Sunday, February 26, 2017

Robert Hayden: Those Winter Sundays

Sometimes while reading a poem, a stanza or even a line may resurrect memories long forgotten or at least not recalled in many years.  This is what happened yesterday when I read Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."   According to the brief bio note with the poem, Hayden was born in Detroit.  I was born and raised in Chicago, so my winter mornings were much like Hayden's in Detroit. 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

I remember my dad getting up in those cold, dark winter mornings and going down into the basement to remove the cinders and shovel coal into the furnace.  I too never said anything about it for I just took it as a part of living and never considered what it meant, until I read this poem.  Hayden says so little, yet suggests so much in this brief poem.

"No one ever thanked him."

"fearing the chronic angers of that house."

"Speaking indifferently to him,"

And of course, the last two lines:

"What did I know, what did I know
  of love's austere and lonely offices?"

How much regret, how much regret is contained  within those fourteen words?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ryokan: the ultimate enlightenment?

Is he enlightened or just lazy?

Without a jot of ambition left
I let my nature flow where it will.
There are ten days of rice in my bag
And, by the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
Who prattles of illusion or nirvana?
Forgetting the equal dusts of name and fortune,
Listening to the night rain on the roof of my hut,
I sit at ease, both legs stretched out.  
                           -- Ryokan --
from  Zen Poetry
edited and translated by Takashi Ikemoto and Lucien Stryk

What I find most intriguing is that he rejects both the spiritual world (illusion and nirvana) and the material world (name and fortune).  Is this the ultimate enlightenment? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 65

Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, calm and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation--a change from beauty to beauty.

-- John Muir --

from   John Muir:  In His Own Words

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favorite Films: 2016

These are the films that I watched and most  enjoyed in 2016 and would like to view again.  The first group are those films I watched for the first time, and probably not for the last time either.  As you can see, there were 20 film which I would like to view again some time, but only four of them were films I had viewed for the first time.  Sixteen of the twenty were films I had already viewed in the past, viewed again in 2016 and would like to watch again some time in the future.

First Viewings:

Symphonies of Beethoven 
a Teaching Company set of 48 lectures on Beethoven's symphonies.  The only downside was that they were too short.  It's on my "must watch again" list.
The Martian   
a very realistic depiction of being marooned on Mars.  

 Love and Friendship  
a marvelous transformation of Jane Austen's novella, _Lady Susan_.  It is the best adaptation of a work by Austen that I have ever seen.  Why they changed the name, I don't know.
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl  
Ken Burns' usual production, which would be extraordinary for anyone else--a great and moving documentary on a sad period in our history.  

Repeat Viewings:

THX 1138
George Lucas' first film, directed when he paid attention to character and plot and kept the action sequences at the appropriate level--but, as usual, he just had to get a car chase sequence in there.

Museum Hours
a great film, simple plot and two main characters.  The sights and scenes of Vienna are matched by the dialogue and paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  This is a link to my post on this film.

Man from Earth
one of my favorite SF films--John Oldman tells his friends that he's over 10,000 years old.  What follows is their attempt to determine if he is lying or deceiving them.  They of course rule out the possibility that he's telling the truth.  This is a link to my post on this film:

The Name of the Rose
a limited but excellent adaptation of Umberto Eco's great novel of the same name--a mystery set in an isolated monastery in Italy?  moody and dark, an interesting mix of religion and politics, and religious politics. 

Witness for the Prosecution
my all-time favorite  courtroom drama film: strangely, I liked the film better than the Christie story it was based on.

The Qatsi Trilogy
all photography, with no dialogue or plot; the  sound track of music composed by Philip Glass is an integral part of the overall effect.  Must be seen and heard to be appreciated.

pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect: -a contrast between wilderness and urban settings--the viewer decides

again, pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect:  the contrast is between the developing parts of the Southern Hemisphere and the still undeveloped parts

--Life as War is a rough translation of the title.  Released some 14 years after the first two--the technology wasn't available at the time.  This is almost all digitized photography. 

Brideshead Revisited
an excellent adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel.  Seeing this on PBS Masterpiece Theatre got me to go and read the novel.

Wages of Fear
one of the most tense and nerve racking films I've ever watched.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Smiley's People
two great BBC adaptations of the Smiley novels by John le Carre'
Alec Guinness is in top form here

The Big Sleep (Bogart and Bacall)

It's Bogart and Bacall in a film adaptation of a novel by Raymond Chandler.  What else need I say?.

If you're in the mood for a film and don't have anything particular in mind, try one of these, and let me know what you thought.  They are all great films and well worth the time spent.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

Jack London:   The Scarlet Plague

Edgar Allan Poe published a short work titled "The Masque of the Red Death" (aka "The Mask of the Red Death) in 1842 about a virulent plague that caused instant bleeding from the pores and immediate death.  In 1912, some 70 years later, Jack London published a novella, The Scarlet Death in which he depicted a plague that caused a bright reddening of the skin and almost instantaneous death.  Did London borrow the idea from Poe?  I don't know as I've never read anything that suggests such a possibility.  Aside from the symptoms and the high mortality rate, the two tales are very different in time and place.  Poe's tale takes place in Renaissance Italy (or so I guess) while London's is set in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013. 

Poe's story focused on a small group of people who fled the city for an isolated "castellated abbey," hoping to escape the plague.  It had a high wall and an iron door.  They sealed the door in an attempt to keep the plague or plague bearers out.  However, as those who have read the tale know, they were unsuccessful  What happened after the plague appeared and apparently killed all in the abbey is not told.

London's tale, however, is a flashback, a reminiscence of one of the few survivors, called Granser by the boys,  told to the next generation, a small group of young males who are the descendants of those few who were immune to the plague.  While the story was written in 1912, London set it in 2013, in the San Francisco Bay area. 

The frame tells us what life is like several decades after the plague.  Granser's  audience consists of teen-aged boys, whose language consists mostly of a very basic vocabulary and they see no reason why there should be more than one word for something.  They deride the old man for referring to something as "scarlet" when "red" is a perfectly good word.  While we never really get a close look at the way the people live then, London does provide sufficient information to suggest that humanity has reverted back to the hunting and gathering stage, a period of savagery, as Granser complains.  But, this is all part of the cycle, for the old man tells the boys:

 "You are true savages.  Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth.  In another generation you will be perforating your nose and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell.  I know.  The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization.  When we increase and feel the lack of room,  we will proceed to kill one another." 

Most of the tale, though, consists of the horrors experienced during the outbreak of the plague and the breakdown of society, the rioting, looting, and killing that occurred as the terrified population thought only of their own survival at any cost.  What's intriguing is that Granser, a literature professor at the University of California,  and numerous colleagues in the university community attempted to barricade themselves in the Chemistry Building, bringing in supplies and weapons and prepared to do whatever they had to do to keep the plague and plague bearers out, just as the Prince and his friends had done in Poe's tale. And, they were just an unsuccessful.  At the end, the few survivors fled the building.

London doesn't go into any great detail about what had happened during the sixty years that had passed since the outbreak.  He is most concerned with the breakdown of society at the time of the plague and some depiction of life today.

Interwoven though is London's socialist philosophy as the old man tells of society in 2013 as consisting of Masters and Slaves (capitalist owners and workers).  He, in speaking of the events of 2013, tells us  "(t)hat was the year that Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates."

London also makes the point, over a century ago, that he was aware of what we today are only too aware of--the relationship of a large population and the appearance of new diseases and the role of rapid global  transportation in the spread of these diseases.  Improved methods of food production led to an increase in population.  "The easier it was to get food, the more men there were; the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth; and the more thickly were they packed, the more new kinds of germs became diseases."

We are certainly well aware of the problem today, especially when we consider the onset of AIDS, Ebola, and most recently the Zika virus.  So far we've been lucky as rapid transmission of information has allowed us to stay ahead of the threat, even though several countries were placed under quarantine during the last Ebola outbreak.

London's tale is a disquieting one, even though it is considered science fiction.  It is not an highly improbable invasion by aliens that poses the threat but invaders from Earth itself.  We see examples of it perhaps every decade or so.

At one time I had considered calling this post "The Three Plagues."  I had planned to write about three plague stories--the two mentioned above and George R. Stewart's great novel, The Earth Abides.   However, the length of this commentary on the first two is long enough, so I will post on Stewart's work separately.

 I would recommend, if you have the time, to read all three stories:  first Poe, then London, and then Stewart's novel, for together they provide an thorough exploration of the theme--the plague and its aftermath.  .  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXV

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain in which the  Poet/Narrator points out that the Creator has put before us certain pleasures and then denies them to us "under pain/Of Everlasting Penalties..."

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXV

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXIX

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd--
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

Aside from the dash after "dross-allay'd" in the second line of the Fifth Edition, I can see no other differences between the Second Edition and the Fifth (Final) Edition. 

This quatrain develops the theme of the previous quatrain--the injustice of an eternal punishment of Creatures for partaking in pleasures put before them.   We are helpless creatures who are expected to act with perfect obedience, "Pure Gold," when we were given only imperfect and sinful characters to begin with, characters that are "dross-allay'd."  Is it reasonable to expect perfect performance from imperfect creatures?   Moreover, we were not given the opportunity to review this "contract."  It was simply placed upon us without our consent.  Would a human court would enforce such a contract?