Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”  ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

This is one of the great dystopian novels of all time, especially for true bibliophiles. In this age of Kindles and Nooks and Ipads this story seems almost nostalgic, a fifties rendition of the future that reminded me of an Orwellian world ruled by a Huxleyan culture.
It is written in an allegorical style with a fantastic background that mixes futuristic ideas within a rule-bound society where the many are ruled by videos and drugs. Bradbury is effective in creating a nightmare and an evocative story, for he is a brilliant storyteller and this, like most of his stories, has a fantastic edge.
A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed, but one of the book burners, Guy Montag, is the only human struggling for some truth. Montag is -- for those not familiar with the story -- a fireman. His job is to set fire to books so that no one will read and consequently understand the hopelessness of reality. He is lured into reading a book by a young woman named Clarisse who tells of a world of books, thoughts, and ideas. Of course the story of Adam and Eve immediately comes to mind. But this allegory has deeper meanings. What is the role of the book and what are the limits of language? What would you do if you realized your life is devoted to the destruction of that which you love? Are you willing to engage in the search for Truth? The denouement is brilliant and the result is a book that you will never forget. Once you have seen the amazing cinematic recreation by Francois Truffaut you will have additional images to put along side those of this book, emblazoned on your mind forever. This along with The Martian Chronicles is among my favorite Bradbury and the best fantastic fiction I have read.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Simon & Schuster, 2012 (1951)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Search

The Siren

"The comb she holds is golden,
She sings a song as well
Whose melody binds an enthralling
And overpowering spell."
- Heinrich Heine, "Lorelai"

Lost in the passion and purity of a moment of silence
I sit transfigured by the murmurs of my heart.
Wishing for the fountain of life, I sense before me
The riddle of the Earth--the beginning of desire.

To start with a note or a word--how do I create
The beginning of my work of art--my end?
What is the feeling which suddenly strikes
Deep within my soul?  Lacking awareness

I sit, trembling before the touch of his hand--
Merely the thought of it permeates my being.
Bound to the mast of desire I force
Myself to choose--to change.

We each speak from the core of our souls--drawing
on images created in moments of inspiration.
Our passion is informed by individual reasons.
Yet, do we really know of what we speak?

I sit, dumb within my solipsistic world--
A world dumb in its unreality, for
If it is dependent on will alone,
Whose will is it to be?

I sit, trembling at the faint remains 
Of ghostly images--selves forgotten.
I am no longer.  Who am I?  Where do I go?
How do I move my body without the desire for what is?

I will conquer the tempter with silence.
Even as my burgeoning boldness grows I find
Through choice-- the source of desire within me.
Joy is the result of the victory.

- from Preludes of the Mind, 2012 (2007), James Henderson

Friday, July 27, 2012

Roman Arcadia

The Eclogues of Virgil: A Translation
The Eclogues of Virgil: 
A Translation

by Virgil

"Sicilian Muses, sing a nobler music,
For orchard trees and humble tamarisks
Do not please everyone; so may your song
Be a forest worthy of a consul."

- Eclogue IV, (p 29)

These poems provide the foundation for a definition of pastoral. Virgil's book contains ten pieces, each called not an idyll but an eclogue, populated by and large with herdsmen imagined conversing and singing in largely rural settings, whether suffering or embracing revolutionary change or happy or unhappy love. They are inviting and easy to like, both attractive and intelligent. This was from early in Virgil's career and he is already an accomplished poet. The eclogues, written under the patronage of Maecenas, are called the Bucolics or country poems even though they are really highly civilized set pieces. Like much of Roman literature they look back to Greek examples, in this case that of Theocritus, the Greek poet of the third century B.C.
They highlight individual characters like Meliboeus and Tityrus in Eclogue 1. Here Virgil uses the two herdsmen to convey issues of power and its opposite. In Eclogue 2 Corydon and Alexis demonstrate the power of passion. Corydon coaxes Alexis saying, "O come and live with me in the countryside among the humble farms." (p 13)   Virgil is able to consider the result of erotic passion with some detachment through his use of homosexual passion in this country setting.  Perhaps the best known of the Eclogues is number four which foretells of a son to be born to Antony and Octavia.  Alas this event was not fated to happen and the birth prophesied would later be interpreted as one of a completely different boy, one who would have a career that outlived both the poet Virgil and Rome's empire if not her culture.
Through the eclogues as a whole there is the exploration of the idea of the nature of the pastoral, its innocence and seeming edenic being in comparison with the urban life of Virgil and most of his audience. In David Ferry's beautiful translation these verses come alive in a contemporary idiom. As Michael Dirda has said, this is a "volume to buy, read , and treasure."

The Eclogues of Virgil, A translation by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1999

Frankenstein on Stage

a new play by Nick Dear
based on the novel by Mary Shelley

The final performance of Frankenstein at the National Theatre in London was on 2 May 2011.  However, I was fortunate to attend a video broadcast of the play on Tuesday last.  Urgent concerns of scientific responsibility, parental neglect, cognitive development and the nature of good and evil are embedded within this thrilling and deeply disturbing classic Gothic tale.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was adapted for the stage by Nick Dear and realised by Danny Boyle.
Victor Frankenstein, played by Benedict Cumberbatch,  followed nature into her lair, and stripped her of her secrets!
"I brought torrents of light to a darkening world! Is that wrong?"
 In Nick Dear's adaptation the Creature is childlike in his innocence but grotesque in form, he is cast out into a hostile universe by his horror-struck maker. Meeting with cruelty wherever he goes, the friendless Creature, increasingly desperate and vengeful, determines to track down his creator and strike a terrifying deal.  In the presentation I saw the amazing Jonny Lee Miller as the creature.  This fascinating production originally was performed with Benedict and Jonny alternating the roles as creature and creator.
Having recently read the original novel I found the adaptation truly captured the essence of the Creature's dilemma.  All he asked was the possibility of love!  And it portrayed the denial of the creature by Frankenstein and his subsequent travails in a way that was also true to the novel.  Combined with some astounding production effects which could have overwhelmed lesser actors this production was exceptionally effective.  When the Creature speaks the following to Victor's bride, Elizabeth, it is a chilling theatrical moment that takes your breath away.
"Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Living with Olympians

The Tongue Set Free
by Elias Canetti

"My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: "Show me your tongue." I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue. He says: "Now we'll cut off his tongue." I don’t dare pull back my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: "Not today, tomorrow." He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket…." (p 3)

Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born on this day in 1905. Canetti’s reputation as a polyglot and polymath can be traced to his cultured upbringing and cosmopolitan travels — born in Bulgaria, raised in Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt, most of his working life spent in London. The hero of his most famous novel, Auto-da-Fé, is a reclusive, book-loving scholar, a man easily entrapped and destroyed by his small-minded and self-centered antagonists. Published as Europe slid into WWII, the book is often read as a voice of warning, as is the later Crowds and Power, perhaps Canetti’s most famous book. This is an anthropological-philosophical study which finds a herd-animal pathology behind many cultural events and social groups.
In his autobiographical writing, Canetti made no apologies for being an outspoken individualist. “My chief trait,” he writes in Party in the Blitz, memoirs covering his years in England, “much my strongest quality, which has never been compromised, was the insistence on myself.”
His memoir spans three volumes of which The Tongue Set Free is the first.  In this premiere look at his early life, subtitled "Remembrance of a European Childhood" he presents the years from 1905 to 1921 in chapters based on his residences:  Ruschuk, Manchester, Vienna, finally Zurich.  The opening paragraph, quoted above, suggests that Canetti was destined to take speaking up as his life-theme.  But his education was of primary interest to me.  It was broad and classical in one sense and reflective of his changing abodes over the years before and after the Great War.  By the time he was in his teens in Zurich he was already a writer, having written a play, Junius Brutus, a tragedy in five acts.  But he also studied music and this paragraph from the section "Among Great Men":

"It was a wonderful life that I led with these great men.  All nations were represented, and all fields.  I knew a little about the musicians already;  I was taking piano lessons and going to concerts.  There was Bach Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert.  I had witnessed the impact of the Saint Matthew Passion on Mother.  As for the others, I could already play pieces of theirs and heard them as well . . . Socrates was there, Plato,  Aristotle, and Kant.  There were mathematicians, physicists, and chemists, and naturalists that I had never heard of.  Scheuchzerstrasse, the street we lived on, was named after one of them; and the calendar fairly teemed with inventors.  I can scarcely describe how rich this Olympus was."(p 196)
The Tongue Set Free by Elias Canetti, trans. by Joachim Neugroschel. Continuum, 1979 (1977)

Monday, July 23, 2012

What is your substance . . .

Sonnet for Today

The limits of beauty discussed in this sonnet are defined by the ideal of Helen and Adonis.  Whether the youthful beauty of Adonis, the handsome youth loved by Aphrodite, or the eternal beauty of Helen, daughter of Zeus and immortal through the ages both as a demi-goddess and as a beauty the poem suggests a participation of these in the human beauty of the "shadow of your beauty".  
From my recent reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein I thought immediately of the "Creature" upon reading the opening couplet of this sonnet.  The creature, while in possession of neither youthful nor eternal beauty did possess the ethereal nature to raise questions like this in the mind of his creator.  

Sonnet #53


What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,

But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Beyond any Text or Texture

Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov
Further Thoughts:
Textual Conundrums

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme; 
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
(Pale Fire, the poem, Canto Three, lines 806-10)

We learn in the commentary to Pale Fire (pp 57-230, inclusive) that the poet, John Shade, is a magician with words.  His poem is full of subtle puns like the one in lines 727-728.   The commentator explains, "The subtle pun here turns on two additional meanings of 'shade' besides the obvious synonym of 'nuance.'  The doctor is made to suggest that not only did Shade retain in his trance half of his identity but that he was also half a ghost."(p 194)
But the commentator cannot leave it there and he is compelled to add this final sentence:
"Knowing the particular medical man who treated my friend at the time, I venture to add that he is far too stodgy to have displayed any such wit."  And the commentator is playing loose with the definition of friend as his friendship with Shade stretches only as far as his obsession with the poet allows. 

Beyond the punning, this 'novel' is rife with what are referred to as "Contrapuntal pyrotechnics". (p 194)  This reader found that the components of the novel were unlike any I have encountered in my extensive reading experience, namely:  The "Foreword" (pp 9-22) jumps back and forth between a traditional introduction and commentary on the narrator's personal life;  The poem "Pale Fire" (pp 23-56) is an apparently straightforward poem in four Cantos, but it is missing its final line.  According to the Commentator, the missing line is supposed to be the same as the first line, but the poet was dead when the commentary was written so this cannot be confirmed.  Further, the "Commentary" which is more than seven times as long as the poem is primarily the story of the assassination of the King of Zembla, the connection to the poem of this tale is dubious; finally, the "Index" (p 231-39) is self-reflexive and has almost no relevance to the poem, being primarily useful in deconstructing the life of Kinbote, the narrator.  
If that were all the issues, nay conundrums, facing the reader it would be a complex text.  It is however filled with "topsy-turvical coincidence" and is beyond any text or texture of writing that I have ever seen.

Sunday Morning Run

Running, Detritus, and Music
"the Running Path and the Path of Life"

Socks and shirts and sandals or running shoes.  All of these and more comprise just some of the detritus that litters the side of the running path I follow on my Sunday morning run.  My own shoes safely attached to my feet make my running a breeze but what of the detritus?  What does it mean?  What of these things that litter the path - my way - singly, not in pairs?  Who were their owners and why were they orphaned and forgotten by the side of the path?  My thoughts seem torn between music and speculation on what's left in the park early in the morning between light and dark.  I've meditated before on the lake and the stars.  The moon is my favorite when it still appears on the horizon before disappearing only to return in the evening when I'm seldom there to cheer it on.

There are few who join me in the early morn and many who do venture out whisk by on their bikes leaving me the airy entrails of their passing.  Some, the runners passing in the opposite direction sometimes even say hello, but that is rare, and before long I am going in their direction - it is no longer my opposite.  All the while I am ensconced in my personal musical world.  In this I enjoy what Gustav Mahler thought was a world where thoughts are fresher, deeper, and more accurate for having been embodied in music.  In that he meant that music can cut though to the inner personality in a way more familiar and, perhaps, worn out words may not.  To the extent that music embodies emotions, and that is to a great extent, it can be an internal motivator or perhaps just a companion on the trail.  Along with the moon music may allow the runner to engage his body in a spiritual quest along the path - the running path and the path of life.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Let him become Man

A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Canticle for Leibowitz

“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they became with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier to see something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”   ― Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

With references to Dante and the Roman Catholic liturgy, among others, this is an uncommon example of speculative fiction. Combining post-apocalyptic history with three sections set centuries apart in the distant future the reader begins to encounter science fiction in the form of spaceships that can travel beyond the solar system only in the final of the three novellas that form the body of this novel. A Canticle for Liebowitz is one of few science fiction novels that have religion as a primary focus. That it is able to provide the depth of character and levels of meaning that transcend the genre explains its standing in popularity and its well-deserved Hugo Award more than fifty years ago.
The structure of the novel is tripartite with novella-length sections each focused on a small portion of future history each of which indicates the direction that mankind has come in the centuries since the previous section and what direction may be expected in the following centuries. The story begins about six hundred years in the future and each of the subsequent sections are about six hundred years further in the future.
The first section, "Fiat Homo" (let him become man),  is the longest and seemingly the simplest story, focusing on a novitiate, Brother Francis Gerard, in the southwestern desert of what was once the United States. His discovery of artifacts that may be relics of Isaac Edward Liebowitz, the founder of the order to which Brother Gerard belongs, sets off a chain of events culminating in the Sainthood of Liebowitz and in a journey of discovery and heroism for Brother Gerard. While the emphasis is very much on the spiritual life of Gerard and the Order, there is also a focus on history and historiography that plays out like a detective story allowing the reader to identify some of what has happened to the World since the end of the Twentieth Century. The succeeding two sections each bring history forward very slowly, first showing the rise of science and its battles with Christendom in the Thirty-second century, and then portraying the inevitable (or not) repetition of history in the final section, "Fiat Voluntas Tua" (thy will be done).
Cyclic in its portrayal of history, the novel can be frustrating and pessimistic in outlook or positive in its picture of progress, depending on the views of the reader, and his particular religious views. The second section, "Fiat Lux" (let there be light) was the most intriguing and inspirational for this reader as the discovery of the method for producing artificial light by one of the Brothers was portrayed in a manner that echoed the narrative of Henry Adams famous chapter, "The Dynamo and the Virgin", from his magnificent The Education of Henry Adams. While one of the Order of Liebowitz discovers the secret of artificial light it is a secular scientist, Thon Taddeo, who leads the world to further discoveries and represents "a new Renaissance".(p 168)
This is a rich and complex novel that rewards the careful reader (and rereader). One suggestion: The reader may need to dust off his Latin dictionary and perhaps a serious English dictionary also. Interesting both for its characters and the detail imagining of the monastic life it depicts the integration of these in a world recovering from a long sleep. In part it mirrors the actual history of the last two millenia, but the story is not simply one about the repetition of history, but a unique tale that speculates on the nature of man and his place in the universe.

A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Harper Perennial, 1986 (1959)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Quote for Today

"Each man is the bard of his own existence."
- Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain, p 283

Journey and Joy of Reading

Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye 

“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”  - J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
On this day in 1951 J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was published. Book dealers regard a signed copy of the first edition as "one of the most elusive of 20th century books." The last signed edition for sale, about fifteen years ago, was inscribed by Salinger to Harold Ross of The New Yorker; the first Salinger story that Ross bought was also the first appearance of Holden Caulfield.
The presence of literature as a natural part of the background and conversation is not surprising in Franny and Zooey, but it is, if not surprising, certainly interesting in the beginning chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist (anti-hero), Holden Caulfield, is not an example of a serious student, in fact he is being asked to leave Pencey Prep because he was flunking most of his subjects and was "not applying" himself to his schoolwork. However, he is clearly not unintelligent, but rather just uninterested in the formal academics as practiced at Pencey Prep, or the several previous schools he had successively been asked to leave. In spite of this lack of interest in his schoolwork Holden is a reader. And quite an eclectic reader in spite of his own somewhat contradictory assessment: "I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot."(p 18). Obviously, before you are one quarter of the way through the book you are aware that he is not illiterate, and that you often must be attentive to what Holden does rather than what he says, in spite of his fascinating narrative voice. It is this voice that more than anything brings this reader back to the book again and again. But, regarding his reading and choice of authors, he has good taste in literature, at least for a teenager. For I, too was taken with Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, although I found Clym Yeobright to be just as interesting, if not more, as Eustacia Vye - the heroine who Holden likes enough to want to "call old Thomas Hardy" and have a chat (how interesting that would be). Now, decades after I first read Catcher, and even more since, at about the same age as Holden I fell in love with the novels of Hardy, I find it fascinating that reading is an important aspect of the characters of J. D. Salinger, both when they are budding intellectuals and when they are merely fascinating "illiterates" on a journey of discovery.  Salinger has company in this regard as I remember that other literary favorites of mine, including David Copperfield and Philip Carey (Of Human Bondage), were also readers in their youth, escaping into literature to ease the pain of their fictional 'real' world.  Whether for discovery or escape, the journey and joy of reading is worth embracing for yourself.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Little, Brown & Co. 1951

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Henry David Thoreau

Comments on and by Thoreau

 Henry David Thoreau, was born on July 12, 1817; Thoreau went to New York to collect the remains of the Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, great-aunt to Buckminster, when she drowned off Fire Island .  The following comment is E. B. White's view of Walden:

If Thoreau has merely left us an account of a man's life in the woods, or if he had simply retreated to the woods and there recorded his complaints about society, or even if he had contrived to include both records in one essay, "Walden" would probably not have lived a hundred years.  As things turned out, Thoreau, very likely without knowing quite what he was up to, took man's relation to nature and man's dilemma in society and man's capacity for elevating his spirit and he beat these matters together, in wild free intervals of self-justification and delight, and produced an original omelet from which people can draw nourishment in a hungry day.  "Walden" is one of the first of the vitamin-enriched American dishes.  If it were a little less good than it is, or even a little less queer, it would be an abominable book. (E. B. White, "Walden--1954")

And, Thoreau himself on nature and his own self:

He is richest who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life.  If these gates of golden willows affect me, the correspond to the beauty and promise of some experiences on which I am entering.  If I am overflowing with life, and rich in experience for which I lack the expression, then nature will be my language full of poetry,--all nature will fable [sic], and every natural phenomenon be a myth.  The man of science, who is not seeking for expression but for a fact to be expressed merely, studies nature as a dead language.  I pray for such inward experience as will make nature significant. (Thoreau, Journals, May 10, 1853) (I to Myself, p 186)

Random Ruminations

On Running, Words, 
and Things

"But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."  
-  George Gordon Byron 

While out running this morning I was thinking of music and words and such.  I decided to call these thoughts ruminations after checking my trusted dictionary to make sure that was just the word that I wanted to use.  Last week I moved my OED into the living room.  I was reading Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz and too many words that I did not recognize were appearing that I was pretty sure that I could not find elsewhere.  However, my best source for definitions and clarification of words is my Webster's College Edition that I've had by my desk for almost fifty years.
When I graduated from high school I received two very practical gifts.  One was a portable Smith Corona typewriter (manual, not electric) that served me well through college and beyond, but it has been replaced by the computer on which I am composing this commentary.  I wonder how many typewriters there are these days, outside of museums.  The Smith Corona Company has survived, but merely as a supplier of thermal tapes, typing supplies and such.  That is perhaps a better fate than Wang Laboratories.  Do you remember Wang word processors?  We used them at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago where I spent two decades plus managing financial reporting and other support functions.  Following its bankruptcy Wang has been reborn as a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a Dutch telecommunications company.  This provides more evidence that Schumpeter was correct in his description of capitalism.  The other practical gift I received upon my high school graduation was the above-mentioned Webster's Collegiate dictionary.  I am still amazed, but no longer surprised at its ability to answer almost every question about words that I encounter in my reading and writing.  The dust jacket wears tape that covers the scars of decades of use, but the pages are intact and still deliver the linguistic answers when I turn them over.
But I started these ruminations with a comment about running and music and it is that to which I turn in conclusion.  I like to reflect on music as I run and this morning I started with a particularly appropriate reference to the main theme from the first movement of Mahler's first symphony.  To those who know this work, or the song on which it is based, it is a wonderful melody for walking or running, slowly as I am want to do, in the park.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tone Poem for Baritone and Orchestra

Sea Drift
by Frederick Delius

"Music is an outburst of the soul."
-  Frederick Delius

A beautifully moving, but rarely heard composition, is Frederick Delius's setting of "Sea Drift" (from Walt Whitman's poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"). It's scored for solo baritone, chorus and orchestra and tells, touchingly, of a young boy watching two sea birds who have clearly bonded for life. Then, one day, the she-bird flies away never to return. The male waits for his mate singing his forlorn lament to the moon, the stars and the sea. The rich baritone part is a perfect example of the blend of words and music. The two choral works, "Songs of Farewell" and "Songs of Sunset"  Delius's musical voice was one of the most original, Sea Drift is among the larger-scale musical works that he composed.  He completed it in 1903-1904 and it was first performed in 1906.
Sea Drift takes its name from a section of Walt Whitman's poetical compilation Leaves of Grass which contains several poems about the sea or the shore.  While the text is drawn from the poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, it does not use the full text.  In a long section usually printed in italics, the he-bird, unable to leave in case his mate should return and find him gone, waits forever and calls his sorrowful song to the moon, the stars and the sea, which are heavy and drooping with his lost love.  The text employed by Delius closes with the gull's apostrophe, 'translated' by the boy, who seems to understand it, or projects it from his own awakening feelings. The poem however continues to explain how the boy's feelings suddenly burst out tumultuously, and he ran weeping down to the sea in the moonlight as the gull's call unlocked the questions in his own heart. Knowing that he will never escape the unknown want aroused in him, 'the sweet hell within', he begs for some word more of understanding.
The unhurrying sea
'Lisp'd to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous'd child's heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.'

If you like this work by Delius you might enjoy his Piano Concerto or his Florida Suite.

Sea Drift by Frederick Delius.  Bryn Terfel with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dangerous Knowledge


“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.”  - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

A Fantastic Story.
Fantastic, filled with both vivid emotions and exciting action, Mary Shelley's story of the haunted Victor Frankenstein, and his creation who does the haunting, still stirs the soul. Just as Goethe's Faust sought the secrets of arcane knowledge, Victor Frankenstein engages in the secrets of both licit and illicit science to bring a being to life. Once this is accomplished he immediately rues his action and spends the rest of the novel trying through a variety of means to atone for his mistake.
The novel is a classic tale of the uncanny which, according to the novelist and critic David Lodge, invariably use "I" narrators, imitating documentary forms of discourse like confessions, letters and depositions to make events more credible. Beginning with letters from Robert Walton, whose own search for the source of the magnetic north pole mirrors Victor Frankenstein's quest, the first book of the novel relates Victor Frankenstein's narrative of his youth and education.  It surely was more than coincidental that Victor attended University at Ingolstad which was heralded as the original site of the Faust legends that Goethe adapted for his immensely influential drama.

'Monster' or 'Creature'?
The center of the novel continues Victor's story and that of his creation, the monster.  At least that is what he calls his creation.  While it is monstrous in the sense that it is larger than normal human size it is a creature made of human parts and, we find after some intervening events in Victor's life that the creature has some very human traits like the need for companionship -- one that is not met by his creator.  Victor's emotions seem to swing from the the heights of elation to the depths of despair coloring his actions and clouding his reason;  in fact he is very much a loner, seemingly recusing himself from society, first at Ingolstad and later as he roams Switzerland.   I found the monster's narration to be the most persuasive of the two. He pleads with Victor, " Remember, that I am thy creature:  I ought to be thy Adam;  but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed."(p 66)  Victor  is unable to satisfy him and the monster who searches for acceptance throughout attempts to exert power over his creator as he tells him, "You are my creator, but I am your master; -obey!"(p 116) His words and actions only serve to speed the descent of Victor.
I saw the monster as a classic example of  "the other", a precursor to modern images much as those found in Kafka.  The action builds effectively through the third book of the novel building suspense and leading to an ending that involves a triangle of relationships between Victor, the creature, and Robert Walton whose narrative in letters bookends the tale. The power of the book, however, remains in the questions it raises; questions that we are dealing with to this day.

“Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures.”  ― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

2012 Sci-Fi Challenge for July
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Norton Critical Edition, 1996 (1918)

Sunday, July 08, 2012

My Favorite Novel

The Man Without Qualities
The Man Without Qualities 

“…. by the time they have reached the middle of their life’s journey, few people remember how they have managed to arrive at themselves, at their amusements, their point of view, their wife, character, occupation and successes, but they cannot help feeling that not much is likely to change anymore. It might even be asserted that they have been cheated, for one can nowhere discover any sufficient reason for everything’s coming about as it has. It might just have well as turned out differently. The events of people’s lives have, after all, only to the last degree originated in them, having generally depended on all sorts of circumstances such as the moods, the life or death of quite different people, and have, as it were, only at the given point of time come hurrying towards them”  ― Robert Musil

A comic novel. A modern novel. A novel of ideas and more. This is without a doubt my favorite novel and one that both encapsulates and foreshadows the the development of the modern condition. Musil's scientific mind is able to present a humanistic view of the world of Ulrich and the rest of the characters that inhabit this novel. Continuously inventive and invigorating for the reader, the writing is so precise and the argument Musil makes about Ulrich and his situation so intricate that it is intellectually and aesthetically involving even before it becomes emotionally so.

On rereading Musil I have come to an appreciation of why he may have found it so difficult to complete the project, for his protagonist, Ulrich - the man without qualities - was so definitely a man who considered the unlimited number of possibilities before acting. As Musil said, "What is seemingly solid in this system becomes a porous pretext for many possible meanings; . . . and man as the quintessence of his possibilities, potential man,"(p. 270); the task before him must have seemed daunting. The result - he left thousands of pages of manuscript unfinished, unedited, unpublished at his death.

At the end of the first volume of The Man Without Qualities Ulrich has just learned of his father's death and is seen heading for the train station to return home to attend to his duties. This is an ending of sorts, at least for this seven hundred page prelude to the remainder of the novel. It is a prelude that includes introductions to a roster of characters who, unlike Ulrich, portray characteristics that place them definitely in 1913 Vienna where we find most of them participating in a centennial celebration referred to as the 'Parallel Campaign'. Beside this campaign we also see glimmerings of the rise of the 'new' Germany that would emerge after the Great War which remains only, an unmentioned, possibility.

Through the whole of the first volume Ulrich both meditates internally and interacts with the other characters regarding the nature of this world and its activities and, most importantly, the possibilities facing him - the 'what if' or subjunctive nature of life. This can be summarized briefly as a discussion of the difference between the precise measurement of the modern scientific view of man and the imprecision of the artistic or more spiritual view. The society presented in the novel is particular, yet universal and in that society Ulrich is the most universal individual. As the first volume of this rather uneventful story edges toward its close suddenly several events erupt to bring some of the action into focus. These lead to a moment where Musil brings Ulrich and the reader face to face to contemplate "the narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings,". This mode of thought may give one the "impression that their life has a 'course' (that) is somehow their refuge from chaos." (p. 709) Or we may believe that it is not an impression, but a reality made through our creation of our own life through our actions and influences ("Man is not a teaching animal but one that lives, acts, and influences." - Goethe).

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999 (1933)

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Solitude and Stoicism

Notes on Walden, IV
"strange liberty in Nature"

"Thoreau was most himself when he was Diogenes."
- Guy Davenport, "Concord Sonata" p 53
"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."
- Walden, p 330
I read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius a couple of years ago and found in them some suggestions for living the stoic life that had appeal to my way of thinking. Marcus Aurelius was steeped in the thoughts of the Greek and Roman stoics who, starting with Zeno, focused on the search for a firm support for the moral life. How should I live? was the great and overriding question for them. Following on from Zeno and Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius saw the importance of philosophical inquiry lay in its significance for the moral life. He said, “Always think of the universe as one living organism with a single substance and a single soul.” This leads to the basic Stoic perception that “there is a law which governs the course of nature and should govern human actions.”(Meditations, p 73)
Since Stoicism held, centrally, that there is one law for man and nature, it follows that one might indeed study nature in order to learn that law for men. Again, from Marcus Aurelius we read, “Reserve your right to any deed or utterance that accords with nature. Do not be put off bey the criticisms or comments that may follow . . . those who criticize you have their own reason to guide them, and their own impulse to prompt them; you must not let your eyes stray towards them but keep a straight course and follow your own nature and the World Nature (and the way of these two is one).”(Meditations, p 75)
Much of Stoic writing evinces a gladness or joy that defies the stereotypical view of Stoicism as represented by the stiff upper lip. “O world,” says Marcus, “I am in tune with every note of thy great harmony. For me nothing is early, nothing late, if it be timely for thee.” (Meditations, p 68)  But the most important aspect of Stoicism as it relates to the enterprise of Thoreau and his friends was the insistence on the primacy of the individual and upon things which lie within the reach of each individual will. “No matter to what solitudes banished, I have always been the favorite of fortune. For Fortune's favor is the man who awards her good gifts to himself,” said Marcus. (Meditations, p 90)
According to his biographer Robert Richardson, Thoreau does not mention Marcus Aurelius. He certainly does not appear in my reading of Walden. Yet we have statements like “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”(p 326) And in Thoreau's case the source of the different drummer was the music of the spheres, Nature herself.  We read in the chapter titled "Solitude":
“I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me.”(p 129)
Ellery Channing commented that Thoreau had a natural Stoicism, “not taught from Epictetus” or anyone else.( Channing, p. 11) Thoreau's thought had a strong ethical center. He was focused on how best he could lead his daily life and the best source for our morality is Nature. Thoreau literally lived the life of the natural Stoic.

Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist by William Ellery Channing. Charles E. Goodspeed, Boston. 1902
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics, 2006
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 2004 (1971)
“Concord Sonata” in The Death of Picasso by Guy Davenport. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003

Friday, July 06, 2012

A Commonplace Entry


While we were enjoying unlimited vistas, we noticed a commotion on the water at some distance to our left and, somewhat nearer on our right, a rock rising out of the sea; one was Charybdis, the other Scylla.  Because of the considerable distance in nature between these two objects which the poet has placed so close together, people have accused poets of fibbing.  What they fail to take into account is that the human imagination always pictures the objects it considers significant as tall and narrower that they really are, for this gives them more character, importance and dignity.  A thousand times I have heard people complain that some object they had known only from a description was disappointing when seen in reality, and the reason was always the same.  Imagination is to reality what poetry is to prose:  the former will always think of objects as massive and vertical, the latter will always try to extend them horizontally.
- Goethe

as quoted in A Certain World, A Commonplace Book by W. H. Auden. The Viking Press, 1970, p 201

Around the World

Around the World in Eighty Days
Around the World in Eighty Days

“A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager.”
― Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days

I read this novel many years ago when I was attending what the French might call the Ecole Junior. It was the beginning of my love affair with Verne's novels. In 1872 Phileas Fogg wagers that he can circle the earth in eighty days; and traveling by steamer, railway, carriage, sledge, and elephant he wins his bet in seventy-nine days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-seven minutes. Verne builds the suspense and populates the book with strange places and characters which inspire wonder in both young readers and old.
 I became entranced by Phileas Fogg and especially his valet Jean Passepartout. His name translates literally to "Goes-Everywhere", but means "skeleton key" in French.  At the beginning of the novel, Passepartout has just been hired by Phileas Fogg after Fogg's previous valet failed to meet his exacting standards. Passepartout, who has lived an irregular and well-travelled life, is looking forward to a restful employment, as Fogg is known for his regular habits which never take him farther afield than the Reform Club.
Ironically, on Passepartout's first day at work, Fogg makes a bet with his friends at the Club that he can circumnavigate the world in no more than eighty days and Passepartout is obliged to accompany him.
All of the action of these wonderful characters made the book difficult to put down. While its science may be dated in this age of space shuttles as an entertaining adventure tale I would recommend this to dreamers and readers of all ages.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Penguin Classics, 2004 (1873)

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Thoreau - Poetic Tribute

"Thoreau's Flute"

Thoreau says that while living in his cabin he taught a mouse to come to the sound of his flute. The flute is now in the Concord Museum, Thoreau's and his father's names carved into it. Louisa May Alcott's poetic tribute to Thoreau is called "Thoreau's Flute":

    We sighing said, "Our Pan is dead;
    His pipe hangs mute beside the river
    Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
    But Music's airy voice is fled.
    Spring mourns as for untimely frost;
    The bluebird chants a requiem;
    The willow-blossom waits for him;
    The Genius of the wood is lost."
    Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
    There came a low, harmonious breath:
    "For such as he there is no death;
    His life the eternal life commands;
    Above man's aims his nature rose.
    The wisdom of a just content
    Made one small spot a continent
    And tuned to poetry life's prose....
    "To him no vain regrets belong
    Whose soul, that finer instrument,
    Gave to the world no poor lament,
    But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
    O lonely friend! he still will be
    A potent presence, though unseen,
    Steadfast, sagacious, and serene;
    Seek not for him -- he is with thee." 

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

House-Warming & Friendship

Notes on Walden, III

"The perfect friendship I speak of is indivisible; each one gives himself so entirely to his friend, that he has nothing left to distribute to others: on the contrary, is sorry that he is not double, treble, or quadruple, and that he has not many souls and many wills, to confer them all upon this one object.  Common friendships will admit of division; one may love the beauty of this person, the good-humour of that, the liberality of a third, the paternal affection of a fourth, the fraternal love of a fifth, and so of the rest:  but this friendship that possesses the whole soul, and there rules and sways with an absolute sovereignty, cannot possibly admit of a rival.  If two at the same time should call to you for succour, to which of them would you run?  Should they require of you contrary offices, how could you serve them both?  Should one commit a thing to your silence that it were of importance to the other to know, how would you disengage yourself?  A unique and particular friendship dissolves all other obligations whatsoever: the secret I have sworn not to reveal to any other, I may without perjury communicate to him who is not another, but myself.  'Tis miracle enough certainly, for a man to double himself, and those that talk of tripling, talk they know not of what.  Nothing is extreme, that has its like; and he who shall suppose, that of two, I love one as much as the other, that they mutually love one another too, and love me as much as I love them, multiplies into a confraternity the most single of units, and whereof, moreover, one alone is the hardest thing in the world to find. " (Montaigne, "Of Friendship" I, 27) 

I have a gas fireplace in the living-room of my apartment and it provides warmth on cold winter mornings and other times as well.  However the warmth that it exudes does not come close to that of the wood-fired fireplace of my friend and scholar, Stephen.  Whether it is the knowledge that the fire is fed by wood that was prepared by his hands, the camaraderie we have experienced, or the warmth of our friendship, the mornings I have spent with him and his partner Walter in front of their fireplace, are of a more ethereal level of of warmth.  The difference I have experienced between these two fires seems much like that described by Thoreau when he switched to the use of a small cooking-stove for reasons of economy in the second winter of his stay at Walden Pond:
"The next winter I used a small cooking-stove for economy, since I did not own the forest; but it did not keep fire so well as the open fireplace. Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic, but merely a chemic process. It will soon be forgotten, in these days of stoves, that we used to roast potatoes in the ashes, after the Indian fashion. The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion. You can always see a face in the fire. The laborer, looking into it at evening, purifies his thoughts of the dross and earthiness which they have accumulated during the day. But I could no longer sit and look into the fire, and the pertinent words of a poet recurred to me with new force." -- (pp 254-55)
"Never, bright flame, may be denied to me
Thy dear, life imaging, close sympathy.
What but my hopes shot upward e'er so bright?
What but my fortunes sunk so low in night?
Why art thou banished from our hearth and hall,
Thou who art welcomed and beloved by all?
Was thy existence then too fanciful
For our life's common light, who are so dull?
Did thy bright gleam mysterious converse hold
With our congenial souls? secrets too bold?

Well, we are safe and strong, for now we sit
Beside a hearth where no dim shadows flit,
Where nothing cheers nor saddens, but a fire
Warms feet and hands -- nor does to more aspire;
By whose compact utilitarian heap
The present may sit down and go to sleep,
Nor fear the ghosts who from the dim past walked,
And with us by the unequal light of the old wood fire talked."
- Poem by Ellen Sturgis Hooper

But what of friendship?  Is it based on the indivisibility between two people as Montaigne maintains in his essay quoted above?  If it is, Thoreau's relationship with the poet, William Ellery Channing, was an example that would support Montaigne's opinion.  His was much like the nature of friendship described by Aristotle in Book VIII of his Ethics, saying it was made of both "equality" and "virtue" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1158b12, 1170b14).  Thoreau welcomed his best friend, Ellery Channing, to his cabin as the weather was cooling.  He was the nephew of Dr. William Ellery Channing and he also appears as the poet at the beginning of the chapter "Brute Neighbors." They loved to laugh and make jokes, and the description in "Brute Neighbors" is intentionally deceiving. Channing's best claim to fame was his biography of Thoreau.
" I took a poet to board for a fortnight about those times, which caused me to be put to it for room. He brought his own knife, though I had two, and we used to scour them by thrusting them into the earth. He shared with me the labors of cooking. I was pleased to see my work rising so square and solid by degrees, and reflected, that, if it proceeded slowly, it was calculated to endure a long time. "(p 241)
And again as Winter descended on the woods and pond he received visitors, most prominently Channing who returned to continue his friendship.  The combination of "boisterous mirth" with "sober talk" suggests the sort of relationship that can only be explained by the closeness of two equals.
"The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love. Who can predict his comings and goings? His business calls him out at all hours, even when doctors sleep. We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk, making amends then to Walden vale for the long silences. Broadway was still and deserted in comparison. At suitable intervals there were regular salutes of laughter, which might have been referred indifferently to the last-uttered or the forth-coming jest. We made many a "bran new" theory of life over a thin dish of gruel, which combined the advantages of conviviality with the clear-headedness which philosophy requires."(pp 267-68)
But Thoreau did not only share his hearth with Channing for Bronson Alcott also joined him in winter reveries.  Alcott, who was born poor and self-educated had worked as a peddler in Virginia.  Most know him only as the father of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women, partially based on her childhood. Among the Transcendentalists he tended to be the most radical in his views and the least able to accomplish anything. Perry Miller, in The American Transcendentalists, says "... no figure more invited ridicule than the gentle, dreamy, abstracted, utterly unworldly Bronson Alcott." "And yet, though he took no thought for the morrow, blithely let himself be supported by the labor of his wife, and in his last years basked contentedly in the prosperity brought by his daughter's books, he all the time showed himself a shrewd judge of men, a keen analyst of politics, [and] a competent carpenter (when he chose to be)..."( The American Transcendentalists, pp 85-86)
"I should not forget that during my last winter at the pond there was another welcome visitor, who at one time came through the village, through snow and rain and darkness, till he saw my lamp through the trees, and shared with me some long winter evenings. One of the last of the philosophers, -- Connecticut gave him to the world, -- he peddled first her wares, afterwards, as he declares, his brains. These he peddles still, prompting God and disgracing man, bearing for fruit his brain only, like the nut its kernel. I think that he must be the man of the most faith of any alive. His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve. He has no venture in the present. But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect, and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice. --       "How blind that cannot see serenity!"(p 268)

Never the solitary hermit that some have subsequently imagined him to be, Thoreau would not hestitate to visit the town if there were no visitors forthcoming.
"There too, as everywhere, I sometimes expected the Visitor who never comes. The Vishnu Purana says, "The house-holder is to remain at eventide in his courtyard as long as it takes to milk a cow, or longer if he pleases, to await the arrival of a guest." I often performed this duty of hospitality, waited long enough to milk a whole herd of cows, but did not see the man approaching from the town."(p 270)

Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 2004 (1971, 1854)
The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry ed. by Perry Miller. Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957
The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne, M.A. Screech (Translator). Penguin Classics, 1993 (1580)
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, Martin Ostwald (Translator).  Prentice Hall/Simon & Schuster, 1962 (350 BC) 

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Your Reading Life

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods
The Intellectual Life: 
Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods

"To speak is to listen to one's soul and to the truth within it.  To speak alone and wordlessly, as one does by writing, is to listen and perceive with a freshness of sensation like that of a man who rises in the early morning and holds his ear to nature." (p 200)

This is a book devoted to the intellectual life as a vocation.  It is in great part spiritual, but also practical and in its essence it demonstrates, I believe, the two are not at odds.  If at least part of your purpose in reading is to improve yourself this is a book that is for you. The title sounds imposing and the intellectual life is not for everyone, but if you take the time, and this is a short book, to consider the practical recommendations in this classic work you are likely to find aspects of the book that will prove useful in your reading life.  Also, do not be deterred by the mystical assumptions and aphorisms for "noble" minds may find the spiritual in themselves and nature.  This short book presents chapters on organization of one's work, time, and life.  However, the best chapter for me was chapter seven, "Preparation for Work", which focused on reading, memory, and note-taking. His recommendation for reading is to read little, but by that he means thinking about what you read rather than picking up just any book willy-nilly. More importantly he distinguishes between types of reading:
"One reads for one's formation and to become somebody; one reads in view of a particular task; one reads to acquire a habit of work and the love of what is good; one reads for relaxation."
It is up to the individual to decide how to allocate his reading time among these four areas and the author is primarily interested in promoting the first three kinds of reading. This is a good example of the type of practical advice that readers and thinkers may glean from this book. I found it both entertaining and educational and may return to it as my intellectual life progresses.  Perhaps the following quotation from the book is the best way to present the purpose and tone that imbues the spirit of the text:

“It is a painful thing to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of our homage to the truth.” 

The Intellectual Life by A. G. Sertillanges.  Catholic University of America Press, 1998 (1934)