Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sarah Waters' "Tipping the Velvet": Book Review

This début shows the research and the diligence of its author, with a doctorate in English. As with "Fingersmith" (see my recent review), 19c London comes alive. The narrator convinces you by a literary, yet everyday tone that, as in both novels, for me remains Waters' narrative strength.

One passage stands out as a neat symbol for the passions beneath the surface that try to break free, this being the 1890s, of the time and its well-known restrictions. "I looked at the river again-- at that extraordinary ordinary transformation, that easy submission to the urgings of natural law, that was yet so rare and so unsettling." (101) The narrator and her female lover gaze at the marvel of the Thames frozen over.

And, if in less a confined, incarcerated sense than the criminal-Gothic-madhouse haunted "Fingersmith," Victorian conventions contend convincingly with rebellion among its women. Waters captures the tone of how a smart, yet uneducated, woman might come of age among, in turn, the music-hall theatre, as a kept woman of the bohemian "toms" of a lesbian demi-monde, and then as a Socialist suffragette street-corner speaker. The three parts of the novel correspond to the storyteller's rise, fall, and rising again.

The book jacket blurb contained a major spoiler, so beware. I will veer away from plot points. Waters tends, for me in both novels I've read, to be more confident in period details, emotional resonances, and observed conventions. Her story structure here as it follows the arc of the novels written 110 years ago tends not to surprise, perhaps, as much as entertain. I found myself less intrigued by the actual plot, and pages seemed to wear on with dialogue that seemed accurate enough but too wordy and too labored in the telling of an efficiently moving, fast-paced, story. I may be jaded, but I wanted it to hurry up and not dawdle so much.

Trumpeted as an erotic lesbian romp, the sex in it, while more explicit and abundant than in the study of repression that motivates "Fingersmith," is still rather sparse. It may be less than some readers anticipate. What Waters does well, and will do even better in her next novel, is to balance the sensuous with the spare, the presence of the beloved being usually less common than her denial or absence. This creates tension that Waters, at her best, puts to good use to energize her tales. (Posted to Amazon US 1-21-10; "Fingersmith" also reviewed there recently.)

(P.S. I liked the cover of the 2004 DVD adaptation more than the book jacket.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tom Wolfe's "Hooking Up": Book Review

"The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink." (3) So opens this millennial survey of how wired, networked, and tangled American lives became circa 2000. Twenty years since Wolfe's last essay collection, this marks a more sober set of reflections on what now, ten years later, seems an optimistic start to what proved a dimmer decade.

Wolfe argues, after the salacious "hooking up" of the sexy title takes but pp. 5-9 to elaborate, that science and academia, along with the media and consumers, connect in ways that allow affluence to rise and, unsurprisingly, intelligence to diminish for the norm. However, those in charge in Wolfe's world continue to wield power, and his fascination with the elite and how they clash with the proles makes this an engaging, if rather stolid, anthology.

The first section, "The Human Beast," examines the meeting of men with machines. Silicon Valley's birth comes with paralleling Josiah Grinnell, who took Horace Greeley's advice first-hand and went at least to the Middle West, of Iowa. His eponymous college schooled almost a century later Bob Noyce and classmates, who would spark the semiconductored, transistored post-WWII boom. This connects with an essay on E.O. Wilson's sociobiology, and while the pair move rapidly and neatly past everyone from Teilhard de Chardin to Nietzsche to Richard Dawkins, Wolfe manages to keep the material accessible. He sums up early Wilson: "He was a skinny runt, and then for years after that he was a beanpole." (78) Wolfe's prose style has calmed down, but he still keeps an eye out for telling details.

On the other hand, other entries here feel already familiar. True, it's always fun to laugh at "Rococo Marxists" and the silliness of an art world that favors a pile of rust by Richard Serra over realistic figures crafted by Frederick Kirk. Of Kirk's rejection by the cognoscenti: "Art worldlings regarded popularity as skill's live-in slut." (137) I agree with Wolfe in both critiques, but in his rush past "The Great Relearning," the piece is too brief to do justice to the topic, and "My Three Stooges" in its lengthy explanation of his book tour for "A Man in Full" saps the essay before it gets around to the more valuable comparison and contrast of naturalistic fiction with film. "Scene-by-scene construction" and "the liberal use of realistic dialogue" share with film the novel's craft; "interior point-of-view" and "the notation of status details," however, show the shortcomings of cinematic narrative. Wolfe defends his subject matter against the attacks of Mailer, Updike, and John Irving spiritedly, but when it comes to his own novella that follows, the interest for me lay more in the dialogue transcribing "Florida Panhandle illiteracy" and the way that two cameras can set up a sting operation and edit out dialogue than the actual plot of how a sleazy pair of operatives, one a manipulative schlub, one a blonde TV personality, pull off their set-up of three gay-bashing Army grunts who are suspected of killing a soldier at Fort Bragg, NC.

Last comes the old Wolfe, a piece that he wrote about Wallace Shawn of the New Yorker despite the magazine's refusal to cooperate officially. Wolfe frames the article for "New York" magazine with a lively reminiscence of mid-60s journalism that recalls the sting operatives above. "I'd heard of skeleton crews before, but this one was bones." (250) The original essay is fine, but for me any appeal lay in how the style that made Wolfe famous played off the more sober air of today's author.

To sum up, after having read his previous journalism collections, this one finds Wolfe spanning his usual series of class studies, social critiques, and media send-ups. It's useful to capture the mood around the year 2000. But placed next to his groundbreaking New Journalism, it's a less combative, more unassuming stance. (Posted to Amazon US 1-28-10)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Object of My (Dis)Affection? Political partisanship

Thomas Pynchon, in "Against the Day," summarizes competing visions of Asia: “one an object of political struggle among the Powers of the Earth– the other a timeless faith by whose terms all such earthly struggle is illusion. Those whose enduring object is power in this world are only too happy to use without remorse the others, whose aim of course is to transcend all questions of power. Each regards the other as a pack of deluded fools.” (249)

I took a Pew "Beyond Red & Blue" quiz again. When I blogged the end of last June, at "What's Your Political Typology?" I was "Disadvantaged Democrat." Now I am "Disaffected." Moderate, centrist, but grim: no team player, no flag waver.

As I commented in a recent guest discussion "Looking for a Few Good Liberals" by "Tamerlane" on the blog "Liberal Rapture":"Misguided liberal": not sure when I was called this the other day if the taunt lay in the adjective or noun. Why do we get so hung up on definitions?

I took the Pew typology via the link at Tamerlane's "True Liberal Nexus" blog. There, I posted on a TLN discussion "The Definition of a Liberal," my off-the-cuff remarks about what may or may not distinguish "progressive" from "liberal" from "The Left:
Progressives turn activists, engaged by movements, rallies, petitions, organizing, agitating. They thrive off the pressure to compel change from institutions otherwise opposed to granting reform. So, they focus on “HOW.” Liberals empathize, philosophically grounded in “WHAT”– a belief in the human ability to improve one’s lot and to instill compassion and altruism in each other. The Left forms an umbrella over these two formations, perhaps shaded more by an intellectual reaction against forces who favor tradition. I’d say all three gravitate to a confidence that government must intervene against capital or power whenever, and as necessary, to restore or defend human rights. They share a belief that government can make better decisions than individuals may, and that politicians can decide based on democratic input and legislative and judicial consideration what’s best for citizens.

To my "allele on the HOW/WHAT concept," Tamerlane responded: "Is it that the ‘liberal’ starts from the ‘what’, or Ends, and then applies the appropriate ‘how’ (Means); while the ‘prog’ lends primacy to the means — stridency, activism, revolution? Are radicals, at core, promiscuous viz. ideals? Are they addicted to the means?"

I suspect this may be true, from my observations among a different republican, that among Irish "physical-force" advocates, alongside assorted progressives and lefties and self-proclaimed or earnestly identified radicals. They do seem committed to act. For idealism, perhaps originally, but for some, as time goes on and the Movement falters or rallies fitfully, out of a determination to change, no matter what. I lack this need for a rush, this adrenaline kicking against the pricks, but I do recognize how this impelled charge to change what is to what will be, or must be, energizes a few, for better or worse. I perhaps lack the trust that humans are innately good and inherently pure, tainted by some childhood Jansenist or teen Manichean trait, so while I harbor no sympathy for the right, I do tend to step back from the unfaltering faith shown by the Left that if only kinder, gentler politics aligned we'd all be happy at last.

This inbred skepticism surfaces. That "Beyond Red & Blue" quiz half a year ago pegged me "Disadvantaged Democrat"-- now I am "Disaffected." Not much change, but what's odd-- both categories place me among the most alienated, least educated, lowest cohorts of voters. This despite my demographic, profession, and domicile-- which puts me at variance in nearly every way far apart from the gun & bible-toting, truck-driving cohort, to use terms our newest senator Scott Brown & our current president might agree upon.

I did grow up blue-collar, so maybe orneriness stuck here as so often elsewhere with me? Or, maybe atavistic Fenianism. For, as Pynchon muses (via Benjamin Tucker) about the Irish Land League as the closest ever to that oxymoronic "perfect Anarchist organization"-- perhaps I inherited from that great-grandfather "found drowned in mysterious circumstances" in the Thames on an 1898 delegation to visit with the Powers of the Earth in that gloomy Unreal City, Marlow's Conradian London's heart of late-Victorian, late capitalist, late imperial darkness, maybe I can blame human nature and its evil, as well as political nurture.

I understand the need for many liberals who need this label, but I don't need it and could care less about it. As my own Pew typology results show, these categories can be at variance no matter how calibrated they are by experts, when we compare expert expectations with reality. Doubt permeates me about the possibility of audacious Hope turning into Change we not only can believe in but that will transcend a bumper sticker. Still, as the alternatives prove even more lacking in compassion, I feel stranded, in a gerrymandered Democratic fiefdom that will vote this way in perpetuity. Without any competition, we risk political and social stagnation.

Arlo Guthrie mused to the New York Times Magazine that he registered for the GOP in New Hampshire simply because with about five voters for the opposition in his state, they needed help, or else the lack of anybody to run against meant the death of democracy. I'll never register Republican, but I support true races and real debates.

Desmond Fennell, a dissident Irish writer, bemoaned our tendency over two hundred years on to continue so doggedly to stick to the outmoded seating arrangements of the French Assembly. Is it that crucial to sit on the left or the right? Red or blue state? Ride a donkey or elephant?

P.S. A horse might be preferable for my mount. I long ago tired of both parties. "Decline to State"=my current identification.

P.P.S. My wife blogged eloquently on last week's shameful Supreme Court decision to grant to corporations the same unlimited free speech (and unlimited coffers) that individuals theoretically enjoy to fund campaigns not only by issue but by candidate. She cites well FDR's warning about corporate fascism. "Six Generations to Go".

Image: "Progressivism" by Green Underbelly-- at ""Lib

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Luais Anainn": Léirmheas scannáin

Chonaic mé leis mo teaghlach le déanaí. Is brea mo dhá mac é. Ach, níl maith liom é.

Cén fáth? Bhuel, bhí ciapóga orm ag an scannán. Thuirseoidh sé an saol, go fírinne.

Aontaíonn an scannán obair ghalánta leis grinn gáifeach. Lionann sé leis loiceadóirí. Mar sin, taitníonn sé an scannán seo a déagóirí agus stócacaigh go leor.

Ach, níl mórán suime agam ann. Ní raibh aon chúis gháire ann. Bhí dóigh leis gur mór an seo é.

Iarraidh an scannán a comhléadh-- is ciotach-- "scéal ridireachta na liúdramán" leis andúileach drugaí leis tóraíocht an ghadhai gan fios a dhatha. Ar ndóigh, d'éirigh leis. Mar sin féin, ní mhólann mé sé le seanfhondúir.

"Pineapple Express": Film Review.

I saw this with my family recently. My two sons love it. But, I wasn't pleased with it.

What happened? Well, the film bored me. It wore the life out of me, in truth.

The film blends lively action with brash comedy. It's filled with slackers. Therefore, this film appeals to a lot of teenagers and young single guys.

Yet, there wasn't any interest in it for me. There was nothing to laugh at. It was trying to be funny.

The film aims to fuse together-- most clumsily-- a "romantic saga of loafers/ lanky lazy people" [="bromance?"] with drug-fiends with "a pursuit for the rogue with knowing nothing" [="wild goose chase"]. Naturally, it was a success. All the same, I do not recommend it to an old-timer.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Grounded in the present moment

"To dwell in the here and now does not mean you never think about the past or responsibly plan for the future. The idea is simply not to allow yourself to get lost in regrets about the past or worries about the future. If you are firmly grounded in the present moment, the past can be an object of inquiry, the object of your mindfulness and concentration. You can attain many insights by looking into the past. But you are still grounded in the present moment."--Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power (HarperOne 2008)

I found this comforting. A student in my freshman Critical Thinking course just arrived here from Sri Lanka. Her English is challenged and her personality is shy. She confided in me by e-mail earlier this week how difficult she finds the level to which she must rise to do college-level work. Telling me she found it hard to cope, and how full of anxiety this made her, she then explained, unprompted, how she had been doing "Pirith" chanting as a Buddhist. I did not know what this was, but off the cuff after class, I tried to reiterate to her what Thich Nhat Hanh, via the link below read by me the day before from the Zen website below, advised us.

The end of next class this same week, I thanked her for her note. I told her I'd looked up the meaning of the adjective meanwhile. She responded with quiet pride that thanks to the inspiration of her professor taking up meditation, her husband, long resistant to her spouse's persuasions to chant, was now trying it himself. I wondered why the quick turnabout in his stance, but I left that to nuptial discretion.

As a "pirith" sample, she recommended on YouTube this video, by "Rathnamali Gatha with Sinhala meaning" superimposed. Its sound quality reminded me of my teenaged midnights with my face next to a shortwave radio. But my Corgi immediately-- even at the low level emanating from my laptop-- perked his own formidable ears and cocked his foxy head when he heard the chanting.

Courtesy of the Falling Leaf Sangha, c/o Ben Howard. Visit his blog on Zen practice, ""One Mind, One Moment": "One Mind, One Moment".

P.S. He wrote the same day I posted this an appropriate counterpart:
"It is not so difficult to adjust to one’s environment when, as now, a lean female cardinal is coming and going from our feeder, her orange beak and tan feathers catching the early-morning light. But it is not so easy when your driveway is filled with snow, the sidewalks are icy, and you’re already sick of scarves and parkas. Here in Alfred, New York, we know how to handle such conditions, but that doesn’t mean we like them." "Dropping into Awareness."

Photo: Dan Nussbaum took these in Silverlake Jan. 19th during the storms we have had lately. "RedBean1"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Swirl's "The Last Unicorn": Music Review

Don't worry about the title; this is no fey faux-faerie-folk, but a concentrated assault of aggressive shoegazing- postpunk- neo-psychedelic hard alternative mid-90s rock that knows when to hammer down and when to let up. Three Australians, a male guitarist who handles lead vocals [Ben Aylward], a female bassist who adds vocal backgrounds and takes lead on the folkier cuts as a welcome respite from the sonic intensity [Nicola Schultz], and a male drummer who pounds away with deceptive simplicity, the unsung hero of this record [David Ludd].

An hour long, apparently a song cycle long before Yume Bitsu or Surface of Eccyon had revived this suspected prog sub-genre, this works, that's all I can marvel at. If you can match the hazy woozy epics of Swervedriver with the obsessive clarity of Catherine Wheel with the scope of a stripped-down Boo Radleys, these peers will give you some triangulation. Yet, this does not feel like an imitative album. There's a fresh air of exploration and excitement. It delivers a jolt, yet keeps its focus on the horizon, and each track carries momentum that propels it to the next one, perfectly sequenced to convey the narrative of loss and gain and quest.

Far from giddy, yet removed from glumness and navel-gazing solipsism, this is a grand album that ranks highly among my favorite CDs, and the fact that this album seems to be totally unknown only adds to its allure, although this review is my own attempt to return my praises to where they're deserved. This band did not deserve whatever fate left it to (at least international) obscurity.

I posted the above 9-5-06 on Amazon US, the only review to date for a Swirl record. They are not listed in "All Music Guide," but here is a "My Space page." (An aside... Re: my continuing confounding by Amazon raters-- this has a very rare five-star rating, yet two out of four raters of my review gave it a negative vote!) Anyway, today, in my e-mail, I received this:

Thanks for your review of 'The Last Unicorn' by Swirl; you nailed it.

This cd is my favourite and I have many cds of shoegazer and Brit alt pop from 1990's on. It is great to see a Sydney band have its own take on this although, as you point out, they have their own sound that is not so easily categorized as shoegazer.

It was my pleasure to see them in Adelaide when they were touring this album and I was amazed at the racket three people could make; the guitarist sounded like 3 at once. Amazing and I walked out after the gig with a big smile on my face. They had another ep called 'On my own' after this and they were changing sounds slightly which made them even more interesting; a welcome newer direction and a cd well worth following up. They also had an earlier e.p. called 'Touch' which is excellent.

Unfortunately the bass player left and was replaced with another woman but the new cd was terrible [in my opinion]. A lot safer, commercial, and none of the sonic edge. I got rid of it after 2 listens and was bitterly disappointed. Still, one magnificent cd with ne'er a dud track on it is something quite special.

Adelaide, South Australia

P.S. Your blogger again: I cannot locate "On My Own" anywhere either; I do have the "Fade Away" ep which is rather redundant as all but its last cut, a so-so "Wicked Man," can be found on its main two releases, "The Last Unicorn" and the compilation of the "Aurora" and "Touch" ep's released as "Touch."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Roberto Bolaño's "2666": Book Review

Bolaño's five-part novel sprawls over Europe and Mexico, from WWII until now. The epicenter of Santa Teresa jolts those who investigate a serial murderer of women laboring at 'maquiladoras' in this stand-in for Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S. border. For a typical whodunit, look elsewhere. Truer to reality, characters walk off never to be heard from again, narratives digress and dead-end, and the plot inexorably expands as hundreds of characters enter it, some named but only given one line of dialogue, some given dozens of pages for their stories.

This structure may be intensified by the nearly finished condition of the manuscript left after Bolaño's death in 2003. Recalling Borges with its mixture of true titles with imaginary texts, and Umberto Eco in its determination to uncover the reasons for intellectual production beneath a cultural construction, "2666" roams over the traditions via Latin American and Central European novelists obsessed with popular indifference, or incorporation, of ideas within political and social corruption. This novel feels truer to life by its weary, roughened, off-kilter perspectives.

It must incorporate Bolaño's own physical decline and mental fever as he sought to finish this during his battle with his deteriorating liver. There's a dreamlike quality that pervades the shadows. These do not make this "magical realism" yet they heighten disturbing patterns that lurk behind the journalistic tones and more conventional registers that try to dominate this kaleidoscopic narrative.

It's nearly nine hundred pages, so I will share from four out of the five sections a sampler of these darker hues and oblique angles. Sue Norton, a scholar, notes in her English college how
"the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote." (9)

Certainly an hallucinatory quality neatly links the Western European mode early in this novel with the Mexican setting that will take over soon. We view this in a Chilean (like the author) emigré. Amalfitano teaches in Santa Teresa, where he "felt tired and overwhelmed by the landscape, a landscape that seemed best suited to the young or the old, imbecilic or insensitive or evil or old who meant to impose impossible tasks on themselves and others until they breathed their last." (205)
Oscar Fate, an African-American journalist, finds himself curious about evil in the city. He tries to follow the murder story. He leaves for the American side, El Adobe. The few tourists look like sleepwalkers by day.
"A woman in her seventies, in a flowered dress and Nike sneakers, was kneeling down to examine some Indian rugs. She looked like an athlete from the 1940s. Three children holding hands watched some objects displayed in a shop window. The objects were moving almost imperceptibly, and Fate couldn't tell whether they were animals or machines. Outside a bar some men in cowboy hats who looked like Chicanos were gesticulating and pointing in opposite directions. At the end of the desert were some wooden sheds and metal containers on the pavement and beyond them was the desert. All of this is like somebody else's dream, thought Fate." (347)

Florita the seer goes on local TV to tell of the murders. She channels visions that transform the ordinary into the unsettling.
"Old white haired, weak, barefoot, bearing an enormous burden, up mountain and down valley, over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken, through wind and storm, when it's hot and later when it freezes, running on, running faster, crossing rivers, swamps, falling and rising and hurrying faster, no rest or relief, battered and bloody, at last coming to where the way and all effort has led: terrible, immense abyss into which, upon falling, all is forgotten. And also: This, o virgin moon, is human life." (432)

This powerful stream-of-consciousness section is one of my favorites. It departs from the usual realistic style to remind us of the poetry that the author also is known for, and the quality of Natasha Wimmer's fluid translation throughout. Parts I skimmed rapidly, parts I plowed through slowly. Tones warp and narratives slow and race. Never for long will you be listening to one teller's sole version.

By section four, the killings never seem to end, and they confound many. Among them, Sergio González from Mexico City comes to cover the cases, but falters. Santa Teresa feels mired in conspiracy, trapped by silent secrets. People yearn for release. He wonders: "But what are 'good times'?" He muses: "Maybe they're what separate certain people from the rest of us, who live in a state of perpetual sadness. The will to live, the will to fight, as his father used to say, but fight what? The inevitable? Fight 'who'? And what for? More time, certain knowledge, the glimpse of something essential?" (563) This existential mood shrouds the entire novel; religion and ideology and criminology and critical theory: all falter and are found wanting.

In this implacable desert city, will it be impossible to solve the murders, or at least to stop them? You feel little of how serial killings on this scale of hundreds would have "really" gained attention in today's sensationalistic media, but as Bolaño sums up what weighs you down by each victim's story, you gain an appreciation for the horror, and then the tedium, that unites, perhaps, these cases in the manner of how the women are found and what was done to them, or not done. Ambiguity pervades this dense, readable, and truly mysterious tale. (Posted to Amazon US 12-24-09.)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Chaucer: Miller's Tale 3734

"He kiste her naked ers." This letter is already #7 on Google where I typed this line. I share it with you henceforth.

Re: All England
A letter in response to Joan Acocella’s article (December 21, 2009)
January 18, 2010

Related Links
Joan Acocella’s “All England”

Joan Acocella;
Geoffrey Chaucer;
The Miller’s Tale;
“The Canterbury Tales”;

As a long-time Chaucer scholar, I was delighted by Joan Acocella’s appreciation of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and her review of a new translation (Books, December 21st & 28th). However, the Miller’s Tale does not describe “an act of involuntary cunnilingus.” Acocella may read the event the way she does because Chaucer tells us that, upon kissing Alison, Absolon felt something like a beard. However, Chaucer is very specific about the placement of the kiss: he “kiste hir naked ers” (i.e., kissed her naked ass). He had other words to use for naming her sexual organ, including “queynte,” “bele chose,” “quoniam,” and “chambre of Venus” (all used by the Wife of Bath).

Saul Brody

Professor Emeritus of English
The City College of New York
New York City

Me again: You should be able to link to Acocella's review via this URL, but given the New Yorker's rather unpredictable website as to what it offers gratis, caveat web-viator."Re: All England" (Brody's letter w/link to Acocella)

P.S. Had to add this from "Babymama" at Yahoo's "Answers" forum.

Can someone give me a detaied summary over the millers tales?
it is part of the canterbary tales.. not sure how to spell it.. this story is so hard to comprehend i really need someones help

Luckily, "Babymama" was answered two years ago with a concise SparkNotes summary. Hope she wasn't in Prof. Brody's course at CCNY. More likely my level of student, if I ever got to teach Chaucer. Which I never did after my grad school T.A. stint, alas. Still, strange to me that "modern" translations must exist. I mean, is that line so hard to parse in everyday language today? However, Guy Deutscher in "The Unfolding of Language" reckons we're about the last generation to grasp most of Shakespeare, such is the drift of our demotic from his own. I wonder. Judging from "Babymama's" orthography we are returning to an earlier stage of phonetic (or more precisely, lazily rendered, thumb-texting meets stream-of-whatever-goes) English. Perhaps the grammarians like me who lament its state might take heart. Hart.

Illustration: Using the Middle English as keywords, only two matches, one usable. A dispiriting search of images for our colloquial equivalent in today's vernacular. The literal line matched this photo, but not the actual archived entry, at "Will Type for Food," a demented, semi-erudite, half-assed Aussie blog. I add-- given the first article there compares Joyce's "Ulysses" to a train timetable's readability-- that the blogger might think as did I of "KMRIA" from Aeolus. But I couldn't use that acronym for Chaucer's swains and swivers across the Irish, or is it Celtic, Sea.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dante astray: Inferno 1:2

"Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura." Sounds simple to translate. The second line of the poem takes us immediately into mystery.

Is it a dream-vision? Or a supernatural transportation? Does Dante, after he sees at its long end a hundred cantos later "the sun and other stars," come back from his divine journey to tell us? Of course, in one sense, for by the third stanza he notes how death might be closely allied to the retelling of his hellish pilgrimage, so bitter its relation again to us. Yet, I've always loved the ending of the final entry. Like, I don't know, the Matrix trilogy in its own metaphysical difficulties brought on by storytelling that winds up far from where it began, time-travel and alternate histories and fantastic visions confound our reality, and bewilder our senses as we try to account in a linear fashion what by its very nature eludes clarity. Or at least the predictability of our routine, from which dreams and fiction alike take us away into the mystic. Or so we hope.

As with the Matrix, I imagine if I tallied box-office returns, critical raves, or purchasers of the last DVD in the trilogy, you get less payback the more you proceed with the unfolding story. While the Wachowsky brothers earn less of a place on the shelf of immortals than our Florentine bard, at least by my reckoning, it's a lot more exciting to revel in the flaws of our foes and the torments we love to hiss than it is to sidle near the likes of Bernard and Francis in their awesome elevation into the empyrean. Most of us can relate better to villains than saints.

Therefore, I find fewer translations of Paradiso on my shelf, if slightly more of Purgatorio. As my doctoral dissertation covered that liminal concept in Middle English, the few who dared then to feign interest would mumble: "Is that in Chaucer? Is it like Dante?" I had to tell them respectively "not much" and "yes and no, as the English did not know of Dante directly, except perhaps for Chaucer himself." My professor and second advisor at UCLA, Henry Ansgar Kelly, averred that the greatest English poet of his century read Dante as part of his diplomatic mission to Italy, and probably was the first of his nation to learn the Italian vernacular, at least from that inevitable medievalist qualifier, "extant" evidence.

What brought me to take down ten, count them, renderings of the Inferno into our clunky demotic? Getting ready to send Alan, imprisoned up in Tehachapi, as I wrote about on our Christmas visit, a complete one-volume version with notes and commentary of Dante, for I feared him laboring through a plain-text, no help version he had of the Inferno-- agony for me would be stuck in a cell with no footnotes to a difficult text, but then I am no Protestant-- my eye fell at random on a sentence.

I had flipped open C.H. Sisson's translation from Oxford UP in its handsome edition, with lovely diagrams and charts, and David Higgins' introduction and notes. I had been double-checking that sufficient apparatus existed to help Alan gain elucidation. Higgins remarked: "The forest scene of Cantos I and II, constructed and elaborated with allegorical purpose, is given no geographically identifiable setting, unlike the location of Hell and Purgatory." You'd think, by our expectations, that the opposite might occur-- the terrestrial locale might be very recognizable, while the otherworldly directions might be far more uncharted.

"Yet here, in the forest of sin, an intrusion of the real dimension of space and time occurs, with a reference to a precise hour and season, as the ahistorical events of the opening cantos (I, II), give way to a historical journey through the Beyond, beginning with the Gates of Hell (Canto II onwards). The forest depicted here is a psychological or spiritual state, whereas Hell for Dante and his medieval public is a real location, under the earth." (p. 502)

Higgins reminds us of the medieval reversal: the otherworld more real than our own. This happenstance paragraph encouraged me to ponder how the second line of the Inferno might be rendered, and if a dream or a frustration, a vision or a panic, might dominate "mi ritovai."

"I found myself obscured in a great forest" C.H. Sisson. This depicts a visual element, as if the narrator is becoming blurred as well as the location that takes over his senses. There's an existentialist horror I sense within this erasure.

"I found myself astray in a dark wood," Seamus Heaney puts it. As I am less of a Heaney acolyte than many Irish lit crit types, I may confess this version, as is usual, seems to press too much of this interpreter upon the line. "Astray," as in Mad Sweeney, may however help shorten the explanation for an impatient modern reader. Heaney does have a knack for doing this, honed I am sure as a teacher of many.

"I found myself in dark woods," offers Robert Pinsky. Only he pluralizes the forest. Nicole Pinsky's notes explain the "tangled and dark" yet vivid elements of the first canto, and how their enigmatic meanings defy easy categorization. "Challenge and mystery" both sum up the quest: "The path Virgil suggests, and to which Dante agrees, is one where meaning will come in irregular pools and flashes, with effort, in a setting of uncertainty until the journey is done." (p. 377) Certainly a fitting metaphor for all of our life's directions.

"I found myself within a shadowed forest." Allen Mandelbaum's version, with Barry Moser's disturbing pen-and-wash drawings, has long been a favorite. Mandelbaum takes away a bit of the shroud, shadow and not dark. He also lightens slightly the moment of awareness-- or is it confusion?

"I woke to find myself in a dark wood" comes from Dorothy Sayers. She conveys a lively quality throughout. Her comradeship with the Oxford Inklings, Charles Williams and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, somehow echoes in her own spirited presentation.

"I woke to find myself alone in dark wood" John Ciardi. With one added word, he gets at the bewilderment. It reminds me of that lapse when you awaken from a vivid dream-- from where and into what?

"I came to myself within a dark wood." John D. Sinclair edges closer to my preferred rendering-- less a dream-vision's commencement, more a psychological jolt. He also notes, by the way, that without the committment to the whole venture, those who end with the Inferno reduce Dante's excursion to what would have been for him "meaningless melodrama." His prose version is rather stodgy with "dost" and "thou" for our tastes, but it keeps a stately, formal medieval register lacking in all the others I've sampled, if they are less than a tenth of those attempted into English over the long centuries. (The first complete translation came only with Henry Cary in 1814, although Chaucer refers to Dante in the "Wife of Bath's Tale" and paraphrases a bit of the Purgatorio, the basis for Professor Kelly's claim.)

"I came to myself in a dark wood." Robert M. Durling's recent Oxford edition may not have earned as much acclaim to date, but it gives, in its bulk, a nearly line-by-line scholarly yet clear commentary, and there Ronald L. Martínez notes a "traditional translation is 'I found myself.'" Yet, these editors favor the prefix ri- as an intensifier of "the inward nature of the event." I agree. They also observe that this line hints (as will line 11) at a dream-vision that begins with an awakening. They add that early illustrations gave a "'sleeping' poet-as-author" at the start of the tale.

As for me, I remain torn between the introverted and allegorical representation of the "selva oscura," as part fallen world, part sectarian strife, part existential exile. Mandelbaum typically hits the target: "It is the dark wood of life on earth when lived in sin; it is Dante's interior wood; and it is the wood of political darkness, of Florence, of Italy, of papal corruption, of the absence of imperial authority." (p. 334)

"I came to my senses in a dark wood." H.R. Huse's firm translation, the one I used in college when assigned this text, I was not expecting much from, such is its humble reputation. Yet, it comes in second on my list. I like its sharp, abrupt alertness; it resembles Sayers, a rough contemporary: a clipped tone that I admire.

Finally, over the sea, Belfast poet Ciaran Carson, attempting to capture his harsh city's rhythms and territorial divisions that echoed Guelf vs. Ghibelline, conveys: "I came to in a gloomy wood." This cuts the forest down to size, better suiting an Irish setting, in both the murky terrain and the hungover mood.

Art: Gustave Doré is inevitable for its haunting "mezzo cammin" in the middle of the way, but by now, no fault of his own, too familiar. I opted for Angelo Tracciata-Melunghi's "Virgilio," from his blog, in Italian. Not a wood but more of a hint of a wood, in a more arid and cheerless place even than a shadowed forest? It feels more medieval, as well as more Muslim, and certainly Mediterranean. We follow our guide into the labyrinth and towards the minotaur. It puts us into Dante's sandals. Lastly, I cannot copy another fine illustration, but see on Flickr this from Patchwork Bunny.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Ceist na Teangan" le Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Is maith liom an rann seo ar feadh breis agus fiche bliain. Scríobhann Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill faoi an chuinniúnt na Gaeilge. Cuireann sí an dán na teanga i gcompairáid leis an cliabhán na Mhaoise síos an abhainn Níl.

Rugadh sí i Sír Lanchain i sa bhlian 1952. Mar sin féin, chuir a tuismeitheoirí sísean féin nuair go raibh ach cúig bliana d'aois go Gaeltacht Corca Dhuibhne i gContae Chiarraí. Chónaigh Nuala lena haintín aici ann.

Chuaigh an cailín ansiúd mar sin go deisithe slán aici faoin tuatha. Ar ndóigh, d'fhoglaim Nuala Gaeilge ansin. Bhí cainteoir líofa go tapaidh.

De réir an alt fúithi le Vicipeid, "Nuair a d'fhág sí Corca Duibhne chun dul go dtí an tAonach ar dtús bhí ionadh uirthi go raibh teanga eile, seachas an Ghaelainn, á labhairt. Uair amháin labhair banaltra san ospidéal Béarla léi agus d'fhiafraigh sise dá hathair: 'Cad ina thaobh go bhfuil sí seo ag labhairt Béarla liomsa? Nach í seo Éire?'"

Inniu, tá sí ar tósach i measc fílí i Gaeilge. B'fhéidir, mbeidh sí a beidh ina dhá páirt léi anois. Ceapaim go raibh sí iníon bhFáro, mar éiríonn síos an teanga nua ina a láimhe go láidir. Measaim go mbeadh sí deirfiúr Mhaoise, mar cuireann suas an teanga sean go socair.

"Ceist na Teangan" le/by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Cuirim mo dhóchas ar snamh
i mbáidin teangan
faoi mar a leagfá naíonán
i gcliabhán
a bheadh fite fuaite
de dhuilleoga feileastraim
is bitiúman agus pic
bheith cuimilte lena thóin.

ansan é a leagadh sios
i measc na ngioicach
is coigeal na mban sí
le taobh na habhann,
féachaint n'fheadaraís
a dtabharfaidh an sruth é,
féachaint, dála Mhaoise,
an bhfóirfidh iníon Fhorainn?

This verse has pleased me during a period of more than twenty years. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill writes about the fate of Irish. She puts in a poem of the language a comparison with the basket of Moses down the river Nile.

She was born in Lancashire in the year 1952. All the same, her parents sent herself when when she was but five years of age to the Corca Dhuibhne Irish-speaking region in Co. Kerry. Nuala lived with her auntie there.

The girl went over there since she repaired her health in the countryside. Naturally, Nuala learned Irish there. She became a fluent speaker rapidly.

According to the article on her in [the Irish-language] Wikipedia, "When she left Corca Dhuibhne, she came to a Spring Fair to start her new place in another language, rather than Irish, to speak. One time a nurse at a hospital spoke to her in English and she asked her father: 'What side was she on speaking English to her? Was this not Ireland?'"

Today, she leads the field of poets in Irish. Perhaps, she may play two roles within herself now. I think she may be the daughter of Pharaoh, for she lifts up the new language in her arms strongly. I reckon she might be the sister of Moses, for she sets down the old language softly.

"The Language Issue" (tr. Paul Muldoon)

I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant

in a basket of intertwined
iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,

then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river

only to have it borne hither and thither,
not knowing where it might end up;
in the lap, perhaps,
of some Pharaoh’s daughter.

P.S. Plé Miceal Ó Mordha a saoirse iar-ciolíneacht agus feimini/ Michael Murray, in "Some Thoughts on the Poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill," emphasizes her post-colonial and feminist liberation; Tagann Beverly Parayno a beathnaisnéis i mbeagán focal/ Beverly Parayno, in a "Poetry International Web" entry, offers her brief biography.

(Léiriúchán/illustration: "An Cuireadh Mhaoise/The Finding of Moses," 1862, Frederick Goodall.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ag cur cuairt don chéad uair go Muir na tSaltún

Chonaic muid an láthair tógála a faigthe mar oidhreacht ó seanathair Lheon agus Niall faoi deireanach i ndiadh a bhás. Nach fhaca Léna an ionad sin riamh. Dhúisigh muid ar moch ar maidín. D'imigh le breacadh an lae. Fuair mé é, i dtrátha an mhéan lae, leis cabhair ó Mapaí Google, ina leath-díthreabh ar thoir na Muir na tSaltún.

An gcloiseann tú faoi loch salainn mór ina measc trá ghaineamh ar thuas na teorann Meicsicigh? Go minic, go cluintear de réir cladach lán leis iasc marbh agus uisce ro-sháile. Tá fírinne, go cinnte é.

Shiúl ár teaglach an trá folamh trasna talamh go déanta leis cnámha ó éisc Naomh Peadar (~tilapia). Líonann siad gach áit. Mheas muid go raibh sáile tirim ar dtús ansin. Ach, d'fhoghlaim muid go bhfuil ar tír ag líonadh leis mín agus luaith a dhéanamh na éisc bocht. Níl éisc eile máire inniu ina loch, mar go bhfuil ro-sháile. Éiríonn peileacáin suas an uisce marbh.

Thiomaint muid go láthair ag ceannaithe fadó le h-athair Lhéna. Sílim go ag tógtha sé an áit ar feadh i lár na Seasca. Thóg an foroinn na gCathair na tSaltún chomh ionad saoire an tráth sin. Léigh mé ag ainmithe cláir sráide le hómós de lucht réalteolaí na Gemini agus gluaistáin spraíul na Detroit.

Baineadh stad asam le hiontas. Tógann tithe nua máguaird. Ar gach taobh, faigheann tú an teacht stucó cothrom donn dul chun fásaigh. D'inis Léna orm go tógáil agus teacht suas duine Meicsicigh ansin. Tá praghas ar lascaine; níl tír i gcéin ann.

Mar sin féin, níl tithe go leor in aice leis an muir anois. Bhí tonn tuile ina Seachta. Mhil talamh riascach. Dhún cuan.

Beidh aimsir shamraidh is holc ansin. Bíonn gach lá 120F. Nuair chuir cuairt muid an lá sin sa meán lae na ngheimreadh, bhí sé 60F amháin.

Ar an laghad, ceapaim go bhfuil siocháin in amanna ansin. Tá mullach rósach ansuíd. Bhí spéir mhór as cuimse ag trasna an loch gorm duinn.

Beidh aimsir shamraidh ag dul in olcas luath nó moill ansin. Bíonn 120F i tseisúin dearg te sin. Nuair chuir cuairt muid an lá sin sa meán lae na ngheimreadh, bhí sé 60F amháin.

Fhilleadh muid ar ais ar ár bhaile an bealach difríúl le riamh. Chuaigh muid chun bóthair go bpairc náisiúnta Anza-Borrego. As bóthar, ach bhí maith linn an radharc tíre na gealaí ann.

Shrioch muid an baile turasóireachta na Shiulian, ach ní mhaith liom é i gcomparáid le gleann níos hálainn Naomh Isobel. Bhí cuimhne liom scéal le John Steinbeck ina gCalifoirnea níos ar thuaidh. Is brea liom cuasach glan agus go cuinn.

Dhún sean-mhisean Spáinneach go Pala de réir na Nollag (!); d'fhág muid go tapaidh mar raibh casino nua is mó go greanna ag éirí ansin anois. D'íth muid i mbruachbhaile dTemucula i mbialann Iodáileach. Ar fad, chríochnaigh muid triu ag bruachbhaile gan chríoch chéad mile agus dhá uair, go luath titim na hoíche, go gCathair na hÁingeal.

Paying a visit to the Salton Sea for the first time.

We saw the building plot that had been gotten by inheritance from Leo and Niall's grandfather recently after his death. Layne had never seen that location. We rose early in the morning. We left at the break of day. By the middle of the day, I found it, with help from Google Maps, in a semi-wasteland east of the Salton Sea.

Have you heard about the great salt lake in the midst of sands north of the Mexican frontier? Often, somebody hears on account of the shoreline full of dead fish and too-salty water. This is true, for sure.

Our family walked on the empty beach across land made of bones from St. Peter's fish (~tilapia). They filled every place. We thought that there was dry salt-water at first there. But, we learned that there's on shore filling with ground-up bits of poor fish. Other fish cannot live today in the lake, since it's too-salty. Pelicans rose up over the stagnant water.

We drove to the lot that was bought long ago by Layne's father. I judge that he obtained the place during the middle of the Sixties. The subdivision of Salton City as a holiday resort started at that time. I read the street-signs named in homage to the group of Gemini astronauts [cannot find this word, only "astronomers"] and to the sportive motorcars of Detroit.

I stopped in wonder. New houses are built all around. On every side, you see a flat brown stucco house in the barrenness. Layne told me that Mexican people come up and build there. There's reduced prices; the land's not faraway.

All the same, not many houses are there nearer the sea now. There was a tidal wave in the Seventies. Marshland was destroyed. The harbor (~marina) closed.

There will be summer weather getting worse sooner or later. Each day it's 120F at this red-hot season. When we paid a visit that day in the middle of the day in winter, it was 60F only.

At least, I think that there's peace there sometimes. There's a rosy summit beyond. There was a vast sky across the blue lake from us.

We returned back to our home by a different way than before. We set out on the road to the Anza-Borrego National Park. Out of way, but we liked the view of a lunar-like landscape there.

We reached the touristy town of Julian, but I didn't like it compared with the lovelier valley of Santa Ysabel. It reminded me of a story by John Steinbeck in a California farther to the north. It's for me a lovely hollow, green and quiet.

The old Spanish mission at Pala was closed on account of Christmas (!); we left quickly due to the ugly new massive casino rising there now. We ate at an Italian restaurant in Temecula. At last, we finished through the suburbs without end a hundred miles and two hours, after early nightfall, to the City of the Angels.

(Eolas as Béarla/Information in English: Alt faoi An Muir na tSalton le Joel K. Bourne ina Iris Geografach Náisiúnta/National Geographic Magazine article by Joel K. Bourne about the Salton Sea. Aiste ghrianghraf le Scot Londain/Scott London's photo-essay. Clár Vicipéid/ Wikipedia page. Foinse ghrianghraf/Photo source: Gerd Ludwig, NGS.)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Enter Moses: Exodus 2:1-25

I have volunteered to give at temple, where my son will next week conduct a celebration of his belated bar mitzvah, a "d'var Torah," a short talk on the week's "parsha" portion "Shemot" (Exodus 2: 1-25). It's the birth and early fortunes of Moses. Here it is.

This episode's always moved me, for I imagined Miriam setting down her three-month old infant brother, not weaned, too small to hide anymore from Pharaoh's cruel decree of decimation against the little lads who multiplied like grasshoppers. Yet, she had the courage and the compassion not to run away. "And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him." (4)

The same sensitivity conveys itself, in the next lines, within the princess as she comes down to bathe in the Nile. The wicker basket's called "tevah," a word used only one other time, when it means "ark" in the tale of the Flood. Its contents foreshadow the deliverance of a remnant of a people once again. As with Noah after the deluge, so will Moses deliver the Torah to the Hebrew refugees and they will carry it before them into their destiny and enshrine tablets as the Ark of the Covenant they make with their supreme lawgiver.

But all that is to jump outside the events rather severely compressed here. The backstory for Moses, the protagonist, gets delivered hastily. Moses' parents gain no line credit, and his siblings are not yet named. Neither Pharaoh's daughter nor the slave girl gain mention as individuals either. Still, these women play their roles well.

Miriam's quick thinking capitalizes on the daughter's pity. Moses' own mother must, heartbreakingly or lovingly both, see again and nurse awhile longer the son she abandoned for his own survival, somehow, in the little ark improvised of pitch and bitumen, the tar and slime of the ancient world. So, Moses does not find himself drifting among the bulrushes and crocodiles long at all. Yet, he must make for his mother and family a double parting, for when he grows up, he must again be taken-- now by his mother and not his sister-- to the royal court, again to leave him behind.

Only in verse ten do we hear a name: "Moses," playing on as the text explains "I drew him out of the water," even if later scholars caution that assonance rather than etymology accounts for what may really mean "born of" as in an Egyptian rather than a Hebrew name-- logically so, since the royal daughter invents this explanation for his moniker. Yet, he knows that despite his Egyptian name, he is part of his kinsfolk, and he reacts with righteous anger, if rashly so, to revenge himself fatally on an abusive Egyptian boss.

Then, his aggression backfires. His own tribesmen retort that they know his crime and they defy his attempt to stop their own bickering. Again, we understand how that the Hebrews, no less than Pharaoh, will not listen readily to Moses no matter what he insists in the name of justice. Moses does not flee his kinsfolk immediately, but he does despair as his cover is blown. Their taunts earn the attention of Pharaoh. Understandably, Moses then must flee into the desert of Midian, where the hero -- not for the first or last time in the Bible-- will meet an attractive woman at a well.

Moses seems destined to intervene. He's killed one man and angered two others, and now he hides from the law. Yet, he seeks the best for others again. He drives off the shepherds and defends Reuel's daughters who gather "to water their father's flock." (16) He is rewarded with Zipporah, whose name means "bird," and their son Gershom gains another playful title, coming from the Hebrew "to drive out"-- for Moses now has been exiled from his own homeland.

The parsha ends with the death of that pharaoh, and the cries of Moses' kinsfolk that seem, finally, to be heard by their God. Suddenly "God remembered His covenant" and "looked upon the Israelites and "took notice of them." (25) They had been so long under slavery that their inarticulate cries "rose up to God," which suggests that they had no idea of their God by then.

The Hebrews will encounter their Creator, but as a harsh Lawgiver as well as tough Liberator. Under God's guidance, and His punishment as Moses among his freed slaves again disobey divine commands, Moses will never, we will find out much later, reach the Promised Land. He is trapped even after he leads his people from the "narrow place" that is "Mitzrayim,***" or Egypt. He will never be truly at home. He grows up in a foreign palace by the Nile, but then he must wander long in the desert beyond "the narrow place" where he was first set afloat in the little basket called an ark. He seeks freedom, but we wonder if he ever found lasting peace in the vast, terrible desert that sheltered him, first in Midian and then as Sinai.

P.S. Illustration. Tempted as I was by Edwin Long's dusky bare-breasted bathing beauties from (post-)Victorian decadent splendor, and Sir Laurens Alma-Tadema's Orientalist brighter louche languor, this image from the Dura Europos synagogue ca 200 CE seemed most appropriate via " Bible Women: Pharaoh's Daughter". All three artworks can be found there. It also explains the midrash about the miracles surrounding this event, and why Gabriel had to slap Moses to make him cry.

***P.P.S.I found out later this service that "Mitzrayim" relates to "tsra" in Hebrew, "to become narrow," and then to Yiddish as "tsuris," "trouble or difficulty." A word I learned early on in my relationship with my spouse.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Margaret Clarke, Irish painter

Her painting, "Christmas Gifts," from 1948, at the Limerick City Gallery on Pery Square, there crammed in rather delightfully in a tiny museum stacked floor to ceiling with frames, arrested my attention within a crowd of contenders. The girl sits, the dollar bill from America and the toy plane-- a gift from there? a memento from here-- a reminder of her own future, paralleling or diverging from the writer of the letter home. I realized after writing this entry's draft that my birth-mother, born a couple hour's drive from this museum, then living in Belfast through past WWII, was about the same age as this girl-- ten or eleven-- at least when this portrait was painted by Clarke.

Frank McCourt, decades before his own career as a writer began, would have left Limerick for New York about the time this was painted over in Dublin. The City Gallery of Art near People's Park sits in a far more elegant setting than the slum it was when Frank grew up around the corner of Pery Square-- near the bus station that may well have been his first leg of his family's emigration before WWII.

Margaret Clarke fits into the period of art I seem to gravitate towards, perhaps from my young encounters with WPA murals from the Depression in local post offices in Burbank, Pomona, and Claremont, over here. I took a quiz on which 20c decade fit me best, and the '30s it was. José Alfredo Siquieros and Diego Rivera, or the he-man engineers of the Griffith Observatory depicted, speak to me of a proletariat pride, a socialist ideal, and a folkloric motif that despite its "realism" so distorted by Popular Front ideology at times as to veer into agitprop, still enchant the part of me that saw such ambitious instruction to we the huddled masses as my first public art. Eric Gill, David Jones, some of Jack B. Yeats, a bit of Rockwell Kent, and especially Stanley Spencer in all his distorted mystical perspectives convey to me the drawings and engravings and illustrations in half-recalled library books.

Clarke comes out of this ferment, among what in Ireland during the emergence of a halting independence must have resonated oddly with the prevailing Catholic ethos. Modernism and leftist yearning appear to my untutored eye to jostle against reality. The basics of her life can be summed up at the ambitiously titled "Encyclopedia of World & Irish Art" and the more modest "Ulster History Circle."

Born 1884 in Newry, Co. Down, neé Crilley. Died 1961 and buried at Greystones, Co. Wicklow. A long career as an art teacher in Dublin, where her paintings from 1913-53 were shown at the Royal Hibernian Academy, where she was a member from 1927. Married to stained glass master Harry Clarke in 1914, after 1905-11 as an award-winning protegé to William Orpen.

To me, her art shares with theirs a boldness in its execution and a directness in its color. Like Orpen, nudes in a rather frank, pre- or post-coital display appear, to me at least, to comprise her studies of the female form. She used her children and family for many models. Like Seán Keating, as in her 1917 "Mary & Brigid" on my blog's right-side panel, you can see Clarke's combination of a rurally based setting with a dynamic, confrontational aggression that places the gaze of those under scrutiny giving you, via the artistic medium, as close a look as she gave to them. She shared with her colleagues a love for oils, and how to unlock their power. This softer "Interior of a Room" (ca. 1920) shows her talent at light and shadow with less of a figure--her husband's in their studio-- to fill the frame and more of a mood to suggest.

I wonder who viewed her nudes, yet at the RHA, even in the censorious times of the Irish Free State they found exhibition. Perhaps her husband's acclaim and her own continuation after his 1931 death of his stained glass gallery allowed her to continue her own career? She did portraits of Éamon de Valera, Lennox Robinson (a study that resembles me I might add, once upon a less grey time), and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, so she must have stayed on the side of the right men in power. Not much can be found about her later decades, from my admittedly cursory examination.

Here are two nudes I did find for you to compare.

This first "Nude" was sold at auction in 2004. The woman appears more Spanish than conventionally "Hibernian," certainly what my parents called "black Irish," and it suggests Goya's splendid "La maja desnuda" if in a more downward glancing, less come-hither gaze. if not that, at least in her coiffure.

This "Reclining Nude" auctioned off in 2006 shows an oddly unsettling pose, as much pain as pleasure. The ambiguity between rictus and rapture, between prolongation and alleviation of the body's demands, makes a statement I find almost Gothic in tone.

For a clothed woman, as with Goya's "La maja vestida," the contrasts are evident. See her 1926 "Ophelia."
I like this less. It reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite William Morris with "Guinevere" awakened from her debauchery, the cat still curled in rumpled bed, along with Holman Hunt's allegorical "The Awakened Conscience" in its dotty mien of our (former) maiden. Her cat's underneath the table. No felines for John Everett Millais' waterlogged, flowerladen virgin. But, speaking of Gothic elements, the madness and the black dress do make a statement. See also a painting I featured in my blog post on "An Exegesis of Squalor? Magic via Shambhala?" for sartorial parallels and emotional resonance. I suspect if in my ignorance that Clarke's modelling herself in both paintings, given the fashion and the predicament of a woman caught and finding herself wanting in a harsh age surrounded by a vindictive audience.

Thanks to the long arm of the bishop's crozier? Clarke may have had to make amends. Via a fine blog, "Rainbow Stamp Club," that reminds me of another boyhood visual influence, postage stamps, here's another contribution to Irish culture, a more practical one too, nearly fifty years after her long life ended: 2009 issue. It's based on her painting of Patrick climbing the holy mountain Croagh Patrick in Mayo, for Lá Fhéile Phadraig, St. Patrick's Day. I hope this was not exacted in elderly restitution for her earlier nudes.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

An Exegesis of Squalor? Magic via Shambhala?

Flann O'Brien subtitled "The Hard Life" the first phrase. Its epigraph: Pascal's "all the trouble of the world comes from not staying alone in one's room." A minor novel, but this lament's a major impact on my formation.

Last night in my bedside novel to relax by, Kurt Andersen's "Heyday" set in 1848 Manhattan, Yanks at a saloon sneer at Irish. One Knickerbocker expounds. The Micks perch in their cabin, worrying about selling the chicken's eggs to buy tobacco. They sit and puff. Peat smoke rises. They "adjust to their squalor" rather than rising above it. This is the Gaelic way. They tilt the chair before the fire in their hovel lower, so they can slouch in it, puffing away; hearth smoke wafts over their heads. I add that in Gaeilge, the verb "caith" can mean "to wear, to spend, to throw off, or to smoke" as in "tobac," as well as a helping verb akin to "must." A typically thrifty use by a poor people of a single word to do a lot of common tasks in squalor.

But, this meditation on squalor made me wonder. Might we conflate "sitting," what Zen calls "zazen," with the pipe-smoking peasant, the lazy loafer despised by the cosmopolitan New Yorker? Upstate, Ben Howard at "One Time, One Meeting: the Practice of Zen" in "Silence & Intimacy" ruminates elegantly on the extraction of wonder from the altered perspective, the measured contemplation. Perhaps by taking a break, if not (alas) living my life in such ease that I'd never have to leave my rocking chair let alone my room, we can attain a state of heightened awareness, even without the stimulation of nicotine or spirits-- at least in distilled form? I note in passing the fate of Beckett's "Murphy" after he sought in his garret an off-beat enlightenment, through his energetic sitting and swaying to-and-fro.

My wife noted as I pecked away at the blog entry I will duly link to below: "You never goof around. You're always doing something." This made me stop. I've been advised lately to take it easier. This blog and my Amazon US reviews (despite a string of nasty negative "first votes" entered in new entries there that annoys me no end) will not go away. My work demands daily attention, on-line when not on campus. The long arm of Orwellian surveillance in the sleeve of 24/7 educational access grabs me. I weary of its power, 2010, not the millennial freedom hoped for.

However, the past couple of years I've tried to channel my tendency to mope into one to channel my energies productively. Before I got used to writing bit by bit via e-mail, I could not compose on a machine. I'd handwrite before scrolling sheet into typewriter. Fifteen years later, if slowly for both processes, I think as I type, for better and worse. This strategy focuses me upon what I read and what I encounter. I hope it sharpens my acumen. I used to retain far less of what I now reflect upon. I hope that I've improved my intellect as well as deepened my insights.

Still, I rush so much some days at teaching, commuting, and sheer doing what must (as in that auxiliary verb "caith") be done that lies beyond my power to change. Space or time to sit and stay still even five minutes flees from my grasp where I work. I might grab only fortune cookie advice. That old Desiderata on a poster, first glimpsed circa '72 in some Lake Arrowhead cabin, that worn AA imperative. How much of my vaunted learning, acquired at such sacrifice for so many years that were my youth, can be reduced now to a platitude?

Yet, proverbial wisdom of the scripture or that peasant puffing away endures longer than Foucault or Freud may among my former grad school colleagues in their tenured surety. I find as I try to mature that my needs to accumulate, impelled by the economy domestically in more ways than one as well as my own happiness with the books I can get from a library and the music I have formidably amassed already, can suit me fine in my own room. And here, I am trying to adjust to diminished expectations that can, as with Pascal, open a glimpse of eternity to a skeptic.

And since I've sat in my rocker upstairs, I have watched for over six months spring's blossoms of jacaranda puff and plummet, little lavender rockets returning to earth, if and for a second. The bougainvillea imperceptibly burst into crimson, from summer through whatever autumn we missed due to "climate change" as winter hesitates. Fewer leaves fell last autumn. I thought as I watched our cats on the peeling yellow and green faded wobbly deck that if a bird alighted on a branch, that might be peak experience enough. And, at the very top of my angle of vision, at that moment, a sparrow did on the fading dappled foliage of our pepper tree.

I concluded a few days ago about energies passing and magic within them, maybe. As my possible reductio ad absurdam of all my accumulated belief. Summa theologica sed tantillus modicum mihi? Medieval intellectual history and Irish literary criticism surround me at my computer downstairs. Is it a slow arrival of hard-won revelation after all?

Now, others weigh in on what Westerners may castigate but Easterners may cultivate. "Tamerlane" via his posts and comments to "Liberal Rapture" in a response on my recent "Credo Quia Absurdum?" guided me to a concept I'd never heard of. Although I've read a fair bit about Chögyam Trungpa's "Crazy Wisdom" inculcating dharma to the counterculture, I'd barely heard of his later innovation of "Shambhala Training." In fact, I'd criticized Jeffery Paine's "Re-Enchantment" (how Tibetan Buddhism came to the West) as barely mentioning what to me seemed a very significant secularized adaptation.

"Tamerlane" informed me on Facebook under my own blog entry's feed:
Westernized buddhism treats the magical spirits know as "Drala" as 'magic' but not 'magical' as in 'supernatural. If one is aware, one can encounter and appreciate drala all the time - in the meticulous grooming of a cat, a formation of clouds, the way the light casts a rainbow on the wall - all magic.

His eloquent observation sent me in search of "drala." Bill Scheffel's "Western Mountain" attests to a man living the courage of his convictions. His explanation impressed me, in his own exegesis gleaned by his own chosen poverty-- a more ethically rigorous vocation than a peasant or Dublin student's inert squalor-- tabbed there at his website under "Drala Principle." This webpage came up second in my inquiry, after Seattle-based Philip S. Rosemond's "Shambhala Training Glossary." That's a more complex, advanced overview of Trungpa's scheme as taught in the primer "Tamerlane" recommended, the 1984 (speak of auspices) "Shambhala, Sacred Path of the Warrior." More, of course, can be found about the retreats and centers via this URL.

P.S. As an introduction to Flann O'Brien, Fintan O'Toole's "Oblomov in Dublin" recommended.

Illustration. Opted for an alternative to a curled kitten, cheery buddharupa, or a cherry blossom. This morning, I'd been mulling over an Irish artist whom I admire, in the few paintings I've seen on-line after being dazzled by the one on display at Limerick's City Gallery next to People's Park years ago. I will write more about her soon, Margaret Clarke (1888-1961). She's a protegé of a similarly bold creator, William Orpen. Like him, she excelled at nudes, but I decorously feature on my blog's "installation" her 1917 "Mary & Brigid" as representative of her style. So far, not even sure of the title of her painting at the top of this post, but what a find, considering this may have been unveiled in the early years of the Irish Free State, the same one Flann satirized so memorably. Is that Maud Gonne? So far, all I can cite: "Darling Margaret: A Look at Orpen's Favourite Pupil." Frontispiece to an article by Hilary Pyle. Irish Arts Review, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring, 2007), pp. 86-91. I cannot access JSTOR, but any of you can, kindly let me know more. You must see it larger than I can reproduce it here, at its "Stable URL."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Can books (or blogs) loosen our electronic leash?

Pico Iyer, a writer I envy for his charmed life, reflects on how this decade's bombarded us with increasingly noisy levels of unprecedented access to information, in "Tyranny of the Moment,". It's a solid essay, advocating again the need for us to immerse ourselves in more lasting pursuits between pages and with each other than tapping away as I am now at the keys to churn out what you at your computer then peruse. He reminds the few of us who may still buy books, beyond the diet/inspiration/self-help treatise, the ghostwritten bio, the scandal and/or politician du jour, of the need, well, to read books. Globetrotting, funded, touted, I do agree with him despite the privileged perch from which he addresses us few literate peons. He addresses our remnant who turn to book reviews in a remnant of our Sunday "Arts & Culture" section, for we in L.A. no longer deserve a separate Book Review pull-out. Most of you elsewhere may never have expected us out here to have had one any time.

Iyer's also unsurprising in his mandarin mien at how we wallow in entertainment. Without the book tours and promotional pictures on book jackets and Facebook tie-ins that he decries yet thrives by himself, I doubt I'd've heard of and then read and posted my review of his relationship with the Dalai Lama, "The Open Road." So, the fealty he and I and you by scanning this on your chosen monitor pay to the idols of the marketplace may be both our punishment and our pleasure if we wish to sustain the promise of a semi-intellectual, somewhat-informed slice of the demographic.

The other day I wrote a friend of my wife's who reviews for the L.A. Times regularly, and who's published three novels. I opined that many current reviewers seemed to spout off too much on the subject and not the book, or, worse, about themselves. The results often appeared to me anodyne. (I sell my own self cheaply-- to Amazon and here on this blog for nothing, and the occasional academic publication that may or may not afford me a review copy gratis.) The flabbiness of much of book reviewing in mainstream media-- I direct you reluctantly, as she does not merit more P.R., for a worse-case scenario to the train wreck that is Sandra Tsing Loh in her last two entries in "The Atlantic"-- may attest, as Iyer laments, to a decline in how far we can stretch our networked multitasked addled attention spans. We already munch too much low-fiber bread and as we watch the circus cult of celebrity. Inflated by puffery than bloats authors, and those who roll the (b)logs and crack the whips on talk shows and book signings, as prostitutes for promotion.

Beneath it all, the "reality TV" mythos that takes over so much of this past decade's energy, we discern a shabby rush for not only instant recognition but lasting fame. I learned how one of the Jackson brothers in their own pandering "A Family Dynasty" hesitated on camera (was this scripted?) to cash in on a "reunion tour" so soon after Michael's demise, but was persuaded by his siblings. By the end of the episode, high-fives all around as they congratulated themselves on their business acumen. They also bemoaned their inability to walk down a street unmolested by fans, a dubious claim, but one that the show itself appeared to promise to change into the very notoriety that they claimed to wish to avoid. A telling metaphor, or tangled one. Certainly they lack an underlying philosophy, recollection off stage, of how they should conduct themselves in the wake of the funeral procession, among the baked meats (or caviar trays) after their need to generate cash after the cow died. The profits must accrue; I pass a billboard over an industrial barrio for "The Jacksons" on my way from work. Four middle-aged, portly, beaming brothers dressed like gangsta pimps. Role models for us, stuck in post-Christmas traffic. Ho ho ho.

So much for holiday jeremiads, a specialty of mine. Alongside egghead (should they be egg-nogged?) tirades. Back to the personal touch.

In "The Tyranny of the Moment," Iyer concludes: "
Define happiness, someone asked me recently. Absorption, I said instantly (it was an e-mail interview), and anything that gives me an inner life and a sense of spaciousness, intimacy and silence. The world is much better for many of us now than it was 10 years ago, and I never could have dreamed so many of us would have so many kinds of diversion, excitement and information at our fingertips.

But information cannot teach the use of information. And diversion doesn't teach us concentration. Imagine a seven-hour-long heart-to-heart with someone who's been saving up all her life for what she's about to whisper in your ear. The medium that has been dying the whole century may be one way we can rebel against the hidden dictatorship of Right Now."

Dictatorship does exert control, and technologically this medium exacts compliance. I weary of bosses who track that I check in wherever I am daily online, of electronic teaching that never ends when I leave the classroom, of an employee inbox that fills with Priority To All red-flagged demands for responses as of yesterday.

On the other hand, at the same contraption but by my own volition, I find that a handful of blogs reward me. More benefits to recollect in tranquility, compared to the instant pecking out "going to sleep now" @374 people? For me, blogs may be the infant heir to the Tatler exactly three centuries ago-- coffeehouse chatter that elevates (or even may expand) itself as essays, articles, tirades, and reviews. Sir Richard Steele's thrice-weekly magazine lasted from late 1709 to January 1711, however. Less than two years: the shelf life of many a startup or e-zine.

That generation gap and the stylistic registers granted, I do encounter fine prose out on the Net. Often erudition and humor join, and commentary on politics and culture appears that I'd have no idea about otherwise. As with any medium, thus for me its defense. For example, a new Follower here to whom I was introduced to by a blogger in the list below told me on Facebook about her sister's film project from a decade ago that intersects, perhaps, with my current Celtic-oriented research.

I make my rounds to click on (inter alii) my Northern English colleagues "Bo" at "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" (by invitation) & "The Cantos of Mvtabilitie" (open) and "Vilges Suola" at "Lathophobic Amnesia"; Irish journalist Anthony McIntyre at "The Pensive Quill"; Irish author Tony Bailie at "Ecopunks". Add to these upstate NY-based poet-critic Ben Howard's calm "One Time, One Moment: the Practice of Zen"; fellow Angeleno (if a USC and not UCLA grad) John W. Smart's feisty "Liberal Rapture"; and San Franciscan (adjacent) Lee Templeton-- who migrated with her beloved iPhone to FB but I gently remind her that she should keep up the blog equivalent for her own globetrotting eloquence at "The Templeton Chronicles"-- these correspondents who've become my friends (some in person after meeting them on the Net) epitomize for me intelligent voices that I check in with regularly, if not daily. (I also miss another blogger's presence who's a year on now "Gone Fishin'"-- you know who you are.)

After I typed that list of URLs, on Facebook I found two relevant articles uploaded. I shared them with some of the above. John Burns on 20 Dec. asks in the (Irish) Times Online: "Where have all the Irish bloggers gone?". Political coverage there apparently stagnates as journalists drift off to Tweet. Meanwhile, the huddled masses over here keep breathing free, if through their mouths, according to Chris Hedges over on 13 Nov. at "Forget Red & Blue-- It's the Educated vs. the People Easily Fooled by Propaganda".

Is the democratic surge predicted by Netizens a decade ago coming to pass, or has it passed? Do we lack even the patience to keep up with a blog, or to keep one up? For me, the past year has brought me into a spirited debate often on "Liberal Rapture," and kept me from ranting so much over here. (John Smart, who presides over it, mentioned to me in following up on the "Forget" article above, that he thinks come mid-term elections, U.S. bloggers will rally.) I often agree with my fellow LR commenters but often I do not, and for that, I gain perspective and challenge my own preconceptions. The comments on such blogs form their own vibrant community that adds to the learning and arguing that enriches us. These observers of the Right Now provide me with rich opportunities for cultural, academic, and political insight.

Finally, my wife's weekly entries, all 2000 or so words each Friday afternoon, at "CasaMurphy" do cap off every turn of the moon's shadow in fine fashion. Seeing myself reflected eerily in her own descriptions as "Himself" does make me both humbled and happy. Chastened and chosen. It's a bracing exercise each weeks for this mortal to see myself-- harried father, (im)patient husband, erstwhile recluse, hapless housekeeper, wearied worker-- as at least one Other sees me.

They may not be quite the "seven-hour heart-to-heart" that Pico Iyer imagines should supplant our status updates. Yet I find that some of those listed above, when I've met them in person, have engaged with me in nearly that long a conversation, our previously amassed dialogues online a prelude for the face-to-face connection. Also, better than even a tete-á-tete, blogs provide a permanence that I'd argue needs to remain against the tyranny of the moment. On Facebook or the Twitter, the latter not used by phone-phobic me, these moments pass as live feeds then fade. I'll stick with this blog for a more ruminative, less hurried, archived and reasoned forum to talk and listen with you all. I'm glad you keep me company as followers and commentators.

P.S. I found this letter in today's L.A. Times, but from its print edition only, tellingly. Littlerock CA's D. W. Kreger in "Tweet-Spaced to distraction" muses how Iyer got the tyranny backwards. Modern media rather than keeping us locked in Iyer's "windowless cell of the present," shackles us "perpetually addicted to distraction, which actually keeps us from being fully present in the moment. From an Eastern meditation perspective, blogs, tweets and the 24-hour news cycle are like a reverse meditation, which uses distraction to keep us locked out of the here and now."

(Illustration: Edel Rodríguez for the Iyer article, Dec. 20, 2009, L.A. Times. Its caption-- "Can Books Loosen the Electronic Leash?"-- I amended for my own title.)

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010: my obligatory nod

New Year's = Mortality. As a teen, some floats for the Rose Parade were assembled and foliated around the corner, the nights before the festivities, when they would be driven up Temple City Boulevard and then a few more miles to Colorado Blvd. into Pasadena to appear before half a million enraptured (I went once and froze with boredom and chills) locals and the seemingly billion other Americans shivering until they found out that SoCal was warmer and that they'd be leaving Boise or Buffalo, Decatur or Des Moines, the next day to crowd our freeways and clear what few orange groves still endured, at least when I was a teen. In adulthood, I would do a ritual. I'd flick on a T.V. a few seconds, long enough to say I'd "seen" the stupifying parade, and that'd be it for duty. I don't do it anymore, nor do I care about the Rose Bowl, given UCLA's malaise.

My birthday comes half a year after, or before, Christmas, so I get a well-spaced twice-annual reminder of time's passing. How do I spend New Year's? It's about as scintillating as a birthday, but with no presents to open. Got to sleep very late; before midnight, classic rock I've heard 4,327 times before booming from the bail-bondsman's ugly house up the street, then echoing rap and house rumbling after the turnover for over another hour. Noisier than usual around here. I usually get awakened by firecrackers, mumble greetings to my slumbering spouse, and yell it to my sons, if they happen to be downstairs. As teens, one will be gone this year at his friend's (we hope) house; the other, to date, shares my homebody instincts and also my general resignation to time's swift chariot's passing.

Yesterday morning, feeling like Eeyore, I brooded about the supposed new decade-- we cheat with a nine-year "decade" so eager are we to get rid of the "Noughts" or "Oughts" to jump nearer our calendar teens. My boss asked me at a performance review interim meeting how I'd say these new years: as "Two thousand and ten etc." or "Twenty-ten, etc." I replied I had not given it any thought yet. It occurs to me now to compare how we pronounce the title of "2010" vs. "2001: A Space Odyssey."

As with Orwell's "1984," or the Y2K bug (I welcomed the threat as we got two days off work in case the computers tanked, but I did miss the party my wife and kids enjoyed as I slept on my doddering dad's couch to keep him company. I lasted until 10 and went to sleep.), we get instant obsolescence, similar to how those filmic representations of computer monitors and future doom look so dated in retrospect.

I know how Orwell switched the 1948 to 1984 to make a point; so may 2001 invert to 2010 for Clarke, I suppose-- so much for predictions vs. the present, endlessly repeated? The 1984 film version, I remember approvingly, kept the antiquated '40s Stalinist-Socialist Realism in decay aura that will in turn endure better than Pan Am and Bell's product placement shall from "2001." Leo noted the other day how in a snip of "A.I." a thousand years on, we still see the Twin Towers above the ice's assault. So much for our prognostications so far into this new millennium, whatever we'll call the next chunk of Time, chopped into ten, or nine, years.