Friday, May 31, 2013

Poetry for Spring


Blossoms cover the ground
From lilacs in the morning
Spring slowly fades away

by James Henderson,
 The Kingdom of Music, 2013

Poetry for Today

It has been raining every day for the past week.  I chose short poems, haiku by Bashu, as appropriate for the rainy end of May.  The three spring poems from Bashu create a trilogy of beauty.

Matsuo Bashō was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (at the time called hokku). His poetry is internationally renowned, and in Japan many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites. Although Bashō is justifiably famous in the west for his hokku, he himself believed his best work lay in leading and participating in renku. He is quoted as saying, “Many of my followers can write hokku as well as I can. Where I show who I really am is in linking haikai verses.”
Bashō was introduced to poetry at a young age, and after integrating himself into the intellectual scene of Edo (modern Tokyo), he quickly became well known throughout Japan. He made a living as a teacher, but renounced the social, urban life of the literary circles and was inclined to wander throughout the country, heading west, east, and far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing. His poems were influenced by his firsthand experience of the world around him, often encapsulating the feeling of a scene in a few simple elements.


Spring rain
dripping down the wasps' nest.
from the leaking roof

The moss pure spring

beginning to melt,
with the mountains as always
at daybreak

In my home village, having sown seeds of the three vegetables in
my brother's garden

spring rain ---
just beginning to sprout,
eggplant seedlings

Basho's Haiku: Selected poems of  Matsuo Basho. David Landis Barnhill, trans. SUNY Press, 2004

Monday, May 27, 2013

Two Disappointing Views

Escape from FreedomEscape from Freedom
by Erich Fromm

“If the meaning of life has become doubtful, if one's relations to others and to oneself do not offer security, then fame is one means to silence one's doubts. It has a function to be compared with that of the Egyptian pyramids or the Christian faith in immortality: it elevates one's individual life from its limitations and instability to the plane of indestructability; if one's name is known to one's contemporaries and if one can hope that it will last for centuries, then one's life has meaning and significance by this very reflection of it in the judgments of others.”  ― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

Fromm's book explores over a few short chapters humanity's shifting relationship with freedom, with particular regard to the personal consequences of its absence. Its special emphasis is the psychosocial conditions that facilitated the rise of Nazism. Fromm distinguishes between 'freedom from' (negative freedom) and 'freedom to' (positive freedom). The former refers to emancipation from restrictions such as social conventions placed on individuals by other people or institutions. This is the kind of freedom typified by the Existentialism of Sartre, and has often been fought for historically, but according to Fromm, on its own it can be a destructive force unless accompanied by a creative element, 'freedom to' the use of freedom to employ spontaneously the total integrated personality in creative acts. This, he argues, necessarily implies a connectedness with others that goes beyond the superficial bonds of conventional social intercourse: " the spontaneous realization of the self, man unites himself anew with the world..."
Freedom, argues Fromm, became an important issue in the 20th century, being seen as something to be fought for and defended. As 'freedom from- is not an experience we enjoy in itself, Fromm suggests that many people, rather than utilising it successfully, attempt to minimise its negative effects by developing thoughts and behaviours that provide some form of security. Fromm suggests that Fascism may arise anywhere a people devolve their thinking on authorities rather than doing it themselves: "The right to express our thoughts ... means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own". In this he echoes Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his 1840 book Democracy in America stated "It is vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity."

To Have or to Be? The Nature of the PsycheTo Have or to Be? 
The Nature of the Psyche
by Erich Fromm

“Our conscious motivations, ideas, and beliefs are a blend of false information, biases, irrational passions, rationalizations, prejudices, in which morsels of truth swim around and give the reassurance albeit false, that the whole mixture is real and true. The thinking processes attempt to organize this whole cesspool of illusions according to the laws of plausibility. This level of consciousness is supposed to reflect reality; it is the map we use for organizing our life.”  ― Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche

Fromm states that people in our society have become obsessed with acquiring property, keeping it and increasing it. People become property to be owned and used. He rejects the ideas of the enlightenment and those thinkers who believe people can live freely and trade with one another maintaining a respect for each other through sharing mutual values. His views about people seem to stem from a static view of power rather than a dynamic view of the possibilities for individuals who choose to live a flourishing life. He claims that humans have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, yet he does not explain the apparent contradiction between this view and the social structure that forces people to have rather than to be. Joy is experienced through productive behavior which, for Fromm often ends in sadness. It was disappointing to read a book that was contradictory on so many levels.

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Magnificent stories of Nature and Man

Sketches from a Hunter's AlbumSketches from a Hunter's Album
by Ivan Turgenev

"It is a remarkably pleasant occupation, to be on one's back in a forest and look upwards!  It seems that you are looking into a bottomless sea, that it is stretching out far and wide below you, that the trees are not rising from the earth but, as if they were the roots of enormous plants, are descending or falling steeply into those lucid glassy waves, while the leaves on the trees glimmer like emeralds or thicken into a gold-tinted, almost jet-black greenery." (p 131)

In his Preface to "The Seasons" the Scottish poet James Thomson wrote, "I know no subject more elevating, more amazing, more ready to poetical enthusiasm, the philosophical reflection, and the moral sentiment than the works of nature. Where can we meet such variety, such beauty, such magnificence?"
This is a theme that runs through the Sketches From a Hunter's Album. The beauty of the sylvan glade or the summer sun glistening off the meadows flowers is brought to life by the prose of Turgenev in these vignettes. Certainly the characters are also finely drawn and include all social stratas while emphasizing the narrator's interactions with peasants and serfs. It is the latter that impress the reader by the respect and generosity with which they are treated. The combination of fascinating characters and beautiful nature writing made this book a joy to read. I found myself looking forward to the next chapter with expectation that I would be treated to another even more interesting facet of the countryside and its denizens. I was not disappointed until the end of the book and only then because I did not want it to end.

Considering this book was first published in 1852 after having appeared serially as separate sketches, it is a further wonder because the serfs would not be freed for another decade. These short stories revealed Turgenev's unique talent for story-telling. And they greatly influenced Russian short story writers into the early 20th century, including Anton Chekhov, Ivan Bunin, Alexander Kuprin and others. The stories remain fresh today, even in translation, and reward the reader with their magnificence.  But let me leave you with a quote from Turgenev himself that expresses my feelings as well:

“the deep, pure blue stirs on one’s lips a smile, innocent as itself; like the clouds over the sky, and, as it were, with them, happy memories pass in slow procession over the soul”

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Coast of Utopia, II

by Tom Stoppard

"Bakunin: The mistake is to put ideas before action. Act first ! The ideas will follow, and if not -- well it's progress. 
Herzen: Belinsky -- save me from this madness !"

The second in his Coast of Utopia trilogy, Shipwreck is a tale of the diaspora with the revolutionary idealist Michael Bakunin paired with the more tempered yet complex advocate of freedom, Alexander Herzen. Swirling around these men are other revolutionaries along with their friends, family, lovers and the complications that go along with such a diverse group.
Stoppard tries to hold the characters together as they move through a maze of vignettes. The play, like the first in the trilogy Voyage, is arranged into scenes that are mostly in chronological order moving from place to place as Herzen and Bakunin move throughout Europe. In doing so characters as diverse as Turgenev, Herwegh, Belinsky, and even Karl Marx appear on the scene. Neither Herzen nor Bakunin can return to Russia and one of the funniest scenes occurs when Herzen is in Nice (November 1851) and the Russian Consul brings him an order from Czar Nicholas I that he must return to Russia. The Consul's discomfort and attempts to persuade Herzen to accede to the Czar's request are progressively more and more ridiculous and hilarious.
But as in  Shakespearean tragedies the humor is used for comic relief.  Philosophy shares the center stage with family tragedy.  In Bakunin's case he is following what he sees as the "new religion" of Hegel and the ideal expressed in the phrase "what is real is rational".  Herzen seems to provide moderation while Belinsky tilts in various directions before deciding to oppose the Russian reality.  The propinquity of friends and family move them in new and disastrous directions as human nature takes its course.
Unlike the dreamlike quality of Voyage, Shipwreck is about the reality of their lives. Instead of finding the utopia they have been dreaming about, they discover that revolutions come with harsh penalties, and not much changes after all. In essence, this play is also about growing up. The characters began in Voyage as young men and women with hopes for the future. Their struggles were those of passionate youths hoping to make a difference. In Shipwreck, they have grown up and are now fighting to put their hopes into action. They learn the hard way that life does not always turn out the way we wish. They must face harsh realities and even death. There is a somewhat manic, frantic pace to many of the scenes in Shipwreck that underscores the characters' desperation as they yearn for political change while striving to hold onto some semblance of normalcy in their personal lives.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Alien Relations and Sheep

The Android's DreamThe Android's Dream
by John Scalzi

Here's a quick rule of thumb: Don't annoy science fiction writers. These are people who destroy entire planets before lunch. Think of what they'll do to you.” John Scalzi

This is a whimsical novel of alien foreign relations with some surprising twists that made it a delightful read. The story hangs on the relations between the Nidu alien empire and Earth. The protagonist, Harris (Harry) Creek, is an official with the State Department who specializes in dealing with aliens, particularly when the news was bad. In this case the death of a Nidu trade negotiator. The death starts the story and it quickly becomes a quest for Harry Creek to acquire a sheep of the Android's Dream breed for the coronation ceremony of the Nidu. The Nidu assert that unless a sheep can be provided, that the political and diplomatic fallout will cause the Nidu to declare war on Earth, a war Earth will lose badly. The genetically designed breed is very rare and believed extinct after a sect of Nidu intent on deposing the government exterminate all known samples, leading Harry on a chase to find one along with assistance from Brian, an AI based on Harry's childhood friend. That may sound a bit complicated but the story has more twists and turns and should please readers looking for traditional science fiction leavened with a large dose of humor. I know I enjoyed the book for that reason and enjoyed the suspenseful action until the last page.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tales of Arabian Nights

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concert

"I have already heard it. I had better not go: I will start to get accustomed to it and finally like it." Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Referring to music by Debussy. Conversations with Stravinsky 

The story of Scheherazade and the thousand and one tales she narrates is famous.  In Sir Richard Burton's translation of The Nights, Scheherazade was described in this way:
"[Scheherazade] had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred."
Against her father's wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the King. Once in the King's chambers, Scheherazade asked if she might bid one last farewell to her beloved sister, Dinazade, who had secretly been prepared to ask Scheherazade to tell a story during the long night. The King lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The King asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was not time, as dawn was breaking. So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story, and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through, at dawn. So the King again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.
And so the King kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipated the finishing of last night's story. At the end of one thousand and one nights, and one thousand stories, Scheherazade told the King that she had no more tales to tell him. During these one thousand and one nights, the King had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and had three sons with her. So, having been made a wiser and kinder man by Scheherazade and her tales, he spared her life, and made her his Queen.
Last Saturday evening the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, performed Scheherazade, the Symphonic Suite by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  The performance was stunning.  The young conductor who was leading her first CSO subscription concerto managed to bring out the detail and romantic charm of this enduring classic.  Beginning with the Violin solo, elegantly performed by Concertmaster Robert Chen, the piece imagines Sinbad's sea journey and other moments.  Linking all the movements is the theme first heard on the Violin and repeated even to the end of the final coda.  This was an exciting concert for someone like myself who has cherished this piece for almost  his whole life.
The first half of the concert included The Fair Melusina Overture by Felix Mendelssohn and The Mississippi River by Florence Price.  These were performed well but did not have the impact of the Rimsky-Korsakov.  The evening as a whole once again demonstrated the exceptional quality of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Coast of Utopia, I

by Tom Stoppard

"When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can, chaos is coming. When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets is from that moment inevitable. When reason and measurement are made authorities for the perfect society, seek sanctuary among the cannibals ..."

Why does one go on a voyage? Sometimes you voyage to return to a place where you had previously visited, but you may choose to voyage to a completely new place, adventure in the unknown and perhaps into the future. This play is about the latter type of voyage. It is about young idealists centered around the polarizing and exciting figure of Michael Bakunin. It is about his family, their domestic relationships, and his friends. Stoppard presents these characters and develops situations that demonstrate Russia in the wake of the Decembrists.

The opening scene is a dinner scene with the Bakunin family, four daughters, mother, and at the head of the table father Alexander.  He boasts of his daughters' learning and nostalgically remembers his own youthful Rousseau-based liberalism with the ghosts of the Bastille.  The return from Moscow of son Michael is the first clash demonstrating the impact of change and new ideas on tradition presented in scenes of the young idealists, including Bakunin, Belinsky, Stankevich, and Herzen, with their elders, teachers, acting in the shadow of the minions of Tsar Nicholas I.
The young idealists discuss new ideas like "transcendental idealism" and question the nature of "objective reality". The world of ideas, represented by German philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Schelling, is changing rapidly leaving Russia "Stuck between dried up old French reasoning and the new German idealism which explains everything." The philosophical response of Michael Bakunin is that "Hegel shows that objective reality cannot be ignored," while Belinsky's approach is artistic invoking Pushkin. For Belinsky "The divine spark in man is not reason after all, but something else, some kind of intuition or vision, perhaps like the moment of inspiration experienced by the artist . . ."
Belinsky's approach seems closer to that of Stoppard himself. His play, for all of its intense intellectual dialogue, is multifaceted with domestic relations among the Bakunin women mirroring the changes being discussed by the young idealistic philosophers. We gradually see the budding of the intelligentsia whose ideas would be the tinder for the coming fires of revolution, first in the rest of Europe and only later in Russia. The drama of Voyage leads the reader on a journey that raises questions on almost every page. One answer to the central questions of the play is presented by Belinsky as the play nears its end:
"Don't you bother with reading, Katya, words just lead you on. They arrange themselves every which way with no can to carry for the promises they can't keep, and off you go! "The objective world is the still unconscious poetry of the soul." What do these words mean? "The spiritual communion of beautiful souls attaining harmony with the Absolute." What do they mean? . . . Nothing, and I understood them perfectly!"

The final scene is set again at the family estate, a final farewell for old Alexander Bakunin. The stage directions even point out the old man's age again ("aged seventy six"), one more reminder to emphasize the end is nigh. Immediately his wife warns "You'll catch your death !". Oh yes, and he's watching the sunset. An age is over, and new times are coming, the voyage begun.  "The words just lead you on" and in the end you remain in a state of wonder, still seeking The Coast of Utopia.

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Grander View of Life

The Origin of SpeciesThe Origin of Species
by Charles Darwin

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows...There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whiles this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” ― Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

HMS Beagle embarked for South America with Charles Darwin on board on May 11th in 1829. Thirty years later he published The Origin of Species where he began by laying out the main principles of his theory of natural selection in the early chapters. However, Darwin devotes most of the book to defending his theory against criticisms and presenting detailed examples of how natural selection occurs. The geological record is a formidable impediment to Darwin’s theory, as the existing fossil record does not provide the “missing links” in the chains of descent that Darwin proposes. In response, Darwin argues that the geological record is imperfect and that many fossil remains have been destroyed by changes in the earth or have yet to be discovered.
Darwin also attempts to explain how variations occur in species, driving natural selection and the creation of new species. Geographical isolation is a key component of Darwin’s theory. Darwin hypothesizes that because all species originated from one or a few original beings, species needed modes of transportation to migrate between geographical areas throughout the world. Barriers such as oceans and mountain ranges restrict the ability of organisms to migrate, and the few that manage to do so play a large role in shaping the evolution of species on islands and in geographically isolated areas. Geographical isolation accounts for the plethora of unique species on islands, as well as the wider distribution of species across continents.
Darwin’s theory challenged not only the prevailing view of the independent creation of species but also larger claims of religion and science. Darwin explicitly denied the validity of natural theology, which posited that species’ adaptations to their environments was proof of their “intelligent design” by a creator. It was natural selection, not independent creation, that resulted in these adaptations, Darwin argued. Moreover, Darwin’s use of scientific methodology to prove his theory amounted to an explicit critique of naturalists who would attempt to ignore the scientific validity of his theory because of its controversial nature. While the text of The Origin of Species did leave room for religious theology, Darwin’s overall commitment to scientific rationale rather than theological reasoning pitted him against religious doctrine.
Darwin’s text sold out on the day it was published in 1859 and created both friends and enemies of the theories discussed still to this day. There have been modifications of Darwin's theory of the origin of species (notably the Mendellian synthesis that incorporated genetics into the theory), but it stands to this day as the foundation of our understanding of the evolution. Surprisingly the only time evolution is specifically mentioned is in the last paragraph of the book.
This is a great book for anyone who wants to read a classic text of science.

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

Snow from Greenland to the Future

Smilla's Sense of SnowSmilla's Sense of Snow
by Peter Høeg

“Do you know what the mathematical expression is for longing? ... The negative numbers. The formalization of the feeling that you are missing something.”  ― Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow

Danish novelist Heg's first English-language publication moves from an intimate mystery to an ever-widening circle of corruption and danger--and to even colder climes. Surly Inuit/Greenlander Smilla Jaspersen is a world-class expert on ice and snow who, since emigrating to Denmark, has gone on nine scientific expeditions to her homeland and published half a dozen highly regarded papers in scholarly journals--but she still can't hold a steady job. Isaiah Christensen, her six-year-old downstairs neighbor with a long-standing fear of heights, plunges from the roof of the White Palace, his apartment building. While the boy's body is still warm, the police pronounce his death an accident. But Smilla knows her young neighbor didn't fall from the roof on his own. With the help of another neighbor, dyslexic mechanic Peter Fjl, Smilla follows a trail from the White Palace through the Cryolite records of a fateful (and fatal) 1966 expedition, and ends up aboard the Kronos, a smuggling ship stuffed with drugs and desperate characters and bound for Greenland's Barren Glacier and a truly unimaginable cargo.

by Orhan Pamuk

“How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?”  ― Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Orhan Pamuk' s novel is set in the winter of 1992 in the city of Kars in the north-eastern part of Turkey. The story is narrated by Pamuk himself as he tells of the poet journalist Kerim Alakusoglu, known as Ka is a poet, who returns to Turkey after 12 years of political exile in Germany. He has several motives, first, as a journalist, to investigate the events surrounding a group of young women who are committing suicide rather than give up their headscarves, but also in the hope of meeting a woman he used to know. Heavy snow cuts off the town for about three days during which time Ka is in conversation with a former communist, a secularist, a fascist nationalist, a possible Islamic extremist, Islamic moderates, young Kurds, the military, the Secret Service, the police and in particular, an actor-revolutionary. In the midst of this, love and passion are to be found. This is a very contemporary story of the clash between devout Islamists and the secular state that controls Turkey. Isolating the action in the snowbound town of Kars we learn of the tensions through Ka's interviews with various citizens. Pamuk's narrative style presents a pastiche of events that blend together to form the story with both love and politics coming to the fore. The many surprises and shocks of the story kept me interested and I found new fascination for the contemporary history of Turkey. The translation by Maureen Freely, who has translated several of Pamuk's novels, is excellent.

Snow CountrySnow Country
by Yasunari Kawabata

“The road was frozen. The village lay quiet under the cold sky. Komako hitched up the skirt of her kimono and tucked it into her obi. The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice.”  ― Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country

Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country is widely considered to be the writer’s masterpiece: a powerful tale of wasted love set amid the desolate beauty of western Japan. The novel began as a single short story published in a literary journal in January 1935. Kawabata continued writing about the characters afterward, with parts of the novel ultimately appearing in five different journals before he published the the book in whole. He continued working on the novel over a period of years. Finally, in 1948, the novel reached its final form as "Snow country", a literal translation of the Japanese title "Yukiguni". The name comes from the place where the story takes place, where Shimamura arrives in a train coming through a long tunnel under the border mountains between Gunma and Niigata Prefectures. Sitting at the foot of mountains, on the north side, this region receives a huge amount of snow in winter because of the northern winds coming across the Sea of Japan. The winds accumulate moisture over the sea and deposit it as snow while running up against the mountains. The snow reaches four to five meters in depths, sometimes isolating the towns and villages in the region from others. The lonely atmosphere suggested by the title is infused throughout the book.
At an isolated mountain hot spring, with snow blanketing every surface, Shimamura, Kawabata's stark tale of a love affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a provincial geisha takes place in the town of Yuzawa. The hot springs in that region were home to inns, visited by men traveling alone and in groups, where paid female companionship had become a staple of the economy. The geisha of the hot springs enjoyed nothing like the social status of their more artistically trained sisters in Kyoto and Tokyo and were usually little more than prostitutes whose brief careers inevitably ended in a downward spiral. The liaison between the geisha, Komako, and the male protagonist, a wealthy loner who is a self-appointed expert on Western ballet, is thus doomed from the opening. The nature of that failure and the parts played by others form the theme of the book. I thrilled at the dense simplicity and sadness of Kawabata's story.

Snow CrashSnow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

“When you are wrestling for possession of a sword, the man with the handle always wins.”  ― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

In the future the only relief from the sea of logos is the computer-generated universe of virtual reality? But now a strange computer virus, called Snow Crash, is striking down hackers, leaving an unlikely young man as humankind's last hope. Like many of Stephenson's other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, mimetics, and philosophy.
Stephenson explained the title of the novel in his 1999 essay In the Beginning... was the Command Line as his term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. Stephenson wrote about the Macintosh that "When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set — a 'snow crash' ". Snow Crash established Stephenson as a major science fiction writer of the 1990s. The book appeared on Time magazine's list of 100 all-time best English-language novels written since 1923.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Grass: Four Variations

No Blade of Grass
by John Christropher

Dystopic science fiction of a high caliber.  In this chilling, prophetic novel, the end of mankind begins with a break in the ecological chain: an Asiatic virus . . . destroys the grass and grain supply of the entire world. In the ensuing panic, mass slaughter begins as nations exterminate some of their own citizens so that others might live.  It is an unusual and absorbing piece of science-fiction about the relentless transformation of England when the balance of nature is upset.

Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman

"I sing the body electric"

Whitman is today regarded as America's Homer or Dante, and his work the touchstone for literary originality in the New World. In Leaves of Grass, he abandoned the rules of traditional poetry - breaking the standard metered line, discarding the obligatory rhyming scheme, and using the vernacular. I read this most recently as part of a weekend retreat sponsored by the University of Chicago's Basic Program of Liberal Education.  The music of his poetry was present as it is in the many authors who Whitman influenced.
Emily Dickinson condemned his sexual and physiological allusions as `disgraceful', but Emerson saw the book as the `most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed'. A century later it is his judgement of this autobiographical vision of the vigour of the American nation that has proved the more enduring.

All Grass Isn't Green
by Erle Stanley Gardner  (writing under the name A. A. Fair)

Detective fiction was never better than when Gardner was in his prime.  After making his creation Perry Mason into a household name he branched out under a pseudonym.  This effort featured dope smuggling and a witness who is both more, and less, than he seems in this suspenseful tale. Donald Lam, as a detective, is in stark contrast to the fictional hard-boiled types of his era. Donald is short, weighs 130 pounds soaking wet, and gets beat up quite frequently. While he does get into several fistfights, he loses all but one — a single fistfight against an insurance investigator in Double or Quits. It should be noted that this was only after taking boxing lessons and studying jujitsu with a master named Hashita in Gold Comes in Bricks.  Donald doesn't carry a gun because, as he says: A) "A gun, a good type of gun such as I would want to carry, costs money", and B) "People are always taking it away from me and beating me up" (meaning the gun). His primary weapon is his brain, not his brawn.

Girls in the Grass
by Melanie Rae Thon

Ranging across a uniquely American landscape, from rural Idaho and suburban Arizona to downtown Boston, the eleven stories in this eagerly awaited reissued collection explore with painful lyricism the harsh awakenings of adolescence: eroticism and hypocrisy, love and violence, responsibility and guilt, adult inconstancy and the random cruelty of life and death.  Melanie Rae Thon is a master of the short story.

Monday, May 06, 2013

A Humanist Perspective

A Preface to MoralsA Preface to Morals
by Walter Lippmann

"The radical novelty of modern science lies precisely in the rejection of the belief, which is at the heart of all popular religion, that the forces which move the stars and atoms are contingent upon the preferences of the human heart." - Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals

Walter Lippmann was an influential journalist and political theorist of the twentieth century. A Preface to Morals, his most well-known and influential book, was first published in 1929. I was introduced to Lippmann in the late sixties when the Time Reading Program included this book in its offerings. In it Lippmann argues that in modern society traditional religious faith has lost its power to function as a source of moral authority. He asserts that ancient religious doctrine is no longer relevant to the conditions of modern life: governments have become increasingly democratized, populations have moved from rural to urban environments, and tradition in general is not suited to the dictates of modernity. Further, the democratic policy of the separation of church and state has created an atmosphere of religious tolerance, which suggests that religious faith is a matter of preference. In addition, the development of scientific method has created an atmosphere of doubt as to the claims made by religious doctrine. That doubt has grown larger over the last fifty years.
Lippmann offers humanism as the philosophy best suited to replace the role of religion in modern life. He notes that the teachers of humanism are the wise men or sages, such as Aristotle, Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Socrates, and Spinoza, and that it is up to the individual to determine the value of their wisdom. He goes on to observe that one of the primary functions of religion is to teach the value of asceticism, or voluntary self-denial, as essential to human happiness. Lippmann describes an attitude of ‘‘disinterestedness’’ as essential to the development of a humanistic morality. Disinterestedness, for Lippmann, is an approach to reality that puts objective thought before personal desire. He claims that the role of the moralist in modern society is not, as in traditional religions, to chastise and punish but to teach others a humanistic morality that can fulfill the human needs traditionally filled by religion.

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Saturday, May 04, 2013

Comic Novel with Tragic Moments

A Handful of DustA Handful of Dust 
by Evelyn Waugh

"Polly's party was exactly what she wished it to be, an accurate replica of all the best parties she had been to in the last year;  the same band, the same supper, and, above all, the same guests.  Hers was not the ambition to create a sensation, to have the party talked about in the months to come for any unusual feature, to hunt out shy celebrities or introduce exotic strangers.  She wanted a perfectly straight, smart party and she had got it." (p 55)

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, on several end-of-century Top 100 lists,was published on September 3, 1934. Waugh took the title for his novel from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh returned to the same poem, sending Anthony Blanche out on an Oxford balcony to stutter a few lines from it. Waugh’s biographers have noted a particular connection to Eliot. Early in life, Waugh liked to associate himself with Eliot’s avant-garde style; in his late twenties, Waugh became a Catholic, as Eliot in his late twenties became Anglican; and later in life, both authors grew more conservative and wrote in support of preserving and improving the crumbling class system in Great Britain.
IN this novel we have a comedy that contains tragic events, but still manages to entertain the reader with Waugh's brilliant satire and wit. The protagonist, Tony Last, is an ossified country squire. As one of that system’s most doomed representatives when we first meet him, Last is living in blinkered bliss at Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style. He is blithely unaware of his wife's peccadilloes. When the battle over divorce heats up Tony goes on an expedition to South America with a con man. Whether the trip is made because he is merely fooled by the con man or as a reaction to the divorce proceedings it does not work out quite as he expects. Eventually he falls under the spell of a madman named Todd who has a beloved set of Dickens novels; it is his passion to hear them read aloud, and it is Tony's personal hell to be the one required to do this.
This is Waugh at his satirical best and I can forgive his use of Dickens as torture (which reading him may be to some people anyway). While I had trouble understanding the foibles of most of the characters I understood enough of the story to become mesmerized by his brilliant satire and witty prose.

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Beyond the Visible World

"the little lower layer": Digging Deeper 
into Joyce's Ulysses' Difficulties and Splendors

""Hark ye yet again- the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike though the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines. " (Herman Melville, Moby Dick - Chapter 36 "The Quarter-Deck, p 164)

One year ago this month I attended a First Friday Lecture "Ulysses - A Human Work for Humans" presented by Claudia Traudt, Intructor Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, The University of Chicago.  Today she followed up on that lecture with further thoughts derived from her longing to share "further, deeper, keener explorations of Ulysses' difficulties and splendors." (from the introduction to the lecture).  Beginning with a reading of Judge John Woolsey's decision allowing U. S. publication of Ulysses she explored some of the more challenging passages of this mature work intended for "Mature Audiences".

The lecture included, but was not limited to, an analysis of six excerpted passages that, while stylistically challenging, demonstrated some of the difficulties and splendors of Joyce's great novel.  The breadth of Ulysses is challenging yet even in the seemingly most straight-forward prose, for example as seen in Episode Ten: "the wandering rocks",  which consists of nineteen short views of characters, major and minor, as they make their way around Dublin in the afternoon. Even in this relatively simple section there are stylistic leitmotifs embedded in the prose that are invisible if one glides over the prose without further consideration.  Other examples included selections from:  Episode Twelve: “Cyclops”;  Episode Fourteen "Oxen of the Sun" which demonstrates the gestation of the English language. The prose styles of many different time periods, along with the styles of their most famous authors, are replicated and at times parodied in chronological order;  and, Episode Fifteen: "Circe" where the majority of the action of occurs only as drunken, subconscious, anxiety-ridden hallucinations.

The climax of the lecture for me came when Ms. Traudt demonstrated the critical emotional links between Leopold Bloom's meditations during his lunch in Episode Eight: “Lestrygonians” where he looks above the bar at the tins of food. He ruminates about food: odd types, poisonous berries, aphrodisiacs, quirky personal favorites. Bloom notices two flies stuck on the window pane. He warmly remembers an intimate moment with Molly on the hill on Howth: as Bloom lay on top of her, Molly fed him seedcake out of her mouth, and they made love. Looking back at the flies, Bloom thinks sadly of the disparity between himself then and now.   Significantly Molly reprises the seedcake moment from her point of view in her magnificent monologue that goes on for a moment of infinity in the final section of the book concluding with joy that encapsulates the possibilities for humans.  This lecture unlocked some of "the lower layer" beyond the visible world in the minds of everyday men and women who live and love in their very human lives.

Moby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville. W. W. Norton, 1976 (1851).
Ulysses by James Joyce. Vintage International - Vintage Books, 1990 (1934).

Imaginative Swashbuckling

Long John SilverLong John Silver 
by Björn Larsson

"I saw the sun set in a sea of ​​liquid fire and arise as a ball of burning copper. I saw the moon to shine the veils of the night sky as wisps and reflected in the slow breath of the waves. I have seen the sea so smooth and the air so clear that the starry seemed doubling the point that it was not clear what was the most and under which the above, and it seemed to sail inside a globe shining lights. I've seen skies and clouds that an artist would take entire existence trying to play. " Bjorn Larsson

If you loved Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel, Treasure Island, you may like Swedish writer Larsson’s first US publication, a retelling of the life of the pirate Silver.  Comfortably retired on Madagascar in 1742, Silver is nettled that all the literature written about his life has got it wrong. Amid his plundered riches and house staff, he opens his recollections during his youth back in Scotland, where he’s raised a motherless son by a drunken father.
Having learned the knack of plucky self-reliance, he takes to the sea, is shipwrecked, and later is rescued by Dunn, a charitable soul of baffling kindness. Silver falls in love and has multiple adventures at sea, sailing on an unlikely variety of ships. As expected Captain Flint enters the story.  The action scenes in these passages are what make the book, since Silver’s meditations on slavery, independence, honor, and human rights are something less than stirring. There is a cameo appearance by none other than Defoe, who discusses literature; but also plenty of rum, treasure, plundering and pirate-like misbehaviour.
While it is likely that few of Stevenson’s Treasure Island readers have been terribly gripped by Silver’s inner life this exposition is worth a look. After all. the genial old salt is harmless enough and capable of telling a good yarn from his kit bag of memories.

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Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Education: From Plato to MOOCs

With the internet, new education technologies are arriving at a quickening pace, such as the free online courses known as MOOCs (for massively open online courses). These have sparked intense debate about the role of the classroom and the long term fate of traditional learning institutions. Yet new technologies have long spurred such debate. With the advent of the printing press and textbooks in the late 1400s and 1500s, some predicted that classroom teaching would no longer be needed. In Plato's era (429-347 B.C.E.), writing had begun to spread beyond the elite scribes to a broader segment of the population after the introduction of a true alphabet by the Phoenicians to the Greeks. Famously, in his book Phaedrus, Plato decried that more widely spread use of writing as detrimental to the attainment of wisdom. In it, he used the character of Socrates to proclaim that writing "is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality." The passage from Phaedrus where this quote appears is shown below:

"SOCRATES: Enough appears to have been said by us of a true and false art of speaking.

PHAEDRUS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: But there is something yet to be said of propriety and impropriety of writing.

PHAEDRUS: Yes. ...

SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them a censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, 'This,' said Theuth, 'will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.' Thamus replied: 'O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.' ...

PHAEDRUS: I acknowledge the justice of your rebuke; and I think that the Theban is right in his view about letters.

SOCRATES: He would be a very simple person, and quite a stranger to the oracles of Thamus or Ammon, who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters?

PHAEDRUS: That is most true.

SOCRATES: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

PHAEDRUS: That again is most true."

Author: Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett 
Title: Phaedrus
Publisher: Actonian Press; 2.0.0 edition (January 19, 2010)

Phaedrus by Plato translated by Benjamin Jowett  pub. by Actonian Press; 2.0.0 edition (January 19, 2010)  

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