Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Looking Back from Exile

Collected Poems in English 


Collected Poems in EnglishJoseph Brodsky was born on May 24th in Leningrad in 1940. He was arrested at age twenty-three and sentenced to five years on a prison farm for “having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism … except for the writing of awful poems.” He then was expelled ("strongly advised" to emigrate) from the Soviet Union in 1972, settling in the United States with the help of W. H. Auden and other supporters. Brodsky was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature "for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity". He was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1991.

The lines below are from “May 24, 1980,” Brodsky’s poem looking back from exile in America on his fortieth birthday:



…I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I've admitted the sentries' third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it's stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it's long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.


My previous commentaries on his essays and poetry can be found at Poetic Essays and What is Poetry?

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Spell of Love

Adolphe 


Adolphe


"How to depict the spell of love -- the conviction that we have found the one whom Nature destined for us; the sudden light shed on the mystery of life; the way that trifles gain a hidden meaning; the rapid hours . . . the certainty that the world can no longer harm us where we live, and a mutual understanding that guesses every thought and responds to every emotion -- ah, that spell; anyone who has felt it could never describe it." (p 91)





This is an unusual short novel. A story of a romance with virtually no context, however it suggests what Europe was like for a son of a wealthy family in the early 19th century. And, in one of the later chapters, Constant describes the physical geography of an area of Poland. But, beyond that, there's only Adolphe's emotions and his perceptions of Eleanor's. In its psychological approach it reminded me a bit of The Sorrows of Young Werther, but perhaps more closely resembles Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.

The narrator, Adolphe, is an intelligent young man, given to analysis and raised in a household without much affection, who begins a relationship almost as an experiment – and also because he understands that this is what people are supposed to do. The woman is already the mistress of a Duke, and has two children with him but no real rights as acknowledged by society. He is young, 22 years old, and has just completed his studies at the University of Göttingen. He travels to a small town in Germany, where he becomes attached to the court of an enlightened Prince. During his stay he gains a reputation for an unpleasant wit. A friend inspires him to attempt the seduction of an older woman named Ellenore.

Eventually, the woman succumbs, and as far as the reader can tell she is entirely in earnest. She gives up everything for him. Rather quickly, Adolphe’s ardor entirely cools, but he feels unable to detach himself from her. He alternates between trying to be honest about his feelings and then, when he sees her getting more and more distraught, rapidly feigns emotions that he desperately wants to feel but no longer does. Adolphe becomes anxious as he realizes that he is sacrificing any potential future for the sake of Ellénore. She persuades him to extend his stay by six months, but they quarrel, and when she tends him after he is injured in a duel, he finds himself hopelessly indebted to her. He attempts to leave her only to have her follow him. The denouement leads Adolphe to return to a life of alienation more severe than that which he experienced before his affair.

I am not sure that I enjoyed this novel, but I certainly appreciated the approach - when, upon reflection, I realized the novelty of the psychological approach. It likely had a major impact on later "psychological" novels. According to a critic of Russian literature, Victor Terras, French literature of the nineteenth century influenced the major Russian writers, thus Dostoevsky likely was familiar with Constant. The fictional Adolphe is familiar with the things that he is supposed to say and how he is supposed to act, and in doing these things almost convinces himself that he is actually in love – for a short time, in fact, he might feel something similar to the real thing.



Saturday, May 20, 2017

More than Infinity

Ficciones 








“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.”   ― Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones





One of the earliest memories of reading
that I have is one of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The idea that there is another world beyond or through the mirror in one's parlor is a fabulous way to introduce the flights of fancy that little Alice was prone to engage in as I had learned in Carroll's earlier book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I am reminded of this experience because of the importance of mirrors in the writing of Jorge Luis Borges as he privileges the mirror and his stories as books appear as mirrors for reality. Just as in Carroll the mirror image presents a reflection that is backwards and always seems a bit wrong; however, it is wrong in a way that one only senses and cannot actually identify with any hope of specificity. My own dreams, and perhaps yours, often seem to be similarly twisted, even absurd, reflections of reality.


In Ficciones Borges has included nine short fictions in part one and ten even shorter works called "artifices" in part two. I like every story in the first part but my favorite has to be "The Library of Babel" which, for readers, has to encompass the notions of heaven and hell all in one twisted story.

The first story in this collection, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is an example of the importance of mirrors as it begins with the following sentence: "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia."(p 5). Additional stories share favorite places of Borges whether they be a garden in the case of "The Garden of Forking Paths", or the library as in "The Library of Babel". The latter of those two stories would have to be my favorite, and perhaps the favorite of many readers as readers who love libraries. Borges' library is a cheerless and even fearful place. With its incalculably vast size suggesting infinity it can seemingly be a nightmare more than a dream. Yet there is always the possibility of finding hope hidden in the vastness of infinite space. While Borges himself spent several years in a dull library job cataloging books the imaginary library of Babel seems to defy any cataloging. Just like a world reflected in a mirror, "absurdities are the norm" in this library while disorder reigns. Conundrums also abound as with the notion that everything that has already been written, yet there are always new and definitively different books that one may encounter.


The worlds depicted in Borges' stories are filled with blank spaces, the ideas and ideals are abstract rather than personal, yet they yield a personal response. Those unwilling or unable to fill in some of the blank spaces with their own imaginations may find something lacking. No amount of further writing would help though all of the stories are short, even as short stories go with the second part filled with "Artifices" that are typically no more than two or three pages long. Just as the stories beckon with suggestions of ruins, lotteries, libraries, and gardens; so do the artifices with titles that invite you to partake of death, miracles, swords, differing visions of Judas, and the rise of the Phoenix. Infinite libraries suggest stories from an imagination that also may have been infinite.


The world of Borges' fiction expands to encompass more than reality. These short narratives reveal conflicting emotions, motives, and desires shared by all humans and explore what he imagines as a tortured struggle for salvation or perhaps merely redemption.  His genius gives rise to flights of the imagination unique in my experience. My love for these narratives stems from their presences as magical works of a literary master.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Could You Be My Enemy?

All Quiet on the Western Front 

All Quiet on the Western Front



“But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”   ― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front



All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque was published in 1929, and it was the author's way of coming to terms with the war. Parts of the book are autobiographical. The work also has a history with censorship--the book was banned in Germany.

Rereading Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front , I was moved by his contrast of the bewilderment and innocence of the 20 year-old (and some younger, teenage!) boys and the horrific scenes of trench warfare.  You can get a sense of the bewilderment of the boys from the following:
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.” 

The opening chapter, especially, where the one young boy who had the temerity to disagree with the military mindset of his schoolteacher was the first to be slain. But not just slain, rather left to die and only shot as he dragged himself back toward his comrades. This was bitter scene, but it would soon to get worse, much worse. The novel is "neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure. . ."

The overriding theme of the novel is the terrible brutality of war, which informs every scene. The narrative seeks to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery. In many ways, World War I demanded this depiction more than any war before it—it completely altered mankind’s conception of military conflict with its catastrophic levels of carnage and violence, its battles that lasted for months, and its gruesome new technological advancements (e.g., machine guns, poison gas, trenches) that made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before. Remarque’s novel dramatizes these aspects of World War I and portrays the mind-numbing terror and savagery of war with a relentless focus on the physical and psychological damage that it occasions. At the end of the novel, almost every major character is dead, epitomizing the war’s devastating effect on the generation of young men who were forced to fight it.

This is by far the best fictional account of the Great War, or of any war (although I would recommend that you consider viewing Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's exceptional film about the Great War mutinies). I wonder if it is any easier being taken out by a sudden explosion from a roadside bomb? I wonder.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Intelligence Observed

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness


Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness





“Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be characteristics of this creature. —Claudius Aelianus, third century A.D., writing about the octopus” 




What is the nature of intelligence and what are its signs? We often use humankind as the standard for questions like these but this book explores a distant branch of the tree of life for signs of intelligence; specifically the cephalopods, consisting of the squid, the cuttlefish, and above all the octopus. The author, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, uses his encounters with these creatures as a jumping off point for exploring questions of evolution, consciousness, and intelligence among animals that are almost as alien as extra-terrestrial beings.

The story begins and largely continues in the oceans from which all life originally came. The evolution of seaborne groups of cells is explored as they gradually became more complicated creatures that were capable of sensing, acting, and signalling, The author identifies gradual evolutionary developments that led to nervous systems in creatures like mollusks. Some of these mollusks abandoned their shells and rose from the ocean floor gradually developing the greater intelligence needed to search for prey and survive. This evolution continued for millennia just as our forebears and other mammals developed on land.

The most fascinating aspect of this story is the search for and discovery of the nature of intelligence in cephalopods. Through observation the author identifies how the brain that is so compactly and centrally located in the human head appears to be spread out throughout the body of the octopus. 
“In an octopus, the nervous system as a whole is a more relevant object than the brain: it’s not clear where the brain itself begins and ends, and the nervous system runs all through the body. The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system.” (p 75)
 It seems that in an octopus the nervous system as a whole is equivalent to their brain. A relevant philosophical discussion about how to imagine this is conisidered in Thomas Nagel's famous essay, "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" (Philosophical Review, 1974).

Most interesting for this reader was the way that the evolution of cephalopods has mirrored our own evolution in some ways even as the organisms have developed differently in response to their environments. The author's interaction with a nest of octopuses, in itself a discovery, provided information about the difference of these animals, yet also led to identification of a level of intelligence that was both beyond any previously assumed and far different that that typical for mammals and most other creatures. These discoveries, including tentacles that are so full of neurons that they appear to think for themselves, solved some of the mysteries of these creatures and provided encouragement that further answers will be found.


Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Inspiration for a Blogger

The History Boys 

The History Boys



"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours." (p.56)





Today is the birthday of British playwright and humorist Alan Bennet.  I note this because, when in January, 2007, I began this blog in earnest, it was Bennett, more than anything else, that was the inspiration for my doing so; specifically, his play The History Boys and the film version of it that had premiered a few months earlier.

The play is a great read for many reasons and all of them deeply resonated with me.  Most important was the devotion to the importance of language (centered on the "dictionary" boy role of Posner) and music and ideas, more clearly emphasized in the play than in the screenplay for the film (also written by Bennett).  

The play contrasts the differing perspectives on education of the two lead teachers (Hector and Irwin). Without the need to "open up" demanded by film Bennett focuses on the schoolroom and uses subtle effects to effect his dramatic purpose. One aspect of the play that stands out is the multiple narrators throughout the drama. Bennett is at his epigrammatic best and the audiences in New York showed their appreciation of this as noted by the reviews. He is successful in creating a delightful dramatic and comedic portrayal of ideas, all while evoking the spirit of bright young scholars at a key turning point in their lives. With reference to and in the spirit of Shakespeare he dramatizes events in and outside of the classroom touching on both the desires of the heart and the wonders of imaginative young minds.

The battle between educational styles centers on the approaches to teaching of the teachers Hector (the idealistic humanist) and Irwin (practical and pragmatic). The foundation for the boys is Mrs. Lintott's straightforward, perhaps old-fashioned, approach to teaching history which has produced "well taught" boys; however that is not enough to assure them success in achieving entrance to Oxford or Cambridge. The headmaster, in his "wisdom" adds into the mix a young teacher just up from Oxford to give the students an "edge". It is his, Mr. Irwin's, pragmatic method which uses paradox and the subjunctive.  He aims to turn the historical facts upside-down, with little regard for the "truth" of the situation providing the "history boys" the ammunition to go to battle with the methods of Hector, the humanistic "general studies" teacher who attempts to enlist the boys into a conspiracy against the world and the "education" they are supposedly receiving.

"Mrs. Lintott: They're all clever. I saw to that.
Hector: You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it."
-
"Scripps: But it's all true.
Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?"


With all of this battle of educational styles there added an undercurrent of eroticism, both due to the nature of education itself, as Hector points out, and due to the psychological tensions among Dakin and his two admirers, Posner and Irwin. This combination, which explodes at times to produce riveting moments of theater, is what makes this play great. That and the magnificent literary style of Bennett that has continued to inspire me to this day.


Monday, May 01, 2017

The Tale-Teller

Robert Louis Stevenson





"I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father's house."  - Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped



On this day in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped began serialization in Young Folks magazine. It was this book, along with the earlier Treasure Island (1883) and A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) where I first enjoyed reading Stevenson more than half a century ago. Along with a handful of other authors these books became the foundation of my early reading and love of books. I still have that feeling for Stevenson as I have gradually explored some of his other novels, short stories, and essays. While he is considered one of England's most popular writers of "Children's Literature", these novels and his others, especially The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, are worth exploring and enjoying as an adult. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, provoked by a dream and written in a ten-week burst during the writing of Kidnapped, is one of the outstanding examples of the use of the theme of 'the double' in literature, and a classic late Victorian text.  Other examples of this theme range from Poe (William Wilson) and Dostoevsky (The Double) to moderns like Daphne du Maurier (The Scapegoat).  Though Stevenson wrote prolifically and in almost every genre, his four books from the mid-1880s have become classics.  They are all he would need to be remembered more than a century later. This reader continues to look back a the beginning of his reading as a boy and remember when he first encountered the adventures depicted in Kidnapped and Treasure Island.


Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Random House, New York. 1949 (1886)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Random House, New York. 1949 (1883)