December 30, 2010

finding meaning in the mundane

The older I get, the more meaning I find in the mundane aspects of my life.

When I was young, I used to think I was important. I justified my importance with my beliefs and my dreams. I was going to be an incredible scientist who was going to make the next profound leap in human understanding because scientific understanding is the only understanding of the world we humans know, and the more we know the better off we are. Then I was going to be a brilliant artist whose art shook the souls of everyone it reached because we humans need an emotional grasp of our existence and a reason to live, and art is the light which brightens the darkest corners of our hearts.

But now, as I struggle to make this transition into adulthood, I realize how unimportant I am. My existence is small, my actions inconsequential. I no longer have dreams or beliefs. I care little about where life leads me as long as it leads me forward. I expect to be alone for most of it.

More and more, the meaning of my life is defined by the details of day-to-day living: eating well and sleeping soundly; keeping clean and staying warm; remaining emotionally tranquil and intellectually active. This is the sum of my life. To grow up, I must recognize how small this sum is.

Everywhere I turn, I see people who justify the importance of their existence with Philosophy and Science, Love and Art, Religion and Politics, Wealth and Power, Truth and Beauty. A soul is often unable to recognize the smallness of its existence. This is sometimes a painful and depressing thing to witness.

But there is pleasure in the mundane, and I am off to seek it.

December 03, 2010

old habits

I have spent the past month pretending to write a nanowrimo, but have in reality done nothing of the sort. I have instead fallen back into old habits, most of them bad (like watching movies), and spend the rest of my time in despair over how hopeless my future surely is. As blogging is an old, bad habit, I shall blog again. But before I get to it, I will divert you with a sketch, a piece of creative writing, which I had promised to share in my last post but on which I never delivered: Philosophers in the Square.

November 09, 2010

returning

Just as I have fallen in love with Japan, I am to leave it. I am returning home, but what lies in my future is still unclear. While I would like to update this blog more often, I have decided this month to tackle nanowrimo, so my writing time will be devoted to that idiotic task. (I have a grand total of 500 words 1 week in, so I may accomplish more by abandoning this project than continuing it. But I will stubbornly persist.) I may, if the readers so desire it, begin posting older creative writing projects, projects previously unknown to the world. But internet posterity is a dangerous thing, and I must consider carefully what I am about before I grant it to these works.

Goodbye Japan. Keep being awesome until I have the chance to come back.

October 26, 2010

Annie

I last saw Annie when I was in high school. I do not remember when, exactly, but she would have been 7 or 8. Annie is my cousin Marti’s daughter, and, coincidentally, we share the same birthday (and Marti’s is the day after, if I remember correctly; these family coincidences made a vaguely strong impression on me when I was young, and although I rarely saw Marti and her kids, I was aware of them for this reason).

Little Annie had spunk. She was small, energetic, a little shy but very affectionate. I did not have much patience for kids when I was in high school, but after a couple of days of hanging out with Annie I had come to the conclusion that she was alright.

I do not remember how long she stayed, though it can’t have been more than a week. I do not remember much about her visit, why she and her mother were there, or what we did together in that time. But I do remember her energy, her unruly red hair, and my conclusion that this kid was alright.

It was the rare visit from Marti which reminded me of Annie’s existence, but I had otherwise not heard or seen anything of her since then.

About a week after I landed in Japan, I received this email:
Hey Ian! It's Annie :) I just wanted to say that I was told you were in Japan and you know.. I totally love Japan hehehe.

How have you been?

We're good here lol. I'll have to send some pics to you 'cause we all look really different.

How's Japan so far?

Well I'll talk to you later!!


~Annie
The voice is naïve and affectionate, the same as the girl I can barely remember from so many years before. I was amused by the email, and responded with a question I knew the answer to: And what is it about Japan which interests you? Comics, she says. Manga and anime.

Of course. She would be the type. I do not know much about manga, but at about the time I decided to try for Japan, I picked up a minor interest in anime (having hated what little I had been exposed to before then). I have learned a lot about anime and anime/manga culture in these past few months and am beginning to understand its place in a broader Japanese social context. And, having watched my share of anime, I understand the creative influence it exercises on a young soul.

She, I thought, would surely enjoy Japan, more so than me. In those first few weeks, I was overwhelmed by so much that was new; had I been a Japan nerd, or had I been with a friend, I imagine all the stimulation would have been exciting rather than exhausting, and I would have been happy rather than bewildered. I wondered what Annie would feel in my place. I asked her: What should I do while in Tokyo? Shopping! she said. Oh! and see the Hachiko statue.

For those who do not know the Hachiko story:
In 1924, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo took in Hachikō as a pet. During his owner's life Hachikō greeted him at the end of the day at the nearby Shibuya Station. The pair continued their daily routine until May 1925, when Professor Ueno did not return. The professor had suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage and died, never returning to the train station where his friend was waiting. Every day for the next nine years Hachikō waited at Shibuya station.
This sentimental story is popular in Japan, especially among children. A statue of Hachiko sits just outside of Shibuya Station, forever waiting for its master.

I visited Hachiko. I did not think back to Hachiko’s story, however, but to Annie. How characteristic of this naïve, affectionate girl! She is a Hachiko herself, and she will undoubtedly stand where I am standing at some point in her life.

On October 18, 2010, Annie was shot and killed by her (ex) boyfriend Gabriel Dye, who then turned the gun on himself. She was shot in the back of her head--she had been trying to run away. She was 16. You can read an article about it here.

My mother sent me an email telling me what had happened. She added an extra “I love you,” imagining, I’m sure, her oldest son meeting the same fate on the other side of the world. After hearing about Annie’s death, stunned and emotional, I sent Annie a final email. No one shall ever read what I wrote.

Today is her funeral. You can read her obituary here.

Goodbye, Annie. I was glad to have your company here in Japan.

October 14, 2010

why I write so poorly

Having set myself about the project of publishing to my blog everything I write, I find that contrary to what I had intended I am less eager to write than ever. Most of my thoughts just aren't meant for any head but mine, and it would be an alarming mistake to give those thoughts to the world. I am a man of caution. This bold and reckless project is against my temperament (though whether good or bad for it I have yet to tell).

You are free to dismiss this excuse and replace it with your own, more plausible explanations for my sluggish pace.

But as it stands, I am unable to pick a suitable topic to write on. To resolve this issue, I have decided to make why I am unable to pick a topic the topic of this post. What follows is a rough portrait of your author. Read on and judge fairly.

*For writers struggling to find a topic, one typically advises them to “write what they know.” I believe it is more accurate to say: “Begin from what you know, and proceed to what you don’t.” This has been true for me, at least, especially when writing about film. Writing is a process of discovery and affirmation. I find that my thoughts on a topic are only sorted out having written, and even then there is a lot I do not understand. From this observation, I conclude: I write to understand.

I wrote about film to better understand film. I wrote about philosophy, literature, and politics to better understand those, as well. I write at the present moment to understand why I am unable to write. &c. Therefore--

I write about nothing because I understand everything.

And that is all there is to say on that point.

*I write as a reader. And I read as a writer. In other words, I do neither for the pleasure of the thing.

Before I continue with this point, I should make it clear what sort of reader I am, as many readers do not consider me a reader at all. What I do read: philosophy, drama, poetry, history, criticism, scholarship, travel &c. In fact, it is more precise to say: of the world of literature, I seem to have the patience for every sort of literature written but fiction. (I should add that this category includes: comics, religious works, most journalism, and other dregs of the literary world.) The majority of readers happen to read fiction, and furthermore they do it for the pleasure of the thing. The divide between me and readers, it seems, is unbridgeable. It perplexes me that so many people would waste their time reading fiction and, even more perplexing, writing it. And it justly perplexes these readers that I could call myself a reader and hardly touch a bit of fiction.

But, so that I might make my next point, please consider me a reader.

As a reader, I write under the influence of what I have most recently read. Montaigne one day, Musset the next--emulation is necessary for creation. But emulation (and imitation) will only bring you so far. I am at present reading Laurence Sterne and Cicero; I challenge you to trace even a single phrase back to the ancient statesman (those seeking a chain between me and Sterne will have an easier time of it, but do not let this fact diminish my final point). And now, finally, my point: I have reached a stage in my writing in which I have shed most of my influences but have yet to discover a voice which is fully my own.

*My third point is the most bleak, and likely the most honest point on why I am unable to find topics to write about. I shall approach it directly--

At this moment in my life, I have no direction or ambition. I have a vague notion that I want to live, but I as yet do not know how to go about doing so. Writing, like living, requires ambition, an end towards which you can pitch your soul; and even though you are likely to end up a good distance from where you had aimed, you have at least thrown yourself somewhere.

I write poorly because I live poorly. I do not know what I am doing in this world, how I got here, or where I will be going. My writing is as confused and indefinite as my existence. But I struggle on all the same.

I would like to continue with this portrait, but I have delayed this post long enough. I shall remember to write my writing history someday, when I think my history is worth writing.

But, for now, I need to find a new topic to write on.

September 29, 2010

an earthquake

It was a little past dawn. I had been sleeping poorly and was disturbed by thoughts I would rather not share with my sensitive readers. I had been fighting to drift back into sleep, but gave up the attack and decided that I should be using this unexpected morning to accomplish unexpected things. As I lay on the floor, wrapped comfortably in my blanket, to decide which of my unexpected goals I would set about accomplishing first, the floor started to shift one way then the other, and my whole body rocked with it. The sensation was mild, but it carried a deep and quiet power. It lasted a few seconds, no longer.

Though I had suspected the importance of these few seconds, I was too wrapped in blankets and unexpected thoughts to confirm my suspicions. It was only many hours (and many unexpected accomplishments) later that I typed "earthquakes" into google and discovered that I had indeed survived the first earthquake of my life.

I am happy that fate decided I ought to be conscious for this moment. I had been psychologically preparing myself for this moment for many years, you see, and it would have been most unfortunate if I had decided to sleep through it. It is certainly possible that I might have slept on through the event and afterward live out my life unaware of my first earthquake, but fate would not allow it. I do not know by what system fate operates, but I would imagine that in exchange for this important moment I have sacrificed consciousness of many other important moments in my life. It is a startling and curious endeavor to invent all those historic personal events that I have slept or shall be sleeping through.

But I will save what life I have slept through for another post.

Now, as I have burdened myself with the task of publishing everything I write, I ought to continue on with earthquakes. It would be a pleasure to tell you everything worth knowing about earthquakes; I do not, however, know anything about them, and that is perhaps everything worth knowing.

As a general rule, the less a man knows about a subject, the more unreasonable he becomes when discussing it. I hold myself to be an exception to this rule, and have to say that I only become unreasonable about a subject once I have learned it through, front to back and back to front. But when the topic is something as mysterious to me as love, music, or earthquakes, I am the most reasonable fellow alive. It is not so much a challenge to be reasonable about earthquakes, however, as to be reasonable through them. And this is why I spent time preparing myself for my first earthquake.

I was determined not to panic. As you have read above, I remained as calm as possible, calmer indeed than you should expect from people even when the earth is quite still. Yes, you say to me, but you hardly had anything to panic about. True. But had buildings crumbled, had firestorms raged, had people exploded in the streets, I would have kept the same composure, I assure you. (I shall wander into a digression at this point, since the reader can do nothing about it--

Although I am quite relieved that my first earthquake was not the disaster scenario to truly try my composure, I have to admit my disappointment with the literary possibilities of the experience I did have. Had there indeed been firestorms and corpses, this post would be filled with terror and excitement and pathos. Imagine it! My dry style would excellently capture the violent and thrilling details. It would be a chronicle for history, an awe-inspiring account of the 2nd Great Kanto Earthquake. It would win admiration, adulation, awards. It would be treasured. The world would rush to read it. The number of visitors to my blog would double from 2 to 4. Glory I should have!

But my first earthquake was a modest one, and it deserves this modest post.

And this is probably as it should be. There is unreasonable disaster literature enough, and I am not the one to contribute to it.

While on the subject of literature, I will take this opportunity to excerpt a passage from Roughing It about that author’s first earthquake. His first earthquake makes for more interesting literature than mine, and I am happy to assume that you readers would rather read Mark Twain than me:
The “curiosities” of the earthquake were simply endless. Gentlemen and ladies who were sick, or were taking siesta, or had dissipated till a late hour and were making up lost sleep, thronged into the public streets in all sorts of queer apparel, and some without any at all. One woman who had been washing a naked child, ran down the street holding it by the ankles as if it were a dressed turkey. Prominent citizens who were supposed to keep the Sabbath strictly, rushed out of saloons in their shirt-sleeves, with billiard-cues in their hands. Dozens of men with necks swathed in napkins rushed from barber shops, lathered to the eyes or with one cheek clean-shaved and the other still bearing a hairy stubble. Horses broke from their stable, and a frightened dog rushed up a short attic ladder and out onto a roof, and when his scare over had not the nerve to go down again the same way he had gone up. A prominent editor flew down-stairs, in the principal hotel, with nothing on but one brief undergarment-–met a chambermaid, and exclaimed:
“Oh, what
shall I do! Where shall I go!”
She responded with naive serenity:
“If you have no choice, you might try a clothing store!”

A certain foreign consul’s lady was the acknowledged leader of fashion, and every time she appeared in anything new or extraordinary, the ladies in the vicinity made a raid on their husbands’ purses and arrayed themselves similarly. One man, who had suffered considerably and growled accordingly, was standing at the window when the shocks came, and the next instant the consul’s wife, just out of the bath, fled by with no other apology for clothing than--a bath towel! The sufferer rose superior to the terrors of the earthquake, and said to his wife:
“Now
that is something like! Get out your towel, my dear!”

The plastering that fell from ceilings in San Francisco that day would have covered several acres of ground. For some days afterward, groups of eying and pointing men stood about many a building, looking at long zigzag cracks that extended from the eaves to the ground. Four feet of the tops of three chimneys on one house were broken square off and turned around in such a way as to completely stop the draught. A crack a hundred feet long gaped open six inches wide in the middle of one street and then shut together again with such force as to ridge up the meeting earth like a slender grave. A lady, sitting in her rocking and quaking parlor, saw the wall part at the ceiling, open and shut twice, like a mouth, and then drop the end of a brick on the floor like a tooth. She was a woman easily disgusted with foolishness, and she arose and went out of there. One lady who was coming down-stairs was astonished to see a bronze Hercules lean forward on its pedestal as if to strike her with its club. They both reached the bottom of the flight at the same time--the woman insensible from the fright. Her child, born some little time afterward, was club-footed. However--on second thought--if the reader sees any coincidence in this, he must do it at his own risk.

The first shock brought down two or three huge organ-pipes in one of the churches. The minister, with uplifted hands, was just closing the services. He glanced up, hesitated, and said:
“However, we will omit the benediction!”--and the next instant there was a vacancy in the atmosphere where he had stood.

After the first shock, an Oakland minister said:
“Keep your seats! There is no better place to die than this”--
and added after the third:
“But outside is good enough!” He then skipped out the back door.
My own first earthquake does not have one hundredth of the literary possibilities. So much for that digression.)

I have nothing more to write concerning my first earthquake, but I would be pleased to answer whatever questions you may have about my experience. I may not be an expert on earthquakes, but I am more of an expert now than I was a week ago. I have even written a blog post on the subject (and you have just read it)--an expert indeed.

September 22, 2010

a writing note for fall

September is slipping by and I still seem to be ignoring my blog. Woe for this poor, obscure corner of cyberspace! Can I so cruelly ignore it for any longer?

The desire to write grips me, so write I shall. But note a symptom which afflicts me: I long to write when I have nothing to say, then having set about writing nothing, I discover I no longer desire to write.

I have tried to compensate for this in the past by finding something to write about, or else by writing my nothing through to the end whether I desire to or not. This state of my creativity does not please me, so I shall set about fixing it by writing about everything, or else not writing at all. If I cannot write about everything, I shall at least publish everything I write. If I do not write, I shall publish that as well.

I do not know what this unfortunate decision means for my poor, obscure corner of cyberspace, but I will find out soon.

August 18, 2010

leaving

I leave for Japan tomorrow. I have three months to find a job. The inquisitive reader will ask why I have chosen to search for work abroad rather than at home; to answer that, I shall echo Montaigne:
When people ask why I go on my travels I usually reply that I know what I am escaping from but not what I am looking for.
To those of you wondering if I will blog my experience: I do not know.

August 01, 2010

July 10 favorites update for Aug

Upon making this post of the films I watched last month, I discovered I saw only 5 movies and felt no desire to list any of them. I apologize to those who come to my blog for those outstanding recommendations and beautiful screencaps.

But the worse news is that these monthly film posts will be no more. As my situation will radically change this month, this blog will change as well. I have not decided how it will change yet. It may become dead space, or I may be energetic enough to blog prolifically. Such changes are in the future, of course, so I cannot give you accurate predictions.

But ahoy! adventures lie ahead. I need to be preparing for them rather than relaxing in this little blog.

July 28, 2010

lit project update

I will no longer be writing posts for my lit project (though I will still be reading a lot). This blog will be quiet for the next month at least.

July 11, 2010

The World as Will and Idea

For my lit project, I read The World as Will and Idea by Schopenhauer.

The book is divided into four parts. In the first two, S describes his metaphysics, which separates the world into idea and will. For S, the distinction between the subject (the thinking person) and the object (the world the subject experiences), which philosophy has long maintained, is false; the object, says S, presupposes the subject and exists already as an idea which the subject comprehends. This argument becomes clearer as the book progresses.

S then describes the will, which we all have an intuitive understanding of; the will is, according to S, the being-in-itself of all things, humans, plants, and rocks alike. It is the fundamental force behind human actions and the laws of nature. It does not exist within the trappings of space, time, and causality, but rather exists outside these fundamental properties we perceptually experience. And since it exists beyond these trappings, it is unified, and as such the will we experience within ourselves is the same will which drives every other object we encounter.

Thus for S, there is the idea -- which is defined by space, time, and causality, and which we understand through our senses as the objective world -- and the will -- which is the metaphysical inner-nature of all these objects. Describing the world in this fashion, S compares his metaphysics to Plato’s; whereas Plato assigns particular objects (a chair, for instance) to generalized Ideas (that is to say, the particular chair is an expression of an Idea of chair, from which all chairs come to exist), S assigns particular ideas to a grade of the will. Properly speaking, the idea for S is the objectification of the will.

However brief and (undoubtedly) confusing this summary of S’s metaphysics may be, an understanding of S’s metaphysics is necessary before approaching the rest of his philosophy. S heavily reworks Kant, and his separating the world into two aspects is a twist of Kant’s insight into the difference between the phenomenal world (which we have access to) and the being-in-itself (which we do not have access to). The rest of S’s philosophy (which gets the more attention) is built on this.

Science, says S, is the study of the phenomenal idea defined by space, time, and causality; what, then, is the proper study of the will? S’s answer: art. S devotes the third section of his work to this topic and argues that in aesthetic contemplation (and rapture) we leave behind the will and enter into the world of idea. This argument is completed in the final section of the book --

The will, according to S, is forever striving, never satisfied. It is, as such, suffering. Midway through the final section, S gives a detailed exposition of the suffering of the human will (which I thought reminiscent of Lucretius) and lays out the portion of his philosophy which others have inevitably labeled “pessimistic.” S’s vision is bleak, but he is a transcendentalist: the striving of the will can be forgotten, even suppressed; we transcend the will through knowledge of the true nature of the universe (which happens to be S’s metaphysics). In art, we glimpse this truth and briefly forget the will as we contemplate pure objectivity (which art expresses). But this is not full understanding.

In the final section, S outlines his ethics. This is probably the most famous portion of his philosophy. He begins from the illusion people hold that they (as subjects) are separated from the objective world they experience; in this egoism, people recognize only their own wills, and in asserting their wills come to actively deny the wills of others. This person does wrong and borders on wickedness. Once, however, a person recognizes the truth -- that is, that his will is the same will which appears in others, and, consequently, that his suffering is tied to the suffering of other wills -- this person strives to become just by recognizing the equal rights of another’s will. Finally, a person comes to elevate the wills of others above his own and becomes willing to sacrifice his own will for the sake of others. This final person has escaped the sufferings of the will by suppressing his will entirely. For S, this is the ascetic, the saint.

Before reading this, I had heard a lot about Schopenhauer and his pessimism. Having read it, I would not call S a pessimist. He is greatly misrepresented. And though I found his discussions about art and ethics stimulating and fascinating, I think it is his metaphysics which is his important philosophical contribution. One cannot take his aesthetics or ethics without first swallowing his metaphysics. And his metaphysics is transcendental (re: not pessimistic).

S’s writing style is occasionally maddening. His sentences can get unruly. His paragraphs can continue on for pages. And yet he is surprisingly coherent; his clarity is sometimes startling. Though I never fully took to his philosophy, I at least took something from nearly everything he discussed and found my own philosophy becoming that much clearer through his words; I subscribe to none of his assertions yet feel his influence throughout my thoughts. This influence may not survive for long, but for now at least I feel this book has been an important step for my understanding of philosophy (as a subject). I plan to read more philosophy for my lit project in the near future.

July 01, 2010

June 10 favorites

Actually, I did not watch anything this month that was truly worthy of this list. Despair! But, in order to fill this list with something, here are films which, had it been better month, would have almost made this list:

Diva Dolorosa (1999)

Like You Know It All (2009)

Souls on the Road (1921)

Death by Hanging (1968)

June 20, 2010

The Sorrows of Young Werther

For my lit project, I read Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther.

This is my first novel since beginning my lit project. As a matter of personal safety, I picked something short and highly regarded.

The unreasonable emotions displayed here are not to my taste. While I first sympathized with Werther, allowing his youthful feelings to sweep him away, I became annoyed with him before long. By the end, I had no other desire but to slap him and tell him to grow up. This he refused to do; he chose to leave the world instead.

Other points to my distaste: the maternal simplicity and purity of Lotte, Werther's love-object; using peasants and nature to signify romantic innocence; the portrayal of the artistic temperament as emotionally unreasonable; Goethe drawing heavily on real life experience (including the suicide of an acquaintance).

At this point in my life, I am interested in the mundane. The overwhelming emotion of Werther lacks the depth and difficulty of the everyday, and his obstinate refusal to grow out of it annoys me (as I have said).

So! My excursion into novels is a disappointment. Beyond that, nothing to report.

June 19, 2010

Montaigne

For my lit project, I read the Essays of Michel de Montaigne.

I began reading Montaigne shortly after the start of the new year and have been coming back to him in intermittent bursts throughout these six months. The past few weeks have seen my longest and most intimate association with his work, and now, faced with writing about the Essays, I do not think I will be able to properly separate myself from them in order to fairly assay them. But here I go:

Montaigne's subject is himself. Following Apollo's inscription at Delphi ("Know Thyself") and the lead of history's sages, Montaigne examines his virtues and follies, his habits and experiences, his mind and his body. Montaigne's voice is direct, realistic, and mature. He does not hide his vices or shy from uncomfortable truth. He is temperate and relaxed. He ambles through his thoughts with unassuming ease, detailed yet disorganized, rambling yet apt. He borrows heavily from the Ancients, whole essays structured around lines of poetry, others indebted to the examples of a philosopher. Socrates and Epicurus, the Stoics and Sceptics, Virgil and Juvenal, Plutarch and Cicero, Caesar and Alexander -- an endless run of wisdom which Montaigne examines (sometimes to accept, sometimes to criticize) and applies. He is right to. No wisdom is as rich as Ancient wisdom.

Montaigne began writing his Essays late in life and, finding them worthwhile, dedicated himself to them till his end. He published three books. Reading them beginning to end, as I have, reveals a writer who becomes more comfortable and confident with time. His first essays are short, his topics less personal. His final essays are breathtaking in their aimless length and frankness.

As Montaigne changed over the course of his Essays as a writer, I changed as a reader. This has little to do with Montaigne and more to do with the circumstances of my life, which have altered me, sometimes radically, between bouts of reading. With each change, my appreciation for Montaigne grew. My first approach to Montaigne was as an intellectual; I examined his thoughts and tested his world view, comparing his philosophy with my own. I was disappointed. By the end of his Essays -- by today -- I learned to approach Montaigne as a person, a man like any other. Few of us will fail to recognize aspects of ourselves in this detailed auto-portrait. Montaigne, as is his project, fully displays his humanity; and in so doing he displays our own.
We set our stupidities in dignity when we set them in print.
From the start, I always read Montaigne with a pencil by my side. My book is now filled with faint markings, bracketing off passages and lines which struck me while I was reading. To read them now is an experience of its own. Some passages strike me as dull or bizarre, and I cannot imagine what crossed my mind when I first read them and found them worth highlighting; other passages strike me through the heart, onto which I am moved to inscribe such clear and simple wisdom. It is something when but a sentence is needed to question the virtue and depth of my soul; I have opened my book to find this modest line --
in an age when so many behave wickedly, it is almost praiseworthy merely to be useless.
I shall return to your Essays later in my life, Montaigne. Then will age be my aid.

June 12, 2010

summer

Aside from monthly lists and lit project posts, this blog will be mostly quiet throughout the summer. Adjust your blog-reading schedules accordingly.

And don't mind my playing with the new blogger templates.

June 01, 2010

May 10 favorites

I rediscovered Japanese film this month and watched little else. I have not been so excited about film for some time. Expect this pace to continue over the summer.

Of what I watched, I liked:

A Hen in the Wind (1948)

Kochiyama Soshun (1936)

5cm per Second (2007)

A Bloody Spear on Mount Fuji (1955)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Love Exposure (2008)

[note: the inclusion of anime on this list is not an accident.]

May 13, 2010

Homer (and an update)

When I began this lit project, I was not sure which direction I would take. I had planned to pursue philosophy and drama, my original literature loves, but a sidestep into Ovid took me down the path of Ancient poetry. It quickly became a minor obsession. Having now read many of the Ancients, two ideas have crystallized in my mind: the cultural meaning of poetry as established by the Ancients; and the influence of Homer on Western Civilization. To culminate my compulsion for Ancient poetry, I read Homer.

This post will be brief. Rather than talking about the Iliad or the Odyssey, I offer a quick note on my relationship with his work:

Homer is a point of reference I share with nearly every literate person in the West. This is true not only of people today, but also of the Ancients. The Homer I read and know is the Homer they read and knew. Time, place, language give us a different understanding and perspective, but Homer still mediates our connection. This connection is culture, and it is overwhelming to think we have preserved culture for over two and a half thousand years.

Awesome.

I had a lot to say about Homer but gutted it all from this post. I am up for having a conversation about him, though, if anyone cares to throw in their own thoughts.

[My Update: I will be taking a break from blogging and my lit project. Two weeks, I think. You can email me in the meanwhile, or if you happen to be interested in what movies I am watching, you can stop by pear hut (my hitherto hidden tumblr).]

May 04, 2010

Callimachus

For my lit project, I read the surviving poems of Callimachus.

One hears a lot about Callimachus when learning the Classics. Poet, librarian, critic, Callimachus represents the shift to the post-Heroic Hellenistic era. As a critic, he condemned epic poetry and praised what was brief, highly-crafted, and very literate. These lines from his Hymn to Apollo both express and exemplify this philosophy:
And Envy whispered in Apollo's ear:
"I am charmed by the poet who swells like the sea."
But Apollo put foot to Envy and said:
"The river Euphrates has a powerful current
but the water is muddy and filled with refuse.
The Cult of the Bees brings water to Deo
but their slender libations are unsullied and pure,
the trickling dew from a holy spring's height."
Pure drops from a holy spring (Callimachus's poetry) are preferable to a powerful yet muddy current (epic poetry). This aesthetic preference characterizes the Hellenistic age. Epics and Tragedies are out of fashion; in fashion are Menander, Theocritus, and Aratus. Incidentally ... Epigram 62:
Aratus of Soloi models his verse
On Hesiod's best, and refuses to write
The Ultimate Epic. We praise these terse,
Subtle tokens of long effort at night.
How fortunate I am to have crossed Aratus, this bizarre, little poet. I am beginning to understand his reputation among the Ancients.

The Hellenistic inclination to holy dew reappears with vigor among the Romans. Without Callimachus, no Catallus, Propertius, or Ovid (whose Fasti may be more influenced by Callimachus's lost Aetia than by Propertius). Callimachus's influence is difficult to escape. And yet, as Fortune has it, little of his work survives, and one is at a loss to discover why there is so much noise about him. 6 hymns, 64 epigrams, and some number of fragments survive. These I read. These only of hundreds of estimated books. Time has robbed us of his work.

What, O Zeus, are we to make of Callimachus?

May 01, 2010

April 10 favorites

This appears to have been a slow month. These were the movies I watched and liked:

The Trio's Engagements (1937)

What Did the Lady Forget? (1937)

Our Neighbor Miss Yae (1934)

This list gives the impression that all I watched this month were Japanese films from the 1930s (in which women wore stylishly tilted hats). This is not the case, though I certainly wish it were.

April 26, 2010

Homeric Hymns

For my lit project, I read the Homeric Hymns.

The Hymns are a collection of 34 poems, each in praise of a particular god. These Hymns are a mysterious bunch. They vary in length, the shortest being only several lines long, the longest almost 600. Nobody really knows who wrote them or when. Some date back to Homer's time (thus their name), others seem to have been written in later antiquity. One Hymn poet identifies himself as a blind singer from Chios; this little detail sparked what may be the biggest rumor about Homer's biography.

All the Hymns follow a similar formula. First they announce which god they are singing about (and include a number of epithets, as all Greeks do in naming their gods). Then they move on to some biographical myth about the god. Then they close, usually as a final entreaty, often as a transition into another song. These endings indicate that the singer of these Hymns used them as a preface for something else. What that ensuing song might have been is, like the Hymns, a mystery.

Without any details about what these Hymns were or who wrote them, all a modern reader can do is enjoy them for what they are. The longer Hymns are moderately entertaining. I rather enjoyed the Hymn to Demeter (2) and the Hymn to Hermes (4). Aside from Classical scholars, the Hymns are largely unread. I do not expect I will convince anybody to read them, but for the sake of your general knowledge I will provide a very standard Hymn which should tell you what every other Hymn is like. Hymn to Artemis (27):
Artemis I sing, of the arrow of gold and the hunting cry,
Chaste virgin pursuing the deer, showering arrows,
Own sister of gold-bladed Apollo, who courses
Over the shadowy hills and wind-swept peaks
Taking delight in the chase, and, bending her golden bow,
Sends forth her arrows of anguish. The peaks of the high mountain tremble,
And the shady woodland screams with the cries of wild creatures;
Earth itself shudders, and the deep sea teeming with fish,
As the brave goddess turns this way and that, slaying the race of wild beasts.
But when the showerer of arrows is sated with searching for game
And her heart is content, she slackens the well-bent bow
And goes to the great house of her dear brother, Phoebus Apollo,
In the rich land of Delphi, and orders the beautiful dance of the Muses and Graces.
There, hanging up her curve-backed bow and her quiver of arrows,
Her figure adorned with elegant raiment, she takes command
And leads in the dances. They all raise their heavenly voices
In hymns of praise to Leto, delicate-ankled,
Telling in song of how she gave birth to children
Foremost in counsel and deeds among the immortals.

Farewell, children of Zeus and of lovely-haired Leto;
I will remember you both and another song too.
[I really must blog about film again. Writing about Ancient lit has to be the most boring thing I could be doing with this blog.]

April 23, 2010

Ovid's Fasti

For my lit project, I read Ovid's Fasti.

"Fasti" is Latin for (something like) "chronicle," a marking of time. A fasti is frequently a (Roman) calendar. Ovid's Fasti is an elegiac poem describing various important dates, mostly Roman religious holidays/festivals. Ovid provides mythological explanations for these festivals.

If that sounds boring, it is not. This is Ovid.

It is, however, difficult. In these first few months of my lit project, I have become comfortable with Classical myth; the numerous religious references in these Ancient works pause me no more. But Fasti is an exception. Much of the myth it covers is peculiarly Roman and terribly obscure. And Fasti is written with the assumption that the reader knows the importance of the days it mentions and what the festivals are. I am not an Ancient Roman citizen and do not know anything about these traditions. All to my dismay.

But the obscurity of the myths and festivals did set me thinking. It is too easy to look at Roman culture as a borrowed culture. What would they be without the Greeks? But no, they seem to have had a well established set of myths beyond the Greeks. How far back does this culture date? How independent are these Roman myths? How did they survive? How did Greek and Roman myth so successfully mix? Such questions are impossible to answer this far removed from the Romans.

Another question which fascinates me: how did all these poets know all these stories? I have always wondered this, especially with Ovid (a fountain of references). In most cases, it is easy to imagine the very basic oral tradition that the poets are filling in when they are writing their myths, but this is more difficult with the Romans who borrowed Greek myth and could not have had the same oral tradition. Did Ovid find all his myths in Greek books? How much myth was recorded by Ovid's age? (Too few Ancient texts survive to say.)

Perhaps Ovid made all of his myth up. He frequently offers several explanations and leaves it to the reader to decide which explanation is correct. Ovid does not actually know the reasons for the many traditions he is explaining -- even when he appeals to a god or goddess who answers his questions for him (he uses this amusing device in (almost) every book of the Fasti). But it is hard to doubt Ovid's authority on mythology. He is our standard for Ancient mythology, two thousand years on.

Scholars like to point out that Ovid's Fasti does not fit neatly into any "genre." There is no precedence for this work. No generic tradition. By choosing elegiac meter, Ovid defies the Ancient obsession with the relationship between meter and content; the elegy is usually reserved for small and unambitious subjects (a prayer, or the erotic), but the Fasti is an incredibly ambitious work, as Ovid likes to note (comparing his work to an epic voyage). Other poets would have composed the Fasti in dactylic hexameter (favored meter of the epic). Ovid, choosing the elegy, is self-consciously provocative.

Ovid's ambitious scope allows him to cover many different aspects of mythology and Roman society, further confounding any attempt to categorize his Fasti. But he does have two important influences I am proud to have recognized. The first is Propertius, who wrote etiological poems in Book 4 of his Elegies. Ovid seems to have picked up on this new possibility and turned it into the Fasti (this also explains his choice of elegiac meter). Ovid's second important influence is Aratus, who wrote a poem on the constellations and weather and who I discovered through Ovid's praise (in Amores). Indeed, Ovid makes a special point of the stars and writes about them, their rising and their setting, as often as he can. Some of my favorite sections of the Fasti are mythological explanations of the constellations. I did not expect Aratus to reappear in any form in my reading. I am glad he did.

Scholars also like to point out the political implications of Ovid's work. This is undoubtedly because of Ovid's exile, which must have some political reason. But I do not think that subtle political implications are important to Ovid's work. I wish more scholars would skip this tedious political interpretation.

Only six books of the Fasti survive, corresponding to the months January through June. There is a fierce debate about whether the other six books were written and lost or never written (and so never lost). I shall not throw my divine opinion into this fray. I do wish we did have those six books. It would be a nice feather in my lit project's cap.

April 18, 2010

Tibullus

For my lit project, I read the poetry of Tibullus.

After finishing Propertius, I thought it would be a good time to finish up the Roman love Elegy, Tibullus being the only major poet I had not yet read. Two books of his love poems survive, as well as two more books (with no clear demarcation) which are attributed to Tibullus but most likely not his (spurious). Tibullus died young, so little remains.

Tibullus is often described as the simplest of the love poets. He is certainly the most gentle and most sincere. He dreams of an easy country life with his love, as wife, the heart of his humble home. He chooses love over riches, love over war. He is direct about his emotions, and genuinely so. He is quiet. Needy. Tibullus is not coarse or blunt like Catullus; he has none of the flamboyant learning of Ovid; he knows not the style or charm of Propertius--

Tibullus (alas!) is dull.

What a disappointment.

April 09, 2010

Propertius

For my lit project, I read the poems of Propertius.

Ovid is my point of entrance; Ovid's Amores consists of three books of love poems written in elegiac meter (couplets alternating hexameter and pentameter). The poems, like and unlike love, are brisk and frivolous and bold and capricious and honest and desperate and sensual and charming and oh! ever so charming. Ovid is blunt yet delicate, mischievous yet discreet, shrewd yet earnest. Every line is smart, every sentiment wicked. Ovid, crafty Ovid, exhausts Lust's emotions, bounds from the thrill of a night's passion to the despair of passion rejected. The Amores introduced me to Ovid and Roman poetry. Hardly a line of it did I not take to heart.

And there is hardly a line which does not owe a great deal to Propertius.

Propertius (Ovid's elder by a few years) wrote four books of elegies. The first three are love poems dedicated (mostly) to his Cynthia. Everything to love in Ovid is here -- the energy, the honesty, the charm. The poetry is as capricious as love can be, as irrepressible. The fourth book turns from love poetry and takes the elegy in other directions, from epistles from wife to soldier-husband (perhaps inspiring Ovid's Heroides) to etiological descriptions of Rome (perhaps inspiring Ovid's Fasti (which I've just begun to read)).

What to say of Propertius? I am too sick at the moment to think clearly and give him a proper assessment. Here are some poems and passages to give you an idea of his work (though the translation I read/am quoting seems to place an emphasis on fitting Propertius' lines into properly metrical English lines, making me worry the translation is in many ways inaccurate). Enjoy.

From I.vii:
Though sometimes she may criticize me, lovers
can profit from my words if they'll but read.
The sad heart lifts a bit when it discovers
others have suffered and survived indeed.
My friend, if Cupid's arrow ever finds you--
I pray the gods may spare you such a fate--
you'll try to praise the silken net that binds you,
but these will be new skills, and learned too late.
Then you may seek my songs, and even learn them,
and sigh with lovesick youths above my dust,
His words were truth.
The following two poems illustrate how quickly Propertius can change tones. From II.xv:
No man more blest! O night, not dark for me,
beloved bed, scene of such dear delight!
To lie and talk there in the lamp's soft flickering,
and then to learn ourselves by touch, not sight--
to have her hold me with her breasts uncovered,
or, slipping on her tunic, balk my hand;
to have her kiss my eyes awake and murmur,
Why must you sleep? and make her sweet demand.
Shifting our arms, moving to new embraces,
we kissed a thousand kisses multiplied;
then, with lamp rekindled, fed our senses
on new delights -- the eye is love's best guide.
&c. II.xvii:
If you must lie about your lovers,
beguiling me, my blood is on your head.
Each night of solitude I sing my sorrows,
lying alone -- and you in what man's bed?
Pity poor Tantalus, waist-deep in water
that shrinks whenever he would quench his thirst;
or Sisyphus who strains to push the boulder
up the long slope, and fails. Pity these cursed,
but pity even more the piteous lover--
lover with whom no wise man would change place.
I, once the king admitted and admired,
for ten days now I have not seen your face.
Bitch! I should find a rock, a cliff, to leap from,
or mix a poisonous drug and drink it down.
I cannot hurl my works at that closed doorway,
nor wander weeping through the moonlit town.

Yet I can't leave her, though I try it often.
Seeing how true I am, may she not soften?
Propertius is more melancholy than Ovid, and genuinely so. II.xxvii:
Men, alive for an hour, would know that hour's ending,
would learn the path by which their doom draws near;
on the unclouded sky they search, like the Phoenicians,
what star to trust in and what star to fear.

Whether we fight the Parthians on foot, or sail to Britain,
death may be waiting us on sea or land.
A man in civil war, caught by opposing armies,
can feel the rock he stood on turn to sand.

Fire comes in the night, swallowing and engulfing;
into the cup what poisons find their way!
Only the man in love is proof against such terrors:
he knows his doom, its source, its kind, its day.

Though he has taken his place at the oar on death's black river,
though he looks at those sails of which no man can tell,
if he hears the voice of his mistress, calling him back from that kingdom--
let heaven thunder, he'll fight his way from hell.
[Not satisfied with this translation, I sought another and found this. I do not like this one much either:
Do you mortals seek to know death’s unfixed
hour and by what path the end may arrive?
On a clear night, do you study Phoenician science, as to
which star may be favorable and which destructive?
Whether we pursue Parthians on foot or Britons by boat,
on sea and on land, the way holds hidden perils.
Our head again tossed into the tumult, we moan,
when Mavors jumbles both camps’ uncertain hands,
and what’s more, the flame and ruin to our homes,
we moan, lest the black cups approach our lips.

Only the lover knows when he will die and from what
cause, and he fears neither Boreas’ blasts nor war.
Though the oarsman already sits in the stygian reeds,
and he sees the gloomy sails of the infernal bark:
if only the whisper of his girlfriend calling would summon him,
he would make the journey back, obedient to no law.
Maybe I should learn Latin.]

Like Ovid, Propertius is sexually blunt, which is often surprising. From III.xv:
No storms henceforth, I beg you, in our loving,
nor any endless wakeful empty nights!
When I had passed beyond my boyhood shyness
and was permitted love and all its rights,
it was Lycinna brought me that first knowledge,
giving a heart that I could not repay.
Now, almost three years since then, I remember
scarcely ten words of all we had to say.
Your love has buried all; no other woman
has made me her captive, to this day.
And yet he still manages to be utterly charming.

Perhaps my favorite line; from II.xv (again):
O let us love until we are each other--
And a fitting epigram for the man; from I.vi:
Well, men have died for love, they say, and gladly.
I shall be one of that immortal band.
Reading Propertius, I almost long for love and all its agony. May Cupid spare me.

[On the subject of love poems, I also read the surviving fragments of Sappho. I have nothing to say about them so won't write a separate post.]

April 06, 2010

The Trio's Engagements (1937)


From a technical standpoint, this film is far less interesting than the films of the heavy-hitters of Japanese cinema in the 30s — Ozu and Shimizu and Naruse and Mizoguchi. However, this film feels like it is the most “modern.” Three youngish men are hired at a store (which seems to specialize in fake silk) and each falls in lust with the president’s daughter; each also happens to have a previous engagement set with another girl.

The script might as well have been pulled straight from Hollywood (this is what I mean by “modern”). And it is as delightful as old Hollywood comedy can be (very delightful), though it has none of the sparkle. The central points of comic tension (the conflict between the three men for one hand; the conflict between the previous lovers) are not utilized whatsoever (the film spends a lot of time on exposition, then dissolves with a miraculous anti-climax). The conspicuous elements of modern Western society (the lush store, the jazzy soundtrack, the neon signs, the somewhat-independent working woman) tend to clash with conservative Japanese conventions (particularly marriage and the woman’s role in it; re: the ending). The film also lacks the polish of Hollywood (the lighting, the fluid camera, the magnificent costumes and sets), however hard it may try to compensate for that. It almost works, but mostly doesn’t.

And for that, perhaps, it is all the more charming.

This is the first film I have seen by Yasujiro Shimazu. Mostly forgotten now, he seems to have been a defining influence in Japanese films in the 1930s; the internet assures me that he helped cultivate a lot of young talent and that his early 30s realism paved the way for the canon of Japanese filmmakers that IS remembered (see the canon I listed above). I would love to see more of his films. What survives of this film is choppy and, I imagine, does not do the original product justice. I shall keep my eye open for more.

April 05, 2010

Hesiod

For my lit project, I read the Works and Days, Theogony, and The Shield of Heracles by Hesiod.

Like Homer, Hesiod is an early bard continuing what seems to be a much older oral tradition. The Homeric tradition and the Hesiodic tradition are usually considered as separate traditions (perhaps with some intermingling), and so the two together give us two perspectives on Ancient poetry. Homer's epics are narrative poems which take place in the mythological past. The Hesiodic tradition is more varied, and if it is artistically less satisfying, it is historically more fascinating.

The Hesiodic tradition begins with Works and Days which, unlike Homer, is of the present. After a hymn for Zeus (considered spurious by some scholars) and a description of the Five Ages -- which ends in the modern age which, surprise, is the hardest on Man and which requires constant toil (the subject to come in this poem) -- the poem describes various farming techniques (when to sow, when to reap, when to furrow, when to sleep, &c.), stressing the importance of Work, and ends with a description of Days (which days are good for what). There are a few curious myths thrown in between all this stuff about work and days; what caught my eye was the myth of Pandora, which I had not yet stumbled upon in all of my Classical readings (apparently Hesiod is the only Ancient to relate this myth). The Pandora myth itself has been reworked by many modern authors and has been turned into a stunningly poetic allegory; I was shocked to discover how unpoetic the original is. Really, it is just a myth which blames all of the Evils in the world on Woman. It is because of Her that we must toil, because of Her that we must suffer, because of Her that we have no hope. There is not much to the myth, and I am impressed modern interpreters have been able to discover so many nuances.

Theogony is a genealogy of the gods. There are a lot of them. Most of them are personifications (of, say, Hardship, or Zeal, or whatever). Most of them are not mentioned much (at all) outside Theogony. This is my second time through the Theogony, and it is a fascinating, bizarre, and ultimately tiresome read.

The Shield of Heracles is a mini-epic (or else fragment of an epic) of an episode in which Heracles fights Cycnus, the son of Ares. This is the closest the Hesiodic tradition gets to the Homeric tradition. A good deal of this poem is dedicated to describing the bronze shield Hephaestus made for Heracles. It is difficult to imagine any shield could be as elaborate as this description. It is even more difficult to imagine how the Ancients found any pleasure in an elaborate description such as this. (Such a description is not unique in Ancient lit, as anybody who has read Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes can attest.)

Hesiod is usually the loser when he is compared to Homer. (That probably does not need to be said.) Poor Hesiod. His work has survived two-and-a-half thousand years so that I might admire how bizarre it is. He probably deserves better.

April 02, 2010

Pindar's Odes

For my lit project, I read Pindar's Odes.

Pindar's Victory Odes celebrate athletes who have triumphed at the Panhellenic Games (4 places hosted such events: Olympia, Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea -- the 4 books of Pindar's Odes are divided according to these four events). The games include boxing and wrestling and chariot driving and spear throwing and race running (both in armor and the nude) and whatever other physical abilities the Ancients prided themselves in.

Pindar is often considered the "poet's poet." This reputation (I discovered) is granted to Pindar less for his content and more for his form, which is compulsively metrical and rigid (with a concentration on the balance of strophe/antistrophe). Even the Pindaric Odes which have been popular through the ages borrow his form rather than his language (the book I read had an appendix which included some of these Pindaric imitations; Cowley's reinterpretation of Pindar into English was most fascinating). I, however, do not feel qualified to say any more about this form and how it operates. Undoubtedly my lack of education in poetry means there are yet secrets in Pindar for me to unearth.

Pindar's method of praise is similar throughout the Odes: compliment the victor, his family (usually father or son, sometimes uncles and brothers and other MEN of the family), his homeland; relate a myth which in some way compares the victor (or his family or homeland) to gods and heroes; tell the victor that though he may never achieve what the gods have (and he should not be so arrogant to try), he has achieved the highest among mortals. Pindar's sobriety is most effective in making the Odes sincere (rather than simple flattery).

Horace (in his Odes) describes Pindar as a river whose forceful torrents flood its banks. This description has persisted, and it is accurate in its own way. Pindar's metrical diligence is counterpoised by his dense and stately language. He flies to heroic heights but is ever sure to scale back to human dignity (defined by chance and change). Pindar's poetry rolls ferociously, insistently; one steps into this river to be swept away, to be drowned.

Pindar proved difficult for me. The first Odes I read were too heroic, too obscure. As one who admires simplicity and clarity (and humor), I felt there was little in Pindar for me. Only in Book II (Pythian Games) did I begin to feel some of Pindar's power. It took patience. I took time to work through his language; I read up on each myth he cites and tried to figure out why it was relevant and what it accomplished; I reread difficult passages and abrupt transitions. And finally something in Pindar's poetry gleamed. I could finally respect Pindar's style, if I could not yet love it (and I may never love it).

While reading the Odes, I thought often about how poetry developed and evolved. All the Ancient poets I have been reading write in specific styles to accomplish specific things. Pindar praised. He wrote Odes to be sung in honor of those who wanted to be honored by poetry. (<-A fine business, I'm sure, for talent like Pindar's.) Some poets taught. Some poets loved. Some poets mourned. The poets wrote our myths. The poets thought our thoughts...

But poetry is different today. It is abstract. It has lost its forms. What poets write today is abstract and formless. Ah! but so is the way of all arts. If poetry is obscure today, it is because new media have taken its place. Our myths were once written in poetry; we write them now with Images. Film is our new poetry. Griffith is our new Homer, Eisenstein our Pindar... (or not). And yet we still have Pindar.

April 01, 2010

March 10 favorites

I feel my viewing habits becoming more sluggish, though I watched a lot this past month. Film no longer challenges me; my interest in it is waning.

On that note, this is what I liked this past month:

Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935)

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005)

I watched two dozen short documentaries this month. I do not know what possessed me. Of them, I liked:

Moment of Joy (1965)

The City (1939)

The Devil's Toy (1966)

A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw (1958)

March 25, 2010

Idylls of Theocritus

For my lit project, I read the Idylls of Theocritus.

Theocritus is widely considered the father of pastoral poetry, Virgil his most famous son. Shepherds and goatherds and cowherds sing in contest and blow a syrinx. And lovers pine for love, maidens for men, old men for young boys. Satyrs rape young nymphs. Polyphemus tends his flock. And everything is sweet and honey-dipped in the meadows and groves.

Theocritus is less sober and more naive than Virgil. Theocritus is less of a poetic force to reckon with. The collection of his poems that survive, some of them spurious, is rather eclectic, which might not help his reputation. Not all are bucolic paeans. There are laudations for men and gods and there are mini-epics, which are amusing and curious. Theocritus (like Callimachus) believes in the short poem form, and the mini-epics (a couple hundred lines at most) are abrupt passages seemingly torn from greater epics.

I have little to offer in sustained analysis of Theocritus, but do have a puzzle a quick google search failed to solve: how does one pronounce Theocritus? Does one stress the second syllable, as in Thee-ok-ruh-tus? Or does one stress the third, as in Thee-uh-kri-tus? Quite the puzzle. And, I am afraid, beyond me.

March 24, 2010

Heroides

For my lit project, I read the Heroides of Ovid.

The Heroides are a collection of letters (epistles) as written by mythological lovers (heroines, except for the "double Heroides" in which both lovers write a letter). Thus mythology is given some subtle psychology. Entertaining, inventive, fascinating, &c. And yet I was disappointed. The idea thrilled me, the poems themselves did not. (All except Helen to Paris, which I will single out for making Helen a strong, intelligent woman contrary to common mythological portrayal.)

I have so little to say, and so say no more.

March 20, 2010

Eclogues and Georgics

For my lit project, I read the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil.

I read Dryden's translation of the two works. With Dryden, one might mistake the poems as English, so easy is the translation. This is both good and bad; good in that it is easy on the native English-speaker's tongue, bad in that one often forgets Virgil for the translator. I do not know how Virgil's Latin reads, but it does not read like this.

This was my second time through the Eclogues, which helped me appreciate it. This was my first time reading the Georgics, though, and I was quite surprised. Lucretius showed me the potential of didactic poems; Virgil has fulfilled that potential (note: Lucretius seems to have influenced Virgil).

Rather than talk about the Georgics, I have decided to reproduce a passage from the end of Book II:
Ye sacred muses! with whose beauty fired,
My soul is ravished, and my brain inspired--
Whose priest I am, whose holy fillets wear--
Would you your poet's first petition hear;
Give me the ways of wandering stars to know,
The depths of heaven above, the earth below;
Teach me the various labours of the moon,
And whence proceed the eclipses of the sun;
Why flowing tides prevail upon the main,
And in what dark recess they shrink again;
What shakes the solid earth; what cause delays
The summer nights, and shortens winter days.
But, if my heavy blood restrain the flight
Of my free soul, aspiring to the height
Of nature, and unclouded fields of light--
My next desire is, void of care and strife,
To lead a soft, secure, inglorious life--
A country cottage near a crystal flood,
A winding valley, and a lofty wood.
Some god conduct me to the sacred shades,
Where Bacchanals are sung by Spartan maids,
Or lift me high to Haemus' hilly crown,
Or in the plains of Tempe lay me down,
Or lead me to some solitary place,
And cover my retreat from human race.

Happy the man, who, studying nature's laws,
Through known effects can trace the secret cause--
His mind possessing in a quiet state,
Fearless of Fortune, and resigned to Fate!
And happy too is he, who decks the bowers
Of sylvans, and adores the rural powers--
Whose mind, unmoved, the bribes of courts can see,
Their glittering baits, and purple slavery--
Nor hopes the people's praise, nor fears their frown,
Nor, when contending kindred tear the crown,
Will set up one, or pull another down.

Without concern he hears, but hears from far,
Of tumults, and descents, and distant war;
Nor with a superstitious fear is awed,
For what befalls at home, or what abroad.
Nor his own peace disturbs with pity for the poor.
Nor envies he the rich their happy store,
He feeds on fruits, which, of their own accord,
The willing ground and laden trees afford.
From his loved home no lucre him can draw;
The senate's mad decrees he never saw;
Nor heard, at brawling bars, corrupted law.
&c. Spring is coming, and I am called to distant meadows.

March 15, 2010

La marche des machines (1927)


Since writing my senior paper last year on early montage documentaries, I have come to regard a small and elusive group of filmmakers as a curious rumor. I think of them as the Paris Film Club Crowd. They are a young and enthusiastic lot. They are most prominent in the late 1920s. They make montage films, some of them earnest documents, others abstract explorations. They show these films to fellow film enthusiasts, often at film clubs, often in Paris. Among the circle, one will find Jean Mitry, Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman, Georges Lacombe, Henri Storck, Jean Lods, Pierre Chenal, and Eugene Deslaw. Many others are associated with this group: Charles Dekeukelaire, Jean Dreville, Jean Painleve, Alberto Cavalcanti, Joris Ivens, Marcel Carne, &c. Some of these names ought to be familiar, others completely unknown. Those names which are known are not known for their early montage abstractions; such is the nature of this era, and I am desperate to penetrate it.

La marche des machines is one the key films to come from this crowd. Deslaw directed. It is only the second Deslaw film I have seen. It is very short and very difficult to judge. I feel that the film has no context, nothing to ground its abstraction; ironic, considering I had known about this film, its context, and its impact for years and have sought it out with determination. I found what I was looking for: a rhythmic film about machines. That is all.

My impression of Deslaw is true for the rest of the group. His films lack rigor, clarity, perhaps worthwhile cinematic ideas, yet his technique is so charmingly light and youthfully poetic that his films are difficult to resist. I say this of La marche des machines, though it is too small a film. I say it of Deslaw's Montparnasse (1929); I say it of Carne's Nogent (1929); I say it of Storck's Images d'Ostende (1929); I say it most of all of Vigo's A propos de Nice (1930). I might dare to say it of all these young cineastes in Paris, but the group remains so obscure. What of Deslaw's La nuit electique? What of Lacombe's La Zone? What of Lods' Le Mile? So much remains hidden, and even I am having trouble bringing it out. What a mess.

I am stuffing this post with names so that a better historian will do the necessary research to bring this group to light. I apologize to all of you who read this expecting an interesting or moderately witty commentary on a film you ought to see. Although I hope that if you are a regular reader of this blog you do not expect that anyway. I am really curious though! Who were these young fellows? What are these lost films like? Why has nobody caught on to this group, the "new wave" of 1930? Why is nobody but me interested in exploring them? I am such a bad pioneer.

March 06, 2010

Odes of Horace

For my lit project, I read Horace's Odes.

I do not have much to say. It was only into Book II or so that I began to feel the rhythm of these poems. An obsession with death runs through them, sometimes in a Stoic way, sometimes an Epicurean. I would call the Odes Stoic, though. Live today that you may die tomorrow. Such is his theme.

I had been aware of the problems of translation before this, but only with Horace have I realized how distant these Ancient poets are in translation. Horace exists only in Latin; what I encounter is a shade. I discovered this after reading multiple translations of one poem (I did this for several poems). What I read was not Horace.

Translated by A.E. Housman-- IV.7:
The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of year
Say to the soul,
Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come
we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When though descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.
But still beautiful. From here, I am torn about where to take my project: to lesser Ancient poets or to modern philosophy? I feel the Shades may win.

March 02, 2010

Lucretius On the Nature of Things

For my lit project, I read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.

Lucretius's project in On the Nature of Things is to banish from the minds of men the fear of gods and death. Lucretius does this by showing that the Nature of Things can be explained by Atomism, atoms being indivisible bodies flying through void. Each book of the poem is devoted to different aspects of nature, and each phenomenon is explained through Atomism/materialism in various ways. A reader, thoroughly absorbed in this work, concludes that since everything can be explained by atoms, gods do not participate in nature (and remain ever-serene, happy, aloof), and since humans are atoms and the atoms dissipate when the body dies, death is nothing to us (no Hades, just nothingness). If Order and Gods cause us pain, then Chaos and Void are our balm.

So say the Epicureans. This is the only major surviving work of Epicureanism (written 200 years after Epicurus). Before reading this, I had already been aware of my affinity with Epicureanism; I was an expert, in fact ... but I need not boast of my wisdom, which should be immediate to everyone. What follows are notes on what was most banal and most bizarre in this work--

Lucretius has a grand time insulting every major philosopher and philosophy before him. The only exceptions are Epicurus, Democritus, and Parmenides (he defies the first and borrows heavily from (while lightly criticizing) the latter two). He quite happily attacks everybody else, sometimes calling them by name, other times describing their ideas without approaching their character. He likes to show why they are wrong and he is right. He loves to call them idiots*. Not even Heraclitus is safe, though I do believe Lucretius is wrong for criticizing Heraclitus for not being "logical."

"Logic" raises a most bizarre trait of Lucretius's scientific method -- he demands logical rigor from philosophy while he asserts that sense perception is the basis for all truth. Presumably this is a counter to Parmenides, who brought logical consistency to the point of utterly denying sense perception; no, say the Epicureans, this is wrong. The senses are everything, and if you see it, it must be true. The Epicureans are thus proto-scientists, but before the age of experimental testing and observation; and so Lucretius, in explaining the Nature of Things, proposes bizarre hypothesis after bizarre hypothesis, offering multiple explanations for one phenomenon insofar as the explanations do not contradict themselves (logically). The sun, for example, is as large as we see it to be, a small blazing disc traveling a vast sky; greater animals are born from lesser animals (Ancient Evolution); earthquakes happen when subterranean mountains fall; &c.

Lucretius's many explanations are sometimes aligned with modern science, sometimes totally absurd. Modern readers ought to be surprised to discover Ancient theories of atoms, evolution, and light, while explanations of magnetism, lightning, and earthquakes will undoubtedly make modern readers smile because of their whimsy and naivete. Lucretius's Ancient earnestness is hard to fault.

The poetry itself has similar highs and lows. The final 250 lines of Book III are the boldest in the book and some of the boldest in Classical Lit. "Hell does exist on earth -- in the life of fools." Lucretius argues that the hellish afterlife humans so fear is present here in life, that life is a loan, and that Wisdom is necessary to banish this fear and suffering. Only a book later, however, at the end of Book IV, Lucretius is arguing a most curious argument against sex (as a cause of pain). There is nothing in the argument I do not agree with, but I cannot help but wonder how Lucretius could fall so far.

Bold, bizarre; few words describe this poem better.

On the Nature of Things lacks Epicurean ethics. This is disappointing. What little survives of Epicurus's writings remains the definitive work on the subject. Though Ancient Natural Science is interesting in its way, Epicurean ethics is what interests me most. It is misunderstood today. People drink expensive wine and eat expensive cheese and gossip and call themselves Epicureans while Epicurus sits in his corner and nibbles bread and sips water. I always hesitate to mention Epicurus to anyone who does not know Ancient philosophy. This has ruined a perfectly awful pun which I have never dared use but have always wanted to: Epicure-Ian.

Read more about Epicurus here: Epicurus.net
I recommend his surviving letters. Lucretius struggles to say in a poem what Epicurus says in a line. Lucretius is fine, though; everyone should read the end of Book III at least.

[*Lucretius is especially insistent about applying this to DG]

March 01, 2010

February 10 favorites

I only watched 8 films this month. 8! I do believe that is a record low for me. From this small batch, these were my favorites:

The Swallow and the Titmouse (1920)

Au Bonheur des Dames (1930)

A Page of Madness (1926)

February 25, 2010

Aratus

For my lit project, I read the Phenomena and Diosemeia of Aratus.

This was an obscure outing for me, and an interesting one. In Ovid's Amores, Aratus is mentioned as a Great Poet who has achieved Immortality. Aratus was very popular in the Classical world; he is forgotten today. Though I found that intriguing, I was not convinced to read Aratus until I discovered that his most famous poem is about the constellations. Enter the astronomy geek.

Phenomena is a description of the constellations. If you are not out among the stars, the descriptions can be confusing. There are some inaccuracies. The work is dry (this might just be the literal prose translation I read). Many have wondered what here drove the Ancients so wild. I wonder it myself.

But I am an astronomy geek, and the Phenomena gripped my imagination in a number of ways. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a constellation: How are they named? Who named them? Why did they name them? It all seemed so fantastical and arbitrary. What is most fascinating is that these constellations, named in some forgotten past, are still called by the names they were called millennia ago. We see the same Orion Aratus did. We know the same Arcturus. I suppose this is a question of praxis; the stars, once so important for sailors and farmers, were most memorable when related to myth, and we, who have so little use for stars, find the constellations memorable enough and have no practical need for change.

Most curious for me about the Phenomena is the universe-view of the Ancients. Since my childhood, I have always looked up to the stars and imagined them continuing on forever; my father would reinforce this wonder in me and impress me with infinity, telling me to imagine, at all those distant points, a sun like our sun, a system like our system. The Ancients, however, looked to the sky and did not see infinity but a ceiling, a sphere, a thousand lanterns or gods. For the Ancients, the Earth stood still and a dome revolved above it. No infinity, but a collapsed plane. Why, I ask, why have I never seen the universe in this light? Why have I never stopped the earth and collapsed the heavens? There is something wondrous about this naivete, something attractive about this simplicity. I have never considered the Universe in these different ways. And now I must. Perhaps the poetry of candles dotting a vaulted dome will reveal to me the poetry of accretion discs, pulsars, dark matter...

Diosemeia is about predicting the weather. It is mostly worthless*. I did however realize that I am totally blind to my environment when it comes to subtle cues (about the weather). I am sure this applies to most of us. But most of us don't need to watch for wasps to know what kind of weather is about to come -- the internet is a marvelous thing.

[*like DG and his 20th C lit]

February 24, 2010

One Image

The other day I watched Au Bonheur des Dames (1930). This is not a post about the film, but rather about a phenomenon I notice often but never bother to describe--

My memories of a film fade in various ways. What was vivid to me while watching the film disappears with time, and as days pass I may remember nothing of a film but its name and my general opinion. Sometimes a perfectly wonderful film finds no traction in my mind and slowly escapes from it entirely. At other times a merely adequate film will latch onto me and stick with me for years because of one outstanding detail -- be it an action, a character, an image...

With this post, I want to pay tribute to that One Image that stays with me. What is it that gives One Image so much potency? What thoughts, emotions, impressions do I compress into One Image that I cannot feel elsewhere in the film? Why should One Image -- only one image -- be the one to reecho through my soul? Why does every other image scatter into shadows? O inscrutable One Image, I pay tribute to your power--

This was the One Image from Au Bonheur des Dames. I knew it as soon as I saw it.

Once seen, forever recognized. Does anybody else experience this One Image? How do films impress themselves in your memory? How does your memory of a film change?

I do not know why I have never asked these questions seriously before; I hope to get some good answers.