Sunday, December 31, 2017


May the coming year be a happy and healthy year for you.   Regardless of what kind of year 2017 was for you, I hope 2018 will be a better one of all of us.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: is this poetry?

Two young men are talking.  One is Walsh, the main character of Lawrence Durrell's Pied Piper of Lovers and the other is a close friend.

"'Why,' said Walsh, turning his head, 'do you talk such a lot of rubbish?'

Gordon's eyes widened and he laughed silently, very merrily.  Then he explained, quite seriously.
'Partly because words are such lovely things.   The more you learn the more pity you feel for the ones that aren't used, and you get into the habit of using them, until what you say doesn't matter so much as how you say it.'"

-- Lawrence Durrell --
Pied Piper of Lovers 

what you say doesn't matter so much as how you say it.

Would it be a surprise to learn that Lawrence Durrell was also a poet?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: sense of place, one last word

"One last word about the sense of place; I think that not enough attention is paid to it as a purely literary criterion.  What makes 'big' books is surely as much to do with their site as their characters and incidents.  I don't mean the books which are devoted  entirely to an elucidation of a given landscape like Thoreau's Walden is.  I mean ordinary novels  When they are well and truly anchored in nature they usually become classics.  One can detect this quality of 'bigness' in most books which are so sited from Huckleberry Finn to The Grapes of Wrath.  They are tuned in to the sense of place.  You could not transplant them without totally damaging their ambience and mood;  any more than you could transplant Typee.  This has nothing I think to do with the manners and habits of the human beings who populate them; for they exist in nature, as a function of place."

-- Lawrence Durrell --
from the essay: "Landscape and Character"
Spirit of  Place

This quality of "bigness" that Durrell speaks of seems to be dependent upon the significance, the importance of the landscape, the natural setting found in the novel.  I can see this in Huckleberry Finn,  where the Mississippi seems to me to be the most important character in the novel.  The same is true for Typee  or Moby Dick  or  The Hound of the Baskervilles.  I wonder, though, about The Grapes of Wrath, though I might suppose the dust bowl early in the novel might be significant, yet that is only a small part of the novel.  It seems to me that most of the novel takes place in California and the landscape doesn't seem to play that important of a role, or at least not as important as the human relationships there.

"This has nothing I think to do with the manners and habits of the human beings who populate them; for they exist in nature, as a function of place."

The above statement is, to me, the most controversial idea.  It is an extremely significant theme that appears again and again in Durrell's works.  This idea may be the reason why he was a very highly regarded travel writer before his novels overshadowed them.  

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Story of God: a National Geographic TV miniseries

The Story of God
National Geographic Series
Morgan Freeman, narrator
Three DVDs

Several reasons moved me to get this set from the library.  One was that I've always been fascinated by the subject of comparative religion. I think it's an excellent demonstration of humanity's creativity and imagination.  The second reason was that I was curious about National Geographics' handling of the subject.  I was hoping that they would go beyond the major religions and look at some of the lesser-known ones, and I wasn't disappointed.  The third was that Morgan Freeman is one of my favorite actors, and I was looking forward to him as the narrator, and I wasn't disappointed there either.

The format is very straightforward:  each segment is devoted to a specific issue or topic, ones that are common to most religions, and then four or five examples of the ways in which this topic is treated by various religious or cultural groups.


The Afterlife

 The Apocalypse (the end of days)

The Ways Several Religions View their God(s).

The Problem of Evil



The Chosen One

Heaven and Hell

Proof for God's existence.

Along with the five largest religions--Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism--other religions are covered, to a lesser extent of course:  Navajo, Australian Aborigine, Taoism, Maya, Zoroastrianism,  Yoruba, Cherokee, and the Sikh. Scientific evidence is also introduced where appropriate.

This is not an extensive or in-depth study of the issues or topics.  What are presented are the significant elements for each topic as perceived by four or five religious groups.  In my view, it is an excellent overview of the topic and the various religious expressions or perceptions of that topic.  It also provides information about the lesser known religions and is an starting point for further research if you find a particular topic or religion interesting.

I had been aware of the Zoroastrian religion for some time, but I knew knew little about them.  I
thought they had disappeared, but according to the film, there are still groups in existence in Iran, India, and a small group in Southern California.  So, on my Futures List, is a note to do some looking around for Zoroastrianism.

What I find fascinating in this subject is the distinction between the questions and the answers.  The questions--where did the universe come from? where did I come from and where am I going? why am I here? is there a plan or a purpose to all of this or is it chance?--are what Aldous Huxley calls the perennial questions.  They've been around for thousands of years and are common to all humanity, not just the property of one or two groups.  It's almost as if they are hardwired into the human brain.

On the other hand, the answers vary widely and wildly from group to group--a marvelous example of human creativity and imagination--the diversity of human perspective.  One simple example:  the Creation stories range from one god creating the universe out of nothing to the existence of blind, unknowing chaos out of which the gods emerge who then create the universe and its inhabitants.   And not to be ignored is science's big bang theory.   The universe is a marvelous place, however it got here. 


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Dark Tower: a few comments

I finally got around to watching The Dark Tower.  After I watched it, I realized the film began with a very large lie: a statement to the effect that this film is based on the "Dark Tower" novels of Stephen King.

Well, let's see.  One of the characters in the film was named "Roland Gilead," which does come from the novels.  Another was "Walter" or the "Man in Black."  And, Jake Chambers  is also found in both the novels and the film.  Oh yes, there was a mention of The Dark Tower and part of the action in the novels does take place in NYC.  That's about all I recognized in the film as coming from the novels.

Of course, it's been a long time since I read the novels, so my memory may be a bit faulty here.  So, if anyone has seen the film and recognized scenes from the novels that I obviously missed, please let me know.

One curious note:  Stephen King appeared in one of the  Extras, but for less than ten seconds I would guess.  He said that he had Clint Eastwood in mind when he created Roland.  When I read the novels, I thought Eastwood would have made a great Roland.  King's second comment was that he thought that Matthew McConaughey was well cast as Walter.  I thought that was a strange juxtaposition of the comments about the two of the leading roles in the film.

I think Idris Elba, who played Roland, is an excellent actor and was convincing in his role.   However, he is not  Clint Eastwood.  So, as I watched the film, I tried to forget King's Roland and think of Elba as a different Roland.

Overall Reaction:  the powers-that-be turned a highly complex and imaginative work into just another film featuring a teenager with superpowers who saves the universe.  Jake is the hero and Roland is his bodyguard. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Minute Meditation

 Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong.  They are conflicts between two rights.

-- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel --

How does one decide when faced with this conflict?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Loren Eiseley: The Long Loneliness (from The Star Thrower)

Loren Eiseley
"The Long Loneliness"
an essay in The Star Thrower

The first two paragraphs of "The Long Loneliness,"  one of the essays in  The Star Thrower.

There is nothing more alone in the universe than man.  He is alone because he has the intellectual capacity to know that he is separated by a vast gulf of social memory and experiment from the lives of his animal associates.  He has entered into the strange world of history, of social and intellectual change, while his brothers of the field and forest remain subject to the invisible laws of biological evolution.  Animals are molded by natural forces they do not comprehend.  To their minds there is no past and no future.  There is only the everlasting present of a single generation--its trails in the forest,  its hidden pathways of the air and in the sea.   

Man, by contrast, is alone with the knowledge of his history until the day of his death.  When we were children we wanted to talk to animals and struggled to understand why this was impossible.  Slowly we gave up the attempt as we grew into the solitary world of human adulthood, the rabbit was left on the lawn, the dog was relegated to his kennel.  Only in acts of inarticulate compassion, in rare and hidden moments of communion with nature, does man briefly  escape his solitary destiny.  Frequently in science  fiction he dreams of world with creatures whose communicative power is the equivalent of his own.

Later in the essay, he introduces  the research of Dr. John Lily and his studies on the porpoise.  So far, we haven't been able to determine whether porpoises actually communicate as we do or whether they have simply evolved a complex signaling system with little or no flexibility.   Maybe, some day,  we will find that we aren't as alone as we think. What will it be like to encounter another sentient species in the universe?

I wonder if this sense of isolation has anything to do with the prevalence of talking animals and fairies and trolls and dragons and all sorts of talking creatures that don't exist.  Most cultures have myths and legends and tales filled with talking animals, some of whom actually exist,  while others are products of creative and imaginative minds..  Tradition has it that King Solomon owned a ring of power that enabled him to understand and communicate with animals.  

Eiseley's comments also resonate with much of SF.  Stories about aliens are very common in SF, and there's even a subgenre called "First Contact."    How will we communicate with them?  Or, can we?   And, what is behind the belief in UFOs so prevalent today?  Is that another sign of that loneliness?

In many SF tales of contact with aliens, it is often observed by someone in the story that this will be the most important event in human history.  Is it and why?

It seems to me that we as a species spend a considerable amount of time fantasizing about   communicating with other species, real or imagined.  In addition we also spend a lot of time trying to communicate with other species here on this planet and attempting to detect signs of communication out there among the stars.

Eiseley states, There is nothing more alone in the universe than man.  Is he right? 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Emily Dickinson: "Success is counted sweetest"

No. 67

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated -- dying --
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

-- Emily Dickinson --
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

For Emily Dickinson, this seems like a fairly straightforward poem.   Only those who have never won can really appreciate victory.   But, still, I wonder.  How could one who has never experienced victory, realistically understand or comprehend it? The more I consider this poem, the more perplexed I become.

As usual, I must ask if I am  missing something here in this poem by Dickinson.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Minute Meditation


"Plans made swiftly and intuitively are likely to have flaws.  Plans made carefully and  comprehensively are sure to."
-- Robert Grudin --
Time and the Art of Living

This seems to contradict conventional wisdom or common sense, no?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Spirit of Place

Lawrence Durrell
Spirit of Place:  Letters and Essays on Travel
426 pages
Alan G. Thomas, Editor

I am now embarked upon a project of reading and rereading everything I have and can find that Lawrence Durrell has written.  One of those works which I have is Spirit of Place:  Letters and Essays on Travel, which is slightly misleading because it also includes excerpts from some of his early novels. Normally I don't read letters written by and received by authors.  I don't know why I don't find them interesting, but that's a fact. However, I must say that I'm finding these letters to be engrossing, probably because Durrell frequently refers to the place where he is writing this letter and also to whatever he's working on at that time.  In addition, I'm also picking up references and clues to a number of the themes that permeate his works.  One of them, and an important one, is  what he calls "Spirit of Place." 

The following quotation is from his essay, "Landscape and Character," first published in the New York Times magazine section, (June 12, 1960).

"'You write,' says a friendly critic in Ohio, 'as if the landscape were more important than the characters.'  If not exactly true, this is near enough the mark, for I have evolved a private notion about the importance of landscape, and I willingly admit to seeing 'characters' almost as functions of a landscape.  This has only come about in recent years after a good deal of travel--though here again I doubt if this is quite the word, for I am not really a 'travel-writer' so much as a 'residence-writer.'    My books are always about living in places, not just rushing through them.  But as you get to know Europe slowly, tasting the wines, cheeses and characters of the different countries you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all--the spirit of place.   Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture--will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wild flowers.  We tend to see 'culture' as a sort of historic pattern dictated by the human will, but for me this is no longer absolutely true.  I don't believe the British character, for example, or the German has changed a jot since Tacitus first described it; and so long as people keep getting born Greek or French or Italian their culture-productions will bear the unmistakable signature of the place. "

Durrell, later in the essay,  makes this point even more clearly and emphatically.

"I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the country with Tartars, and within two generations discover, to your astonishment, that the national characteristics were back at norm--the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat."

The significance of the place and its control over the inhabitants occurs in several of Durrell's works.  For example, in Justine, we read

I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together:  the city which use us as its flora--precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!.  .  . I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past.  It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.

The human residents in essence were puppets acting out Alexandria's conflicts, deluded into thinking they were responsible, that they were in control.  It is the spirit of the place which controls them.  I can't help but think of the following quatrain from the Rubaiyat of  Omar Khayyam:

Quatrain XLIX

'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.  

I find this a fascinating concept, one that intrigues me, but I wonder if Durrell hasn't gone a bit too far.  Would the second generation of Tartars exhibit those same national characteristics-- "the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat"?

I believe the environment does play a role in our lives, making some things possible and others impossible or at least highly unlikely, influencing our behavior to some extent, but just how much is the question.