George Harrison’s 72nd birthday…a bittersweet reminder that All Things Must Pass…
George Harrison (image courtesy Wikimedia)
In many ways it’s pointless to write or say much more about The Beatles. They remain, despite revisionist rock historians’ best efforts, rock music’s most important band. Arguments about their merits as solo artists follow similar paths. John is better because he was truest to rock and roll’s founding principles. Paul made what Dave Marsh once called “the Decision for Pop” because he wanted to be loved. Ringo was – well, Ringo was better than anyone expected but still the luckiest sod in musical history.
Then there is George. Known during the Fab Years as “the quiet Beatle,” his release from what had become for him the prison of being a Beatle led to a creative outburst and the best of all Beatle solo efforts, the magnificent All Things Must Pass. Many critics think George had the best solo career of any former Beatle. I think Paul has done so but then, I’m his buddy.
On to the music…
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm‘s compilation of stories known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales are powerful, perhaps shocking (perhaps not), entertainment for children of any age – and a structuralist literary critic’s dream…
The J. H. Sears edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (image courtesy Etsy)
The next book from the 2015 reading list is another of those “rescued” books of mine. Lea and I were wandering around a local antique/junk shop when we came across a “children’s edition” (or what passed for a children’s edition early in the 20th century). The book I have was published by J.H. Sears and Company of New York, although the edition I have was “set up, printed, and bound” by the Kingsport Press of Kingsport Tennessee. There is no publication date, but the book is inscribed, “Nancy Ivey/Grade 1/1929-30″ so this book is at least 85 years old, perhaps older. Continue reading
The poems of Ou-yang Hsiu reflect both the poet’s refined understanding of the complexities of his life as part of a multi-layered, ritualized culture and his desire to look beyond that culture at the question of being human….
Love and Time: The Poems of Ou-yang Hsiu, translated by J.P, Seaton (image courtesy Goodreads)
Another look at Asian poetry in this essay, one that might serve as a companion to the work I discussed last week, The Ink Dark Moon. Love and Time is a collection of the poems of 11th century scholar/imperial official/literatus Ou-yang Hsiu.
Ou-yang was a fascinating figure. A highly principled public official, he helped to implement important reforms that made the Song dynasty’s government more efficient and honest. As a historian he contributed both a history of the Chinese imperial dynasties and promoted epigraphic historical study. It is perhaps as a prose stylist that Ou-yang was most influential as a writer: he is considered a master of the Classical Prose style and is noted for having added a rich expressiveness to Chinese prose, especially to travel writing.
As a poet, Ou-yang was playful and experimental. While he developed mastery of two classic Chinese styles Shi and Ci, Ou-yang, especially in his middle age, expanded the subject matter from the traditional hymns, odes, eulogies, and expressions of romantic desire. Ou-yang added topics such as family life, friendship, drinking wine, and politics. He also played with tone, poking fun at himself and exaggerating for comic effect. Continue reading
Diderot’s most well known piece, the dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, is a discourse on what good behavior is – delivered with droll irony by one who has found being good beyond his capabilities….
Denis Diderot by Louis Michel van Loo (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Part of the pleasure of reading is finding those odd connections between works that at first seem unlikely to be related in any way. Such is my experience with this re-reading of Denis Diderot’s masterful dialogue concerning good behavior and bad, Rameau’s Nephew. As I made my way again through this witty, ironic masterpiece of argument about morals and ethics, for some reason I was reminded of another work whose thematic focus was on that elusive goal of being good: Nan, the late Victorian children’s book by Lucy C. Lillie that I read (and wrote about) a year and a half ago. The object lessons of Nan are simple and straightforward, of course: tell the truth, don’t steal, mind your manners, obey your elders. One of Nan’s most ingratiating traits is her desire to help the less fortunate – a trait that the book clearly describes as more than compensating for her lack of intellectual and artistic talent. She may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, but she’s a good, kind-hearted bulb and that, Ms. Lillie tells us, is what matters. Continue reading
As women members of the Heian court of medieval Japan, poets Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu lived lives that were proscribed and governed by artifice. Through poetry they found ways of expressing their feelings and insights about those lives.
The Ink Dark Moon – Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu – translated by Jane Hirschfield and Mariko Aratani (image courtesy Goodreads)
This book from the 2015 reading list was recommended to me by my wife Lea who has a deep affection for, appreciation of, and skill at Asian poetry and its forms. The Ink Dark Moon is a collection of poems by two women of the Heian period of Japanese history. This particular period of Japanese history was one of great cultural achievement in both art and literature. Interestingly, most of the outstanding poets of the period are women and the two poets represented in this work, Ono no Kamachi and Izumi Shikibu, are perhaps the finest of these poets.
The dominant verse form used by the poets is the Japanese classical waka in its short form known as the tanka. In Japanese a tanka has 31 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (One can compare this to the more familiar haiku which is even briefer and which follows, in Japanese, a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5.)
[Note: these syllabic forms are impossible to reproduce in English because of the difference between an inflection-based language like Japanese and a word order based language like English. This translation by Hirschfield and Aratani does an admirable – indeed, a remarkable – job of bridging the gap, but the translations are that – translations. They are not literal word-for-word reproductions of the works of Kamachi or Shikibu.] Continue reading
Call it Simplicius Simplicissimus or The Adventures of a Simpleton – H.J.C. von Grimmelshausen’s picaresque novel of the Thirty Years War is the godfather of all great anti-war literature whether solemn indictment like The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front or absurdist comedy like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse-Five.
The Adventures of a Simpleton also known as Simplicius Simplicissimus (image courtesy Goodreads)
The Adventures of a Simpleton, also know as Simplicius Simplicissimus (and by other titles) is a book that I have long loved, though this re-read is only my third of this classic satire of the lethal nonsense we call war. The edition I used this time was one I picked up in my favorite used bookstore, my original copy from undergraduate school having disappeared on its own picaresque adventures at some unknown moment in the last 40 years. This entry on the 2015 reading list moves us forward in time several hundred years from the folk literature (with some Horace thrown in) of the last few weeks. As a result we get a known author (although we don’t know a lot about him) and we get our first prose work since those outliers about World War I and John Winthrop I wrote about at the beginning of the year.
More interestingly, from a literary standpoint anyway, we get what will come to be called variously a novel, a mock-heroic romance, a picaresque novel, or a picaresque. The adventures of the hero, initially called Simplicius because of his naivete (and because discovering his real name, indeed his true identity, becomes an important subplot of the work) are episodic, disjointed, and certainly varied. Continue reading
The Welsh collection of ancient tales called The Mabinogion is an intriguingly messy collection of tales that run the gamut from myth to romance with a disregard for continuity…
The Mabinogion (image courtesy Goodreads)
The last of the “folk literature” I’ve completed for this year’s reading list isn’t an epic at all. The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh tales that offer insights into Celtic mythology, Welsh national legend, and Arthurian romance. It’s the earliest prose collection in English literature. The tales themselves are somewhat older, several of them coming from the oral tradition. There’s some controversy about the collection. One leading medieval literature scholar even argues that The Mabinogion isn’t really meant to be a collection at all. Given what is known about the source works, he has a point. The Mabinogion links mythological tales with heroic tales with Arthurian romances without any other connection than that they’re all Welsh medieval works. That may be enough to satisfy scholarly readers, but it would make the work a challenge for others, even serious readers, without some guidance. So, as I have mentioned before, if you find this work intriguing and decide to read it, choose a good critical edition and read the scholarly information.
The tales divide into three groups. “The Mabinogi” is a set of four tales, one that offers a combination of mythology and folklore. There are two important characters to be noted: the witch Rhiannon (a name know to readers, perhaps, from the Fleetwood Mac song) and Pryderi, a sort of prototype for the important character who shows up in later tales, Arthur of Britain. Continue reading
Horace, like any admirable figure, seeks both to model – and teach – what excellence is in his field….
Horace as whimsically portrayed by painter Giacomo Di Chirico (image courtesy Wikimedia)
We end our review of The Works of Horace as translated into English prose by the redoubtable Christopher Smart with a look at the work that has been the anchor for his reputation over at least the last 200 years or so. “Ars Poetica,” or “The Art of Poetry,” is, as I mentioned last time, considered one of the classic works in the history of literary criticism. Like all of Horace’s work, “Ars Poetica” is personal and idiosyncratic. Like all of Horace’s work, it is filled with moments of pathos, bathos, and brilliance.
Some critics have found cause to dispute with Horace, noting that he focuses his critique on epic and dramatic poetry – neither of which he wrote – and that, unlike, say, Aristotle, he is not orderly and systematic in his discussion, wandering from topic to topic, often abruptly. There are a couple of ways of responding to that. Continue reading
In his Epistles, Horace discusses, in a series of verse letters addressed to friends, philosophy, virtuous and independent living, social behavior, and being a poet.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus – the artist otherwise known as Horace (image courtesy wisdomportal.com)
This third in a series of essays on Roman poet Horace looks at his verse epistles. Most readers are probably at least slightly familiar with the form in either verse or prose: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is a famous prose example; Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” is usually considered the finest example in verse written in English. In both cases the aim is identical – the writer seeks to offer explanation, defense, justification for him (or her)self and for his/her beliefs, practices, or, as in the cases of both Horace and Pope, poetry style choices.
Horace’s Epistles have some of the gentle sting of his Satires, but there is an ease in these works that one doesn’t find in those previously discussed poems. This is Horace writing to friends for one reasoin earlier essaysn or another on one occasion or another, opening up about his work, his health, his pleasures, his annoyances, his hopes, his fears. There’s a freedom to the poet’s writing here that both intrigues and enlightens the thoughtful reader and gives us insight into Horace the man that neither the Satires, aimed as they are at allowing the poet to show off his mastery of analysis and commentary, nor the Odes, meant as they are to be “public” works demonstrating poetic skill and mastery of craft, allow. These works, while equally as skilled as those mentioned above, are the poetic equivalent of good conversation over drinks between friends. Continue reading
Horace uses satire in a gently amused (and bemused) way to point out the foibles of human nature. He’s not so much wanting to tear people a new one for being the way they are as he is interested in a thoughtful, even academic way in why we do the foolish things we do to ourselves.
Horace, by an unknown Roman sculptor (image courtesy crystallinks.com)
This second essay on the Works of Horace in the Christopher Smart prose translation looks at the great poet’s satires. Horace wrote two books of satires, a total of 18 poems. These satires were his first great successes as a poet and signaled that Horace was one of the great poets of the Augustan Age. on His influence on this genre of literature was so great that his style of handling the genre is known in literary/scholarly circles as Horatian satire.
Before we dig into the works themselves, however, it might be good to make clear what’s meant by “Horatian.” Horace’s greatest rival as a satirist is a Roman poet named Juvenal who lived roughly 100 years after Horace. Where Horace is gentle and good natured in his criticisms of the foibles of his fellow Romans, Juvenal is biting, even bitter in his attacks on human frailties. Where Horace hopes to see better from people, Juvenal demands that people should behave more acceptably. Continue reading
The Saga of the Volsungs and The Song of the Nibelungs share source material, to be sure, but it is the cultural ethos that they share that makes them fascinating – and appalling, in a heroic culture sort of way….
The Song of the Nibelungs, i.e., Das Nibelungenlied (image courtesy Goodreads)
As promised, we come now to a pair of works that share a common story ancestry as well a commonalities in cultural ethos. Heroic epics and sagas reflect a culture based on power, strength, violence, and what Frank Zappa famously called “a great deal of personal hurt.” Most readers are likely familiar with at least one of the heroic epics (these are sometimes called national epics because there seems to be one for each major European country – Das Nibelungenlied for Germany, La Chanson de Roland for France, El Cid for Spain, and, of course, Beowulf for England), so dust off those memories of, you know, that class you took that time where you read that loooong poem….
While both works tell the story of a hero murdered through treachery and his beloved’s revenge on the murderers, there are significant differences between The Saga of the Volsungs and The Song of the Nibelungs. A look at those differences might be a good place to start and can lead us into a discussion of the similarity in, to use the German term, the weltanschauung of heroic culture. Those similarities are valuable to note, for some of the assumptions of heroic culture still pervade our own world views. Continue reading
One of the reasons Horace’s odes have been so admired and imitated is best described by one of his foremost admirers, Alexander Pope. Horace is a master of “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed…”
Horace as imagined by painter Anton von Werner (image courtesy Wikimedia)
As I mentioned in my essay on La Chanson de Roland, I’ve been working my way through Horace at a pretty deliberate pace, mainly because I’m using an old “pocket” edition of The Works published in 1896 with a prose translation by one “C. Smart, A.M., Pembroke College, Cambridge University.” This is the remarkable – and slightly mad – poet and scholar Christopher Smart. Smart’s madness manifested itself as religious mania (slightly odd in a high church Anglican of his time, a group who were more often political than devout, but there we are) and he became a cause célèbre among poet friends in his day because they often had to fetch him out of St. Bethlehem (know as Bedlam in the local parlance), the institute for those with mental illness. Smart was most noted for falling to his knees in public places and beginning to pray loudly. When asked if he thought such behavior made Smart a public danger, Dr. Samuel Johnson replied calmly, “I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.” Continue reading
Disagreements about whether The Song of Roland is about Roland’s heroic (and foolhardy) geste or about the ultimate triumph of Charlemagne over enemies within and without his empire seem less important with this re-reading than noting how many people die for that amorphous and deadly social construct we call honor….
The Song of Roland, trans. Robert Harrison (image courtesy Goodreads)
As I make my way methodically through the works of Horace (3 books of odes down, one more to go, then epodes, satires, and his “Art of Poetry”), I’ve been reading at the same time in the epics on my 2015 reading list. I’ve finished The Saga of the Volsungs and am now digging into the Song of the Niebelungs. This made more sense to me than my original plan which was to read about the Volsungs, then go off and do some medieval Chinese poetry before Das Nibelungenlied. Since the German epic tells a version of the Volsung story, I’ll write about those two together – and be able to discuss how a Viking saga got changed for the purposes of courtly literature. Given this dive into epic lit, I’ll probably take on The Mabinogion, the Welsh epic, before heading east for Chinese courtly poetry.
That said, astute readers (and I know you all are) will notice that this essay is clearly going to be about a work not even on the original 2015 reading list. I was (where else?) in my favorite used book store last week when I came across this version of The Song of Roland. It was nearly a giveaway it was so cheap, so naturally I scooped it up. As I mentioned above, it seemed apropos given that Horace is, while most rewarding, in an 1890’s prose translation sans notes (always read the notes, students) that is costing me extra time as I do some background work so that I understand both poet and translator fully, that I read something along with that noble Roman. I raced through the Volsung saga (in a good critical edition) and now the Chanson de Roland (in a good critical edition). Continue reading
Edmund Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma is an interestingly apologetic biography of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leading figure, Governor John Winthrop.
The Puritan Dilemma: the Story of John Winthrop by Edmund S. Morgan (image courtesy Goodreads)
The other “outlier” from the 2015 reading list is a brief (less that 300 pages, a mere glance by scholarly biography standards) biography of a founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony (and its multiple term governor), John Winthrop. As I mentioned in my discussion of this year’s list, I picked up this interesting volume before hitting upon the “global/local” reading plan. And so it becomes the second book essay of 2015.
Over the last three years I have read Williams Bradford’s history of the Plymouth colony, Ed Southern’s compilation of accounts of the Jamestown colony, and now this biography of Winthrop which serves as an account of the first two decades of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, however, is a somewhat different sort of book from those other two in a couple in interesting (and significant) ways: first, it is an apologia of John Winthrop’s life and career, and by extension for the Puritan experiment. Yet it’s also an apology of sorts, or maybe a wistful expression of regret, by Professor Morgan to Winthrop that somehow historians have not treated him as kindly – indeed, reverently – as they should. Continue reading
Historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August clearly illuminates the truth of war: in any era it is what is done wrong as much as what is done right that decides conflicts….
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (image courtesy Goodreads)
The first book from the 2015 reading list was a Christmas present. I have long been an admirer of historian Barbara Tuchman and have long considered her superb A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century among my favorite books of any genre. Given that 2014 was the centennial year for the beginning of World War I, I began looking for a copy of her Pulitzer winning exploration of the first months of that “war to end all wars,” The Guns of August sometime last year. Alas, because of my dedication to what we might call “book rescue” (I try to buy used books whenever I can), I found myself (I suspect) competing with others who thought “Hey, its the centennial of the Great War – good time to read (or re-read) Barbara Tuchman.”
So I floundered about trying to catch a used copy at my favorite book stores both physical and online. No luck. Eventually, my interest waned and when I put the book on my Christmas list, it was with little hope that even my clever and perspicacious Lea could find a copy for a Christmas present.
Oh, me of little faith. Find one she did, and I spent the holidays working my way through this fascinating account of the beginning of World War I. Continue reading
Sometimes one reads to see what one is thinking – sometimes to see what others are thinking – and sometimes one should read to find out where one is….
As you may have already guessed, cats read when we aren’t looking in order to understand and control our species better… (image courtesy stockfreeimages.com)
For 2015 I’ve decided to change the pattern of my reading list adventures and split the list into two segments. The first of these will be a tour of what used to be called “world literature”: great works by authors writing in a language other than one’s own – in my case, English. The second half of the list will focus on authors from North Carolina primarily, the American South generally. My slogan for the year will be “Read globally, then locally,” I suppose.
For the first half of the list I will be in the hands of translators for the bulk of my reading (I read, speak and write French, and I plan also to learn Spanish – at least conversational level – this year, but most of my reading choices are in languages other than those). So as part of my series of essays on these works I will make observations – informed or not – about the quality of the translations I encounter.
So, to the list. Continue reading
In a culture whose value system is thoroughly infused with the spirit of capitalist-democratic-republicanism of one permutation or another, art, tech – let’s face it – every form of human endeavor – is measured only by its ability to generate revenue…
(For earlier essays in this series look here, here and here.)
And so we come to the last in this series of essays examining how the evolution of technology (and remember, I refer to technology in a broad sense) has affected art and artists. This last piece will examine two pieces of technology – one is an economic system (capitalism) and the other is really a myriad of technologies coming together to produce – an effect? a composite technology? (the world wide web) and their effects on art and artists over the last 20 or so years.
Adam Smith, philosopher of political economy (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The history of the uneasy relationship between the political system most commonly referred to as democracy (rarely practiced in a pure form, as, let’s assume, we all understand) and the economic system known as capitalism (also rarely practiced in a pure form, same understanding as above) has been played out nowhere perhaps as openly – and at the same time subtly – as in our America – the good old USA. Our country is one who has tried, with often wildly varying results, to reconcile the basic premises of these two important systems of thought.
The guy who catches the most heat in critiques of capitalism is the one pictured at right whose most important work, The Wealth of Nations, seems to argue for self-interest as a public good even as it warns against the human tendency to collude and engage in ugly practices such as price fixing which he sees as self-interest used against the public good. The most important – and misunderstood by the limited understanding of the average American – idea in Smith’s treatise, however, is his assertion (not that people are naturally unequal, though that certainly is very important because it conflicts with our notions of democracy) that wealth matters more than people. Continue reading
The holiday season is most often described as “joyful,” “merry,” “bright” – candles instead of cursing the the darkness – but both the Appalachian storytellers of “A Firefox Christmas” and Charles Dickens in “The Chimes” remind us that the holidays can be a time of loneliness and disillusionment…
A Foxfire Christmas, ed. Eliot Wigginton (image courtesy Goodreads)
I complete the 2014 reading list as I did the 2013 reading list – with some holiday appropriate stories. For this year’s list I returned to the acknowledged godfather of Christmas tales, a Mr. C. Dickens, for his haunting look at what we really should mean by “starting the New Year right,” The Chimes. I followed that with the Christmas entry in the Foxfire series of folk lore compendiums, A Foxfire Christmas.
What is striking about both these works is the powerful current of pathos that runs through them. One expects this of Dickens, of course. No one does pathos like the creator of Little Nell, Oliver Twist, and Jo the crossing sweeper. The Firefox books, on the other hand, are compilations of stories and folk wisdom from long time residents of Appalachia. Their experiences, related as nearly as possible in their own words, range widely and move from the humorous to the heartbreaking – sometimes abruptly. The overall aim isn’t (as it often is with Dickens, that master manipulator of our emotions) to foster sympathy and motivate social action; Foxfire books primarily seek to preserve cultural history – the pathos one sometimes encounters there is firmly embedded in the history being shared. Continue reading
Joe Cocker’s soulful shouting was later overshadowed by his pop balladry, but the man could always bring it.
Joe Cocker 1944-2014 (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Joe Cocker, the magnificent singer from Sheffield, has died of lung cancer at the age of 70. Cocker’s career divides neatly into two phases – the great run from 1966-71 when he rose to prominence as a legitimate white blues shouter – and a forefather of what’s known as Northern Soul – and took prominent songs from contemporaries and made them his own (“A Little Help from My Friends” by The Beatles; “The Letter” by The Boxtops; “Feelin’ Alright” by Traffic) – and the rest of his long career in which he transitioned into singing more pop oriented material, often to great success (he won a Grammy for his duet with Jennifer Warnes on the otherwise execrable movie ballad “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman).
What made Cocker special, besides that distinctive gravelly voice and his deep infusion of emotion into even the tritest material he sang, was his onstage behavior, an unforgettable experience for those who saw it. At times seeming almost as if struck by spasms, Joe’s windmilling arms, head shaking and air guitar made him a figure occasionally parodied (here’s a killer Joe Cocker/John Belushi duet from SNL’s Golden Age). But there was no denying his vocal talent or his desire to give everything he had to any song he sang.
Here he is at his emoting best doing a killer version of that Beatles’ tune mention above at Woodstock in 1969:
We may not see his like again. RIP Joe….
What Daniel Defoe depicts in Moll Flanders is the story of a person who lives purely for pursuit of “the main chance”: accruing wealth at the cost of family, friends, self-respect…in the hope that once one has “a stock” there will be time for reflection, repentance, reclamation….
Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (image courtesy Goodreads)
I went off the 2014 reading (updated) list(s) for this last “non-holiday” themed book as a result of some comments on the first of my “art and tech” series of essays. An argument advanced by a commenter whose opinions I value and whose friendship I treasure suggested that the only reliable arbiter of human achievement is the marketplace – and argued, at least indirectly, that economic success = validation of one’s efforts. I freely admit that I find such arguments about how life and life’s work should be valued, and they are numerous in these times, troubling. I find them most troubling because, given the amorphous nature of human culture and its values, this may very well be the view that most people choose to adopt.
When I feel troubled by issues of this sort, I turn, as I have for many years, to literature. When I go to literature I am seeking, not answers of the smug and certain sort constantly promulgated by news outlets both left and right. Instead, what literature gives me is perspective – the perspective of fellow artists as well as in most cases (since my penchant is for classics of the canon), historical perspective. Continue reading