Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thoughts for the end of the month

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when adults are afraid of the light.
- Plato (427-347 BC)

The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
- Henry Miller (1891-1980)

If you would like to discover more of the thoughts of the above authors, I have enjoyed and would recommend that you consider reading: Dialogues by Plato; The Colossus of Maroussi or The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.

Sonnet for Today

Shakespeare's take on love suggests leading by example. This seems a different approach than that I have recently encountered either reading Proust or listening to a lecture about Austen. Some might say that love is a complex subject!

Sonnet #142


Love is my sin and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
O, but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profaned their scarlet ornaments
And seal'd false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robb'd others' beds' revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lovest those
Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:
Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,
By self-example mayst thou be denied!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Quotes for today:

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity”

- Dorothy Parker, American author & wit

“There is nothing like being left alone again, to walk peacefully with oneself in the woods. To boil one’s coffee and fill one’s pipe, and to think idly and slowly as one does it.”

- Knut Hamsun, Norwegian novelist & Nobel Prize Recipient


L'Allegro is a pastoral poem by John Milton published in 1645. L'Allegro (which means "the happy man" in Italian) is invariably paired with the contrasting pastoral poem, Il Penseroso ("the thoughtful man"), which depicts a similar day spent in contemplation and thought. It is uncertain when Milton composed these two poems but the two poems were first published in Milton's 1645 collection of poems.


Hence loathed Melancholy
Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn
'Mongst horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy,
Find out som uncouth cell,
Wher brooding darknes spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings;
There under Ebon shades, and low-brow'd Rocks,
As ragged as thy Locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.

But com thou Goddes fair and free,
In Heav'n ycleap'd Euphrosyne,
And by men, heart-easing Mirth,
Whom lovely Venus at a birth
With two sister Graces more
To Ivy-crowned Bacchus bore;
Or whether (as som Sager sing)
The frolick Wind that breathes the Spring,
Zephir with Aurora playing,
As he met her once a Maying,
There on Beds of Violets blew,
And fresh-blown Roses washt in dew,
Fill'd her with thee a daughter fair,
So bucksom, blith, and debonair.
Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and Wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrincled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Com, and trip it as ye go
On the light fantastick toe,
And in thy right hand lead with thee,
The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty;
And if I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crue
To live with her, and live with thee,
In unreproved pleasures free;
To hear the Lark begin his flight,
And singing startle the dull night,
From his watch-towre in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise;
Then to com in spight of sorrow,
And at my window bid good morrow,
Through the Sweet-Briar, or the Vine,
Or the twisted Eglantine.
While the Cock with lively din,
Scatters the rear of darknes thin,
And to the stack, or the Barn dore,
Stoutly struts his Dames before,
Oft list'ning how the Hounds and horn,
Chearly rouse the slumbring morn,
From the side of som Hoar Hill,
Through the high wood echoing shrill.
Som time walking not unseen
By Hedge-row Elms, on Hillocks green,
Right against the Eastern gate,
Wher the great Sun begins his state,
Rob'd in flames, and Amber light,
The clouds in thousand Liveries dight.
While the Plowman neer at hand,
Whistles ore the Furrow'd Land,
And the Milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the Mower whets his sithe,
And every Shepherd tells his tale
Under the Hawthorn in the dale.*
Streit mine eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the Lantskip round it measures,
Russet Lawns, and Fallows Gray,
Where the nibling flocks do stray,
Mountains on whose barren brest
The labouring clouds do often rest:
Meadows trim with Daisies pide,
Shallow Brooks, and Rivers wide.
Towers, and Battlements it sees
Boosom'd high in tufted Trees,
Wher perhaps som beauty lies,
The Cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
Hard by, a Cottage chimney smokes,
From betwixt two aged Okes,
Where Corydon and Thyrsis met,
Are at their savory dinner set
Of Hearbs, and other Country Messes,
Which the neat-handed Phillis dresses;
And then in haste her Bowre she leaves,
With Thestylis to bind the Sheaves;
Or if the earlier season lead
To the tann'd Haycock in the Mead,
Som times with secure delight
The up-land Hamlets will invite,
When the merry Bells ring round,
And the jocond rebecks sound
To many a youth, and many a maid,
Dancing in the Chequer'd shade;
And young and old com forth to play
On a Sunshine Holyday,
Till the live-long day-light fail,
Then to the Spicy Nut-brown Ale,
With stories told of many a feat,
How Faery Mab the junkets eat,
She was pincht, and pull'd she sed,
And he by Friars Lanthorn led
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet
To ern his Cream-bowle duly set,
When in one night, ere glimps of morn,
His shadowy Flale hath thresh'd the Corn
That ten day-labourers could not end,
Then lies him down the Lubbar Fend.
And stretch'd out all the Chimney's length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And Crop-full out of dores he flings,
Ere the first Cock his Mattin rings.
Thus don the Tales, to bed they creep,
By whispering Windes soon lull'd asleep.
Towred Cities please us then,
And the busie humm of men,
Where throngs of Knights and Barons bold,
In weeds of Peace high triumphs hold,
With store of Ladies, whose bright eies
Rain influence, and judge the prise
Of Wit, or Arms, while both contend
To win her Grace, whom all commend.
There let Hymen oft appear
In Saffron robe, with Taper clear,
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With mask, and antique Pageantry,
Such sights as youthfull Poets dream
On Summer eeves by haunted stream.
Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonsons learned Sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespear fancies childe,
Warble his native Wood-notes wilde,
And ever against eating Cares,
Lap me in soft Lydian Aires,
Married to immortal verse,
Such as the meeting soul may pierce
In notes, with many a winding bout
Of lincked sweetnes long drawn out,
With wanton heed, and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running;
Untwisting all the chains that ty
The hidden soul of harmony.
That Orpheus self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heapt Elysian flowres, and hear
Such streins as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half regain'd Eurydice.
These delights, if thou canst give,
Mirth with thee, I mean to live.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Return to Proust

In Search of Lost Time, Volume V

Part One: The Captive

At the opening of The Captive, part one of Volume V of In Search of Lost Time, it is daybreak and the narrator shares the weather with the reader. It is a frosty morning and as on most mornings the narrator would prefer to stay in bed, or at least in his bedroom, for that is from where he "took in the life of the outer world during this period"(V, p1). It does not take long for him to transition into his memories of another time and, instead of his beloved Albertine, his mama and her good night kiss.

Life, when it delivers us from sufferings that seemed inescapable, does so in different - at times diametrically opposed - conditions, so that it seems almost sacrilegious to note the identical nature of the consolations vouchsafed!(V p2)

It is worth noting the use of "sacrilegious" - grossly irreverent toward what is held to be sacred - and the suggestions of the narrator's deep confliction over his feelings toward Albertine. His feelings toward her appear complicated beyond my poor ability to decipher, analyze or even comment, but they seem to be a mixture of both love and pain (or lack of), for he goes on to say:

It was not of course, as I was well aware, that I was the least bit in love with Albertine. Love is no more perhaps the diffusion of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul. Certain such eddies had indeed stirred my soul through and through when Albertine spoke to me at Balbec about Mlle Vinteuil, but these were now stilled. I no longer loved Albertine, for I no longer felt anything of the pain I had felt in the train at Balbec on learning how Albertine had spent her adolescence, with visits perhaps to Montjouvain. I had thought about all this for long enough, and it was now healed.(V, pp 16-17)

Is it healed? Is he healed? His actions at the opening of this section suggest conflicts of the heart and soul that make answers to these questions difficult. Perhaps this will become clearer as we traverse the rest of The Captive.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

John Keats

John Keats died in Rome on this day in 1821. Below is one my favorites among Keats' poems. The odes and other poems are truly great but this small, seemingly slight, poem moves me in ways that I am still trying to fathom.

I had a dove, and the sweet dove died
And I have thought it died of grieving;
O what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving:
Sweet little red feet! why would you die?
Why would you leave me, sweet bird, why?
You liv’d alone on the forest tree,
Why, pretty thing, could you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft, and gave you white pease;
Why not live sweetly as in the green trees?

Monday, February 22, 2010


She had learned in her childhood to fondle and cherish those long sinuous phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by reaching out and exploring far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected their notes to reach, and which divert themselves in those fantastic bypaths only to return more deliberately -- with a more premeditated reprise, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl that reverberates to the point of exquisite agony -- to clutch one's heart.
-- Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913-27)

Frédéric François Chopin, a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist was born on this day in 1810 in the village of Żelazowa Wola, in the Duchy of Warsaw, to a French-expatriate father and Polish mother. He was considered a child-prodigy pianist, and at age twenty, he left Warsaw for Austria, intending to go on to Italy. The outbreak of the Polish November Uprising seven days later, and its subsequent suppression by Russia, led to his becoming one of many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration.

In Paris, Chopin made a comfortable living as a composer and piano teacher, while giving few public performances. Though an ardent Polish patriot, in France he used the French versions of his given names, and traveled on a French passport, possibly to avoid having to rely on Imperial Russian documents. After ill-fated romantic involvements with Polish women, from 1837 to 1847 he had a turbulent relationship with the French novelist Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym, George Sand. For the greater part of his life Chopin suffered from poor health; he died in Paris in 1849, aged thirty-nine, of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Chopin composed solely for the piano, primarily as solo instrument but also two concertos and a sonata for cello and piano. Though most of his works are technically demanding, they emphasize nuance and expressive depth rather than sheer virtuosity. Chopin invented musical forms such as the instrumental ballade, and was responsible for major innovations in the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, étude, impromptu and prélude. One of my personal favorites is the Fantaisie in F-minor, a single-movement work for the piano. This work belongs to the Fantasy form, and takes from it certain salient elements, such as unpredictability (sudden changes in volume and key), contrasts of texture, rhythm, and the use of formal invention, that is, the form of the piece will not easily be placed into any pre-conceived or well-known patterns (such as "Sonata"), and will give the impression of an improvisatory style.

The opening section and the music that follows it illustrates this best. It opens with a dark, march-like section of some length, which never re-appears. We are, however, introduced to the "motive," or "musical idea," of a descending scale of four notes which will provide something of a thread throughout the work. This opening section is firmly entrenched (with some deviation) in the key of F-minor and its rhythmic regularity will provide contrast for what immediately follows, which is a wildly unpredictable and "free" almost improvisatory section, moving quickly through temporary key areas, creating a sense of mystery and instability. This is a relatively late work by Chopin and suggests the direction in which he may have gone had he lived a somewhat longer life. A beautiful performance of this work by Kristian Zimerman may be found on You Tube.


from "Nocturnes"

"the life of a stranger"
- Aristotle, Politics, 1324a16

There is a why for a stranger
That becomes his star.
There is a source for his being
That beams from afar.

What is this life, if not one of thought?
Who is the thinker?
What is the ought
That each can apply to his own inner world?

Strangeness becomes familiar through nous -
Living in Logos we strive for a view
Of the world that becomes one we use
For our own life - Being becoming new.

Many are the wonders we encounter
This way. Each as a thinker
In his own way - on a journey, an outer
Life built from within. The source of our World -
Beginning becoming our Being anew.

- James Henderson, April 1993

From "Nocturnes", a collection of night thoughts in the poetic mode.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Marco Polo

"Marco Polo, a wise and learned citizen of Venice, who states distinctly what things he saw and what things he heard from others."
- Travels of Marco Polo, Book One

The Travels of Marco Polo is the usual English title of Marco Polo's travel book, nicknamed Il Milione (The Million) or Le Livre des Merveilles (The Book of Wonders). The book is a description of his travels and stays in the Orient, including Asia, Persia, China and Indonesia, between 1271 and 1298 is also known as Oriente Poliano or Description of the World. It was a very famous and popular book in the 13th century and has remained in print to this day. The text claims that Marco Polo became an important figure at the court of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan. However, modern scholars debate how much of the account is accurate and whether or not Marco Polo ever actually traveled to the court or was just repeating stories that he had heard from other travellers. The book was actually written in French by a romance author of the time, Rustichello da Pisa, who was reportedly working from accounts which he had heard from Marco Polo when they were in prison in Genoa having been captured while on a ship.

The title Il Milione comes from the Polo family's use of the name Emilione to distinguish themselves from the numerous other Venician families bearing the name Polo. Modern assessments of the text usually consider it to be the record of an observant rather than imaginative or analytical traveler. Polo emerges as being curious and tolerant, and devoted to Kublai Khan and the dynasty that he served for two decades. The book is Polo's account of his travels to China which he calls Cathay (north China) and Manji (south China). The Polo party left Venice in 1271. They left China in late 1290 or early 1291 and were back in Venice in 1292. The tradition is that Polo dictated the book to a romance writer, Rustichello da Pisa, while in prison in Genoa between 1298–1299; Rustichello may have worked up his first Franco-Italian version from Marco's notes.

The Travels is divided into four books. Book One describes the lands of the Middle East and Central Asia that Marco encountered on his way to China. Book Two describes China and the court of Kublai KhanKublai Khan. Book Three describes some of the coastal regions of the East: Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and the east coast of Africa. Finally, Book Four describes some of the recent wars among the Mongols and some of the regions of the far north, like Russia.*

The edition that I own and have read beginning when I was in high school was published in 1948 by Doubleday & Company. It is the version originally translated & edited by William Marsden and re-edited by Thomas Wright. In this version Books Three and Four are combined into a Book Three that includes the sections included in Book Four (above). This is an exciting tale of Polo's travels, and no matter how historically inaccurate it may be it provides a window into the Orient during an era that Europe was just beginning to awake from the slumber of the "Dark ages".

The Travels of Marco Polo The Venetian trans. by William Marsden. Thomas Wright, editor. Doubleday & Company. 1948.
*source: Wikipedia

Thursday, February 18, 2010


on the Iliad

The Funeral of Sarpedon

Zeus mourns deeply:
Patroklos has killed Sarpedon.
Now Patroklos and the Achaians rush on
to snatch up the body, to dishonour it.

But Zeus doesn't tolerate that at all.
Though he let his favourite child be killed-
this the Law required-
he'll at least honour him after death.
So he now sends Apollo down to the plain
with instructions about how the body should be tended.

Apollo reverently raises the hero's body
and carries it in sorrow to the river.
He washes the dust and blood away,
heals the terrible wounds so there's no trace left,
pours perfume of ambrosia over it,
and dresses it in radiant Olympian robes.
He bleaches the skin, and with a pearl comb
combs out the jet black hair.
He spreads and arranges the beautiful limbs.

Now he looks like a young king, a royal charioteer-
twenty-five or twenty-six years old-
resting himself after winning
the prize in a famous race,
his chariot all gold and his horses the fastest.

Having finished his task this way,
Apollo calls for the two brothers,
Sleep and Death, and orders them
to take the body to Lykia, the rich country.

So the two brothers, Sleep and Death,
set off on foot toward the rich country, Lykia;
and when they reached the door
of the king's palace,
they handed over the honoured body
and then returned to their other concerns.

And once the body was received in the palace
the sad burial began, with processions and honours and dirges,
with many libations from sacred vessels,
with all pomp and circumstance.
Then skilled workers from the city
and celebrated craftsmen in stone
came to make the tombstone and the tomb.

- Constantine P. Cavafy

C. P. Cavafy Collected Poems trans. by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard. Princeton Univ. Press. 1975

Sea of Poppies
a novel

“The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in Northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, ‘the Black Water.’”
(Sea of Poppies, p 3)

Amitav Ghosh is a story-teller of the highest order and, in his novel Sea of Poppies, he weaves several tales together bound by the limits of time, language, class, poppies and, above all else, the sea. It is the sea that permeates the stories of various men and women and that provides the thread that ties this book together. He deftly opens the book with three paragraphs that limn three basic motifs for the novel: the sea, poppies, and the village; a village that is the starting point for Deeti, the first of many people whose stories will emerge throughout the novel. Deeti's village exists in a metaphorical "sea of poppies" which will result in her flight to the sea:

"the plants had been left to wither in the fields, so that the countryside was blanketed with the parched remnants." (p 188)

On the sea we meet Zachary Reid whose story is uplifting, but more importantly we are introduced to his ship, the Ibis, which becomes an important character in the author's sea of stories.

. . . for he had only to look at the spindrift that was flying off the schooner's bows to know that the Ibis was not a ship like any other; in her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, traveling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth.
(p 411)

The novelist is notable for his use of language. Not since Rushdie have I encountered the brilliance and bounty penned by an author. That bounty is magnified by the appendage of a forty-three page section entitled "The Ibis Chrestomathy" which, as a chrestomathy or selection of literary passages, serves as more than a glossary and can be read in its own right.

Words! Neel was of the view that words, no less than people, are endowed with lives and destinies of their own. (The Ibis Chrestomathy, p 501)

Ultimately, the author's ability to recreate a particular time and place and the way he intertwined the characters' stories were the best aspects of this novel. In spite of moments were I, if only fleetingly, felt that some of the individual events were contrived the overarching themes, motifs, and design of the novel moved it beyond these moments and made it a great read.

The Sea of Poppies: a novel by Amitav Ghosh. Picador Editions, New York. 2009 (2008)

Monday, February 15, 2010


from "Nocturnes"

Lost Innocence

Sing to me, and when I here your voice
I will respond with music of my own.
Meaning will come forth to clothe my melody
With soft and hushed hues of somewhat
Pensive words, not prose but verse.

The pendulum swings from the sullen sky,
Yet few notice and the world does not care.
We move on a dull track and pass by without
Notice or concern for the real - what is there.
They laugh and lovely days pass them by.

Pull me upward with natural rhythms while
The insistence of gravity gives my world
Order. All the while each of us sings hymns
To chaos. Shouts we hurl forth to claim
We do not know - there is no standard.

The scent of cedar brings us forward from our past
Life of youth and innocence. A time of order
That we've lost with the passing years and days.
Serenity, found in order, is the legacy of our
Lost innocence.

James Henderson - February, 1993 (rev. 2010)
From "Nocturnes", a collection of night thoughts in the poetic mode.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

An Afternoon Enlightenment
Jane Austen on Love

When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth;
- Persuasion, chapter 24, Jane Austen

I am far from being an expert on love, but today I got a lesson in the philosophy of love from one of the masters of that field, Jane Austen, via a lecture by Elisabeth Lenckos who, inter alia, is program chair of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Greater Chicago Region and an instructor in the Basic Program and Humanities, Arts, and Sciences, the University of Chicago. Titles aside, Ms. Lenckos is a scintillating lecturer who was able to maintain the entertaining side of Jane Austen all the while she was expanding the horizons of the attendees, or at least my horizon regarding Austen's philosophy of love and some of its philosophical sources. It was an afternoon in which we were entertained with the history of an idea - the idea of love.

While I cannot begin to relate all the myriad details shared in Ms. Lenckos' talk I can share some of the highlights and ideas that I found particularly interesting. The talk began with a division of Austen's novels into two groups: the "lighter" novels - Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey; and the more "serious" novels - Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. She distinguished between three types of Love in three of Austen's novels suggesting that the protagonists of each demonstrated 1) Moral, platonic love in Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, 2) a More empirical ethical love in Emma, and 3) a union of the two types in Anne Elliot of Persuasion. Ms. Lenckos went on to discuss philosophical approaches to love from Aristotle and Plato to the Idealist approach concluding that Austen understood all of these and as an "artist" of love was able to develop and " appreciation of an ideal of love". Austen did not preach about love, but observed it and shared her observations through the invention of the modern love story.

What is the source of Austen's genius on the subject of love? It seems that she was able to develop a comprehensive view of the philosophies of her own time, including the rise of sensibility (Earl of Shaftesbury, Hume and Smith) and develop stories about real people who lived and loved, learned and grew through their experiences. Perhaps the best and greatest example was Anne Elliot in Persuasion who through eight years of effort, studying literature rhetoric and poetry was able to mature and through her reason win the love of Captain Wentworth. Through this talk I learned about female philosophers with whom I was unfamiliar including Mary Astel (1666-1731) who influenced Austen. The result of this talk was the expansion of my understanding of Jane Austen's genius and an enlightening afternoon. A fine way to spend Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.
- Salome, Oscar Wilde

On this day in 1896, Oscar Wilde's play, Salome, opened in Paris. The play tells, in one act, the Biblical story of Salome, stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who, to her stepfather's dismay but to the delight of her mother Herodias, requests the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils.
The 1892 London premiere, which planned to have Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, was banned by the censors while in preparation. (When asked “How will you do the dance of the seven veils?” Bernhardt had replied, “Never you mind.”) In prison at the time of the Paris premiere, Wilde never saw his play performed before he died in 1900. The play remained banned in England until 1931.

The Plays of Oscar Wilde. Vintage Books, New York. 1988

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sonnet for Today

"there is no mask here" - Stephen Greenblatt

Shakespeare must have enjoyed writing this sonnet!

Sonnet #135


Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea all water, yet receives rain still
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in 'Will,' add to thy 'Will'
One will of mine, to make thy large 'Will' more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one 'Will.'

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Limits of Introspection

"Let us concentrate ourselves exclusively on the investigation of the truth. Life is a misery, death is uncertain. It may suddenly carry us off. In what state shall we depart this life? Where are we to learn the things we have neglected here? . . . This too, then, is a question needing scrutiny."

~ Augustine of Hippo

Yesterday I attended another in a series of lectures sponsored by the Basic Program of Liberal Education of the University of Chicago. The topic was "Saint Augustine's Confessions: Struggle, Adversity, Calm, and Relentless Enquiry" presented by Raymond Ciacci, Instructor in the Basic Program. While the title is a mouthful the focus of much of the talk was on Augustine's life of "relentless enquiry" as presented in his Confessions. Prof. Ciacci in his introduction to the talk noted how Augustine was "driven by an almost insatiable desire to know, and (was) highly introspective". In this work Augustine references dozens of the greatest philosophers of his day and explores innumerable topics in the life of the mind. As examples, Prof. Ciacci highlighted two topics, "curiosity" (Book X) and "conversion" (Book VI, 8.13); but it was his comments on the timing of the writing of the Confessions that, for me, were the key moment in the lecture. For Augustine waited for fourteen years after his conversion to Christianity to write his confessions. This period of time before revisiting the events of his past, events which begin with his early life with his mother Monica in Hippo, provided him with years of experience. This allowed the development of understanding which he was able to use in shaping his memoirs and developing his skills of introspection. However, as Prof. Ciacci pointed out, there are "limits of introspection", limits which mean, inter alia, that the questions and ideas pursued by Augustine while subject to the thinking of his prodigious intellect were not necessarily susceptible to ultimate answers. The ultimate for Augustine resided in the realm of god. For others of us, who have also studied our Plato and Aristotle, the ultimate answers may remain mysteries to be discovered without the help of the supernatural.

Confessions by Augustine of Hippo. Henry Chadwick, trans. Oxford University Press. 1998 (398)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Ease One Life

Not in Vain

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
- Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Fugard's Island


The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

When you go to the quarry tomorrow, take a good look at old Harry. Look into his eyes, John. Look at his hands. They've changed him. They've turned him into stone.
Athol Fugard, John Kani, & Winston Ntshona, The Island

When I think about the play, The Island, and the character of Winston I can't help but remember he is named Winston. And ever since Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-four, came out in 1948 Winston has stood for the twentieth century every man who stood against the state. The author's surname is a contemporary byword for personal privacy lost to the state, and the adjective 'Orwellian' connotes totalitarian thought and action in controlling and subjugating people.
Just as in Orwell, Fugard and his collaborators write of the power of the totalitarian state to subjugate its people one at a time. In The Island we see another Winston, another every man standing against power, just as Antigone did against Creon many centuries before the age of Winston. The power of free thought and the author will continue to triumph over those who would use power for power's sake.

Monday, February 01, 2010

'making elemental emotions real'

"Winston: Why am I here?"
- The Island

Friday evening I saw a performance of The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona at Remy BumppoTheatre. This play was originally produced in July, 1973 with Kani and Ntshona in the roles of John and Winston. The production at Remy Bumppo directed by James Bohnen was outstanding. This is a short but exceptionally moving play about two prisoners on The Island. The production featured La Shawn Banks as John and Kamal Angelo Bolden as Winston. Their daily routine demonstrated the Sisyphean existence that they led as prisoners on the Island (based on the very real Robben Island prison near Cape Town). During the play they are preparing a performance of Antigone for an annual prison concert. The confrontation between Creon and Antigone becomes a metaphor for life in the prison and provides meaning for their lives just as it has had meaning for western civilization for more than two thousand years. The play is under girded by the prisoners' raw physical anguish as they prepare for the performance. This begins with the prisoners miming the interminable dumping of mounds of sand back and forth at the opening of the play. George Steiner noted the parody of Antigone's entombment of her brother. He comments:

Beyond the blank desolation of the close of Sophocles' play, there now stretches pure waste. Emptiness is not a Sophoclean or, indeed, a fifth-century Attic perception. Fugard's is the satyr play to all preceding 'Antigones'.(Antigones, George Steiner, p 144)

Added to that is the tension that develops when John finds out that his sentence has been shortened and he will be going home in three months. When Winston asks, "Why am I here?", he was speaking not just about his life on The Island, but he was speaking for us all.
The actors excelled in making elemental emotions real for the audience. The result was a riveting evening of theater - one I will not soon forget.