WordsDay: Literature

Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time: the Byron factor

“Contradiction is, with me, an innate passion; my entire life has been nothing but a chain of sad and frustrating contradictions to heart or reason.” – Grigoriy Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time…

A Hero of Our Time by Mihail Lermontov (image courtesy Goodreads)

Another Russian classic from the 2015 reading list. Mihail Lermontov, like Pushkin, whom I write about last time, is a Russian Romantic era writer, and his only significant work, the novel A Hero of Our Time, is as good an example of the enormous impact of Byron on European literature as a reader will ever find.

The Byronic figure, a response to proto-Romantic figures like Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling or Goethe’s Werther, was a world weary, bored, self-destructive  figure who cannot find peace anywhere. Lermontov’s Grigoriy Pechorin is just such a figure. His inability to relate to his fellow human beings is not simply excused – it is admired and forgiven:

…if all people reasoned more, they would be convinced that life is not worth worrying about so much…

Continue reading

On Netanyahu’s address to Congress, Lee Zeldin hits the nail

Just not on the head

NYT reports: Netanyahu’s Visit Bringing Uninvited Problems for Jewish Democrats

“Regardless of whether you are Jewish or not Jewish, Republican or Democrat, if you greatly value having the strongest relationship possible with Israel, welcoming the Israeli prime minister to America with open arms should be something members fully embrace,” he [Rep. Lee Zeldin] said. “It is an opportunity to let not just the Israeli prime minister know, but the Israeli people know, that America is united in strengthening our relationship with Israel.”

It’s also an opportunity to let Bibi and the Israeli people know that America is clearly not so united in strengthening that relationship as they would like to think. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Pushkin’s Prose Tales: Russian Romanticism, Russian Literature…

Pushkin’s prose tales, mostly uncompleted, tantalize and torment readers both with their beauty and with the wistful sense of ‘what might have been’ that their incompleteness conveys….

The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, trans. Gillon R, Aitken (image courtesy Goodreads)

This selection from the 2015 reading list is a re-read from my undergraduate days. The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin in the Gillon Aitken translation includes every piece that Pushkin worked on. Like any scholarly edition, it has that painstaking sense of completeness that can feel like both a blessing and a curse. It is wonderful to read all the prose that Pushkin attempted in his life; it is painful to be left wondering again and again as stories and novellas break off with the translator’s too oft repeated message:

(Pushkin never completed this story.)

Pushkin is Russia’s first great modern writer. Renowned even more as a poet than as a prose writer, his magnum opus, Eugene Onegin, tells a story that is haunting in its prescience: a sensitive poet is drawn into a duel and killed due to his flirtatious fiancée.

Pushkin himself was killed at the age of 37 in a duel caused by his flirtatious wife. Art can imitate life with disastrous consequences.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

The Brothers Grimm and the functions of the folk tale…

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

Religion

Obama is wrong: Islamic beliefs are incompatible with the modern world

Islamic terrorists aren’t attacking churches, they’re attacking schools and newspapers.

Ipoint-counterpointn 2001, Bush called for a “crusade” against Islamic terrorists. His choice of words caused many to cringe, although as it turned out he was on the money. The last thirteen years have been a never-ending battle between Judeo-Christians and Muslims that has destroyed much of the Mideast, just like Crusades 1.0. Also just like the original crusades, this latest effort has been a colossal rort, rife with waste, chicanery, profiteering and downright theft. Bush said “crusade,” and by golly, he meant it. (In fact, you could probably argue that most wars we fought in the 20th Century were crusades, from WWII to Vietnam, where the uber-Catholic Dulles brothers supported the Catholic Diem against Ho Chi Minh, to our cold war on “godless Communism.”) Continue reading

point-counterpoint-2

Crusader Baiter: Robertson declares war on Islam

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, wikipedia.org

In a move of unprecedented celerity and international cooperation, the Summit Against Violent Extremism launched a worldwide counterattack on the recruiting methods and radicalization techniques used by the Islamic State and other extremists. Recognizing that the threat must be neutralized on all fronts, the summit presents a comprehensive approach, from building awareness through education, to destroying extremist narratives online with facts and larger counternarratives, to empowering community efforts to disrupt radicalization before the damage is done. Specific attention was given to the role of religious leaders. From the press release: Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Love and Time: Medieval Chinese Poetry

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

ArtSunday

How to be good: Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew

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

Book-Review

The ink dark moon: Medieval Japanese poetry…

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

ArtSunday: LIterature

The art of war as explained by a simpleton…

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

ISIS 2

Burning alive of Jordanian fighter pilot more evidence Islamic State refuses to grow up

By burning alive Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Islamic State reinforced an apparent commitment to behave like a terrorist organization, not a state.

Government building in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr)

Government building in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr)

It’s well known that revolutionary movements and/or terrorist organizations generally moderate the extreme violence that may have brought them to power. The Islamic State, however, which fancies itself even more than a state — a caliphate spanning existing states — seems intent on overturning the conventional wisdom.

In fact, is the Islamic State’s leadership channeling Satan? By burning Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh to death in the most torturous manner possible, its members are apparently making another payment in the deal they seem to have signed with the devil (known as Shaytan in Islam). Continue reading

Vladimir-Putin

War & Peace: don’t wait until the bear eats you

Image courtesy of Getty Images via BBC

NATO intercepted 400 Russian military flights in 2014. That’s four times as many as in 2013. An intercept is necessary when the aircraft is flying with its transponder turned off to avoid detection. The Russian planes do not file a flight plan, meaning they are not supposed to be there, or they file as a commercial aircraft and turn off their transponder because it would identify them as a military aircraft. All NATO planes on all missions have their transponders turned on. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

The Mabinogion: mythology? Heroic tales? Romance? Mess?

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 IV: ave Horatius, Scrogue exemplarium…

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

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Horace III: The Epistles – words with friends…

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

In Golden Gai

A “Tokyo Panic Story” far removed from Middle East politics…

I once tripped through these lands like a god,

like the pure embodiment of all the liquor

the Allies ever drank in Tokyo.

It is quiet here now,

and the Americans are gone,

but I know these streets.

Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Horace II: more rambling, this time about the Satires…

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

WordsDay: Literature

The Song of Roland – timeless is as timeless does…

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

Book-Review

The great war and the need for memory…Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August

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