Thursday, May 31, 2012

Memory & Perception: an excerpt

Moonwalking With Einstein
by Joshua Foer
"chess grandmasters have average cognitive skills and average memories for matters outside of chess, and only show their extraordinary skills within the discipline of chess. This suggests that expertise in chess (and most other areas) has less to do with analytical skills -- the ability to project and weigh the relative merits of hundreds of options -- and more to do with long-term immersion and pattern recognition. Experts have experienced and "stored" thousands of game situations and thus having the ability to pluck an optimal answer from among those stored memories. It also suggests that expertise may be less a result of analytical prowess and more a result of passion, love or obsession for a given subject area -- enough passion to have spent the hours necessary to accumulate a robust set of memories in that area:" (Delancey Place*)

"The classic example of how memories shape the perception of experts comes from what would seem to be the least intuitive of fields: chess. Practically since the origins of the modern game in the fifteenth century, chess has been regarded as the ultimate test of cognitive ability. In the 1920s, a group of Russian scientists set out to quantify the intellectual advantages of eight of the world's best chess players by giving them a battery of basic cognitive and perceptual tests. To their surprise, the researchers found that the grand masters didn't perform significantly better than average on any of their tests. The greatest chess players in the world didn't seem to possess a single major cognitive advantage.

"But if chess masters aren't, as a whole, smarter than lesser chess players, then what are they? In the 1940s, a Dutch psychologist and chess aficionado named Adriaan de Groot asked what seemed like a simple question: What separates merely good chess players from those who are world-class? Did the best-class players see more moves ahead? Did they ponder more possible moves? Did they have better tools for analyzing those moves? Did they simply have a better intuitive grasp of the dynamics of the game?

"One of the reasons chess is such a satisfying game to play and to study is that your average chess buff can be utterly befuddled by a master's move. Often the best move seems entirely counterintuitive. Realizing this, De Groot pored through old games between chess masters and selected a handful of board positions where there was definitely one correct, but not obvious, move to be made. He then presented the boards to a group of international chess masters and top club players. He asked them to think aloud while they brooded over the proper move. 

"What De Groot uncovered was an even bigger surprise than what his Russian predecessors had found. For the most part, the chess experts didn't look more moves ahead, at least not at first. They didn't even consider more possible moves. ... They tended to see the right moves, and they tended to see them almost right away. 

"It was as if the chess experts weren't thinking so much as reacting. When De Groot listened to their verbal reports, he noticed that they described their thoughts in different language than less experienced chess players. They talked about configurations of pieces like 'pawn structures' and immediately noticed things that were out of sorts, like exposed rooks. They weren't seeing the board as thirty-two pieces. They were seeing it as chunks of pieces, and systems of tension.

"Grand masters literally see a different board. Studies of their eye movements have found that they look at the edges of squares more than inexperienced players, suggesting that they're absorbing information from multiple squares at once. Their eyes also dart across greater distances, and linger for less time at any one place. They focus on fewer different spots on the board, and those spots are more likely to be relevant to figuring out the right move.

"But the most striking finding of all from these early studies of chess experts was their astounding memories. The experts could memorize entire boards after just a brief glance. And they could reconstruct long ago games from memory. In fact, later studies confirmed that the ability to memorize board positions is one of the best overall indicators of how good a chess player somebody is. And these chess positions are not simply encoded in transient short-term memory. Chess experts can remember positions from games for hours, weeks, even years afterward. Indeed, at a certain point in every chess master's development, keeping mental track of the pieces on the board becomes such a trivial skill that they can take on several opponents at once, entirely in their heads. 

"As impressive as the chess masters' memories were for chess games, their memories for everything else were notably unimpressive. When the chess experts were shown random arrangements of chess pieces -- ones that couldn't possibly have been arrived at through an actual game -- their memory for the board was only slightly better than chess novices'. They could rarely remember the positions of more than seven pieces [which is the average for most people]. These were the same chess pieces, and the same chessboards. So why were they suddenly limited by the magical number seven? 

"The chess experiments reveal a telling fact about memory, and about expertise in general: We don't remember isolated facts; we remember things in context. A board of randomly arranged chess pieces has no context -- there are no similar boards to compare it to, no past games that it resembles, no ways to meaningfully chunk it. Even to the world's best chess player it is, in essence, noise. 

"In the same way that a few pages ago we used our knowledge of historic dates to chunk the twelve-digit number, chess masters use the vast library of chess patterns that they've cached away in long-term memory to chunk the board. At the root of the chess master's skill is that he or she simply has a richer vocabulary of chunks to recognize. Which is why it is so rare for anyone to achieve world-class status in chess -- or any other field -- without years of experience. Even Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess prodigy of all time, had been playing chess intensely for nine years before he was recognized as a grand master at age fifteen.

"Contrary to all the old wisdom that chess is an intellectual activity based on analysis, many of the chess master's important decisions about which moves to make happen in the immediate act of perceiving the board. Like [experts in other areas such as the veteran] SWAT officer who immediately notices the bomb [when others don't], the chess master looks at the board and simply sees the most promising move. The process usually happens within five seconds, and you can actually see it transpiring in the brain. Using magnetoencephalography, a technique that measures the weak magnetic fields given off by a thinking brain, researchers have found that higher-rated chess players are more likely to engage the frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board, which suggests that they are recalling information from long-term memory. Lower-ranked players are more likely to engage the medial temporal lobes, which suggests that they are encoding new information. The experts are interpreting the present board in term of their massive knowledge of past ones. The lower-ranked players are seeing the board as something new." 
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Penguin Books, 2011. (Pages: 63-66)
* Source: Delancey Place

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Being and Meaning

How to Meditate
How to Meditate 

"The artist uses canvas and color to speak his deeper insights.  He feels that the communication has somehow lost its power if it has to be explained in words.  The composer uses sound to transmit thought and feeling and again feels that any effort to put it into words dims the meaning. . . In meditation something of the creative nature of the being achieves a meaning that is not bound by the symbolic structure of language.  The forms this creative process employ vary with our understanding of the nature of the cosmos and the nature of the human personality." (Edgar N. Jackson, "Afterword", p 142-3)

If you are looking for a short introduction to meditation without a particular religious bias this is the book for you. Organized into twelve chapters each of which discuss a basic issue regarding meditation, the book is as practical as one can be when discussing this concept.
 Why do we meditate? LeShan suggests on the opening page of the book that "We meditate to find, to recover, to come back to something of ourselves we once dimly and unknowingly had and have lost without knowing what it was or where or when we lost it." (p 1) There are many names for what this means in reality and LeShan discusses these. I found the sections on how to and what the effects of meditation are to be especially informative. While suggesting that paranormal feelings and events should be excluded from the process of meditation he does not deny that they exist. He follows up with a chapter on the "traps" of mysticism that is convincingly effective. While he encourages those interested in meditation to seek out others who share that interest he definitely believes that this is a practice that may be done alone and he provides suggestions for those who choose this approach.
 Finally, the afterword by Edgar N. Jackson provides a summing up and places LeShan's book in the context of the history of spiritual thought. With the inclusion of referential footnotes this text is an impressive short presentation of meditation for the the thoughtful reader.

How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan, Afterword by Edgar N. Jackson. Bantam Books, 1975 (1974).

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Poem and a Puzzle

Pale Fire

Further Thoughts: 
Novel, Poem or Puzzle?

“There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.” 
― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

During a radio broadcast in 1939 Winston Churchill said: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;".  This is an apt epigraph for a discussion of the puzzles that are presented in Nabokov's endlessly fascinating novel, Pale Fire.  It is like no other novel that I have ever read, if it is a novel.
On the surface it seems straightforward.  There is a foreword by Charles Kinbote, the poem Pale Fire by John Shade, followed by 230 pages of commentary by Kinbote, and concluding with an index.  Oh, if it were only that simple.  The reader is alerted early in the foreword  by references to someplace called Zembla and interjections by Kinbote about his personal life that seem out of place in the introduction to a substantial poem in four cantos.  After reading the poem and less than half of the commentary it becomes clear (with many unanswered questions and puzzles) that there are several narratives coexisting in this book.  Among them are the Shade domestic story (primarily related in the poem) including the tragic event of the death of Hazel, Shade's daughter.  The story of Charles, the King of Zembla and Gradus, an assassin hired to kill the King.  Finally interpolated with these is Charles Kinbote's own story.  All of these are connected in various ways and discovering the connections, underlying references (literary and otherwise) could become a lifetime endeavor depending your level of obsession or interest in such things.  Needless to say, this book has spawned a small industry within literary academia to fulfill the interest and obsessions of those who devote their lives to such things.
One example of the puzzling nature of this book is best described by Prof. Michael Wood who said in his book The Magician's Doubts:
"John Shade's poem is not about Zembla, and Kinbote's disappointment is crucial, along with his attempted piracy, and the cramming of his commentary with everything he thinks the poem should have contained." ("The Demons of Our Pity", p 188)
That the commentary contains more references to events outside of and perhaps related to the poem (perhaps not) is just one of the many puzzles in this fantastic novel.  I may have further comments on my reading of Pale Fire, but I may not out of fear that I will not know when to stop.

“do what only a true artist can do ... pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation”  ― Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Vintage Books, 1989 (1962).
"The Demons of Our Pity" in The Magician's Doubts by Michael Wood. Princeton Univ. Press, 1994.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Beethoven and More

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti, Music Director

Last night I attended an especially felicitous concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  The centerpiece of the concert was Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat major for Piano and Orchestra, "The Emperor".  The soloist was Emanuel Ax while David Robertson was the guest conductor.
Beethoven wrote this concerto, his last for piano and orchestra, in 1809 and it was premiered in November 1811 in Leipzig by the Gewandhaus Orchestra.  At the Viennese premier the next year Beethoven's student Carl Czerny was the soloist due to Beethoven's advancing deafness.  Alfred Brendel (who has recorded it with the Chicago Symphony) has described the the concerto as imbued with "a grand and radiant vision, a noble vision of freedom."  From the opening chord in the orchestra and the answering arpeggio from the piano the concerto demands your attention and rewards your senses.  The performance last night by Emanuel Ax was scintillating with his delicate touch in the soft phrases balanced by a magnificent command of the forte sections.  The result, with conductor Robertson bringing out the best of the orchestra, was a sublime performance of one of the greatest concertos in the repertoire.  The audience could not hold back and responded with applause at the end of the first movement eliciting an aside from Mr. Robertson who said, "Ludwig would be proud!"
At the end of the piece the soloist and orchestra were treated to a standing ovation.  The remainder of the concert was a joy as well.  The opening piece was Paul Hindeminth's "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber".  This four movement suite is one of my personal favorites as it is both a thoughtful and tuneful creation based on themes of one of the early romantic composers.
After the interval the concert concluded with a stirring rendition of the "Symphonic Dances", Op. 45, by Sergei Rachmaninov.  This three movement work was his last orchestral composition completed in 1940 only three years before his death.  Each of the three movements evoked the dance with the middle movement a wistful waltz in 6/8 time.
The evening was a delight from beginning to end and a great way to celebrate the end of May.

A Commonplace Entry

on Novels

“But no mind ever grew fat on a diet of novels. The pleasure which they occasionally offer is far too heavily paid for: they undermine the finest characters. They teach us to think ourselves into other men's places. Thus we acquire a taste for change. The personality becomes dissolved in pleasing figments of imagination. The reader learns to understand every point of view. Willingly he yields himself to the pursuit of other people's goals and loses sight of his own. Novels are so many wedges which the novelist, an actor with his pen, inserts into the closed personality of the reader. The better he calculates the size of the wedge and the strength of the resistance, so much the more completely does he crack open the personality of the victim. Novels should be prohibited by the State.”
― Elias Canetti, Auto da Fe

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Quotations from Emerson

Yesterday was the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson who was born 209 years ago.  To celebrate his birth I have reprinted fifteen quotations of his on a variety of subjects.  The list could have gone on and on for pages as he was an eloquent writer and quotable thinker.  Interestingly, perhaps the most famous quote from his writings and one which is often misquoted is not on the list below. So I will begin the list with that quotation as an epigraph.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, First Series, "Self-Reliance")

1. Individualism
“Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.”
2. Groupthink
“A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking.”
3. Greatness with gusto
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
4. Poem within a poem
“Every poem must be made up of lines that are poems.”
5. Hope
 “When it is darkest, men see the stars.”
6. Over-preparation
“We are always getting ready to live, but never living.”
7. Be distinct
“Insist on yourself; never imitate.”
8. In the rough
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.”
9. Self-rewarding
"The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” 
10. Individual thresholds
“We boil at different degrees.”
11. Touchy subjects
“In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed.”
12. Ordinary heroes
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” 
13. The downside
“To be great is to be misunderstood.”
14. Inner strength
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”
15. Pioneering
“Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee, and do not try to make the universe a blind alley.”

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Epic Sweep of Ideas

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
The Diamond Age: 
Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

"Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it." (p 31)

Neal Stephenson describes our world after nanotechnology has revolutionised every aspect of it, and introduces the reader to members at polarised ends of the class divide: Nell, a young "thete" who comes into possession of a "magic" book created by John Percival Hackworth an artifex for the New Victorians (pardon the jargon, but if you read this book you'll have to get used to it). The story itself is sprawling, almost Dickensian with a postmodern twist. The comparison with Dickens comes to mind as the future world of the novel mirrors the Victorian era (as seen through a fun-house mirror). But it also reminds me of any of the great SF of the golden age that posited the fantastic in new and exciting ways. Another reminder of Dickens is the descriptive heading for each chapter that were inexplicably uninformative. And the heroine's name is Nell. 
Stephenson impressed me with the fecundity of his imaginative ideas in a future world that includes the Feed, which allows most anything to be created at any outlet (think Star Trek replicators), making for a minimum standard of living for all mankind, and the spread of nanotechnology. This technology at the smallest imaginable scale makes for many fun clouds of mites -- engineered nano-probes that fly (swarm !) about, gathering information or doing nasty (or nice) things. The mites reminded me a bit of the computermite concept that Jeff Noon developed in his hilarious novel, Automated Alice. 
Viruses affecting humans have also now become, in a sense, technological ones as people can be infected by these mites. A popular form of entertainment in this brave new world are so-called ractives (interactives). There is little live theatre in this world any longer, but there are still many ractors -- actors who play along in these interactive scenes. 
Much of the action takes place in or near Shanghai and this allows the reasonable inclusion of Confucius-like principles in the narrative. The most interesting story-line is Nell's growth through the use of an interactive book that serves as a teacher and as an alternate world to that she actually lives in. Conceived as a prod to the imagination by a scientist, John Percival Hackworth, who creates a unique copy of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. It was originally intended for the daughter of a prominent member of the society, but Hackworth goes to the Chinese territories to make a second copy for his own daughter -- a copy that then makes its way into the hands of our poor little Nell, abused daughter of a neglectful mother. It is her interaction with this primer that leads to much of the best action in the novel. Hackworth, however, gets in a great deal of trouble for losing the Primer and makes several deals to extricate himself from this mess -- and a Chinese Judge, Fang, Dr. X, and the search for the Alchemist. 
I was impressed the least with the tales told by the primer to Nell. However the breadth of ideas, even when they are not completely fleshed out, kept my interest level fairly high. And while the concluding sections of the novel were somewhat anarchic Stephenson presents a future vision that has both believable ideas and epic sweep.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. Bantam Books, 2000 (1995)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From Wealth to Wilderness

Timon of Athens

by William Shakespeare

I 'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing's a thief. (4.3)

Timon of Athens was not staged during Shakespeare's life for reasons unknown, but Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production that I attended today was a successful adaptation of the play for modern audiences.  I call it an adaptation only because the director, Barbara Gaines, had stated in an interview that significant portions of the play and some roles were cut in the process of bringing it to the stage.  The play that remained was acted effectively with verve and energy by Ian McDiarmid as the title character and a host of supporting actors that included Kevin Gudahl, Terry Hamilton (an artistic associate from TimeLine Theatre), Sean Fortunato, Danforth Comins, and Timothy Edward Kane (who I saw in the recent production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at CST).
It is an intensely dramatic play although the character development is more abrupt than one might expect with Timon's fall from wealth, when he is surrounded by his supposed friends, to the wilderness where he banishes himself, when he his reality turns to near madness.  Timon's rants in the wilderness seem precursor to Lear which followed soon after it in 1606.  The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare suggests that some of the language of Timon is similar to that used in Lear.  In addition to the energy of the acting in the CST production there was effective use of modern projection techniques and lighting that enhanced the production.  The result was an entertaining afternoon in the in the presence of one of the Bard's less-well-known plays.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Passion of Hitch


"A life that partakes of even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called "meaningless" except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so." (p 331)

Christopher Hitchens was a passionate reader, thinker, speaker, and writer. I share his passion, but not all of his passions. Some of those I share include a passion for reading (widely and deeply), and an intense dislike of hypocrisy of all kinds. His memoir chronicles a life that began the same day that mine did although, unlike mine, it has ended--all too soon. While I have read many of his essays and biographical sketches (among these I would recommend his Letters to a Young Contrarian as a good introduction to his thought),  the catalyst for reading his memoir was the tribute for him that, thanks to the wonder that is CSPAN BookTV, was broadcast on television a week ago as "A Tribute for Christopher Hitchens"*;  one example of the all too few oases of value in the TV  wasteland that with the ubiquity of Cable has only grown larger over the years.

The memoir chronicles his personal history with a bent toward intellectual history. The passion of his living shows through in his writing with excitement for the reader both from his adventures in political warfare and his experience in the literary realm of reading and subsequently writing.  He developed an uncanny ability to see and understand both sides of an argument, making his own positions stronger in the process.  One moment that epitomizes this is his epiphany when, as a student at Oxford in 1968, he visits a camp for international revolutionaries in Cuba.  Even there, left-wing as his views were, he could not tow the line and had the audacity to question the unreflexive adherence to whatever opinion emanated from Castro, the "revolutionary leader".  Ironically he remembers the aimlessness of a whole day when, with Russian tanks entering Prague, the communists in Cuba had no official view until their leader revealed the official line.  To what extent his memory was tempered with hindsight the reader will have to judge for himself, but given his outspoken often contrarian views the picture of his role in that time rings true.
His roles as student, lecturer, foreign correspondent, polemicist of ideas (usually contrarian and always well-thought), and more fill the pages of a book that must be read by all who have appreciated his presence in the battlefield of ideas over the last few decades.  Perhaps the best example of the many facets of his critical and literary life was his move from England to America. In doing so, becoming a regular contributor for The Nation magazine as a Brit in America, he seemed to become a sort of left-wing version of Alistair Cooke and William F. Buckley melded into one outspoken contrarian commentor.  This is the Christopher Hitchens that I first encountered in essays and on television and his version of the journey is fascinating.

I share his love of literary giants like Orwell and Proust, not to mention the great writers who were his personal friends like Rushdie, Amis and McEwen.  And I appreciate the way he could effectively stand up against hypocrites of all stripes and, usually, irrational beliefs. His was a life bred in the exciting world of ideas and one that in his words makes for a great memoir. I would encourage everyone to make some room for Christopher Hitchens in their reading life.

*A tribute to author Christopher Hitchens who died on December 15, 2011.  The event, hosted by Vanity Fair magazine, includes Mr. Hitchens' family, friends, and colleagues.  The numerous speakers include Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Victor Navasky, Sean Penn, Peter Hitchens, Mr. Hitchens' widow Carol Blue, Graydon Carter, and Martin Amis.   The tribute takes place at the Great Hall of the Cooper Union in New York City. (BookTV)

Hitch - 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve Books, 2010.
Letters to A Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens. Basic Books, 2001.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Illusion of Love

The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence

"Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves a dark house and a whip as madmen do:  and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love to." - Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, II, iii, 7

“Love is not vain because it is frustrated, but because it is fulfilled. The people we love turn to ashes when we posess them.” ― Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Volume II - The Guermantes Way & Cities of the Plain

Writing about Vladimir Nabokov's novel Ada, Orhan Pamuk said that "Nabokov reminds us that our memories allow us to carry our childhood with us, and with it the golden age we thought we had left behind." This is not that dissimilar from the memories of the narrator of Orhan Pamuk's scintillating novel The Museum of Innocence. It is with a memory of love, obsessive and passionate, inflamed by Eros that Kemal, the narrator of the story, begins his tale.
It is a tale that reminded me of Socrates discussion of the myth of the chariot in The Phaedrus. The charioteer is filled with warmth and desire as he gazes into the eyes of the one he loves. Ultimately he is torn by a sort of divine madness. In the novel Kemal tells how "I first began to feel fissures opening in my soul, wounds of the sort that plunge men into a deep dark, lifelong loneliness for which there is no cure." (pp 52-3)
Fairly soon into the story Kemal throws over the perfection of his fiance, Sibel, whose "perfect placement of every pearl" cannot compete with the hold that Eros has over him in his overwhelming passion of the young girl Fusun.
Now if this is all there was to this story the novel would be short, semi-sweet, and in spite of the beautiful prose of the author not worthy of much further comment. But, as you may suspect there is more to this novel than this simple, albeit passionate, tale of a Turkish love triangle. No, the Museum of Innocence plumbs the depths of illusion. There is the illusion of love, the illusion of time, and ultimately the illusion of life.
The malleability of time is evidence of what the narrator calls "the illusion that is time." (p 282) It is compared to the difference between the personal life we each live within and the "official" time that we share with others. Kemal's obsessive love controlled his personal time even as the clock on the wall in Fusun's home ticked off the "time". The reader experiences a similar sensation when the regularity of short chapters of the novel is suddenly broken by chapter 24, "The Engagement Party", which is almost five times longer than the average length of those preceding. You must discover for yourself what intimacies of plot detail warrant a slowing of the flow of the story.
Kemal's obsessive love is also illusory and leads him through memories of a life that is just as much illusion as he is blinded to the reality of the individuals who people his world.  These individuals include the man that his ideal love marries and the people involved in the Turkish cinema world that surround both him and Fusun.
Ultimately the narrative succeeds in communicating the complexity of what Kemal calls "the strange and mysterious spirit" of his days spent pursuing the illusion of life through obsessive love. The suspense keeps building as the novel progresses to the point where you begin to feel like those actors on the stage who wait for the next direction.  Acting as the spine of the story is the development of the Museum of Innocence - a museum that transcends the space of the novel, which also becomes a collection of episodes in the life of a collector - someone whose passions make for exceptional reading.

Illustrations: 1) The museum, named after the novel, which houses a collection of Istanbul's past cultural and daily life artifacts from the time period the novel was set in. 2) The author.

The Museum of Innocence: A Novel by Orhan Pamuk. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009 (2008)

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Vanished Way of Life

How Green Was My Valley
How Green Was My Valley 

“But you have gone now, all of you that were so beautiful when you were quick with life. Yet not gone, for you are still a living truth inside my mind. 
So how are you dead, my brothers and sisters, and all of you , when you live with me as surely as I live with myself.”  ― Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley

Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 international best-selling novel, How Green Was My Valley, stands the test of time as a literary classic. He tells the story through narration of the main character, Huw Morgan, of his Welsh family and the mining community in which they live. The novel is set in South Wales in the reign of Queen Victoria. The story is about the Morgans, a poor but respectable mining family of the South Wales Valleys. Huw's academic ability sets him apart from his elder brothers and enables him to consider a future away from this troubled industrial environment. His five brothers and his father are miners; after the eldest brother, Ivor, is killed in an mining accident, Huw moves in with his sister-in-law, Bronwen, with whom he has always been in love. His further development and how he deals with tragedy makes this an elementally interesting story.

The title of the novel appears in two sentences. It is first used in Chapter Thirty, after the narrator has just had his first sexual experience. He sits up to "... look down in the valley." He then reflects: "How green was my Valley that day, too, green and bright in the sun." The phrase is used again in the novel's last sentence: "How green was my Valley then, and the Valley of them that have gone."

While I read the book many decades ago when I was a teenager I came to it through first viewing the classic film version of the story. John Ford’s movie based on the novel won the Oscar as best movie of 1941, and I remember my first viewing as it stood out even on our small television screen. Roddy McDowell is the image of Huw Morgan and I remember still the faces of Walter Pigeon and Maureen O'Hara and the beautiful hills and valley. I was moved by the admittedly melodramatic scenes and led inexorably to Llewellen's original.
Set in a Welsh coalmining village in the last quarter of the 19th century, its themes of spiritual longing and soaring opposed to physical yearning and bondage are developed in a language that is both lucid and rich in the storytelling tradition. The author delights readers by his incisive observations of quotidian phenomena that, although set in a distant time and place, seem universal in character. This is what it takes to write a novel that transcends generations. This was a melancholic elegy for departed loved ones and the vanished way of life of a Welsh coal mining town and it is one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read.

How Green was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.  Macmillan, 1940.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Two by Amis, Pere

The Green Man
The Green Man 

"Death's an integral part of life, after all.  We settle for it by the mere act of being born.  Let's face it, Mr.. Allington, it is possible to take the end of the road a bloody sight too seriously." (p 168)

The Green Man is an enjoyable ghost story laced with the sort of witty dialogue common in Amis novels – and yet it constitutes a more than negligible statement about personality, purpose and ethics in the late-20th century world of its setting. Thomas Underhill’s lust is still evident after three centuries of extra-corporeal existence – his mastery of the black arts and his circumvention of death have not cured him. The protagonist, Maurice Allington, sees something of Underhill in himself when his wife throws up his orchestration of the orgy as just a way of “experimenting” with other people, just as Underhill intended to experiment on Amy, and looks forward, as the novel closes, to the release from his personality that death will bring him. It is not a stretch to see in this Amis’s view of the new generation, with its proclivity for “experimental lifestyles” of all sorts that mainly take account only of the individual conducting the experiment (well-represented in the novel by the pseudo-radical priest Tom Rodney Sonnenschein). Indeed, God, as the young man, is seen in the novel as being a sort of experimenter Himself, which earns Him more than a whiff of Amis’s contempt.
The humor and irony abound in this light read from the pen of Kingsley Amis.

The Anti Death League: A Novel
The Anti Death League: A Novel 

With The Anti-Death League Amis begins to show some of the experimentation – with content, if not with style – which would be a hallmark of his work for more than a decade. Amis’s departure from the strict realism of his early comedic novels is not so abrupt as might first appear. He had avidly read science fiction since a boy, and had developed that interest into the Christian Gauss Lectures of 1958, while visiting Princeton University. The lectures were published in that year as New Maps of Hell: a Survey of Science Fiction, a serious but light-handed treatment of what the genre had to say about man and society. Amis was particularly enthusiastic about the dystopian works of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and in New Maps of Hell coined the term "comic inferno" to describe a type of humorous dystopia, particularly as exemplified in the works of Robert Sheckley. Amis further displayed his devotion to the genre in editing, with the Sovietologist Robert Conquest, the science fiction anthology series Spectrum I–V, which drew heavily upon 1950s numbers of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction.
Though not explicitly science fiction, The Anti-Death League takes liberties with reality not found in Amis’s earlier novels, and introduces a speculative bent into his fiction. This is one of the aspects that drew me to this work. I was also impressed that The Anti-Death League made it to Anthony Burgess's list of his favorite 99 novels. Several of my favorite, sometimes less-well-known novels, are on his list which I find a valuable resource. Ultimately this Amis novel was not as satisfying as I expected it would be, but a good light read instead.

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis.  Ballantine Books, 1971 (1969)
The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis. Ballantine Books, 1971 (1966)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Commonplace Entry

the Chronophobiac

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.  Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).  I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth.  He saw a world that was practically unchanged--the same house, the same people--and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.  He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell.  But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin;  even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.

-  Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Edgar Allan Poe, Illustrated

Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

In 1975 I acquired an edition of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination.  Published by the Easton Press, this edition included stunning aquatints by William Sharp that were first reproduced in 1941.  The illustration shown is for one of my favorite tales, "William Wilson" - a classic doppelganger story.

But I still remember the first time I read Poe in an edition that was on the bookshelf in the home were I grew up.  This was a reprint of the 1908 collection of short stories, Tales of Mystery and Imagination and had undoubtedly been reprinted many times before the edition that was on my parent's shelf.  These images were drawn to accompany an early collection of Poe’s darker short stories, and they hearken back to a golden age of commercial illustration.  They were illustrations the Irish illustrator Harry Clarke, whose ink illustrations brought Poe’s characters to life with mesmerizing detail.  I would open the book and the eeriness of the stories were enhanced by the illustrations that I would sometimes study, focusing on a single image indefinitely, returning to it with every reading. These drawings invited me into Poe's world, strange and sometimes obscure.

Despite being known mainly for his illustration work today, these drawings were not the primary work of this distinguished early twentieth-century artist.  The son of a craftsman, Joshua Clarke, Clarke the younger was exposed to art (and in particular Art Nouveau) at an early age. He went to school in Belvedere College in Dublin. By his late teens, he was studying stained glass at the Dublin Art School. While there his The Consecration of St. Mel, Bishop of Longford, by St. Patrick won the gold medal for stained glass work in the 1910 Board of Education National Competition.
Completing his education in his main field, Clarke travelled to London, where he sought employment as a book illustrator. Picked up by London publisher Harrap, he started with two commissions which were never completed: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (his work on which was destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising) and an illustrated edition of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock.  Difficulties with these projects made Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen his first printed work, however, in 1916—a title that included 16 colour plates and more than 24 monotone illustrations. This was closely followed by an illustrations for an edition of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination: the first version of that title was restricted to monotone illustrations, while a second iteration with 8 colour plates and more than 24 monotone images was published in 1923.  However, stained glass was central to Clarke's career.   Clarke's stained glass work includes many religious windows but also much secular stained glass.  Unfortunately, ill health plagued both the Clarke brothers, and worn down by the pace of their work, and perhaps the toxic chemicals used in stained glass production, both died within a year of each other—Harry second in early 1931, of tuberculosis while trying to recuperate in Switzerland.
Clarke's work was influenced by both the passing Art Nouveau and coming Art Deco movements. His stained glass was particularly informed by the French Symbolist movement.
Two of his illustrations for Poe's Tales are shown above and to the right.  For more of his illustrations for Poe with commentary visit .

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday (on Wednesday)

Top Ten Quotes from Favorite Fantasy 
and Science Fiction Books

1.  “What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

-    Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures inWonderland (1865)

2.  “It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite plans and care I had endeavored to form?

-    Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or theModern Prometheus (1818)

3.  “Brains are the only things worth having in the world, no matter whether one is a crow or a man.”

-    L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

4.  “Thought itself is a disease of the brain, a degenerative condition of matter. […] The mind defends itself against the disintegrative process of creativity. It begins to jell, notions solidify into inalterable systems, which simply refuse to be broken down and reformed.”

-    Thoms M. Disch, Camp Concentration(1968)

5.  “Harrison Wintergreen was inside his own body.
It was a world of wonder and loathsomeness, of the majestic and the ludicrous. Wintergreen's point of view, which was his mind analogized as a body within his true body, was inside a vast network of pulsing arteries, like some monstrous freeway system. The analogy crystallized. It was a freeway, and Wintergreen was driving down it. . . The traffic ebbed and congested like a crosstown rush hour. Wintergreen drove on , searching, searching.”

-    Norman Spinrad, “Carcinoma Angels” (1967) in Dangerous Visions.

6.  “Of all the energies in the universe, time is the most potent.”

-    A. E. Van Vogt, “The Seesaw” (1941)

7.  “Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast forward button. Stop hustling and you sank without a trace, but move a little too swiftly and you'd break the fragile surface tension of the black market; either way, you were gone,”

-    William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

8.  “We are all insects,” he said to Miss Epheikian. “Groping toward something terrible or divine.”

-    Philip K. Dick, The Man in the HighCastle (1962)

9.  “Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your had touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there.”

-    Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1954)

10.  “Your life from birth to death resembles the progress of a hopeless drunk tightrope walker whose act has been so bad up till now that he's being bombarded with rotten eggs and broken bottles.”

-    John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968)

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. I modified my list to include only quotes from Fantasy and Science Fiction books. This is also a list for today only – given another day and my top ten would likely be different. So, please, enjoy the top ten list for today.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Adrift in Time

I Curse the River of Time
I Curse the River of Time 

"I have never really been able to see enormous changes coming until the last minute, never seen how one trend conceals another, as Mao used to say, how the one flowing right below the surface can move in a whole different direction than the one you thought everyone had agreed on, and if you did not pay attention when everything was shifting, you would be left behind alone." (p 66)

Like his earlier novel, Out Stealing Horses, this too is a novel as book of memories. In I Curse the River of Time the story is narrated by Arvid Jansen who is faced with the end of his marriage and a mother with cancer both set against the background of the fall of the wall in Berlin.  The action of the story moves back and forth between Norway and Denmark as Arvid relates the events of his life which roll forward with the impetus of a river. The river motif appears several times, but seldom is the metaphor made as explicit as when Arvid, while reading a book by Jan Myrdal, comments about the prose:
"There was a wide open sky over Jan Myrdal's sentences. The world unfolded in all its majesty, back in time, forward in time, history was one long river and we were all borne along by that river." (p 65)
Just as this is true of the history of the world as Arvid sees it, it is also true of Arvid's personal history. However, Arvid's river does not seem that long, and I would not have minded a bit more of his personal story as this short book seemed to end all to soon. It is a story that moves backward and forward with the current story interrupted, oh so gently, by retrospective moments -- a before and after that Arvid was crossing much like a river. (p 92)

The most interesting aspect of the novel for me was the literary life of Arvid and his mother. They were both great readers, constantly reading some book, usually a substantial one. And how do I know this? Because Arvid is always reminding the reader what book he is reading and, when he is visiting his mother, what she is reading. The authors range from European greats like Hugo, Grass and Remarque to authors from Britain and America like Maugham, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Commenting on Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom his mother said to Arvid, "It's hard going that book," to which Arvid replied, "I agree, but it's a fine book all the same." (p 93) Petterson's narrative, while beautiful, is never hard going.
Arvid's brother had died several years before the story began; he noted that he was so different than his brother while they were growing up together that:
"it did not even occur to me to try and emulate him. Instead I read books. Many books, and I guess to him it looked so intriguing and intense, the way I lost myself in those books, that sometimes he tried to copy me, and that made me happy." (p 39)

Ultimately Arvid's story is one he describes as, "where the action was bound to a time that was long gone, and yet here I came walking, right there and then, adrift in time and space." (p 35) Like Petterson's earlier novel it is the story of a life pieced together from moments of action and surprise, meditation and love, but unlike the earlier novel the personal history is entwined with the impact of an external event -- the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the end, all the reading, the changing personal relationships, especially with his mother, and the vicissitudes of time itself combine to make this a thoughtful and emotional read.

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson.  Picador Editions, 2011 (2008).

Monday, May 07, 2012

Ode to Joy

Late Beethoven

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna on this day in 1824. Totally deaf at this point, the composer was on stage only as secondary conductor, though also as primary inspiration.
Less than three years later he would be dead (March, 1827) so it is not surprising that Maynard Solomon would comment:
"Not all endings take their composers unawares."
Of course Solomon was commenting on the ending of the Symphony, but it turns out that the demands of potential projects and Beethoven's realization of the immanence of his own ending, the onset of his final illness would occur in late 1826, limited plans Beethoven considered when contemplating revisions to the finale of the Ninth Symphony.

According to his amanuensis, Anton Schindler, the moment of realization of the concept of the final movement occurred for Beethoven around November, 1823:  "one day [Beethoven] entered the room exclaiming 'I've got it!  I've got it!' and showed me the sketchbook with the words, 'Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller--Freude,' whereupon a solo voice immediately begins the hymn to joy."

Friedrich Schiller’s poem “To Joy” had been immensely popular since its publication in 1786. Inspired by its triumphant Enlightenment message of moral beauty and brotherhood, dozens of composers before Beethoven had set it to music; not so many tried after him. Below, a few of the famous lines:
  Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Do you bow down, you millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek Him beyond the star-canopy!
Beyond the stars must He dwell….

(Photo on the right is The Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwangler)

Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination
Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination 

"Yes, I am resolved to wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land of spirits ..."       ― Ludwig van Beethoven, Letters of Beethoven

Solomon's study of late Beethoven complements his earlier biography of the composer. Focusing on the spiritual as well as musical development of Beethoven he considers diverse aspects of the composer's belief system and composing methods. Beginning with a chapter on the "Diabelli" Variations the book traverses compositions from the late quartets and piano sonatas to the Violin Sonata in G and the great Ninth Symphony. Along the way there are discussions of the aesthetic dimension of his work and thought, the impact of Masonic thought, and the Illuminati. This interesting analysis, consisting of two chapters, leads Solomon to the following concluding remarks on Beethoven's spiritual perspective:
"It is a fusion of unification of the world's diverse imagery of divinity that fired Beethoven's imagination and creative intellect.  Beethoven was not an atheist, as Haydn reportedly once called him in a fit of anger.  Nor was he an adherent of any established religion or church.  Rather, in the course of a stormy intellectual journey that reached a double bar with the quotation from Sturm in 1818, he revealed his close kinship to those Deists, freethinkers, and Freemasons who managed to locate in every polytheistic pantheon one supreme, omnipotent, ultimately unnamable deity." (p 178)
Both the "Missa Solemnis" and Ninth Symphony are given a thorough treatment. This is a joyous, informative, and thoughtful traversal of the last years of the genius of Beethoven.

Late Beethoven by Maynard Solomon. U of California Press, 2003.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Surrealism: questions of self and sexuality

Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun

 On a Friday in April past I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. While browsing through the corridors trying to escape some of the construction and its concomitant plaster dust I happened upon this exhibit ("Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun", on view at the museum from February 25th through June 3rd), an unexpected treat and tremendously exciting learning experience -- expanding my knowledge of the world of Surrealist art. Entre Nous introduced me to the life and art of Claude Cahun:

 Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob to a family of French intellectuals and writers in Nantes, Claude Cahun (who adopted the pseudonym at age 22) is best known for the staged self-portraiture, photo montages, and prose texts she made principally between 1920 and 1940.
She began making photographic self-portraits as early as 1912, when she was 18 years old, and she continued taking images of herself through the 1930s.  Around 1919, she settled on the pseudonym Claude Cahun, intentionally selecting a sexually ambiguous name, after having previously used the names Claude Courlis (after the curlew) and Daniel Douglas (after Lord Alfred Douglas). During the early 20s, she settled in Paris with her life-long partner and stepsister Suzanne Malherbe. For the rest of their lives together, Cahun and Malherbe (who adopted the pseudonym "Marcel Moore") collaborated on various written works, sculptures, photo montages and collages. She published articles and novels, notably in the periodical "Mercure de France", and befriended Henri Michaux, Pierre Morhange and Robert Desnos.
Around 1922 she and Malherbe began holding artists' salons at their home.  Among the regulars who would attend were artists Henri Michaux and André Breton and literary entrepreneurs Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.  Cahun's work encompassed writing, photography, and theater.

Rediscovered in the late 1980s, her work has not only expanded our understanding of the Surrealist era but also serves as an important touchstone to later feminist explorations of gender and identity politics. In her self-portraits, which she began creating around 1913, Cahun dismantled and questioned preexisting notions of self and sexuality. Posing in costumes and elaborate make-up, Cahun appears masked as various personae: man or woman, hero or doll, both powerful and vulnerable. Almost a century after their making, these innovative photographs and assemblages remain remarkably relevant in their treatment of gender, performance, and identity.

Her published writings include "Heroines," (1925) a series of monologues based upon female fairy tale characters and intertwining them with witty comparisons to the contemporary image of women; Aveux non avenus, (Carrefour, 1930) a book of essays and recorded dreams illustrated with photo montages; and several essays in magazines and journals.
In 1932 she joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, where she met André Breton and René Crevel. Following this, she started associating with the surrealist group, and later participated in a number of surrealist exhibitions, including the London International Surrealist Exhibition (New Burlington Gallery) and Exposition surréaliste d'Objets (Charles Ratton Gallery, Paris), both in 1936. In 1934, she published a short polemic essay, Les Paris sont Ouverts, and in 1935 took part in the founding of the left-wing group Contre Attaque, alongside André Breton and Georges Bataille.
The overall impression I took away was one of a unique fascination with the bizarre, the morbid, Eros and elegance.

Don't Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore by  Louise Downie.  Aperture, London. 2006

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Poet, Philosopher, and Moralist


"Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonor to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage." - Francesco Petrarch

Petrarch is primarily remembered as a lyric poet, the author of 366 poems collected in his Canzoniere or song book. It would be difficult to imagine the fate of the sonnet, even for Shakespeare, without the masterful examples of Petrarch’s poems about the love of his life, Laura. Petrarch’s other major collection of poetry, theTrionfi, takes the poet from his intense worldly love for Laura, joined by loves and lovers throughout the ages, to the contemplation of the successive victories of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity. The poet becomes the moralist and philosopher who searches for meaning, as life passes from one stage to the next. Beyond earthly bonds, Petrarch envisions eternal bliss, but not one without his great love. In the final verse, he hopes to see Laura again in a form even more beautiful than on earth: “Now how will it be to see her again in heaven.”

Petrarch was a prolific writer. From his pen flowed not only poetry in Italian and Latin, but also hundreds of letters as well as essays and histories on such topics as good and ill fortune, the religious and solitary life, famous people, self-assessment, the nature of ignorance. In his writings we find the stuff of life expressed in all its human variety and vitality.

Not only was Petrarch a poet, philosopher, and moralist, he was above all a scholar of exceptional intellectual curiosity and competence. Beginning as a child, he dedicated his life passionately to the pursuit of knowledge, especially from the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome. As an adult he brought the past to life, collecting the words of ancient thinkers and writers and passing them on to later generations. He collected books, discovered long-lost writings, and edited texts, especially those of his favorite authors Cicero, Livy, and Virgil. By the end of his life, he owned one of the largest private libraries in the world, which he gave to the city of Venice in exchange for a house there.

Petrarch’s library was intended to become the first public library in the western world. Instead his books were dispersed, and many now reside in libraries and collections throughout the world, including the United States. Together with manuscripts and books by and about Petrarch, they form a formidable collection of Petrarch’s powerful words.

As Ernest Hatch Wilkins writes in his Life of Petrarch, “Petrarch was the most remarkable man of his time; and he is one of the most remarkable men of all time.” Petrarch’s legacy encourages us to study the human condition of the past, enabling us in turn to engage in the present more fully and to prepare more wisely for the future. It is this heritage that we celebrate 700 years later.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Rejoice! A Celebration of Joyce

" ... did you ever see me running... ": 
James Joyce's Ulysses, a Human Work for Humans
a lecture by Claudia Traudt

"Ulysses is difficult.  It is also profoundly human and accessible.  Famously, Joyce has Leopold and Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus at the core of the story, and countless Dublin denizens radiating outward, echo , engage and collide with themes of Homer's Odyssey.  He also roars them through ORDINARY LIFE on June 16, 1904, as WE are roared through it.  In it, fear, memory, grief, food, sex, fights, fireworks, birth, death, affirmation crackle to life in language that Joyce makes at once celebrate and summon to consciousness our OWN experiences, art that has gone before (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Bunyan, Yeats, Mozart, Synge), and startling discoveries of most human capabilities." (Claudia Traudt, from the introduction to the lecture)

This morning I attended a lecture by Claudia Traudt in the "First Friday Lecture Series" of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults.  It was called a lecture but the experience was more like a celebration of the humanity of literature as demonstrated by James Joyce in his novel Ulysses.
The celebration began with a simmering and a glimmering, with the percolation of ideas and concepts that represent in some small way the nature of Joyce's work of literary genius.  Claudia began by asking a simple question about Ulysses: Is this for Humans?  The answer was an emphatic Yes!  But why, when almost everyone in the audience and many others who have read Ulysses would say it is "difficult"?
Perhaps it is a difficulty that is an inescapable aspect of the human condition and as such, when presented as literature, is accessible to humans.
Perhaps it is a difficulty that may be overcome by simply reading the text, enjoying the story, and waiting for the moments, christened "Eureka" moments by Claudia, where the text will become more understandable, part of your soul, if not less difficult.  It reminded me of my own experience reading William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, another notoriously difficult book.  After at least three readings and countless partial attempts one summer I found myself finally "in the zone" with the text suddenly alive and the voices of the characters, their streaming consciousnesses, clearer than ever before.  Eureka!

This takes work and both serious reading of and listening to the text.  It is a text that echoes and reechoes Homer's Odyssey. One example of this jumped out at me when references to the sea from Ulysses brought to my mind the image of Odysseus sitting on the shore of Calypso's island pining for his home.
  Most of the lecture that followed was a presentation of key examples from the text of the novel with intelligent and impassioned commentary by Claudia.  From the relative straightforward approach of Episode 7, known as "Aeolus" with its short sections demarcated by headlines to the soliloquy of Molly Bloom in Episode  18   with its run-on sentences, we luxuriated in the prose of Joyce that had many reaching for their dictionaries (and realizing that the handy portable dictionary they might be carrying with them was not up to the task of deciphering the relatively recondite prose of Joyce).
The lecture concluded with great joy and appreciation for the reassurance of the lecturer that Joyce's Ulysses is indeed "a Human Work for Humans".

Ulysses by James Joyce. Random House: Vintage Books, 1990 (1934)

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Poem for May

It is not Summer yet, but this poem seemed appropriate for the beginning of what should be a sunny month.

Sonnet #18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

- William Shakespeare