Friday, October 31, 2008

Tony Bailie's "Ecopunks" blog.

Irish cultural criticism-- via a blog aptly titled as that's his newest novel-- of a type dear to my own heart: poet ("Coill," from Lapwing Publications), journalist ("The Irish Times" in Belfast), and novelist ("The Lost Chord," from Lagan Press). Tony combines many interests I share, and that's how I met him on the Net! He searched over a period the mystical philosopher John Moriarty, the band The Fall, Francis Stuart, Northern Irish punk, and Irish electric folk such as Horslips: he found that "Fionnchú" had posted on more than one of his own favorites.

I note on his "shelf" Hugo Hamilton's new novel "Disguise," on my wish list, still awaiting publication in overseas. We share our admiration for the Pogues, and I see along with Mozart's Requiem such finds as Liam Ó Maonlaí's innovative CD "Rian" and Horslips "The Táin" and all the ones from the Undertones-- even their last LP? I had even linked here to his own interview a while back with Moriarty. So, after finding me over the years in repeated googling, he contacted me. We've been corresponding about tapas, Gnosticism, and Valley Girl accents ever since.

One of the pleasures of this blog is the few, but loyal, readers I have linked up with in cyberspace. The odds of finding out who you can muse with about learning Gaeilge, thrillers featuring unhinged loyalists, ties between ancient Éire and India, folk-rock from 1970s Ireland, or modern-day misled wannabee Druids prove slim, when navigating the line at the corner market or office water cooler. So, I count a few among my blog links to people I have never seen, or whom I've only met in person after a web friendship. Today I add Tony's "Ecopunks" to this shortlist.

I find it another coincidence that the name of his feckless and dashing protagonist in "The Lost Chord," rock-folk's Gino Mongan, shares the "tinker" surname and Connacht origins of my great-great grandmother. It's a very old name even by Irish standards, from Manannan Mac Lir, and tied to early sagas. Gino recalls Rory Gallagher-- about whom Tony blogs-- and of course Phil Lynott, but his creator also told me, as I found when reading about his band Dúil's immersion into the trad scene midway in their rock career-- many halls of mirrors opening into the adventures of Horslips here as well.

Reviewing "The Lost Chord" on my blog last summer and also on the British and U.S. Amazons, I admired its avoidance of the pitfalls of the rock-star saga. It captures the mood, rather, of the sidekick, the aftermath of a near-brush with greatness, the recollections of one who backed up the prancing celebrity in his spotlight. His just-up, spot-on blog gives the first chapter of that book. It's there alongside a piece on Rory, the Moriarty interview, as well as ones with John O'Neill of Derry's Undertones, NI punks Rudi, and Terri Hooley, Belfast pioneer of the bands' original label Good Vibrations. I see by labelling my own post now how many phrases I have in common with Tony's "Ecopunks." See for yourself! This link's also at your right-hand side.

Re: Image. Personally, the only one of Tony's first five entries so far, I never got into Rory, but I recognize his impact. My first friend in grad school had been a Mormon missionary, at the height of the Troubles, in both Limerick and Belfast. Along the way through his Irish itinerary, one door opened to him: that of Rory's mother herself. As one who never could, unlike the Edge, play the blues, I guess I must stand aside for those better gifted in this intricate, mythologized genre. The new Harper's Magazine, apropos, has a fine article by John Jeremiah Sullivan, "Unknown Bards," about collectors, scholars, and critics of the Delta varieties of the blues.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What's the Matter with Sarah?

Reading the trifecta of 1) Anthony McIntyre's post on "The Pensive Quill," 26 Oct. 2008: " "A Pitbull with Lipstick", and 2) commenting on it yesterday and 3) getting a pair of e-mail response from his partner on my comment, I expand, inevitably, the circle here. My own partner posted "Trick or Treat" yesterday to which I of course posted too. So, my entry here may be a précis or a rehash, depending on your critical level.

First, a snippet from "The Pensive Quill":
Ultimately, I don’t really care who wins the US election. I don’t believe it will seriously lessen the threat posed by the country to world peace. McCain/Palin value the supremacy of the free market whereas Obama/Biden would place some cosmetic curbs on it. After the result the poor will stay at the bottom and the rich at the top. The charge that Obama is a Marxist is nonsense but only in economic and philosophical terms. There is a disturbing dictatorial style to the Democrats’ campaigning so in tune with the Marxist mind. The character maligning, censorship, vote rigging, the cult of the personality are all reasons to feel alienated from Obama.

I reacted to this favorably, from a true radical in the "root" sense and certainly his own sort of community organizer in a far tougher neighborhood than even Southside Chicago. On his blog, my comment followed an earlier reader who hailed Obama. The man posting feared a loss on the part of voters of "moral courage" which would fail to grant Obama victory. My own musings proved predictably more acerbic. A sample:
"Moral courage" is not the only issue facing educated voters; it's sheer lack of experience on Obama's part-- I predict another one-term Jimmy Carter nice guy in over his head-- vs. utter disgust with the usual rich white guy-- of either party.

Any idealism in McC has long vanished as he kowtowed to the pro-Palin crowd. Yet, the majority of the U.S. media has done its damnedest to both paint any who speak out logically against placing too much confidence in the Dems as sort-of covert racists who cannot stand a (half-)black man in charge. Similarly, the massive hero-worship-- from my vantage-point-- has distorted Obama from the lesser of two evils into the next messiah, although the near-universal jubilation in his First Coming will surely lead to Calvary for millions soon enough. He's beholden to so many powerful people that he will not be able to act on his own. Same as it ever was? I'm tired already of the idolatry.

From my correspondent in Ireland, her perspective had been filtered through the intimidation faced by her and her family as they stood up to a double threat: the British security state and Sinn Féin's own manipulation of the people on the street, whether they supported or opposed the party. For, with the leadership who bullied and cajoled their way into power-sharing with the establishment they once had sworn to overthrow, their co-option and craven co-operation became marks of shame that few in the media dared to expose. She perceives, in the domination by the Democrats of the press, and their own determination to force the Fourth Estate towards perpetuating the reign of suits and securocrats, a sinister mirror of what she and her family faced for years when they defied the party line, literally, in West Belfast.

This does, I find from our e-mails this evening, align with some of my inchoate suspicions, largely dormant until I half-articulated this on my keyboard. My wife again (vociferously if more gently than in the past) disagrees, as is her wont and common riposte. I think my class origins crossing wires with my professional skepticism entangle me, mixing metaphors, onto two horns of a proverbial dilemma.

There's no way in hell I could support the Republicans. Yet, why do I feel so patronized by the Democrats? My Irish correspondent noted about Palin: "If she'd been a Democrat, she'd be canonized,"-- not as an ideological but a demographic counterpart, I assume. As seasoned journalists who politically reside far from the right wing, she and her partner bring a nuanced awareness I lack to the force of media artillery aimed at Palin. And, I add, a valuable reminder of fairness to whomever's getting their message through a medium that obscures as often as it reveals. We disagree with Palin's stump speech, but has she been unjustly pilloried?

She shared this link that analyzed the slant this current month against Palin by the U.S. networks: "A Study in Character Assassination: How the TV Networks Have Portrayed Sarah Palin as Dunce or Demon,"
Colleen Raezler and Brian Fitzpatrick, Culture and Media Institute.

I tend to balance this article's assertion of bias against my own objective judgment that Palin's far less qualified to be president than Obama. But, with the relentless mugging on SNL, I weary of Palin-bashing. I argue that the mainstream media's been excoriatingly snobbish to Sarah in a manner that they would not have dared even for Hillary-- whom I will insist would have been a better choice for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, I add since writing this blog draft that my dear friend Bob, who was snapped with his Obama cap in the crowd of My Morning Jacket concert, snips at my wife and I that either we've been down South too long or he's been too long up North. This hurts me, and I sense his bewilderment. We feel that he feels we betrayed his trust.

Well, Bob, if I could vote for "none of the above," I would've. Always, I strive to be honest with myself even at the cost of suspicion of others. My family's raised me in an insular, peering, and second-guessing fashion, and I acknowledge my tendencies towards begrudgery. Yet, I cannot believe what those four figurines on the hustings ventriloquize my way.

(As an aside: as I revised this post, my wife watches Obama "live" as interviewed by a rather subdued Jon Stewart; Obama's as wonky and button-down as Bob Newhart, and less funny. It seems that he'll never allow himself to reveal what he believes, deep down. Maybe it's impossible for him to be candid. His make-up? Nearly as orange on our new TV screen as the pumpkin Niall's carving.)

I feel abandoned by this election. Whatever demographic I reside in must be narrow indeed for Carville and Matalin combined. A decade ago, I took a quiz that matched me to the pols closest to my own leanings. Mine must have imitated poses for Twister, as I turned out to be residing in a purple state of mind, the tiniest Venn diagram subset ever. Ralph Nader meets Pat Buchanan.

After teaching for twenty-four years this autumn, I note my vantage-point distorts regarding any debate, even as my own critical faculties warp. I find myself saying to Niall as he blasts stormtroopers in "Medal of Honor": can you alter the controls, to play the game from the other point-of-view? I mean, I blurt out in professorial drone, could you reverse the first-person shooter and fire back as the Nazis defending against the Allies? My nascent interest in opposing myself, or Niall, in chess may be a related urge to turn battlegrounds around. My patient son responded to my query in the negative; my wife shrugged as if resigned to my (in)sensibility.

In the coverage of Sarah Palin, I discern again another perceptual distortion-- of the log-cabin myth. She's lambasted by most for being like us, yet praised for this by a few stalwarts, depicted by most as doltish in this as she herself's caricatured. Do we want a leader who rises from our ranks? Or, as with McCain, Biden, and Obama, one who's thanks to a combination of merit and privilege, attained or inherited, by now far above whomever we'd meet at the gas station or bus stop?

We expect our politicians to rise from humble origins, yet without capitulating to the Wall Street or Pentagon or Capitol system. Yet, if they do run as true mavericks, they meet the acclaim not of Capra's Mr. Smith, but the neglect of Jerry Brown (the only candidate I ever allowed Layne to send money to) not to mention Nader, the vegan's Pat Paulsen. Such outliers will never afford to run for major office, let alone win. As I typed this in draft, Obama's infomercial ran on CBS and ABC; he's outspending McCain five-to-one. So much for campaign reform.

The money comes, we're persuaded, from millions of my awestruck neighbors, rather than fat cats. Yet, by not following the restrictions that his admittedly wealthy rival enacted in Congress, Obama's set a cynical tone for his campaign and future idealists. He's shown that no matter his complexion, his true colors run along the same greenback hues as always. The relentless rewriting of Obama's rise through a conflation of a tragedy of a "single mother," our century's adaptation for Horatio Alger's plucky protagonists, erases his networking, from the age of twenty on, to enter the Ivy League realm of the new-old boys cabal that is about to purchase for him the votes, the exposure, the press, and the PR that will earn him the Oval Office. He may not have been born with the connections of a McCain or Hillary, but he has bonded irrevocably with those as tied to the powerful as Bushes and Kennedys.

Will he change us? Anthony McIntyre and his wife doubt it. My wife hopes so. I remain unconvinced. Yet, Bob, I do concede that at least environmentally, his policies may make up for eight years lost under Gore, time we desperately must regain. On this issue alone, the most crucial of all, I admit I'd back Obama.

From my wife's "Trick or Treat" entry, a representative observation:
I doubt that Obama would be where he is today if he had attended an inner city high school and community college. He truly appears to get it about education. I have been listening to endless NPR interviews with swing state voters and it occurs to me that the chasm in America isn't a cultural or ethnic or religious one. Education nurtures tolerance and open mindedness. There certainly are highly educated people of faith who would have the government adopt their personal religious views, but generally what polarizes America more than race or culture is education. It doesn't matter what friggin' wars we win or if the economy rebounds. The state of our current educational system is a the gravest threat to the next generation and I think it will be good to have a president whose own life experience reinforces the dire need to fix it. But, it saddens me to think of how many God damn bake sales the three million bucks being squandered on air time could have averted.

Obama's practically deified already. The scorn, however partially earned due to her bumbling bravado and oblivious opinions, of Sarah Palin by the mainstream media ironically clashes with the earnest anointing of dutiful Joe Biden-- grandson of a wealthy oil executive who blew it all on yachts before the Depression wiped him out-- as nothing but a Irish laborer's son, Scranton's hardscrabble lad. I muse about comments I read in "The New Yorker" (which displays on its current cover a host of ghosts fleeing from a pair clad in McCain and Palin masks) from a nervous campaign worker in the Rust Belt insisting to her screen-door listeners how Barack Obama too hailed from a "blue collar" background.

Perhaps briefly, but I doubt if his anthropologist mother had to survive on food stamps for long; she remarried soon, he was sent to private schools in Indonesia and Hawai'i (and I can attest to its expense via my frosh year roommate in college who graduated with him from pricy prep Punahou) before even more elite institutions. Places that few of any ethnicity, from the working class, enter. Richard Rodríguez dissected the life of a scholarship boy with enviable eloquence; I wonder what Obama'd make today, if asked, of "Hunger of Memory," a book he probably read in college around the same time I did. When I assigned it to the affirmative action "bridge" program students I taught at UCLA, I earned suspicion from my colleagues.

Meanwhile, as my correspondent reminds me, Sarah Palin, from a colorless blue-collar family, has been relentlessly ridiculed. We bicoastals reliably snicker at her "Fargo"-Canadian (the Mat-Sun Valley she's from settled by Minnesotans in the 1930s) accent and her Mary Kay cosmetics coiffure and wardrobe. I despise her antediluvian (in a double sense) ecological views, eccentric from the daughter of a science teacher. I cannot figure out her garbled Pentecostal "spiritual warfare," me being a lapsed Papist. I do sense significant class snobbery rallied against her.

Palin represents the brassy self-made woman, a clunky go-getter, chatty and annoying. Yet, somebody you'd recognize as uncannily resembling that lady down the block-- if you're the elusive, courted only every fourth year, Average American. If her party affiliation had been reversed, would she be pilloried? As my correspondent (if not my wife) interprets Palin, she stands for feminism.

In all its unwanted permutations. Not as a secular, pro-choice, bisexual yoga teacher. In its contemporary manifestation, where even a right-wing red-stater can stand up for herself and earn the living she demands. Foolishly or bravely, as with so many millions like her, she's not at home raising her brood. As feminists fought for, so she benefits. She's busy as a woman with five kids (not that I'm thrilled about her latest spawn, or Levi) who pursues what even the most NOW-committed liberal would agree achieves what most women since the '60s want: a career, a chance to tangle with the big boys, and an ambition that no one can deny this product of nondescript higher education. From such a place not far in spirit from where I teach, closer to my own resumé than Harvard Law or Columbia or even, four miles away from where I sit, always tony if now resolutely multicultural Occidental College.

Obama went there two years before transferring to Columbia. I'm sure many boast about him at both colleges. Nobody seems to remember Sarah in school, contrary to the log-cabin myth of the village that raised a marvel. Intriguingly for me, but understandably, her professors when interviewed stay stumped when her name's mentioned. Like them, I have taught in my twenty-four years thousands, and I doubt if I'd recall such as her either. Maybe if she batted an eyelash! More of us toil in such institutions than at the Oxys or Ivies. We face that factory model, that banking metaphor, no Freireans we: far from seminars, Ivy Leagues, or liberal arts colleges. This, too, shows the humdrum America that Palin's from: where people like her and me manage to wrangle degrees, work for a living, and to pass in and out of classrooms with the ambiance of an offramp office park rather than the glow of a shady quadrangled bower.

This anonymity, and the force with she, somehow, rose from PTA mom to mayor of a small town she ruined by courting big-box chains and tract homes, carries with it the contradictions of the average American who strives to break out today to make it. I bemoan the exurban devastation and franchise homogeneity that Wasilla symbolizes. It's not a place I'd live, but my sister certainly would love it there, and those with whom I was raised.

Does this make me complicit in the vilification of Palin? Where do my loyalties lie, far away from Biden if also from an Irish Catholic upbringing whose culture's receded into TV clichés about cops and criminals from Providence or Southie? Producers and screenwriters have never noticed in reality my own native stretch only half an hour from Hollywood-- I'm from the dull patches east of L.A., half-barrio, half light industry, all totally neglected by the media, by college recruiters, by those fortune favors. Where I grew up, rarely even those a few minutes by car away had the slightest idea of my neighborhood, unless I identified the freeway exits closest, on the way to San Bernardino or Pomona or the County Fair. One valley over from what a radio shock-jock derided as "The Valley of the Dirt People," not without justification!

Which goes to say that Thomas Frank's theory, in his "What's Wrong With Kansas?" a few years back, I find half-true. I reviewed it on Amazon and received a noticeably biased amount of negative votes simply because, as a product of a family where I was the only non-Reagan Democrat, I contested Frank's simplifications, packaged for a bi-coastal audience. Frank, from the upper-middle class, at least, suburb of Overland Park, hardly represented the toiling Kansan of yore. He's far closer to the upscale suburb that Palin wants Wasilla to sprawl into. Yet, after superficial profiles and clumsy condescension towards the wage slaves he forced himself briefly to chat with, Frank figured he'd gloss over the real fears of ordinary folks. In his reduction, they all voted against their wallet but for a return to traditional values, brought to them by a calculating GOP determined to pander to Joe Lunchbucket and Josie Waitress while profiting from their gullibility.

Point taken, but I also recognized my family, cartoonishly exaggerated, in such depictions of idiotic Middle America. I welcomed, all the same, Frank's publicity for the rhetorical pitches often tossed at stereotyped Middle Americans. I support his castigation of a cynical capitalism eager to package morality within exploitation. Yet I bristled at his condescension towards Kansan obliviousness.

As more recent economic tremors shake us up, perhaps we can understand the jitters felt by those of us outside the chattering classes of the urban(e) twin coasts, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the Beltway or Hyde Park-- U. of Chicago's tenured Weather Undergrounders meets FDR's patrician New Deal? I live close to the heart of the film industry, if it has any geographical center in this era of Romanian, New Mexican, and Vancouver productions. I feel, however, as if it mocks my past. Yet, my own uneasy background within a house with "Reader's Digest" on top of a TV that never seemed silent reminds me that it's dangerous to romanticize anywhere, the Lower East Side, Scranton, exurbs of the Last Frontier, or a mansion in sunbaked Sedona or gentrified Chicago, as a hallowed repository of true-blue values.

I accept Sarah Palin's drive, and Joe Biden's endurance; I respect John McCain's courage, and Barack Obama's determination. Yet, none of them make me feel that they'd respect me. At least on that morning after the polls close. Palin, perhaps, might be closest in that her origins (more than Biden's despite the alleged Hibernian manufacture-- he's obviously lace curtain!) careen nearest mine, but my (over)education-- and the fact that the former "Barry," class of '79, might well still remember unlike a professor his classmate from high school who crossed my path that same first year of college we share-- might tip me towards Obama, if momentarily. I'm not sure if I'd want a person just like me to be president. Palin reminds me of folks I grew up with, but I don't hang out with them now. Obama's resembles glad-handers who swept past me, thanks to their charm and convinction. Those classmates rushed off to law school. I teach everyday students from generations far longer humble than Biden's purported upbringing, and youths who, often still in treatment at the local V.A. hospital, share McCain's veteran stint if, thankfully, not his prolonged torment.

When it comes down to it, then, I tend not to see myself in any candidate. I'm only five weeks older than Obama. As I've repeated here ad infinitum, nobody my age should claim he can be a capable president-- anymore than Palin should. Obama's ascendancy will, in a few days I predict, come to pass. He and the majority concur he's tanned, rested, and ready. A man my age, ready to rule. My own maturity will be reflected, like it or not, in a peer about my height and weight, at two degrees of vague separation-- through that classmate about whom I still wonder. What does Dennis Bader, from Rosecrans Hall 314, recall about Barry?

[Our Lady cradles her practical contribution towards the dictatorship of the proletariat, while exercising in her other hand her right for suffrage-- voting for whom?]

Cad a imeartha riomh an Cath Maige Tuired?

Chuir mé inné ina Leabharlann Huntington cur ceiste faoi bhráid údaráis ina obair thagartha caighdeánach fós, "An Stair Fichille" le H. J. R. Murray sa bhliana 1913. Tá sé leabhar is mó ann! Tá clárannaí naoí chéad ann go cruinn. Bhí Murray a tugtha a deánta do teacs Méan Ghaeilge.

Tá "clárannaí ficheall Teamhrach" an "Cath Maige Tuired." Tháinig cath ca. AM 3550 ina gcuntas anallód. Mhín Murray go scríofa cur isteach leis seanfocail scríbhinn ina teacs le scríobhaí níos luath. Chuir scríobhaí léiriú faoi na aireagán fichille in Éirinn ársa ann.

Scríobh mé ar mo h-alt bhlog roimhe faoi dhá ciall idir an focal amháin le "ficheall" as Gaeilge nua-aimseartha. Deirimid féin aon téarma cheann amháin. Caitheann tú ábalta feiceáil go aistriú ár shlite éagsúla síos. Gheobhaidh tú tráchtaí difrúilaí faoi "fidcheall" nó "fidchell" freisin, nuair ag léamh lámhscríbhinní Shean-Ghaeilge. Mar shampla, thug Murray fonóta ó leagan na hImmram Brian le Kuno Meyer agus David Nutt. D'inis Murray orm ag dul go dtí "ii.176." Ach, níor rug mé seo ar an teacs na h-idirlíon inniu.

Rinne Murray dearmad beag. Measaim ní mbeadh an fírinne ina "Na Stair Fichille" aige. Deir sé féin ní raibh ina teanga uile ina Domhain Críostulachta Thiar ach amháin Spáinnis agus Portaingéilis an focal eile le "ficheall" Eorpanach ach dhá focal a thagann ón Laidin. (Tá Breatnais le Laidin leis idirdhealú bídeach.) Mar sin féin, is cuimhne liom faoi a dhearbhú. Cad a tharla leis Gaeilge? Fanann focal "ficheall" leis cruinneas céann anois chomh fadó. Níl Murray ar a lhiosta aimneacha cur san áireamh ann ar chor ar bith.

Thiomsú an "Cath" le Giolla Riabach Ó Cléirigh ca. 1512. Rinne Murray cóip aige de eagran le Whitley Stokes. Fhoilsigh Stokes é sa bhliana 1891 ar "Revue Celtique" 12: 52-130, 306-08. Tabharfaidh mé leagan-- leis mír a cheartaigh na roinnt dó go athscríofa le Murray-- ó CELT sa bhliana 2004 ina hOllscoil na gCorcaigh. (Téigh síos)

What was played before the Battle of Moytura?

I found yesterday at the Huntington Library an authoritative citation about my question in still the standard reference work, "The History of Chess" by H. J. R. Murray from the year 1913. It's a big book! It's nine hundred pages exactly. Murray made mention from a Middle Irish text.

It's the "chessboards of Tara" from "The [Second] Battle of Moytura." The battle came about [AM= anno mundi "after the creation of the world"=5090 BCE by Irish chroniclers, therefore, ca. 2540 BCE] 3550 in counting 'in olden times'. Murray explained that {there was] written an inclusion within the old words inserted into the text by an earlier scribe. The scribe put a clarification in there about the invention of chess in ancient Ireland.

I wrote in my prior blog entry about the two meanings between the same word for "chess" (=ficheall] in present-day Irish. We ourselves use only the single term. You're able to see translated the various meanings below. You'll find different renderings concerning "fidcheall" or "fidchell" as well, when reading Old Irish manuscripts. For example, Murray gave a footnote from the version of The Voyage of Bran by Kuno Meyer and Alfred Nutt. Murray told me [to be] going to [passage] "ii.176." But, I could not retrieve this in the Internet texts today.

Murray made a little error. I reckon that it wouldn't be the truth in his "The History of Chess." He says himself that there was not in any language in "Western Christendom" but only Spanish and Portuguese another word for [European] chess but derived from two words in Latin. (Welsh's from Latin with a tiny distinction.) Nevertheless, I wonder about his assertion. What happened with Irish? The word "ficheall" stays nearly the same (translation) now as long ago. Murray does not include it in his list of names anywhere at all.

The "Battle" was compiled by Giolla Riabach Ó Cléirigh ca. 1512. Murray made his copy [of the passage] from Whitley Stokes' edition. Stokes published it in the year 1891 in "Revue Celtique" 12: 52-130, 306-08. I will give the translation-- with a bit corrected from the section that was transcribed by Murray-- from CELT in 2004 at the University in Cork.

As ed atbert-som go rocurit fidhcelda na Temrach dia saigidh-sium
282] ann sin, & gou rug-som a toichell, conad and sin dorigne an cró
283] Logo. (Acht masa i n-uamas an catha Troíanna rohairged in fidceall
284] ní torracht hÉrinn and sin í. Úair is a n-áonaimsir rogníadh cath Muigi
285] Tuired & togail Traoí. (CELT 2004: Teacs meán-Ghaeilge: Cath Maige Tuired/ Second Battle of Moytura Roinnt/section #69=f.65b)

Tá leagan le Stokes i mBéarla seanaimseartha go beag anseo. Here's a rendering by Stokes into a little old-fashioned English.
This he the king said then, that the chessboards of Tara should be fetched to him Samildánach and he won all the stakes, so that then he made the Cró of Lugh. But if chess was invented at the (epoch) of the Trojan war, it had not reached Ireland then, for the battle of Moytura and the destruction of Troy occurred at the same time.
(Translated by/a chuir i mBéarla le Whitley Stokes sa bhliana 1891.)

Tá leagan eile le Elizabeth Gray i mBéarla níos coitianta ann. There's another version by Elizabeth Gray into more modern English.
Then he said that they should bring him the fidchell-boards of Tara, and he won all the stakes, so that he made the cró [=bóthan/ hut] of Lug. (But if fidchell was invented at the time of the Trojan war, it had not reached Ireland yet, for the battle of Mag Tuired and the destruction of Troy occurred at the same time.)"(CELT 2003, via Irish Texts Society/ bealach Cumainn na Scríbheann nGaedhilge; translated by/ a chuir i Béarla le Elizabeth Gray sa bhliana 1981.)

Griangraf/ Photo: Níl "fidchell" ag feicthe go direach ansin, ach feicfidh tú ag foghlaim faoi "Ficheall Uigingigh" [Hnefatafl] leis eolas ficheallacht Ceilteach. It's not precisely "fidchell" shown there, but you'll be able to learn about "Viking Chess" {Hnefatafl} there, with information about Celtic "arts of chess playing."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cad a imeartha roimh an Cogadh Cluana Tarbh?

Foghlaim go deanaí faoi an focal "fidchell," (nó, "ficheall" as caighdeán= "feasa choill"). B'fhéidir, sular tagtha Uigingeach, d'imir fír Eireann an cluiche Ceilteach leis bord agus fír leis marcalálaim pointí. Go cinnte, bhí Éireannach ársa acusan féin cluiche difrúil ar aghaidh "chess" Eorpanach. Sílim go raibh shrioch "chess" ina dhiadh na Normanach.

Mar sin féin, tagann "chess" go dtí go luath? Is iontach liom. Tá focal amháin as Gaeilge faoi beirt cluiche seo leis clár imeartha leis fír. Is cluiche anallód é "fidchell." Agus, tá cluiche anois, atá "chess" Eorpanach. Is Indiach ó bhunús, nó Sineach ar dtus. Measaim go raibh a tugtha Uigingigh uaidh bealach hAn Rúis ó tír na hAraibe.

Ár ndoigh, sin í an fhadhb. Tá focal amháin leis dhá ciall. Gheobhaidh tú nuair ag léamh scéal An Mheánaois a aistríodh ón nGaeilge an leagan cainte céann. Tuigimid go raibh cluichí éagsúlaí fadó. Ach, choimeáin cluiche nua an focal atá úsáid leis na sean-cluiche.

Scríobh Seathrún Céitinn stair sheanchas Éireann Gaelach riamh faighte sé bás 1650. D'inis sé againn, ina "Forus Feasa na hÉirinn," faoi Maolmórdha, rí Laighean. Bhí sé ar cuaird lá i gcúirt Bhriain Bóramha (a bhí 'na rí ar Cúige Mumhan agus árd-rí ar Éirinn on mbliain 1002 amach). I rith an tráthnóna i gCeann Coradh ina gClár í 1013, thug mac le Bhriain, Murrough, masla dhó, Maolmórdha. D'imir cluiche sin Murrough agus Conaing, mac le Donn Chuan-- nó dúirt eile-- aba Ghleann Dhá Loch a imeartha ar aghaidh Murrough!

Bheul, do ghlac Maolmórdha fearg agus d'imthighe sé leis abhaile ar intinn cogadh a chur a Bhriain. Bhí na Lochlannaigh, leis fír ó Shasana, ó Albain, ón Ioruaidh, ón tSualainn, ón bhFrainnc, ó Oileán Mhanainn, ó Insidh Gall agus Orc, agus ó áiteannaí eile, go cuan Áta Cliath i n-earrac na bliana 1014. Bhí na sluagh Mhaolmórdha agus Laighnigh a neartuigh sin. Tháinig siad go Cluain Tarbh ar aghaidh Briain Bóramha agus Maoilsheachlainn II (a bhí 'na Árd-Rí riamh a bhris Brian sa bhlian 999).

Léanim ina teacs scoile ó 1933 le Micheál Ó Siochfhradha: "Ní rhó shaor a chuadar as an gcath." Bhí an lá leis na Gaedhil, ach fuair sé bás Brian. Chaill Lochlannaigh agus Laighean. Ceapaim go raibh "fidchell" nó "chess" a imeartha riamh na cogadh sin. Is dócha go sean-cluiche. Is é is dóichí go cluiche nua ag tosaithe ag dulta go dtí Éirinn an am seo.

Tá comartha go buanseasmhachtha, go deimhin. Bhí coimhlint ghéar sa dhá cluiche, idir "fidchell" agus "chess," idir Lochlannaigh agus Éireannach. Foghlaimeoidh go leor fúthu nuair rachaidh mé ar an Leabharlann Huntington inniu go congarach.

What was played before the Battle of Clontarf?

I am studying lately about the word "fidchell,"(or, in Standard [Irish], "ficheall"= "wisdom of wood"). Perhaps, prior to the coming of the Vikings, the men of Ireland played a Celtic game with a board and with men with pegs. Surely, the ancient Irish themselves had a different game as opposed to European "chess." I think that "chess" arrived after the Normans.

All the same, did "chess" come over earlier? I wonder. There's a single word in Irish concerning this pair of games with a playing board and men. From "days of yore," the game's "fidchell." And, there's the game now, which is European "chess." It's originally Indian, or Chinese at the start. I reckon that Vikings took it by way of Russia from the land of the Arabians.

Of course, that's the crux. There's only one word with two senses. You will find when reading a story from the Middle Ages translated from the Irish the same turn of speech. We understand that there were various games long ago. But the new game kept the word which was used for the old game.

Geoffrey Keating wrote a narrative history of Gaelic Ireland before death took him in 1650. He told us, in "The Principles of Knowledge in Ireland," about Maol Mórdha, Leinster's king. He visited one day the court of Brian Ború (who was the king of Munster and high-king of Ireland from the year 1002 on). It happened one evening in Kincora in Clare in 1013, Brian's son, Murrough, gave offense to him, Maol Mórdha. Murrough and Conaing, Donn Cuan's son were playing that game-- or others say-- Glendalough's abbot while playing against Murrough!

Well, Maol Mórdha grew angry and he went off home and prepared to give battle against Brian. The Norsemen (="Lakemen"), with men from England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, France, the Isle of Man, and the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and other places, went to Dublin harbor in the spring of the year 1014. The hosts of Maol Mórdha and Leinster gathered. They came to Clontarf against Brian Ború and Malachy II (who was high-king before he was defeated by Brian in the year 999).

I read in a school-text from 1933 by Micheal Ó Siochfhrada: "It was no cheap victory [gained from the day's battle]." It was a day for the Gael, but Brian died. The Norsemen and Leinster lost. I ponder whether "fidchell" or "chess" may have been played before that battle. It's likely that it was an old game. It's quite probable that the new game started coming into Ireland at this time.

It's an enduring symbol, indeed. It was a well-contested match between two games, between "fidchell" and "chess," between Northmen and Irishmen. I'll learn more about this today when I go to the Huntington Library nearby.

Griangraf/ Photo: Féic go leor/Look for more: Fichillín Oileáin Lheodais/"Isle of Lewis Chessmen"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Coming Out at the Pulpit

Fr. Geoff Farrow was recently removed from his ministry by the bishop of the Fresno diocese after the 50-year-old priest announced during a Sunday Mass that he was gay. Outraged parishioners left the service; many expressed shock. I don't know where Catholics in Central California have been blithering if they're threatened when a priest confesses he's gay. Farrow dared to point out the human face-- his own-- as one that in the Prop. 8 state campaign against same-sex marriage has been denigrated. (As an aside in today's paper, Jonathan Rauch in "Prop. 8's Ads' Invisible Gays" discusses the lack of explicitly mentioning or showing gays and lesbians in their TV campaigns-- pro or con.) Now, as one of the few younger clergyman-- if fifty counts as such in a Church that has during my generation eroded enormously-- he faces disbarring from practicing publicly his calling, and it looks like Catholics will lose yet another sincere, intelligent, and devoted cleric.

There's an excellent interview of Fr. Geoff Farrow with Steve López (soon to be played by Robert Downey, Jr. on screen) in today's Los Angeles Times. Fr. Farrow speaks with clarity and wisdom. The Church should be lucky to have such a man devoted to its welfare.

Here's a few excerpts. Coming to Florida from Cuba as a child, Farrow grew up Catholic but then, seeing the war in Vietnam reported, lost his faith before regaining it in college. He entered the seminary after he moved to California.
“I have a hunger for the transcendent,” Farrow said. “This is too precise,” he said of man and the universe, “to be a coincidence.” And so he became a believer, once more, in the church he had been “carried to in diapers.”

When I told Farrow that as an agnostic, I don’t understand that leap, he described God as love and faith as trust.

“Trust is fundamental of all human relationships,” he said. “Part of the attraction of the relationship with that person is that you’re always familiar with them and yet always discovering them.”

I love and trust my wife, I said, but she’s real and doesn’t need to prove that she exists.

“Precisely,” Farrow said with a smile, as if I’d described his relationship with God.

As with what I will expound upon from my own observations after these excerpts, he in the seminary faced challenges when dealing with what was a closeted sexual identity.

Is it possible, I asked, that becoming a priest was a way of avoiding coming to terms with his sexuality? Farrow had, after all, once prayed to God to “please make me normal, please make me normal.”

“That’s a valid question,” he said, but he believes he was addressing his spiritual rather than sexual identity in becoming a priest.

Wasn’t it a suffocating compromise? I asked. He had given himself over to a church that has, despite moderating its views in recent decades, condemned homosexuality and marginalized gays, even though in Farrow’s opinion a sizable percentage of priests are gay. Farrow conceded that he has considered church teachings “monstrous,” especially given the history of violence and suicide victimizing gays. But he said he has always believed in the church, if not in the men who led it. It’s like loving a family member despite a falling out, or loving your country even as you doubt its leaders.

“I’m not happy with the current administration,” Farrow said, “but I haven’t shredded my passport.”
To me, Fr. Farrow's a priest I can admire. He's a true voice of the kind of clergyman I can respect. This, of course, presents problems when you're charged with defending thousands of years of literalism, a half-literate understanding from a desert faith and a pre-scientific worldview, and centuries of persecution and fear.

“I am morally compelled to vote no on Proposition 8,” he told his congregation, saying he had to break “a numbing silence” about church prejudice against homosexuals.

Among the critics in his own parish and beyond, there are those who quote the Bible to condemn homosexuality and gay marriage.

“The bible is not a book, it’s a library written over 15 centuries,” Farrow told me, suggesting that Christianity has and should continue to evolve. “People who approach scripture in a literal fashion are attempting to manipulate God himself.”

To Farrow, condemning gay and lesbian marriage is as offensive as the condemnations of interracial marriage not too many decades ago.

” ‘Think about the children,’ they said, and they’re doing the same with this,” Farrow said indignantly. “If a child is raised in a home where he’s loved, that’s a good home.”

So why not just quit his job rather than wait to get fired?

Farrow said he still sees the church as home, and believes his new mission is to force this issue whether he’s wearing a collar or not.

“They said I’ve caused scandal to the church,” he said. “I think the real scandal is the thousands of gay and lesbian children who feel abandoned by the church of their baptism.”

When he was in seminary, Farrow interned as deacon at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and worked with terminally ill patients. As the end nears, Farrow told me, people say the things they never could utter. They are “more alive than ever … because they realize the futility of fear.” He found them all contemplating the same questions.

“Were you true to your conscience? Did you do what you felt was right?”

And one more.

“What do you have in the end but the love you gave away?"
I write with a mixture of insight and detachment about this issue. A husband and father, I'm only three years younger than Farrow; many of my classmates from the archdiocesan high school (now defunct, as is the whole set-up in which I was one of the last cadre of dwindling "prep" graduates; the seminary college itself for Los Angeles has closed to pay off the sex scandal debts and now only those with bachelor's degrees are accepted for priestly formation) where I graduated went on to study with Farrow, as my school was founded for those teenagers considering a vocation. (Paul Hendrickson wrote a memoir, "Seminary," about his experience in a 1960s rural Southern version of the school I attended; I reviewed on Amazon the English writer John Cornwell's "Seminary Boy" [not original titles, these] about his 1950s stint at one in Derbyshire. Although my tenure spanned the latter half of the '70s, fifteen relaxed years after Vatican II, there was much I recognized, if only echoed.)

I never discuss this. My parents never got over my leaving, likely. I dimly recall even my dear wife did not know about my high school years until she found out from my long-time friend where I'd been boarding for school, Monday-Friday, between fourteen through seventeen. Very few people, of the faith or outside of it, will understand the intensity that bonded nineteen of us disparate but idealistic post-adolescents together over four years. Some of us wanted merely to get away from barrio, ghetto, or suburb. All angled an excellent education. Many came thinking they'd fulfill their childhood dream of the priesthood. The odds were against us. Most left, four stayed, three persevere.

Disco and punk, flares and pop-rocks; the Ford Administration's final year and three of Carter's overlapped our stay as we came of age in a place half-Angeleno, half-medieval, that now has utterly vanished. I feel lucky to have toughened it out. I learned self-reliance, a distrust of authority, and the joys of seclusion and study. There, I began to bloom, and without this sheltering yet supervised passage, I doubt I'd have had the emotional stamina to pursue a life of the mind balanced with at least minimal social skills!

My emergence there into becoming a grown-up left a lasting imprint on my soul, for better and worse, but I finished my four years with memories of spiritual care and intellectual attention that balance and, I'd argue, ameliorate the sexual and emotional difficulties I faced. I refuse to attack the Church in the puerile manner many indulge in. Part of me wanted to stay, to go along, to give in. Yet, I emerged with a sad realization that I could not in good conscience-- despite my leanings temperamentally, culturally, and devotionally-- continue towards a career that demanded the surrender of my will in the service of a selfless, dogmatic, and loyal obedience to precepts I could not vow to uphold. I could not live such a sacrilege.

I entered thanks to scholarships and work-study to a local Jesuit-run (in spirit but all but secularized in fact) university. A good man from my parish, a seminarian (I learned sadly he too left not many years after ordination), told me about the school; he'd attended when hundreds filled its dorms in the heyday after Vatican II, but that same spirit would soon lead to emptier halls by the time I arrived. Out of our surviving class of nineteen "prep" graduates, about ten moved up to college seminary; four were ordained after eight more years of study. One-- the only "lifer" in his class who entered at fourteen and was anointed a priest at twenty-four-- died suddenly (no cause given) last year.

Naturally, I wondered the reason for his death. This brings me, with a bit of unspoken suggestion, to the place where Farrow preceded my classmates by three years. That college-level seminary had been later implicated in the abuse uncovered in this as so many archdioceses. I sensed, even as an eighteen-year-old, a sinister atmosphere there when I visited. Rumors abounded about the gay subculture that predominated, and the liaisons among the students and between professors. One of my classmates, who was handsome and never in the closet, testified against the abuse he witnessed there; we heard later that he had been seen in gay porn and was hustling in San Francisco.

One of my closer friends struggled with being gay. I was close to him, but he never told me about his difficulties in this regard. He went in and out of the seminary. I later learned indirectly that he'd been referred to a psychologist near his home who specialized in trying to treat homosexuality by turning young men back to a celibate, or at least straight, path in line with Catholic moral teaching.

He was sent to this therapist by our former religion teacher. As sophomores, we learned from him about "Humanae Vitae" and heard his eloquent defense for the Church's teachings on human sexuality. He was one of the best priests I've ever known. In his early thirties, a scion of an old Pasadena family, he was destined for leadership. He combined people skills with book smarts; he could charm any crowd and captivated each congregant. Soon after, he became a bishop, first overseeing the toniest, resort city vicarage of our hometown, the largest American archdiocese. Then, charged with repairing a diocese in the north of this state after its previous prelate had become entangled in covering up sexual abuse by a priest at a summer camp for boys, he took over as bishop.

Under suspicious circumstances, he ordained a young immigrant without proper credentials. This new priest testified later that this new bishop had blackmailed him into a sexual relationship. The bishop was investigated; he had embezzled and lied in perpetrating his own scandal. His own double life, exposed, collapsed. Now, he's exiled to an Arizona monastery {2012 update: he died a few years later of cancer. A month before, I sent him a respectful note. One classmate, a year ahead, lambasted me for this but many others on FB appeared of like mind.} I pray for him, if with my skeptic spirit.

Others I once heard snoring in the same dorm went on to various forms of unhappiness or fulfillment. One who shares my birthdate and first name and last initial, so parallel are we (he even got his own Ph.D., albeit fifteen years after me--on the dissonance within gay priests between what they will do and what they must preach), used to hang out with a rich patron only a mile or two up the slope from where I live. He now resides as a psychiatrist in Hawai'i happily. I admit I'm a bit baffled. I remember him 15, gawky, pimpled. I cannot match this memory that persists with him now at some balmy lanai.

But I also think of yet one more classmate, troubled in his teens when he transferred in for the last two years at our school. He never really blended with those of us who'd forged ties over the years. He always kept furtive company with effete boys the year ahead of us. He dropped out of the same college I attended after our first semester. He silenced his own sexual frustrations, his own exclusion as a misfit. That winter of 1980, Goths may have been barely invented as a youth clubbing option, but he channeled the earlier descent of Huysmans rather than his later resurrection towards Rome. Pale, tousled, epicene, and half-mad, he too wound up in San Francisco, tormented by dates and demons not all of his own imagination.

Still another classmate went into a religious order and studied in the Bay Area. He had affairs with men while in the seminary there in the 80s. He contracted AIDS. Longing for a theatrical career, always the class cut-up, he left his order before ordination. My parents, the most blue-collar lunchpail Catholics you'd caricature, accompanied me to his funeral at a christological age of 33. I was moved as much by their presence as by the memorial. Of his former confreres, only one friar attended.

John Macallan Swan. (1847-1910) Tate Gallery. "The Prodigal Son" (1888)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

J.G. Farrell's "The Siege of Krishnapur": Book Review

This 1973 Booker Prize winner explores British India through a microcosm: colonials and their loyal natives under assault by bombardment, starvation, cholera during the 1857 mutiny. It has both an old-fashioned flavor in its editorial asides by the omniscient and urbane narrator, and a modern wryness in its detached observations about the Anglo-Indian attitudes towards what they perceived as their civilizing mission. Less famous than E. M. Forster's "A Passage to India," nevertheless it may, for its rousing battle scenes full of a "carnal barricade," carrion dogs, ingenious uses for electro-metal plated heads of Keats, the Bard, and Voltaire, and artillery-fueled mayhem, excite readers more. If you've been wanting a philosophical reflection on Victorian progress, secularism vs. faith, imperial expansion vs. native resistance, and how medicine gradually advances over superstition: all these topics integrate entertainingly and instructively into a novel that also recalls a near-contemporary, John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

Farrell's distinction in delineating the Age of Doubt from Forster before him, Fowles next to him, and Michel Faber's fine novel "The Crimson Petal and the White" after him? While all these are favorite novels of mine, the Anglo-Irish Farrell manages to offer a sympathetic first-person indirect narration that reflects his near-countryman, Joyce. Farrell plays the reactions of the Collector, the main character here, against the atheistic and bitter (if often mordantly funny) Magistrate, the dueling doctors Dunstaple and McNab, a woefully earnest Padre, and the poetaster aesthete, Fleury. All these, as in more somnolent novels of ideas, speak their set-pieces intelligently. The difference: Farrell enlivens their thoughts. It's as if Thomas Love Peacock moved his Romantic-era figures into the colonial dust of faraway India and left dreamers, lovesick swains, practical company men, and an array of capable and hapless womenfolk to survive amidst plagues and grapeshot.

Examples abound of the verve of much of this intricate, yet direct fictional exposure of ideals as they blunder under fire. "But the Collector admired pretty women and could not feel hostile to them for very long. If they were pretty he swiftly found other virtues in them which he would not have noticed had they been ugly." (27) Fleury finds by mid-century that the sensitive type of male's out of style with the young ladies: "The effect, or lack of it, that you have on the opposite sex is important because it tells you whether or not you are in touch with the spirit of the times, of which the opposite sex is invariably the custodian." (33)

An amazing episode recounts how Fleury and a young native scion, Hari, clash over the advantages of inventions. Hari speaks in a fluent Indian English, struggling to articulate his love of the wares of such emporia as the Great Exhibition of 1851 at London's Crystal Palace, a theme that underlies the conversations of many of the British men in the novel. Fleury insists that the railroad will only bring to India what it brought to Britain: soulless bustle. Hari counters that easing labor, manufacturing food, or taking a daguerrotype is progress, and as worthy of praise as Plato. A flustered Fleury must tell Hari that he's not been able to find a bride yet: "Hari's brow puckered at this, for it was evident that Fleury was impeded from choosing a bride by being unable to find one suited to some special requirements of his own, beyond the usual ones of birth and dowry ...but what these might possibly be he had not the faintest idea; in this matter Hari's incomprehension was shared by Fleury's own relations in Norfolk and Devon." (78)

Mutual incomprehension dominates. As the novel goes on, the native revolt spreads. The local treasury's looted by traitorous sepoys: "They wore dhotis instead of uniforms and carried heavy, oddly-shaped burdens on their shoulders and around their necks; they had broached a cart-load of silver rupees and filled the legs of their breeches with them. Now it seemed that they were staggering away with heavy, trunkless men on their shoulders." (127) As this excerpt illustrates, Farrell favors the point-of-view of the besieged as they peer out upon an unrecognizable realm they no longer rule. For, soon the British and their retinue must retreat to first the Residency and then the redoubt of the Banqueting Hall. What had graced their plush exile as stuffed owls, divans, leather books, busts of intellectuals, and heaps of correspondence bound in red tape all serve as sandbags and barricades and improvised canisters to stuff cannons against the enemy.

Most of the book takes place within the makeshift fortress. The attack comes memorably:
"the rim of darkness beneath the horizon began to sparkle like a firework and immediately the air about them began to sing and howl with flying metal and chips of masonry ... then in a wave came the sound. Daubs of orange hopped at regular intervals from one end of the darkness to the other. Suddenly, a shrapnel shell landed on the corner of the verandah and all was chaos."(144)
The remainder of the story needs to be encountered directly. The tone darkens as inexorably the inhabitants of the Residency find themselves diminished by hunger, disease, and death by many kinds of assailants. I think that the register of the prose alters, and there may be too much anonymity given the cast of supporting characters; the central cast already introduced seem to live and talk in a vacuum as the plot continues, although Farrell may deliberately dampen the mood to reflect the bitter or desperate reactions of those under constant terror of sudden or lingering death. I do think Hari deserved more follow-through, and the novel does suffer slightly from an uneven focus on characters who are introduced and then forgotten about for long stretches as the siege grinds on. Also, the closing pages seem to depart with a whimper more than a bang, after the long march to the climax.

Still, despite uneven stretches, it towers above most any fiction these recent decades. It's quite an achievement, this submersion into the mental and physical despair of those about to die. When you emerge along with those who endure to find the approach of the Gilbert & Sullivanish "Relief of Krishnapur," you may hardly recognize the bedraggled survivors as those who started the novel a few months before, some who had then arrived in India so lightheartedly and naively.

P.S.: I agree with other (Amazon US-- site of this post today) reviewers: Lucy and the cockchafer infestation stands out as one of the most remarkable scenes I've ever found. It's Ch. 22. "The Hill Station" follows two characters here, Dr. McNab and Miriam, after they marry; this sequel was incomplete at the author's early death when fishing off the Irish coast in 1979.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Chess, Celts & the Sacred.

I've been mulling connections, elusive and evanescent, willful or weird, between how a game can reveal mystery and how we try to enter the mystic. In learning chess rudiments, I sense fleetingly the beauty of the nearly inexhaustible contest. They say Buddhists may have encouraged its early development as an alternative to war, one that fought the battles that our psyche seems to crave by manipulating pieces on a board rather than by the shedding of blood.

As the final endnote of a battered 1974 book I discovered in the library today, Alexander Cockburn's "Idle Passion," about psychoanalysis (sigh, he likes Freud, I like Jung) and chess, I noted his last entry enumerated proscribed games, a litany of eighteen forbidden ones, attributed to the Buddha: Buddha games list. While this iteration came too early for chess to be included, number one's "games on boards with 8 or 10 rows" and number two's "the same games played on imaginary boards." So, disappointingly if logically, such imaginative occupations are seen, if this document from "The Dialogues of the Buddha" proves legitimate, as distractions. It'd still be preferable, I muse, to those engaged in by most youths today. As the two in my care.

Watching my sons play "Medal of Honor" as they wipe out Nazi snipers with their Wii, I relive my own childhood. Despite very conservative parents, I was forbidden any toy weaponry, so I imagined my baseball bat, tucked under my arm, instead, and I too tried to fry the grim greyish Germans with magnifying glasses, concentrating the sun's fires upon their tiny plastic bodies. Chess men may look more elegant in their Staunton sculptures, but grown-ups still play--or fight-- to the king's death.

The author of two books, both reviewed here and on Amazon, J.C. Hallman, has sent me thoughtful e-mails in response to my critiques of "The Chess Artist" and, a while back, "The Devil Is a Gentleman." For both of them, I add, I have since revised slightly my earlier reviews as I understand better, after reflecting upon his explanations, what he's tried to capture on paper about what flickers within the mind. Whether manifested as black vs. white, or as a variety of invented religious experience that attempts to re-bind (the root of the word "religion") us, we seek an attenuated or nearly severed energy that created us.

I marvelled over his analogy (transcribed in my "Chess Artist" review) comparing religious awe with that felt on the chessboard. He's on the trail of profundity, although like many such hunts, perhaps this quarry may outrun our chase to trap it in rational nets. Hallman, as one who's spent years immersed first in the world of chess players and then new American religious movements, studying them as what anthropologists might call a "participant observer"-- or what his fellow journalists might call simply getting to know one's subjects by accompanying them as they do what drives themselves-- immerses himself in his subjects. Chess and religion: simpler than a Balinese cockfight? I figured, as one of the few people on earth with a documented interest in both avocations and maybe the only book-length author on both, Hallman'd be able to decipher such coded messages from the ineffable.

I responded to his e-mail about my comments on "The Chess Artist," asking him if he'd followed up links between chess and belief. He seemed to indicate that when he'd finished the book on chess, he'd left chess behind. I wished he hadn't. But, I understand well the relief after an arduous task. It's been nearly fourteen years since I finished my dissertation, and for a long stint after, I've turned little to the side of my study that fills with medieval literature and history. Instead, the other half of my library, stacked with Irish culture and lore, has occupied most of my attention since my Ph.D. was granted. It does take time to decompress, even decades, after such an plunge into the pressurized realm of intense investigation.

Now, perhaps freed of the doctoral bends, knowing I have the ability to float wherever I wish in my own mental journey, I can voyage now and then to the Middle Ages. Also, I try to connect my antiquarian with my Celtic interests. I let them take me in spirals, not points of the compass. How chess fits with Buddhism may never gain much elucidation, nor will the Druidic foundations supposedly found by earlier wistful investigators trying to tie the ancient Irish game of wood-wisdom, "fidchell," to Tara or divination. [Overview: Keith Watt: Fidchell. Scholarship, if excised of its Old Irish sources: Eoin MacWhite, "Early Irish Board Games" Eigse 5 (1946): 25-35.] Still, in such medievalist reveries and academic fumblings, we gain a seductive glimmer of what may have impelled our ancestors to seek, on boards, what they sensed beyond them.

Last night, I moseyed on-line nosing about for "irish literature chess references" and "fidchell" and "irish chess history." When one finds your own blog coming up twice in Google's results, one feels, as "Fionnchú" on Blogtrotter, in a self-referential position. Borges, Beckett, Carroll, Kafka, and Nabokov come to mind, not always encouragingly. And, I note, many of them played chess well.

So far, not a lot of search-engineered inspiration. Cathair Mór who died 153 CE left a will with two "chess tables." But, any use of this term in translation's not exact. I understand now how "fidchell" has been reconstructed, and why it's not really "Irish chess," despite the Gaelic language's understandable use of the circular board game (adapted in "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone") as the etymological, if cognitive, cognate of a squarer sport that entered Europe only in the twelfth century. Beckett in "Murphy" has a game with Dr. Endon that may recall, J. C. C. Mays avers, a twist on the older games-- such as Fergus Mac Roich or Cú Chullain played.

Before the battle of Clontarf, when Brian Boru beat the Danes, "chess" according to Keating's "History of Ireland," weighed to foreshadow that martial contest:
"And it happened next day that Murrough son of Brian and Conaing son of Donn Chuan were playing chess next day-- or according to some, it was the Abbot of Glendalough who was playing with Murrough. Maol Mórdha began to advise Murrough in his play and advised one move that lost him the game."
Murrough compares this counsel ruefully to advice that beat the Danes at Glen Mama; Maol Mórdha sneers that if he gave the Vikings such advice then, he'd turn the tables now and tell them what could "make them defeat you another day." Murrough jeers, Maol Mórdha's furious, and he takes off next morning without taking leave of Brian. Now, this skedaddling by the King of Leinster leads to Brian trying to make amends; when Brian's servant catches up with the King, Murrough whacks him thrice and nearly murders him.

This leads, naturally, to a breach between Brian and Murrough. At Clontarf, in 1014, the Irish would win. Actually, begrudging Leinstermen opposed their fellow Hibernians. Losses were massive: about 6,000 out of 8,000 Dublin Danes, Leinstermen, and Orkneymen; 4,000 Irish. Factional fighting returned as Ireland lost its ruler. Both kings would die in the battle.

An additional quirk that I have not yet straightened out: precisely which game do those bickering Irish argue about? "Fidchell" or chess? Reason being, by the 11-12c, the Vikings brought chess from the Arab polity via Russia back into Northern Europe. (Alexander of Neckham in "De naturis rerum" included "de scacchis," about chess, 1180 being the first mention in Britain, but he may have learned of it in Italy. The elephant piece, "al-Phil," due to its unfamiliarity to Europeans, evolved into the "fou", the jester's cap in French, and, thanks to the groove that originally styled the tusks, transformed slowly into the dented mitre of the episcopate.)

I wonder how long it took before magnificent pieces such as the "Lewis Chessmen". Found ca. 1831 at the Bay of Uig on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, these carved Romanesque walrus tusks and whale's teeth represent one of the earliest extant sets. Wikipedia paraphrases the summary by the British Museum: "Some historians believe that the Lewis chessmen were hidden (or lost) after some mishap occurred during their transportation from Norway to wealthy Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland."

It figures, whether in Yeats' stylized 1907 poem-play "Deirdre" where she and Naisi as fated lovers carry out their game-- the same played by Lugaidh Redstripe and his wife the night of their death-- while awaiting doom by the hand of King Conchubar, or in the full game incorporated into Beckett's novel "Murphy," or in Brian O'Nolan's boasts: that the Irish have long loved combining braggadacio with insults, pugnacity, and a sense of devilish one-upsmanship. Stanford Lee Cooper, who interviewed for Time magazine August 23, 1943 this Man of Mystery, Flann O'Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen/ Brian Ó Nualláin, published with a straight face:
One of the few things O’Nolan takes seriously is chess. He is equipped with a pocket chessboard, plays promiscuously with chance acquaintances. He has informally beaten World Champion Alekhine.

Beckett, for his part-- and I wish he and Flann could have collaborated, but Sam was occupied in his efforts for the French Resistance at the time that O'Nolan regaled the Yank reporter with his tall tale-- excelled at chess. At Trinity, he served as treasurer of the chess club; during the war, he played against Marcel Duchamp (who abandoned, as David Shenk emphasizes in "The Immortal Game," his artistic career to turn to chess totally); he told Deirdre Bair that the game and music "had the same intellectual beauty." Beckett mentioned chess in "Watt," "Assumption," "Dream of Fair to Middling Women," and "Eleutheria." Not only in "Endgame" if more by allusion, but in "Murphy": as a fully annotated game between the protagonist and Mr Endon. (s.v. "Chess" in "The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett," C. J. Ackerley and S. E. Gontarski, NY: Grove, 2004: 94-96.)

J.C.C. Mays wondered if that fictional game suggested the ancient contests that riled up our Irish heroes. Supposedly, their pieces in "fidchell" would levitate, as they do in Harry Potter. This invites, even if it does not reward, speculation. Did the Celts try to use the board to channel otherworldly forces? Given how little we know about my forebears, it's perhaps tempting but futile to try to answer this question. Even the most famous "real" chess player from the island, Belfast-born Alexander McDonnell, remains nearly a total mystery until he suddenly emerges to London fame, only to die there at 37 in 1835. James O'Fee has tried to unearth what can be found out about McDonnell from the archives. A heroic recuperation?

Ironically for a symbolic struggle perpetuated for millennia between implacable foes over another small field of battle, perhaps, chess gains less renown in the thirty-two counties themselves. Instead, we hear its power more sustained as "fidchell"-- if then rendered imperfectly as "chess"-- within the printed pages that capture storytelling new and old, and that again a faint cry from the Ulster Cycle's superheroes. But, if my dissertation entered the idea of purgatory in medieval literature, I suppose such aracane topics deserve as much consideration. Even if we dimly glimpse what thousands of years ago may have been much clearer, we must try to peer backwards.

What we may find, as I found on a linked article from "Chessquest," one of four sub-sections alone on "Historical Chess" within an enormous site, GoddessChess, may bring us full circle. None other than J. C. Hallman's "The Sacred Game." This pithy essay addresses exactly what I'd been trying clumsily to ask the author last week. After finishing his comparison of William James' pioneering investigations into religious understanding with contemporary American varieties invented during the intervening century, Hallman reflects briefly what draws his earlier quest closer to his more recent study.

The full article, enhanced perhaps by its brevity in that Hallman opens up neatly space for nearly limitless contemplation, tells better than I can summarize what an author who's spent years thinking about chess and religion has to tell us about the small, mysterious intersection where these two fields of human endeavor overlap, and where they may nod towards the infinite. It'd be great if this became his next book!

Here, sub-titled "Revelations," Hallman's essay's typically eloquent conclusion:
“Chess is not friendly to prose,” wrote Louis Menand, another Pulitzer winner, in a review of a chess book that was not mine. “Chess is, after all, a sport, but there is almost no way to convey what’s exciting about it to people who are not themselves deep students of the game.”

Beyond having set precisely this goal for myself when I wrote The Chess Artist, I’d have to disagree that there is no way to convey the feeling of the game. The trick, I’d say, is in indulging that side of the game that echoes the sacred, that faint twinge of community that comes along when you first sit across the board from a friend or an antagonist, the Yin to your Yang.

I’m not suggesting that chess is the paraphernalia of mystics. That would be an even odder hypothesis. But what’s clear from all this leftover research, perhaps—and what was already clear to anyone who’s ever played a serious game of chess—is that while chess is not an out-of-body experience in any way, it is precisely an in-body experience.

It can offer, in the depth of study, a faint sense of otherness. The actual experience of a game hints at the hypothesis that all these scholars and critics orbit without being able to describe. Here it is: maybe chess is still a ritual tool of some kind—a tool that triggers some special corner of the mind, where our finite organ, locked in the prison of the skull, nevertheless touches the infinity of the game and of the possible.

And perhaps in this way it is not combat at all. Perhaps in this way it reassures.

Photos: 1) Ballinderry Game Board, found 1932 in a crannog in Co. Westmeath. Perhaps "fidchell" or related "brandubh," descended from what the Vikings called "(Hnefa)tafl" table games, first recorded in 400 CE. This pegged board's 7" x 7"; the game has been reconstructed: Fidchell Rules. Recreation as re-creation: Nigel Suckling's "Celtic Chess."

2a) British Museum Set of Isle of Lewis Chessmen . 1150-1200 CE.

2b.1) Geoff Chandler demolishes this origin myth as a forgery; it's another "tafl" set: "Not Even From Lewis, Mate". Blame the bishop: he charges medievals crafted none until the 15th c.

2b.2) Alexander of Neckham called in 1180 what we know as the bishop "senex," (old man) rather than the customary "calvus/ comes/ curvus." [Marilyn Yalom, "Birth of the Chess Queen," NY: HarperCollins, 2004: 96.]

2c) I note Sam Sloan's essay-- articulating a Chinese rather than Indian starting point-- on "The Origins of Chess". His thesis may be indirectly integrated into Chandler's assertion. Sloan elaborates:
We know from the writings of Lucena (of "Lucena position" fame) that the modern form of chess was invented or at least codified in Italy during the period from 1475 to 1497 A.D. and spread like wildfire across Europe. This game brought together three features which medieval chess did not have: the modern queen, the modern bishop and en passant pawn capturing[. . . .] No doubt, the modern bishop and the modern queen were first thought of long before 1497. However, it was not until approximately that date that all of these elements were combined into the same game at the same time.

2d) British Museum may "check" Chandler's charge: Bishop Chess Piece, British, 12c. Walrus ivory, if far less abstract than Lewis; caption notes Vikings "probably" brought chess to Britain 10c; cites popularity with kings from 1100 (Henry I) onwards.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bob & Chris: Married (with no children).

You can see Bob and Chris-- witnessed by Best (wo)Man Layne-- together in Santa Cruz, as they sneak in under the wire ahead of Election Day to make honest men of each other. Considerably dressed down, but perhaps it's as broiling up there as it is here, well in to a nearly hundred-degree Indian Summer? This vowed for, sworn by, affadavit and notarized jumpstart due to Proposition 8, well funded by traditional religious groups, that seeks to define marriage as limited to those of the opposite sex.

We don't think it will pass, and even if it does, it may well be blocked as so many controversial propositions have in court, but it's a bittersweet moment. Bitter since it's a shame that Bob & Chris have to hasten their legalization to outrun the tides of bigotry. Sweet as they at last can cherish their union as a couple with all the rights and privileges (and I hope none of the heartache) that goes with being hitched before a justice of the peace of Santa Cruz County Courthouse, or the lawn out back in that idyllic coastal haven.

Congratulations to Bob and Chris, and I send my love to them. And their lovely witness. Sadly, I could not be there due to 1) having a last-minute presentation mandated at work; 2) not being able to find anyone to look after my sons; 3) having to look after my sons. Says something else about the fruits of lawful wedlock.

(This picture just in from Layne's e-mail, taken only about six hours ago! Note angle of sunbeam shining heavenly blessings upon our happy couple, and trio.)

Fernando Báez's "A Universal History of the Destruction of Books": Book Review

This Venezuelan librarian answers what a history student, at Baghdad's university in 2003, wonders after the library's been looted of every volume: why does man destroy so many books? The book begins and ends in Iraq, where the earliest texts we have survive, only because of the flames that consumed and preserved their clay tablets. Twelve years of research results in the first "single history of their destruction" (7). Intriguingly, the author has "concluded that the more cultured a nation or a person is, the more willing each is to eliminate books under the pressure of apocalyptic myths" (18) Bibliophiles often can be biblioclasts. We all, he insists, in dividing up "us" vs. "them" negate each other, and play into censorship, exclusion, and eradication as we cannot tolerate criticism or opposition.

Translated in pithy style by Alfred MacAdam, it's a fluid and direct overview. Uruk, where the first surviving books can be found in Sumer, represents the creation simultaneous with the destruction of texts. Tablets were baked in the fires of battle, between 4100 and 3300 BCE. Little survives from so many ancient eras: 75% of Greek manuscripts lost; 80% of Egyptian texts vanished. This grim catalogue continues, as we find patterns repeated from the start of civilization, as invaders and barbarians plunder and eliminate no less than the kings and the clerics.

It's a study perhaps better sampled, as Báez suggests, rather than taken start to finish. The nature of the topic makes an uneven, incomplete, and enigmatic treatment-- appropriately if frustratingly-- for the material. The tone's not always scholarly; there's moments of verve that ease the flow of often disheartening lists of the losses that have been incurred by fire, insects, weather, and ideology. Qin Shi Huang's forces in 213 BCE carried out a typical binge: "Functionaries went from house to house seizing books, which they then burned in a bonfire, to the joyful surprise of those who hadn't read them." (68) Augustus the emperor "burned more thatn 2,000 Greek and Roman works he didn't like. He was a severe critic." (77) "The life of Yakov ben Judah Leib Frankovich was that of any fanatic: unsettled, no security, immodest." (178)

You learn about Nicolas Turrianos, who in copying codices for the Spanish king Philip II enabled "a special collection of forbidden books made up of volumes sewn shut so that no one could read them." (174) Or, how the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, after Stalin's security chief Beria's death, sent subscribers a postcard of the Bering Sea to paste over the entry on that now disgraced chief of Soviet security.

And, while you may recognize the name of the venerable Swiss library at St Gall, I doubt if many will have heard of the first woman formally canonized, St. Wiborada. She threw herself on top of her buried books after the Huns set fire to the abbey. Her mutilated body was found above the library's contents, protected by her foresight beneath the earth. For this, she's venerated as the patron saint of librarians.

While the Nazi desecration gains attention, along with the Islamic and Christian efforts to silence those texts that challenged hegemony, you also learn about both sides in the Spanish Civil War, or Latin American and Bosnian examples, perhaps less documented. Chinese and Soviet biblioclasty, by comparison, received much less space than I expected, and the sustained attention to particular countries or centuries does become sporadic. This may be due to the outbreaks, followed by recoveries, and then-- unfortunately-- usually more outbreaks of fanaticism, that become never predictable throughout five thousand years of purportedly civilized society.

Báez, ending a brief chapter on "the natural enemies of books," notes how fragile transfer to CD or flash drives may be. Even if we can save 14 million volumes on a disc, all it takes is a single scratch and we've lost everything, once more. E-Books are no insurance against loss, for hackers will supplant Huns in coming centuries.

This survey moves, in Borgesian fashion like the allusion in its title, mainly by such anecdotes, short essays, and dutiful lists of what patrimony we have lost. The chapters progress largely chronologically. They often contain factoids and reflections that delight or-- more often-- depress, but the ability of a reader to use this compendium as a reference source may be limited. The index lists only book titles and proper names; the endnotes guide the inquirer to further reading, but the many references and asides in the text to other texts, lost or found, cannot be pursued easily. Citations outside of the endnotes absent, one cannot follow the leads that Báez creates, a strange self-referential system that again may recall Borges, as we're forced to take the author at his word about words we can or cannot track elsewhere.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ag siúl, ag obair.

Iarraidh mé go mbeadh ag obair ar an colaiste leis coill, abhainn, agus cluain. Ach, muinim ina gcathair. Caithim ag saothrú ina bpairc oifige. Níl campas é.

Tá sé ag fiar de an bóthar mhór ansiud. Feicim trácht botháir. Go deireanach, níl brú tráchta. Níl trácht trangláite ann. Sílim go raibh sé mar praghsannaí an mhargaid leis peitreal. Tá mé ag cloisteáil an dordan na gcarrannaí go deo, mar sin féin.

Cloisim srannán eitleáin fós. Éirim go taobh eile. Feicfidh mé aerphort ansin. Faigheann tú ábalta feicéail mo h-áit cá siúlaim atá idir dhá láthair seo. Tá cúig foirgneoireachtaí ann. Tá ago tógáil leis coincréitim agus cloch eibhir. Tá fuinneoigaí gorm ach níl ábalta a glinnigh ar an taobh istigh ar rudái.

Níl duine go leor ar an cósaín amuigh díobh. Imím síos ar an scáth. Tá ballái móra go bhfuil an ghrian a choinneáil ormsa féin. Fágaim ar mo chlar agus bainim de anois agus aríst. Tosaím nuair ag teacht sos.

Bím ag dul ar feadh leathuair. Déanaim seo nuair ag fanacht ag muinim ar an oiche. Tosaím leis ag deanamh cúrsa. Tá mé ag dul timpeall ina gceantar faoi fhoirgnimh. Éistim ar an steallóg ina beirt scardán. Is maith liom sruthán ann.

Is céann focal cosuil le ainm áite shraidbhaile go raibh mo sean-thuismeoirthaí i gcónaí ina gContae Mhaigh Eo. Mearaim go fada uathu, go cinnte. Bhí sé aimsir fadó, fadó. Ní chreidim chóiche é.

Walking & Working.

I wish that I would be working at a college with a grove, a river, and a meadow. But, I teach in the city. I must labor in an office park. It's no campus.

It's diagonal from the freeway over there. I see road traffic. Lately, there's not the congestion on the way. There's not the tangling on the street. I think that it may be (due to) market prices for petrol. Nevertheless, I'm hearing the hum of the cars forever.

I hear the drone of planes also. I get up on the other side. I'll see an airport there. You see my place where I walk which is between these two locations. Five high buildings are there. They are built with concrete and granite. Their windows are blue, but you are not able to peer in at things inside.

Not many people are on the paths outside of them. I go out below in the shade. The great walls are sheltering me myself from the sun. I leave from my desk and I take off now and then. I start when a break is coming.

I (usually) am going for a half-hour. I do this when I'm waiting for teaching in the evening. I start with making a circuit. I'm going around the built-up area. I listen to the splash in the pair of fountains. The flow pleases me there.

This is the same word as the placename of the village in which my great-grandparents lived in Mayo. I live far from them. It was a time long, long ago. I cannot imagine it.

(Níl iómhá i gCalifoirnea ann, ach is fearr inniu faoi ábhar seo agam. The image's not in California, but it's the best today about this material for me.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ar an picturlann & Sukkah síos

Chuaigh muid ar dhá áit inné. Ar dtosach, chuireamar cuairt a Cithrúadh. Is é an athair baistí Nhiall, mo mhac níos óg. Tá sé féin igcónaí in aice leis Coill Chuillean anois, ach bhíomar go dtí feile na Sukkot ina baile na tuismitheoirí air ag imeall na gCathair Stiúideo. Mar sin féin, níl stiúideo ann ina gceantar!

Is Sukkot é lá saoire Guidach. Is cuimhne acu an sean-oilithreacht fómharach. D'ith Eabhrachaí síos na speir agus na rialta ina bothán ar feadh ocht lá. Tógann Cithrúadh cró ar an taobh amuigh an cistean. Is 'sukkah' é. Chríochnaigh muid leis cáirde eile Chithrúadh agus d'ol muid agus d'ith muid aríst.

Bhí trí craobhach againn. Tá saileach, pailme, agus miortal a chroitheadh a cheile ann. Bholaidim ciotrón, nó "etrog," fós. Lhuasc mé na duilleogaí ar an ceathair airde an chompáis. Is deasgnáthach thorthúlacht ársa é!

Inniu, imíonn duine go leor ag dul turas nua. D'fhág muidsa féin go dtí an lár Choill Chuillean. Chonaic mo theaglach scannáin trialachaí areir ar an Éigipteach. Rinne Tadhg Lyman ceithre dóibh aigesan féin. Tá Lyman ina lucht scannánaíochta do na "avant-garde."

Mhuin Lyman Seán Canizzero. Tá sé féin ag obair leis Léna. Bhí Séan ag déanta "Tír na Mairbh." Tagann sé amach go maith ar an scannan faoi reilig gCambria i gCalifornia lárnach. D'fhan muid ingar láthair seo ina samhradh seo caite.

Níl scannáin idirdhealaithe seo ó an gnás. Níl scéal furasta ann. Níl eolas direach ann. Caitheann siad aire do a tharraingt ar fisean ealaithe seisean féin. Go deimhin, dearmaidionn muid éagsulaí sin nuair breathnaímid go coitianta an táille go Coill Chuillean céann seo.

To the movie house and under the Sukkah.

We went to two places yesterday. At first, we paid a visit to Jerome. He's the godfather (= "baptismal father" in Irish) of Niall, my younger son. He himself is living near Hollywood now, but we were at a party for Sukkot at the home of his parents on the border of Studio City. All the same, there's no studio there in the area!

Sukkot is a Jewish holiday. They recall the old autumnal pilgrimage. Hebrews ate under the sky and the stars in a hut during eight days. It's a sukkah. Jerome builds a shelter on the outside of the kitchen. We gathered with other friends of Jerome and we ate and drank again.

We had three branches. Willow, palm, and myrtle were shaken together there. I sniffed a citron, or "etrog," also. I waved the leaves in the four directions of the compass. It's an ancient fertility rite!

Today, many people go out for a new pilgrimage. We left ourselves to go off to the center of Hollywood. My family saw experimental films last night at the Egyptian. Ted Lyman made a quartet of them himself. Lyman's in a group of filmmakers from the avant garde.

Lyman taught John Cannizzaro. He himself is working with Layne. John made "Land of the Dead." He came out well on this film about a cemetery in Cambria in Central California. We stayed near this site in the past summer.

These distinctive films aren't the usual. Stories aren't easy there. Information isn't direct there. They must draw your attention to the artistic vision itself. Indeed, we forget those varieties when we watch ordinarily the fare from this same Hollywood.

Iómhá /Image: Tír na Mairbh/ Land of the Dead.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

St Gallen's Medieval Manuscripts Digitized

I picked up a little volume about the destruction of libraries at the library the other day, a translation of the Venezuelan librarian Fernando Báez' "A Universal History of the Destruction of Libraries: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-Day Iraq." I hear echoes in the title of a continental predecessor, Borges, in this title. Whom Peron demoted to chicken inspector. On the other hand, my great-uncle found employment as Pigs & Bacon Commissioner after the end of his fringe-party political stint in Ireland, so perhaps such occupations leave more time for browsing?

Amidst the barnyard and sty, coop and nest, I have often wondered how little survives from what we must have learned once. Báez has previously chronicled the loss of the archives at Alexandria, a shameful combination of a succession of assaults by Islamic fanaticism after Byzantine stupidity. (Not to mention poor Hypatia's fate previously.) When you multiply the trash, fires, rats, and mildew by millions of documents we discard daily, and then exponentially over millennia, the amount of ignorance gained along with the need for spring cleaning, persecution, moving in and out of a place, and sheer happenstance makes a humbling record, or lack of such, to our legacy.

With our delete keys and trashcan icons, with demands that we empty our mailboxes at work servers when they reach their limit, we too succumb, even in this realm where once we were assured that we could save it all, and never lose an iota of what pings into terabytes. Still, we too must suffer the restrictions of virtual shelves, and limits on our accumulation of information. As opposed to knowledge.

I'm in the middle of J. G. Farrell's novel set during the 1857 Mutiny in India, "The Siege of Krishnapur." The improvised fortress under attack by rebels, the Collector's sheltered from the increasing deprivations of mortar fire by the colorfully bound-- by bureaucratic "red tape"-- piles of imperial correspondence. It's stacked up for better symbolic and practical uses as substitute pillows and sandbags against the bullets of the sepoys. The voluminous packets--those that have not been eaten away by white ants-- cushion the functionary's perilous office, and his ginger-whiskered head, as he seeks a respite from the jackels, stench, artillery, and cadavers that surround the embattled colonials and their animal and human rabble. Cholera's pending, meanwhile. How many times, in past desert battles over monasteries or redoubts, must sensitive types found a retreat from the barbarities endured outside, in the "real" world that their rulers and Types A despoil in the name of civilization, to destroy one empire only to raise up another tyrant?

Bringing a Trove of Medieval Manuscripts Online for the Ages by John Tagliabue, from the New York Times, October 18, 2008. The summary: "The Stiftsbibliothek — literally, the abbey library — in St. Gallen, Switzerland, will digitize and post its collection with the help of a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation." For $175 million of American money, it's encouraging to see the other side of colonialism, capital, and the endless march of progress in the name of market shares. The nineteenth century's investments on repentent robber barons pay off for a nod to saving our precious literary culture. Rather than stoking Wall Street's greed, given the current trend to the contrary, same as it ever was. The library's site: St Gallen Library.

Photo: Library at St. Gallen. Dominic Buttner, for the NY Times.