Thursday, July 29, 2021

Commonplace Entry: Words/Lists

 "Around 1660, a manuscript by Athanasius Kircher was produced (Novum Inventum) which explains how it is possible to reduce the various languages of the world to a single code which produced a dictionary of 1,620 "words," and in which the author attempted to establish a list of 54 fundamental categories that could be written down through iconograms. The 54 categories also constituted a remarkably heterogeneous list, including divine, angelic and celestial entities, elements, human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals, drinks, clothing, weights, numbers, hours, cities, foods, family, actions such as seeing or giving, adjectives, adverbs, and the months of the year."

The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Eco. Rizzoli, New York 2009, p 237

Monday, July 26, 2021

Of Mere Being

The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a PlayThe Palm at the End of the Mind: 
Selected Poems and a Play 
by Wallace Stevens

“Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.”
― Wallace Stevens

This collection, while not as definitive as The Collected Poetry, includes all the major longer poems and many important shorter poems of critical value. Arranged in chronological order by probable date of composition this text provides the reader the possibility of considering the overall arc of Stevens' career. I find myself dipping into the poems included here time and again and it is difficult to pull myself away. The thoughtful consideration of art and meaning in life is seldom conveyed any better than in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

"Of Mere Being"

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Sovereign Wanderer

Love in the Ruins
Love in the Ruins 
“For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man...Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.”   ― Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

With an opening paragraph that explodes on the page with references to Christendom, Western civilization, and Dante, I immediately knew that this book was going to be good if not great. However I was thrown off a bit by the structure in which the first part was set on July Fourth and then went back to July 1st in the second part, but I got my bearings and began to enjoy the satire and the chaos of the world of the mid-80s in the United States where everything was falling apart around Paradise Estates, "an oasis of concord in a troubled land."

The protagonist is Dr. Thomas More (yes, namesake of the famous St. Thomas More) a heavy-drinking psychiatrist who has had his share of personal tragedy. He comments, "It is my misfortune---and blessing---that I suffer from both liberal and conservative complaints, e.g., both morning terror and large-bowel disorders, excessive abstraction and unseasonable rages, alternating impotence and satyriasis. So that at one and the same time I have great sympathy for my patients and lead a fairly miserable life."(p 20)

Tom hopes to turn his fortunes around with his invention, the lapsometer, with which he "can measure the index of life, life in death and death in life" --- This being a very scientific way to measure a sort of relative spirituality. The plot centers around his attempts to make progress with his invention while maintaining a semblance of normality, a vigorous love life, and interactions with a variety of interesting characters that include a Jewish atheist and a mephistopheles-like character who manages to persuade Tom to sign away his invention (i.e. his soul).

Through it all he maintains his own Catholic faith, while at the same time claiming, somewhat reasonably, to be a "bad" Catholic. At the same time he serves his fellow man in his role as a doctor while dealing with attacks from "Bantu" warriors and the impending collapse of society. The delight of the book comes from the savage satire and the potential for change in the life of Dr. Tom. 

Seldom have I read a book that brings to mind my personal history; Love in the Ruins is one of those books. Written in the early 1970s, but set in a not too distant future of the mid 80s it is filled with references that in lesser books would merely seem out of date and discourage the reader. Yet Percy has captured the time and place with specific cultural entities like Howard Johnson's and others. I found this intriguing and fitting in a way that made the deterioration of society in the story more believable. He succeeds (certainly not intentionally) in mirroring the ongoing chaos in our own contemporary world. Ultimately, this is a novel, as the title suggests, about ruin, but also love, and perhaps therein a glimmer of hope---read it and find out.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Clash of Civilizations

The History
The History 

"poverty has always been native in Greece, but the courage they have comes imported, and it is achieved by a compound of wisdom and the strength of their laws. By virtue of this, Greece fights off poverty and despotism."  -  Herodotus

During the fifth century B.C. Herodotus of Halicarnassus traveled the known world making inquiries and doing research on the origins and events of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. This sizable text was the result and it includes what he referred to as enquiries but what encompasses much of what we would call history, sociology, anthropology, mythology and more. It is a wonderful narrative providing the essential background and events, including famous battles like Thermopylae and profiles of great leaders on both sides including Themistocles, Darius and Xerxes. Perhaps the best way to convey the import of this book is to let Herodotus speak for himself. He opens the book thus:

"Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks."
Herodotus does not shy away from opinions about the events that he narrates; one of these opinions is related early in Book One:
"I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place."

He also relates the opinions of others, notably Solon who counsels the magnificently wealthy King Croesus:
"Of course, it is impossible for one who is human to have all the good things together, just as there is no one country that is sufficient of itself to provide all good things for itself; but it has one thing and not another, and the country that has the most is best. So no single person is self-sufficient; he has one thing and lacks another. But whoso possesses most of them, continuously, and then ends his life gracefully, he, my lord, may justly win this name you seek---at least in my judgment. But one must look always at the end of everything---how it will come out finally. For to many the god has shown a glimpse of blessedness only to extirpate then in the end."

This value of this, the first historian's judgment and investigation becomes more and more evident as one reads on through his narrative. It demonstrates its excellence through episode after episode with the excitement of a great novel. It is not surprising that it has survived as the first history of  the clash of civilizations.  Reading it was an adventure into the known world in that time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Inspired by Cervantes


         BOOKS:  A  DREAM

While he was sitting in a rocky cave

By the sea-side, perusing, as it chanced,

The famous History of the Errant Knight

Recorded by Cervantes, these same thoughts

Came to him; and to height unusual rose

While listlessly  he sate, and having closed

The Book, had turned his eyes toward the Sea.

On Poetry and geometric Truth,

The knowledge that endures, upon these two,

And their high privilege of lasting life,

Exempt form all internal injury,

He mused; upon these chiefly: and at length,

His senses yielding to the sultry air,

Sleep seiz'd him, and he passed into a dream.

from "The Prelude" by William Wordsworth

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday


This week’s topic hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl features book titles that ask questions or have question marks in them. I chose to review my reading over the years to find the top ten books that I have read that meet the requirements. I found more than ten but picked my favorites from the group. The resulting list includes a nice blend of fiction and nonfiction.

1.  Quo Vadis  by Henryk Sienkiewicz

  2.  What Am I Doing Here?  by Bruce Chatwin

  3.  How Many Miles to Babylon?  by Jennifer Johnston

4.  Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter  by Antonia Fraser

    5.  Can You Forgive Her?  by Anthony Trollope

      6.  What is Art?  by Leo Tolstoy

7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  by Philip K. Dick

    8.  Why Read?  by Mark Edmundson

9.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  by Edward Albee

    10.  Why read the Classics?  by Italo Calvino

If you check out these great reads you may be able to answer the questions their titles pose. Happy reading!

Friday, July 09, 2021

From the Kingdom of Music


The World and the Why

Am I a freak?

Or perhaps a geek?

For I absolutely must admit,

That I like school.  I really love it!

The idea of learning the answer to why

The brook runs dry or there's blue in the sky,

Delights me no end, and is likely to send

Me to a place that I wish would not end.

When I'm in a class I feel comfortable

For this is where I am most capable,

Exploring the issues of now and then.

Yes, that's history with its where and when.

And what about math and studying space?

There seems no more appropriate place

Than school for learning that vast expanse

Of knowledge that will my mind entrance.

You may ask what it is that makes me this way,

When so many feel that school spoils their day.

I guess that I would quickly retort and reply,

That for me the world's a school.  That's why.

James Henderson, The Kingdom of Music, March, 2014

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday:

 A Reader’s Manifesto

Today’s top ten Tuesday is more of an invitation to reflect —  Jana asks us why we like to read. 

My answer to this question starts at home. Before my parents had children (myself and my younger sister) they had books (and a dog). I was born into a house of readers and the rest is history. While I'm sure I was encouraged my memory goes back to the first books that I enjoyed - they became the core of my own library.

My earliest reading memories included the fairy tales of Andersen, the Grimm brothers, and others. But central to my reading life was the duo of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass. Encouraged by a father who enjoyed science fiction I soon began to devour that genre while my mother preferred mysteries which I would not immediately enjoy, but have done so more recently.

The home environment was encouraging and my own desire for reading seemed to have no bounds for it included books ranging from history to science to biography in addition to fiction. While amassing my own personal library, my sister and I were regular patrons of the local town library. We enjoyed the walk to and from the library in our home town and would visit the library in our Grandmother's home town each summer when our family visited her.

So once started I can only recall that my love of reading was engendered by the wonder of what the world outside of a small town in rural Wisconsin was like. The histories of Kings and Queens, whether from the Old Testament of the Bible (as in the above scene from the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife) or those of England gave me endless delight. While the stories of heroes and heroines both young and old like Jane Eyre, Robinson Crusoe, Jim Hawkins, Tom Sawyer, and Mowgli, just to name a few, kept me reading into the night. 

An author and reader I discovered more recently, Anna Quindlen, describes my feelings better than I can:

"We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciousness in someone else’s mind." 

Notes on Don Quixote

The Ingenious
Hidalgo Don Quixote
De La Mancha 

“As soon as we live, we have already felt the confines of our prison. Thirty years when we take the longest to recognize the limits within which our possibilities will move. We take possession of the real, which is like having measured the meters of a chain attached to our feet. So we say, 'Is this life? Nothing more than this? A completed cycle that repeats itself, always the same? " Here is a dangerous hour for every man. "  - José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Quixote

The idea of the novel starts here - this is the source of the modern novel for many. While it remains the epitome of story-telling its fame has also led to the coinage of such terms as "quixotic" and others. Influential beyond almost any other single work of fiction, the characters, led by the incomparable knight-errant extraordinaire 
Don Quixote, through their charm and uniqueness remain indelible in the memory of readers.

Don Quixote is one of those books whose influence is so far-reaching as to be almost ubiquitous, like The Odyssey, or the Bible. And like the Bible or Homer’s epics, it is more often talked about than read. But my conclusion upon reading it is to recommend to all: read it and enjoy the stories.

As Don Quixote says . . . "the life of knights-errant is subject to a thousand perils and reverses, and it's just as likely for knights-errant to become kings and emperors, as has been shown by experience through many diverse knights whose histories I know thoroughly. And I could tell you now, if this pain would abate, about some who, all alone, through the strength of their arm, have risen to the high positions that I've told you about. . . I can well suffer among such good company, for they have undergone greater affronts than we've just now undergone." (p 119)