,  'the X-Rays  indicate that your asymptotes may be going hyperbolic.'  He felt Kleinzeit here and there  warily, as if sizing up a combatant hidden in him.  ' Not too happy with your pitch.'

Aside from the occasional linguistic muddle, the reader soon discovers that  everything talks: the hospital, the corridors in the underground subway, a mirror, the hospital bed . . .

It is night and Kleinzeit has left the hospital and is standing by the square in front of the hospital.

The day knocked three times at his eyeballs.
Morning for Mr. Kleinzeit, said the day.
I'm Mr. Kleinzeit, said Kleinzeit.
Sign here, please.
Kleinzeit signed.
Thank you very much, sir, said the day, and handed him the morning.
Right, said Kleinzeit.  The square was wide-awake with people, had a hum of cars around it.  Backdrop of buildings, rooftops, sky, traffic noises, world.

Later, the hospital speaks:

Six o'clock in the morning, and Hospital had had enough of sleep.  Drink tea, it said.  Patients sighed, cursed, groaned, opened or closed their eyes, came out  from behind oxygen masks, drank tea.

Or, Kleinzeit's encounter with his mirror one morning: 

He put his face in front of the bathroom mirror. 
I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit.
Not my problem, said the mirror.

This does not sound like a very congenial way to begin the day--perhaps an omen, an ominous one of things to come?  

These are not rare occurrences in the novel; they can be found on almost every page.  I find them to be the major attraction in Kleinzeit, as I turn the pages, wondering what next.  By the way, there is a plot here--it's noticeable if you take an overview and ignore most of what's happening in the individual chapters.  And for the romantically inclined, there's even a love subplot  (or perhaps the major plot, depending on what you're looking for in a novel).

This is my second reading. There will be more, for who knows what I've missed this time around.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Carl Sandburg: "Muckers"


 Twenty men stand watching the muckers.
       Stabbing the sides of the ditch
       Where clay gleams yellow,
       Driving the blades of their shovels
       Deeper and deeper for the new gas mains, 
      Wiping sweat off their faces
                 With red bandanas.

The muckers work on  . . .  pausing  . . .  to pull
Their boots out of suckholes where they slosh.

    Of the twenty looking on
Ten murmur, "O, it's a hell of a job,"
Ten others,  "Jesus, I wish I had the job."  

-- Carl Sandburg --
Complete Poems 

Two groups of ten and while they stand next to each other, they occupy different worlds, or so it seems to Carl Sandburg.   It reminds me of that saying attributed to a Native American:  Condemn no one until you have walked a mile in that person's shoes.  As I look back, I see too many times when I forgot this.

This is a very physical  poem: ditch, clay, stabbing, blades, shovels, sweat, boots in suckholes, slosh, red bandanas.  .  ..

Monday, November 13, 2017

Bokeh, a film

Bokeh, a film

A young couple, Americans, are on vacation in Iceland.  One morning they awake to find that everybody else has disappeared--completely disappeared.  There are no bodies; no signs of any disaster.  The only change they can see is that the human race has vanished and only they remain.  Radio, TV, and phones are silent.  The world has gone silent, whether it is local in Iceland or international.  They have no idea of why or how this happened nor why they alone remain. 

Bokeh is a quiet film with no monsters, mutants, aliens, car chases, or devastation found so frequently in post-apocalyptic films.   To a considerable extent, it reminds me of another film, a documentary that discussed what would happen if the human race just simply disappeared. Unfortunately I can't remember the title.

The film focuses on their attempts to deal with the situation, and with each other.  While they are in love, this is the first time they have been forced to interact solely with each other for any extensive length of time.   In the past, other people  have always been nearby, along with their work and life in the 21st century, with its distractions, crises, and pleasures.  Now, for the first time, they are really alone and are faced with the reality of being alone for a long time--just the two of them.  

They appear to live in the present.  There is little thought for the future.  Their main concern seems to be to exist.  They ignore the potential Adam and Eve setting for they do not even speak of children.  It was as if they thought only of themselves and weren't concerned that the human race might die out with them. 

The photography was one of the strong points of the film .  This could almost pass as as travelogue for they took advantage of Iceland's scenery and filmed much of it.  It almost made me want to schedule a trip to Iceland.  If you are curious about Iceland and can't find a travel film, rent this film. 

 In the press notes, the writer-directors explain that "bokeh"is a photographic term for the part of a photo that's out of focus, the background that helps to set the foreground.   In their film, the science fiction scenario of this silent apocalypse is part of that background.

I must admit that I wasn't that impressed immediately after watching the film.  However, I have been thinking about it, on and off, since then.  Something about the film intrigues me,  but I don't know what it is.  I just may rent it again to find out.  If so, that suggests that the film had affected me at some level below the conscious level.

Bokeh is a puzzlement.  

Friday, November 10, 2017

Ray Bradbury: "The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind"

Ray Bradbury
"The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind"
a short story
found  in Twice 22

This, of course, is a fairy tale, and that means it's not true.  This is fortunate because there's a great evil in the story.  The problem is that the great evil is what many believe is responsible for the superiority of Western Civilization.  Of course, they don't believe it's evil, but a good thing, and if Western Civ were ever to give this up, it would no longer be superior.  Anyway, here's the tale . . .

The Mandarin was upset.  He had watched the neighboring town of Kwan-Si grow in size so that it was as large as his town.  What was worse, now, was that the people were building a wall.

(from the story)

"'But why should a wall two miles away make my good father sad and angry all within the hour?' asked his daughter quietly.

'They build their wall,' said the Mandarin, 'in the shape of a pig!  Do you see?   Our  own city wall is built in the shape of an orange.  That pig will devour us, greedily!'


They both sat thinking.

Life was full of symbols and omens.  Demons lurked everywhere.  Death swam in the wetness of an eye, the turn of a gull's wing meant rain, a fan held so, the tilt of a roof, and yes, even a city wall was of immense importance.  Travelers and tourists, caravans, musicians, artists, coming upon those two towns, equally judging the portents, would say, 'The city shaped like orange? No! I will enter the city shaped like a pig and prosper, eating all, growing fat with good luck and prosperity!'"


The daughter has an idea which the Mandarin immediately accepts.  He calls the stonemasons together and tells them to rebuild their wall in the shape of a club "'which may beat the pig and drive it off.'"

"Rejoicing, the stonemasons rebuilt the wall."  But the celebration was short-lived for the people of Kwan-Si rebuilt their wall into the shape of a great fire which would burn the Mandarin's club.   The Mandarin then retaliated with a  wall built in the shape of a lake that would extinguish the fire. The people of Kwan-Si rebuilt their wall in the shape of a mouth which would swallow the lake.   In short, a wall-shape-race had begun.  And so it went, for many months.

Finally it became too much, for the people stopped doing everything except reshaping the wall.

 (the story)
"Sickness spread in the city like a pack of evil dogs.  Shops closed.  The population, working now steadily for endless months upon the changing of the walls, resembled Death;himself, clattering his white bones like musical instruments in the wind.  Funerals began to appear in the streets, though it wads the middle of the summer, a time when all should be tending and harvesting.  The Mandarin fell so ill that he had his bed drawn up by the silken screen, and there he lay, miserably giving his architectural orders."


The race ended.  The people could do no more.   The daughter told him to send for Kwan-Si.  They met; both mandarins were ill and had to be carried to the meeting.  The Mandarin's daughter appears and orders the servants to carry the mandarins outside.  There she points out several kites.

(the story)

"'What does it (a kite) need to sustain it and make it beautiful and truly spiritual?'

'The wind, of course!' said the others.

'And what do the sky and the wind need to make them beautiful?'

'A kite, of course--many kites, to beak the monotony, the sameness of the sky. Colored kites, flying!'

'So,' said the Mandarin's daughter.  'You, Kwan-Si, will make a last rebuilding of your town to resemble nothing more nor less than the wind.  And we shall build like a golden kite.  The wind will beautify the kite and carry it to wondrous heights.  And the kite will break the sameness of the wind's existence and give it purpose and meaning. One without the other is nothing.  Together, all will be beauty and co-operation and a long and enduring life.

.  .  .
And so, in time, the towns became the Town of the Golden Kite and the Town of the Silver Wind.  And harvestings were  harvested and business tended again, and the flesh returned, and disease ran off like a frightened jackal.  And on every night of the year the inhabitants in the Town of the Kite could hear the good clear wind sustaining them.  And those in the Town of the Wind could hear the kites singing, whispering, rising, and beautifying them."


Of course, this is a fairy tale, so it is not true.  Competition is the great thing, and co-operation is OK, in its place, a small place though.    I'm sure most would agree, right?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Eric Hoffer: re-seeing the ordinary

No. 90

Familiarity blurs and flattens.  Both the artist and the thinker are preoccupied with the birth of the ordinary and the discovery of the known.  They both conserve life by recapturing the childhood of things. 

-- Eric Hoffer --
Reflections on the Human Condition 

In the introduction to one of his stories, Conrad is quoted as saying that the work of the artist is to make the reader see, above all, to make the reader see.  I find it interesting that this could refer to something new or something old, just as Hoffer suggests in his comment.  I think I remember that Wallace Stevens said something similar--the job of the poet was to rub off the patina that obscures words over time.

Something I have noticed, also, is that after being away from home for a week or more, everything at home seems slightly different when I return--newer, if that makes any sense.  Of course, that feeling doesn't last long.   

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Haiku Bells

Long ago I believe bells, church bells, played an important role in everyday life, especially in rural areas.  I wonder if that's still true today.   Growing up in Chicago, I don't remember bells as being especially important or noticeable.  I wonder if we lost something when we moved from the countryside to urban areas.

     Cloud of cherry-bloom . . .
Tolling twilight bell . . .Temple
            Ueno?   Asakura?
                  -- Basho --

I remember reading in a novel (Proust?) about a traveler listening to the sounds of church bells in the village he has just left, when he reaches the crest of a hill and now hears also the sound of bells from the village he is approaching.

       Silent the old town . . .
The scent of flowers floating . . .
          And evening bell
            -- Basho --

What must that be like?  Silence....the scent of flowers... joined by the sound of a bell

              Voices of two bells
That speak from twilight temples . . .
               Ah!  cool dialogue
                       -- Buson --

I never connected bells with temperature, but cool is very apt. 

             Butterfly asleep
Folded soft on temple bell . . .
     Then bronze gong rang!
         -- Buson --

Poor butterfly!

               In the holy dusk
Nightingales begin their psalms . . .
         Good!  the dinner gong!
                   -- Buson --

Interesting shift from "holy dusk" and the nightingales' "psalms."  Contrary to the usual portrayal, these bells lead one from the sacred to the profane.

Ah!  I intended
Never never to grow old . . .
     Listen:  New Year's bell!
                 -- Jokun --

Is New Year's a time for sorrow at the passing of the old or joy at the entrance of the new?

     We stand still to hear
Tinkle of far temple bell . . .
      Willow-leaves falling
               -- Basho --

I think the tinkle of that far off temple bell would be the perfect accompaniment for those falling leaves.  I can close my eyes and see and hear them.

The calling bell
Travels the curling mist-ways . . .
             Autumn morning
                   -- Basho --

a bell and mist--again perfect for autumn

Are bells still important in places?

Above haiku are found in A Little Treasury of Haiku
Translations by Peter Beilenson. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 224

I never saw a discontented tree.  They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.

-- John Muir --
from  John Muir: In His own words

He may have a point here.