Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Poetry Selection

Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet

He was born in 1342. Historians are uncertain about his exact date of birth. Geoffrey's well-to-do parents, John Chaucer and Agnes Copton, possessed several buildings in the vintage quarter in London. Not much is known about Geoffrey's school career. He must have had some education in Latin and Greek. Out of school he went on as a page in the household of the Countess of Ulster. Chaucer rose in royal employment and became a knight of the shire for Kent. As a member of the king's household, Chaucer was sent on diplomatic errands throughout Europe. From all these activities, he gained the knowledge of society that made it possible to write The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer died in October 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in London. He was the first of those that are gathered in what we now know as the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Here is a selection from "The Monk's Tale":

295       His son, called Belshazzar, or Balthasar,
Who held the realm after his father's day,
He for his father's fate would not beware,
For proud, he was of heart and of array;
He was a worshipper of idols aye.

300 His high estate assured him in his pride.
But Fortune cast him down and there he lay,
And suddenly his kingdom did divide.
A feast he made unto a thousand lords,
Upon a time, and bade them merry be.

305 Then to his officers he said these words:
"Go fetch me forth the vessels all," said he,
"Of which my father, in prosperity,
The temple in Jerusalem bereft,
And unto our high gods give thanks that we

310 Retain the honour that our elders left."
His wife, his lords, and all his concubines,
They drank then, while that mighty feast did last,
Out of those noble vessels sundry wines.
But on a wall this king his eyes did cast

315 And saw an armless hand that wrote full fast,
For fear whereof he shook with trouble sore.
This hand that held Belshazzar so aghast
Wrote Mene, mene, tekel, and no more.
In all that land magician was there none

320 Who could explain what thing this writing meant;
But when they sent for Daniel it was done,
Who said: "O king, God to your father lent
Glory and honour, treasure, government,
And he was proud, nor feared God, being mad,

325 Wherefore Lord God great misery on him sent,
And him bereft of all the realm he had.
"He was cast out of human company;
With asses was his habitation known;
He ate hay like a beast, through wet and dry,

330 Until he learned, by grace and reason shown,
That Heaven's God has dominion, up and down,
Over all realms and everything therein;
And then did God to him compassion own
And gave him back his kingdom and his kin.

335"Now you, who are his son, are proud also,
Though you knew all these things, aye verily;
You are a rebel and you are God's foe.
You drank from out His vessels boastfully;
Your wife and all your wenches sinfully

340 Drank from those sacred vessels sundry wines,
And praised false gods, and hailed them, wickedly;
Whereof toward you the wrath of God inclines.
"That hand was sent from God which on the wall
Wrote Mene, mene, tekel. Oh, trust me,

345 Your reign is done, you have no worth at all,
Divided is your realm, and it shall be
To Medes and Persians given now," said he.
And that night went the king to fill death's maw,
And so Darius took his high degree,

350 Though he thereto had naught of right in law.
Masters, therefrom a moral may you take,
That in dominion is no certainness;
For when Fortune will any man forsake,
She takes his realm and all he may possess,

355 And all his friends, too, both the great and less;
For when a man has friends that Fortune gave,
Mishap but turns them enemies, as I guess:
This word is true for king as well as slave.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Rochester's Secret

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea 

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”  ― Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

In this novel Jean Rhys presents a luminous evocation of the youth and marriage of Mr. Rochester's lunatic wife. How many of us had wondered when reading Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, who was that woman in the attic, what had she done to deserve her incarceration, and why did no one try to help her? Written in a different age, here at last was a book that offered some kind of explanation, even for the fire Bertha starts at Thornfield Hall. Imagined as Antoinette Cosway, the girl undergoes painful permutations on her short journey from the West Indies to a small prison-like room in Great Britain. I enjoyed the portrayal of the native patois and the tightly written narrative of Ms. Rhys. It was an entertaining, if painful, read. I look forward to reading earlier novels by Rhys (Quartet and Good Morning, Midnight).

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Folio Society, 1993 (1966)

a Goodreads update.

Silhouettes from Paris

Paris Album, 1900 1914 

"I have only retained memories of individuals and groups who were desperate for survival, whose frivolity arose from tragedy, whose lightness was prodigious and whose silhouettes, to use the expression of Thomas Mann in that masterpiece The Magic Mountain, were silhouettes on a grand scale. 
Souvenir portraits on a grand scale.  That is a project that tempts me.  I wonder if I can pull it off?"  -  Jean Cocteau, Paris Album, p 16.

The short essais or vignettes that comprise Jean Cocteau's Paris Album, 1900-1914 were originally written for the Paris newspaper "Le Figaro". Thus they form an album of memories that include both intimate personal details and cultural details that inform the reader about Paris in the years immediately preceding the Great War. The portraits of individual persons are fascinating whether they are family, people of renown or friends who appear in slightly different form in Cocteau's fiction. He brings to life personages like Sara Bernhardt, Edmond Rostand, and Colette. Likewise he introduces his family. 
 He also explores the world of Paris with waltzers at the skating rink and beyond.  He follows the changes, discusses obscure authors, recalls events which made news, such as the disastrous fire at the Bazaar del la Charite and lets unexpected floodlights play over a vanished world.  It reminded me of the picture drawn by Stefan Zweig in his magnificent memoir, The World of Yesterday.  
I found Cocteau's portraits of musicians like Sarasate and Reynaldo Hahn the most interesting. The souvenirs in this book are articles that may be no more than caricatures, but also may contain some grains of truth. They are definitely entertaining.

Paris Album, 1900-1914 by Jean Cocteau, trans. by Margaret Crosland. W. H. Allen & Co., 1987 (1956)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Musical Metaphor

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas 

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.”  ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

The use of a musical motif in literature is not new. My favorite example is the Vinteuil Sonata in Marcel Proust's masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. There too, we experience multiple stories that overlap at times--although our journey begins and ends with one particular narrator. As in that example, David Mitchell's novel, Cloud Atlas, has a musical motif. It is Robert Frobisher's "Sextet for Overlapping Soloists". But this musical composition becomes more than a motif. In naming it "Cloud Atlas" it becomes a metaphor for the structure of the whole novel. When writing one of his letters to Rufus Sixsmith, Frobisher asks if his composition is "Revolutionary or gimmicky?" And we can ask the same question of Cloud Atlas; the answer, of course, is neither.
Cloud Atlas is a unique expression of post-modernism, but by using traditional styles for the stories that form the content of the novel the postmodern project is upset at least in part. The strength of the novel lies not in the pyrotechnics, but in the story-telling. The beauty of the whole project is that the style and content meld together in a way that allows the stories to transcend the structure of the novel. Mitchell's debut novel consists of six intertwining tales and the people who move within and among them. Spanning the globe—from teeming Tokyo to the isolated Holy Mountain, from the idyllic Clear Island to Old Man London—the characters also run the gamut: criminal, professional, genius, provincial, fanatic. The  narratives are set in the historical and recent pasts and imagined futures, all interconnected as each narrator encounters and absorbs the story that preceded his own. The novel opens in 1850 and American lawyer-adventurer Adam Ewing is exploring endangered primitive Pacific cultures (specifically, the Chatham Islands’ native Moriori besieged by numerically superior Maori). In the second part, “The Pacific Diary of Adam Ewing” falls (in 1931) into the hands of bisexual musician Robert Frobisher, who describes in letters to his collegiate lover Rufus Sixsmith his work as amanuensis to retired and blind Belgian composer Vivian Ayrs. Next, in 1975, sixtysomething Rufus is a nuclear scientist who opposes a powerful corporation’s cover-up of the existence of an unsafe nuclear reactor: a story investigated by crusading reporter Luisa Rey. The fourth story (set in the 1980s) is Luisa’s, told in a pulp potboiler submitted to vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish, who soon finds himself effectively imprisoned in a sinister old age home. Next the novel travels in time to an indefinite future Korea, in which cloned “fabricants” serve as slaves to privileged “purebloods”—and fabricant Sonmi-451 enlists in a rebellion against her masters. The sixth story, told in its entirety before the novel reverses itself to complete the preceding five stories, occurs in a farther future time, when Sonmi is a deity worshiped by peaceful “Valleymen”—one of whom, goatherd Zachry Bailey, relates the epic tale of his people’s war with their oppressors, the murderous Kona tribe.. Each of the six stories invents a world, and virtually invents a language to describe it, none more stunningly and annoyingly (for this reader) than does Zachry’s narrative (“Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After”).
The novel employs an unorthodox structure to be sure, but that is what makes the book unique. It manages to bring the stories together in a way that I found myself as a reader enjoying before and after I had completed each story. What is the result of this masterly appropriation of genre? Is it the author's combination of forms: Historical sea journal, epistolary confession, thriller, dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic fantasy, or his command of style? 
I think the beauty is in the whole and that its variety within, once again not unlike Proust, is crucial to the success of the novel. I certainly appreciated the seamless incorporation of authorial erudition: Nietzsche, Emerson, Solzhenitsyn, Eastern philosophy, modern European history, musical impressionism and modern art ideas and references are spread throughout. It is all at once self-referential, slyly philosophical, and subtly postmodern.  The novel evades the reader's aim to discern a moral, instead exploring the motions of consciousness through various lives in nine distinct and elegant voices. Although the numerous viewpoints can be distancing, the challenges of this intellectual puzzle propel the reader to the rather bizarre but compelling last two chapters. As Mitchell's Mr. Cavendish purports, "We all think we're in control of our own lives, but really they're pre-ghostwritten by forces around us."  Mitchell’s novel is thus one of the most imaginative and rewarding novels in recent memory where the author unforgettably explores issues of exploitation, tyranny, slavery, and genocide. Sheer storytelling brilliance is Mitchell's ultimate forte.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Modern Library, 2012 (2004)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Reads of 2012

“It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word”  ― William H. Gass

My list of favorite books read in 2012 includes many more than these books. But I thought I would try to limit the list to the top twelve (I could not stop at ten)  that I read last year. So here they are in no particular order:

1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I saved this novel for the last big read of the year and I was impressed from the start.  It embodies the idea, espoused by Samuel R. Delany, that good fiction should marry style and content.  Never was that truer than in this amazing book whose title refers to the metaphor that is the secret to the structure of the book.

2. Hunter: a Thriller by Robert Bidinotto
This is the first novel by this author, but its confident and clear style delivers a suspenseful narrative of a revenge thriller.  It is a great addition to a genre that seldom sees such literary elegance.

3. Walden and the Journals of Henry David Thoreau
This is two books that both thrilled me with their beauty and the insights of the author.  A true individualist, Thoreau's thoughts and observations are worthy of all readers' meditation.

4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future..

5. The Eclogues by Virgil
The Eclogues of Virgil gave definitive form to the pastoral mode, and these magically beautiful poems, which were influential in so much subsequent literature, perhaps best exemplify what pastoral can do.  I also read and enjoyed his bucolic Georgics.

6. Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Walter Bridge's conservatism is not his primary defining characteristic. In a certain sense he appears to be a stoic. But he is neither a seriously thoughtful nor a happy stoic in the mold of men like Marcus Aurelius and Henry David Thoreau. They exemplify the thoughtful and contemplative life of the stoic who accepts this world but yearns to understand it. Sadly, Walter Bridge's thoughtfulness falls short of understanding just as he falls short of any true sort of stoicism. His true character, rather, can be defined in two words: He is a "consummate Puritan". (p 249) That outlook determines Walter's world both for better and for worse. 

7. The Tree of Man by Patrick White
A poetic tribute to man and nature. The Tree of Man succeeds in capturing the opening of the frontier in Australia. It is reminiscent of O. E. Rolvaag or Conrad Richter who did the same for the American frontier. The story is a universal one.

8. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
The Benjamin Franklin described in Walter Isaacson's magisterial survey of his life was truly an American philosphe and a friend of liberty. The image of Franklin that I took away from this biography was all of that, but even more one of a practical man whose never-ending search for knowledge and wisdom was always used to further the ends of practical applications both in his own life and for his country. 

9. A Guide of the Perplexed, Vols. 1 & 2 by Moses Maimonides
This monument of rabbinical exegesis written at the end of the twelfth century has exerted an immense and continuing influence upon Jewish thought.  It is a serious work of philosophy that inter alia attempts to reconcile the old testament prophets with ancient Greek philosophy.

10. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
This is a book of stories within stories. The title character, Lucy Gault, is at the center of these stories, but the genesis of the novel goes back in history for centuries. It is that long that the Gault family has been in Ireland, yet their British origins haunt them

11. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
This is a novel of contrasts: contrasting characters and contrasting stories. But the stories are linked thematically and by the character of Olive Kitteridge.

12. Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939 by Janet Flanner
Reading Janet Flanner's unique journal is addictive. The material in Paris Was Yesterday includes selections from Janet Flanner's fortnightly "Letter from Paris" in The New Yorker, which she started transmitting in 1925, signed . . . with her nom de correspondance, Genet. This is a book you must read if you have any interest in art, literature, music, French culture, European history of the late nineteen-twenties and thirties.

I am reluctant to stop at twelve books since I enjoyed many other books during the year, including some great Science Fiction (Ringworld, The Stars My Destination, et. al.) and others including classics and mysteries.  But this is enough of a retrospective for one cold December day. After some wassail and caroling let's all move on to the great reads of the new year!

Thurber & Hemingway

The other night I dreamed that you and I were walking toward a sunset

James Thurber's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas, in the Ernest Hemingway Manner" was first published in The New Yorker on this day in 1927. Although Hemingway was still a very new name -- his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, had been published the previous year -- his style was already a target:

"…The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn't move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.
"Father," the children said.
There was no answer. He's there, all right, they thought.
"Father," they said, and banged on their beds.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"We have visions of sugarplums," the children said.
"Go to sleep," said mamma.
"We can't sleep," said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them moving. They made sounds.
"Can you sleep?" asked the children.
"No," I said.
"You ought to sleep."
"I know. I ought to sleep.…"

Despite Thurber's jest (and his preference for a very different, "crumble-under-pressure" hero), he and Hemingway became friends in the 1930s and maintained a warm relationship for decades, the two of them dying four months apart in 1961. Below is the last paragraph of a letter Thurber wrote to Hemingway shortly before his suicide; though not sent, Thurber having been persuaded by his wife that his "chatty letter intended to cheer" was not likely to help, the letter indicates that Thurber's attitude toward Hemingway's novel is now a long way from parody:
The other night I dreamed that you and I were walking toward a sunset and suddenly the sun began to rise. Reminds me of a favorite book of mine. But, then, I had the same dream about two other men, when they were down, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. Carl was eighty-three on January 6 and Frost is even older. God bless you and keep you. I'll see you in 1980.
Thurber's parody appears in Christmas at the New Yorker (2004), an anthology that includes many of the magazine's most famous writers over eighty years -- E. B. White, S. J. Perelman, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Ford, et al. -- as well as seasonal cartoons and art.

Source: Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Winter and Reading

Two Favorite Poets

"Winter for a Moment Takes the Mind" 

Winter for a moment takes the mind; the snow
Falls past the arclight; icicles guard a wall;
The wind moans through a crack in the window;
A keen sparkle of frost is on the sill.
Only for a moment; as spring too might engage it,
With a single crocus in the loam, or a pair of birds;
Or summer with hot grass; or autumn with a yellow leaf.

Winter is there, outside, is here in me:
Drapes the planets with snow, deepens the ice on the moon,
Darkens the darkness that was already darkness.
The mind too has its snows, its slippery paths,
Walls bayonetted with ice, leaves ice-encased.
Here is the in-drawn room, to which you return
When the wind blows from Arcturus: here is the fire
At which you warm your hands and glaze your eyes;
The piano, on which you touch the cold treble;
Five notes like breaking icicles; and then silence.

The alarm-clock ticks, the pulse keeps time with it,
Night and the mind are full of sounds. I walk
From the fire-place, with its imaginary fire,
To the window, with its imaginary view.
Darkness, and snow ticking the window: silence,
And the knocking of chains on a motor-car, the tolling
Of a bronze bell, dedicated to Christ.
And then the uprush of angelic wings, the beating
Of wings demonic, from the abyss of the mind:
The darkness filled with a feathery whistling, wings
Numberless as the flakes of angelic snow,
The deep void swarming with wings and sound of wings,
The winnowing of chaos, the aliveness
Of depth and depth and depth dedicated to death.

Here are bickerings of the inconsequential,
The chatterings of the ridiculous, the iterations
Of the meaningless. Memory, like a juggler,
Tosses its colored balls into the light, and again
Receives them into darkness. Here is the absurd,
Grinning like an idiot, and the omnivorous quotidian,
Which will have its day. A handful of coins,
Tickets, items from the news, a soiled handerchief,
A letter to be answered, notice of a telephone call,
The petal of a flower in a volume of Shakespeare,
The program of a concert. The photograph, too,
Propped on the mantel, and beneath it a dry rosebud;
The laundry bill, matches, and ash-tray, Utamaro's
Pearl-fishers. And the rug, on which are still the crumbs
Of yesterday's feast. These are the void, the night,
And the angelic wings that make it sound.

What is the flower? It is not a sigh of color,
Suspiration of purple, sibilation of saffron,
Nor aureate exhalation from the tomb.
Yet it is these because you think of these,
An emanation of emanations, fragile
As light, or glisten, or gleam, or coruscation,
Creature of brightness, and as brightness brief.
What is the frost? It is not the sparkle of death,
The flash of time's wing, seeds of eternity;
Yet it is these because you think of these.
And you, because you think of these, are both
Frost and flower, the bright ambiguous syllable
Of which the meaning is both no and yes.

Here is the tragic, the distorting mirror
In which your gesture becomes grandiose;
Tears form and fall from your magnificent eyes,
The brow is noble, and the mouth is God's.
Here is the God who seeks his mother, Chaos, –
Confusion seeking solution, and life seeking death.
Here is the rose that woos the icicle; the icicle
That woos the rose. Here is the silence of silences
Which dreams of becoming a sound, and the sound
Which will perfect itself in silence. And all
These things are only the uprush from the void,
The wings angelic and demonic, the sound of the abyss
Dedicated to death. And this is you.

Stanza I from "Preludes for Memnon" by Conrad Aiken

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there. 

from The Collected Poems - Wallace Stevens

Here we have a magic moment of realization when the reader, with a book in his hands, recognizes himself, his world, the substance of things in what he is reading, so that the reader, the book, the summer night, the house, the world are all fused in an existential unity of real, inner and outer, truth.  

Collected Poems, Second Edition by Conrad Aiken. Oxford University Press, 1970.
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.  Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Miniver Cheevy

A Poet Remembered

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born on this day in 1869.  He would live until 1935 and is considered the first major American poet of the twentieth century, unique in that he devoted his life to poetry and willingly paid the price in poverty and obscurity. As for his works, his once-popular Arthurian trilogy has fallen in favor, criticized by William H. Pritchard as having "occasional purple patches, fine lines here and there, but on the whole prolix, fussy, and somehow terribly misguided--the long poems are stone-dead" (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, vol. 5 [1981], p. 418). The poems from his earlier period, especially the Tilbury Town cycle, have held critical esteem. In his shorter works, Robinson excelled in limning characters who failed on a materialistic level but somehow succeeded, though at great cost on a moral or spiritual level. In an age of free verse and experimentation, his technical expertise is considered intolerably old-fashioned, but there is no doubt he was a master of many forms.  He was one of the poets I first encountered in American Literature class during my sophomore year of high school.  His poetry is often melancholy or even more drear, but I remember him as a master of poetic form and meter.  One of his most famous, and somewhat autobiographical poems follows.

Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Minever mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Minever loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

E.A. Robinson

Robinson: Selected Poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Penguin Books, 1997.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Saturnalia and Christmas

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year grew to significance throughout the world because of the uncertainty of living through the bleak winter, the desire to have days lengthen again, and the need for brightness against the encroaching gloom. 
Such famous archeological sites as Stonehenge and Newgrange were aligned to the winter solstice, and there are many holidays that originated from or gravitated to this solstice day, including We Tripantu in Chile, the Zoroastrian Maidyarem in Iran, Dongzhi in Asia, Hanukkah in Judaism, Yule in ancient northern Europe, and Christmas in fourth century Rome. Another such famous celebration was Saturnalia in ancient Rome, which was ultimately subsumed by Christmas:

  "It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn't Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. ...

"The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as 'the best of times': dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged. 
"Saturnalia saw the inversion of social roles. The wealthy were expected to pay the month's rent for those who couldn't afford it, masters and slaves to swap clothes. Family households threw dice to determine who would become the temporary Saturnalian monarch. The poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180) has the god Cronos (Saturn) say in his poem, Saturnalia:
'During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping ... an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water -- such are the functions over which I preside.'
"Saturnalia originated as a farmer's festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.
"Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice."

Source: Matt Salusbury, "Did the Romans Invent Christmas?" History Today, Volume: 59 Issue: 12 2009.
Posted from Delancey Place.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Socrates and Virtue

Notes on Plato's Alcibiades and Meno

Near the end of Plato's dialogue, Alcibiades, the following exchange occurs:
"Socrates:  Again, in a ship, if a man were at liberty to do what he chose, but were devoid of mind and excellence in navigation, do you perceive what must happen to him and his fellow-sailors?
Alcibiades:  I do: they must all perish.
Socrates:  And in just the same way, if a state, or any office or authority, is lacking in excellence or virtue, it will be overtaken by failure?
Alcibiades:  It must.
Socrates:  Then it is not despotic power, my admirable Alcibiades, that you ought to secure either to yourself or to the state, if you would be happy, but virtue.
Alcibiades:  That is true." (Alcibiades I, 135a-b)

In this dialogue we see Socrates leading Alcibiades, for whom he is the last lover standing, through a discussion of the importance of self-control to the role of virtue in the pursuit of the happiness for the individual or the city.  Socrates sees the possibility of Alcibiades learning this even as Alcibiades is on the verge of entering the political arena completely unprepared.  
There is a theme that is shared by this dialogue and Plato's Meno.  It is the view of knowing as a process.  The process is elucidated through the Socratic dialectic method that demonstrates to Meno that :
"if the truth of all things that are is always in our soul, then the soul must be immortal; so that you should take heart and, whatever you do not happen to know at the present--that is, what you do not remember--you must endeavor to search out and recollect?" (Meno, 86b)
The focus is on the search, the process by which we come to knowledge.  This is connected as well with the key importance of self-control:
"Socrates: And can we find any part of the soul that we can call more divine than this, which is the seat of knowledge and thought?
Alcibiades: We cannot.
Socrates: Then this part of her resembles god, and whoever looks at this , and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself.
Alcibiades: Apparently.
Socrates: And self-knowledge we admitted to be temperance.
Alcibiades: To be sure." (Alcibiades I, 133c)

In both the dialogues, Meno and Alcibiades,  Plato presents the Socrates that "does not know".  The dialogues are indeterminate and the reader is left without a resolution to the question under discussion.  In Meno this question is stated in the opening when Meno asks if virtue can be taught.  Of course, in the dialogue Socrates leads Meno to the underlying question which must be answered first: namely, what is virtue?  But neither question is answered by the end even though we can learn from the process.  Consider these dialogues as signs of the nature of Socrates and virtue.

Meno in Plato II, translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library, 1990 (1924).
Alcibiades in Plato XII, translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library, 1986 (1927)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Seaside Comedy

You Never Can Tell
by George Bernard Shaw

"The theatre should be a factory of thought, a prompter of conscience, an elucidator of social conduct, an armory against despair and dullness, and a temple to the Ascent of Man." - George Bernard Shaw

When George Bernard Shaw wrote You Can Never Tell in 1896 he had already written five plays including Mrs. Warren's Profession and Candida.  But partially in response to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest he wrote another comedy set at a sea-side resort that would appeal to the mainstream while still incorporating some of his convention-challenging ideas.
While the play was not successful in its premiere run on the stage it was collected with three other light works published as Plays Pleasant in 1898.  It has been revived in New York City five times since then most recently in 1986, and at Court Theater in Chicago in 1982.  Fortunately, Remy Bumppo think theatre has brought it back to the Chicago Stage with a production directed by Shawn Douglas.  The comedy concerns the reconciliation of three children with their father after he has been absent for eighteen years.  In addition a young dentist named Valentine falls in love with the oldest of the children, a young woman named Gloria.  Their mother is an uncharacteristically strong woman who supports her family writing treatises on the proper behavior of middle class families entitled "Twentieth Century Treatises".  This is an occupation which she takes very seriously, but her children, especially the two younger ones, certainly do not.  The main action of the play is a series of comic scenes set at a sea-side resort.  These scenes comprise a comedy of errors and confused identities, with a friendly and wise waiter, Walter (most commonly referred to by the characters as "William," because Dolly thinks he resembles Mr Shakespeare), dispensing his wisdom with the titular phrase "You Never Can Tell." 
The performance of the cast was quite good overall with outstanding performances by Dale Benson as Walter and Greg Matthew Anderson as Valentine.  I also found C. Jaye Miller and Cory Kahane as the two younger children, Dolly and Philip, both effervescent and entertaining in their roles.  Both actors were making their Remy Bumppo debut and are recent graduates of University Theatre Schools.  The production of this witty comedy from the pen of George Bernard Shaw is a welcome addition to the long list of successful Remy Bumppo productions.

Above Photo: Dale Benson and Greg Matthew Anderson from the Remy Bumppo production of You Never Can Tell.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thrilling Justice

Hunter: A Thriller
Hunter: A Thriller 

“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”  ― Alexandre Dumas

This is the first novel by the author, Robert Bidinotto, but you could not tell that from reading it because it displays a confident narrative of a suspenseful revenge thriller in a style that is both beautiful and clear.  Thus it belied the expectation of this reader who has read many first novels and does not expect such flawless performance. The hero of the novel is Dylan Hunter, a journalist extraordinaire whose adventures provide exciting thrills and demonstrate moral truths. One of my favorite novels is Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. I would suggest that Hunter is a good candidate for a twenty-first century addition to the library shelf that contains classics of revenge and justice like Dumas' and others.

From the opening scenes with a CIA operation gone awry the action is fast paced, leavened by a romantic subplot with some dark secrets involving Dylan and a female CIA operative. Complicating the plot and making the thriller even more suspenseful is the search for an assassin by the female CIA agent. But there is more trouble brewing for both of them that leads directly to the climax and denouement. The characters are drawn clearly with the sure hand of an author who knows how to present the forces of good and evil in an accurate and sometimes horrifyingly believable manner. The effect is to continually raise the suspense and keep the reader guessing with deft twists of a seamless plot. This is the best thriller I have read. I would recommend it to anyone who admires a great plot, who responds to inspirational heroes, or who just wants a great read.

Hunter: A Thriller by Robert Bidinotto.  Kindle Edition, 2011.

About the Author: You can find Robert at his web­site, on Twit­ter or on Face­book.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Multiplicity in Unity

Hector Berlioz

Today is the birthday of Hector Berlioz, who was born on this day in 1803. He is considered one of the masters, if not the founder, of musical romanticism. I have enjoyed his music by both performing and listening to them for almost fifty years.  He is best known for his large works including the Symphonie Fantastique, Harold in Italy (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra), Operas (Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict), and his works for Chorus and Orchestra including his Requiem and La Damnation de Faust. There have been few figures in the history of music with so fascinating, almost hypnotic, an appeal for the present-day listener as Berlioz. With his life span encompassing roughly the rise and fall of two French empires, he emerges as perhaps the first totally modern mind in music— the man of affairs as well as of notes, a great conductor, concert organizer, writer of distinction. 
Whatever he touched, in any medium, bore the mark of his volatile, yet strangely sober, personality. Unlike his predecessors Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, he was equipped to challenge the intellectual world on all fronts and make his charge across any field. This basic phase of Berlioz’s gift—its multiplicity in unity.  
Among composers, Berlioz shares a fascination with Goethe's Faust as this drama has served as the source for operas by Gounod, Spohr, Boito and Busoni among others. Berlioz wrote his "legende dramatique" for Orchestra and Chorus; first performed at the Opera-Comique, Paris, December 1846. It did not meet with critical acclaim, perhaps due to its halfway status between opera and cantata; the public was not impressed, and two performances (and a cancelled third) rendered a financial setback for Berlioz: "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference", he remembered. It was subsequently performed more successfully in Paris after his death (1877). The Metropolitan Opera premiered it first in concert (1896) and then on stage (1906). The Met revived the production on November 7, 2008 directed by Robert LePage, with innovative computer-generated stage imagery that responds to the voices of the performers.
Berlioz is known for the musical excesses of his compositions and some of his harmonies sound almost modern even today. One of the unique aspects of Berlioz compositional style resulted from his lack of piano training. Many of the great classical and romantic composers (think Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms) were also great pianists and composed "at the piano". Of the romantics, Brahms would preview his orchestral compositions in piano versions and Liszt (a friend of Berlioz) would transcribe symphonies and operas for piano. You can hear Berlioz lack of pianism in his abrupt chord changes and harmonics that seem otherworldly (some of this may have been drug-induced as well). It is worthwhile to remember this great Romantic on this day.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Favorite Poet

Two Poems by Emily Dickinson

There is no Frigate like a Book  
To take us Lands away,  
Nor any Coursers like a Page  
Of prancing Poetry –   
This Traverse may the poorest take         
Without oppress of Toll –   
How frugal is the Chariot  
That bears a Human soul.

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me –  
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility – 

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –  
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  
We passed the Setting Sun – 

Or rather – He passed us – 
The Dews drew quivering and chill – 
For only Gossamer, my Gown – 
My Tippet – only Tulle – 

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground – 
The Roof was scarcely visible – 
The Cornice – in the Ground – 

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads 
Were toward Eternity – 

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet. Born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.

While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.

Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of Dickinson's writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, both of whom heavily edited the content. A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson. Despite unfavorable reviews and skepticism of her literary prowess during the late 19th and early 20th century, critics now consider Dickinson to be a major American poet.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Haunting Romanticism

Victory: An Island Tale
Victory: An Island Tale 

“The use of reason is to justify the obscure desires that move our conduct, impulses, passions, prejudices and follies, and also our fears.”  ― Joseph Conrad, Victory

I enjoyed this novel from the pen of Joseph Conrad - it may be my favorite of his works although Conrad has the knack for writing consistently good novels that makes it hard to rank them. Victory's most striking formal characteristic is its shifting narrative and temporal perspective with the first section from the viewpoint of a sailor, the second from omniscient perspective of Axel Heyst, the third from an interior perspective from Heyst, and the final section. I found the character of Axel interesting primarily due to his complexity. On a superficial level the novel reads like a melodrama more suited to a muddled opera libretto than a serious work of literature. But upon reflection the allegorical and psychological implications of the action, landscape and narrative structure redeem it as a modern novel worthy to be included with the best of Conrad. I am always more impressed when the author can make a serious work of literature appear on the surface, to be merely a "good story" (eg. Moby-Dick). The story line follows: through a business misadventure, the European Axel Heyst ends up living on an island in what is now Indonesia, with a Chinese assistant Wang. Heyst visits a nearby island when a female band is playing at a hotel owned by Mr. Schomberg. Schomberg attempts to force himself sexually on one of the band members, Alma, later called Lena. She flees with Heyst back to his island and they become lovers. Schomberg seeks revenge by attempting to frame Heyst for the "murder" of a man who had died of natural causes and later by sending three desperadoes (Pedro, Martin Ricardo and Mr. Jones) to Heyst's island with a lie about treasure hidden on the island. The ensuing conflict does not end well and has been compared to the ending of an Elizabethan drama where the stage is littered with corpses. The robust romanticism of Axel and Lena's story continues to haunt the reader long after one puts the novel down.
Another of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, had this to say about Victory:
"I often reread Victory, which is maybe my favorite book in the world… The story is told thirdhand. It’s not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs into around the Malacca Strait. So there’s this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except that when you’re in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It’s incredibly skillful. I have never started a novel — I mean except the first, when I was starting a novel just to start a novel — I’ve never written one without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing.” — From a 2006 interview in The Paris Review

Victory by Joseph Conrad.  The Modern Library, 2003 (1915).

Childhood and Culture

What's in a Childhood?

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Four years ago I attended a lecture by Seth Lerer, Professor of English at Stanford University, on Children's Literature presented at the Newberry Library.  He discussed the literature of childhood with examples of iconic books.  I was reminded of this lecture yesterday when I heard Katia Mitova, Instructor, Basic Program, the University of Chicago, discuss "What's in a Childhood?", at the First Friday Lecture presented by the University of Chicago at the Chicago Cultural Center.
In her lecture Ms. Mitova focused on six ways of looking at childhood:  As a period in life; as a way of being; as an historical concept; metaphorically; ideally; and as an archetype.  Briefly the period she identified as childhood was the ages of 3 years to 12 years old.  It is this period of one's lifespan that is usually referred to as childhood.  The question presented in the lecture was how we should look at this.  As a beginning?  Is it a ladder from which one falls into adolescence and adulthood, never to return?  Or can life be looked at like an archipelago with islands of experience that can be visited and revisited?  She discussed the concept of a goal-oriented life contrasted with a process-oriented life as one aimed at "good deed" or "good reasons", respectively, as presented in the work of Donald Woods Winnicott (Playing and Reality, 1971). 
Poetic references were an important part of the lecture.  For example, the concept of childhood as a "way of being" was introduced with William Wordsworth's famous poem, "My heart leaps up when I behold", which contains the ironic line "The child is father to the man".  Childhood as metaphor may be seen in Alexis de Tocqueville's conception as America as a child of Europe in his work Democracy in America.  Childhood as an ideal ranges from the notion of childhood innocence, Rousseau's depiction of childhood, or the questions of childhood that mimic those of philosopher of any age, such as  "Why is there something rather than nothing?"
This wide-ranging lecture touched on the notion of happiness in Aristotle and Plato's discussions of play; but Ms. Mitova also referenced the ideas of Gareth Mathews as he presented in The Philosophy of Childhood.  Other ideas considered the notion of the freedom of childhood and the loss of it with the onset of compliance with rules and structures during late childhood and adolescence.  
Can we recapture or reexperience the outlook of a child at play?  Perhaps we can, as Johan Huizinga suggests in his famous book, Homo Ludens:  "The child plays in complete--we can well say, in sacred--earnest."  For the adult, "The player can abandon himself body and soul to the game, and consciousness of its being 'merely' a game can be thrust into the background.  The joy inextricably bound up with playing can turn not only into tension, but into elation." (pp. 18, 20-21)

Image at top from Charles Dickens Museum

Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga.  Beacon Press, 1955.