Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Poem About Poems

Like an Ant Carrying Her Bits of Leaf or Sand
        by Jane Hirshfield

Like an ant carrying her bits of leaf or sand,
the poem carries its words.
Moving one, then another, into place.

Something in an ant is sure where these morsels belong,
but the ant could not explain this.
Something in a poem is certain where its words belong,
but the poet could not explain this.

All day the ant obeys an inexplicable order.
All day the poet obeys an incomprehensible demand.

The world changes or does not change by these labors;
the geode peeled open gives off its cold scent or does not.
But that is no concern of the ant's, of the poem's.

The work of existence devours its own unfolding.
What dissolves will dissolve —
you, reader, and I, and all our quick angers and longings.
The potato's sugary hunger for growing larger.
The unblinking heat of the tiger.

No thimble of cloud or stone that will not vanish,
and still the rearrangements continue.

The ant's work belongs to the ant.
The poem carries love and terror, or it carries nothing.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Creativity, and the Safety of the Mind

            If you look at the top of this page, you will note that the subtitle of this blog — what I am taking as my mission statement, I suppose — is "on the life of the mind."
            It's an old phrase, one I came across when I was much younger, and I also discovered upon a search for the phrase that Hannah Arendt wrote a book by that title.  Which is appropriate, because I have a conflicted relationship with Hannah Arendt, and I like those things best with which I have a conflicted relationship.
            But for the moment, I want to talk about creativity, the mind, and safety.  I think I had creativity as one of the topics up for discussion on this blog, and I haven't gotten there much yet.  I recently finished Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and I've decided to take her chapter titles as a (very, very loose) guideline for some posts on creation and being an artist.

            We all hear common threads in how various artists, poets, actors, dancers, composers, and other creative folks describe the creative process for them.  My process is, for better or for worse, violently connected to my intellect.  I have emotional responses to many simple pleasures, yes, but ecstasy rarely comes without intense intellectual exercise.  (Though the times when it does are glorious.)
            So the life of the mind is my life, or the one I am called to at least.  There is much heart here, as well, something some exponents of literature and art would doubt.  I've heard every insult that can be hurled at James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and Robert Browning and Thomas Mann and all the rest of the dead white males who were nonetheless brilliant dead white males.  To those who find their work overly-intellectual, demanding too broad a sweep of knowledge of classical myth and literature, I can only say — for God's sake don't read them.  Don't read them, since it obviously causes you pain, and the time I spend listening to you could be better spent reading Kant.  That's right:  Kant.  Even Kant would be better than people insulting the things I love.
            Which succinctly brings me to my larger point:  reading and writing and thinking have, since I was a child, been a retreat from the world of people.
            Recently I joined a philosophy discussion group, which has made me even more conscious of how intensely introverted I really am.  Everyone in the group, I think, is under the impression that I am quiet.  Suffice to say, I am not quiet.  What I am is abjectly terrified.  There are PEOPLE, for goodness' sake, and they're TALKING TO ME, and they want me to actually ENGAGE with them when we've only just met (albeit months ago), and I cannot understand why I didn't stay home with a book and a glass of wine.
            Add to this the fact that I was bullied when I was a kid, and that I grew up in a culture that has no idea whatsoever to do with poets and artists.  The safe place was in books.  In murder mysteries, where things cleared up simply and tidily.  In Wordsworth and Lewis and Shakespeare and Yeats' Ireland and the Grimms' Germany.  I know many people recognize this use of literature:  escape.  Escape from the rich kids rolling their eyes at my too-short pants; escape from the girls who accused me of a sexual precocity/anxiety they apparently recognized before I did; escape from the boys who tortured animals and found me more friendly-looking than all the other kids; escape from the religion that I loved and feared in equal parts.
            If anyone reading this can relate, it is because we are among those who almost can't help but be carried away by books.  Images, stories, romances, deaths, and the gorgeous, sumptuous words roiling through your brain.  And all without running any real risk!  This is so safe!  A safe, comforting retreat.
            Recently a friend and I went out for dinner and talked about how various people in our lives have affected our creativity.  Family, friends, enemies, lovers, teachers...  One of the most useful discoveries I've ever made about being an artist came in 2010 when I tried to do the Artist's Way the first time.  It all hinged on the word "weird."  I realized that whenever I started to write something, and I didn't know where it was going, and I didn't like where it looked like it was going, the phrase "that's weird" would pop into my head, and away went the project.  My friend and I discussed this and many other discoveries we've made along the way of being writers, and we also talked about how we tended to use literature as a way of escaping the pains of social interaction and intrusion.  When suddenly my friend exclaimed, "But if those voices from family and teachers and whoever are in there saying 'This is too weird,' or 'This is too sexual,' or 'This is too intellectual,' or whatever, then how safe is your mind, really?"
            Which is to say, not at all.  I hate drawing oversimplified comparisons to current events about which I know little, but the recent shootings in Newtown, Massachusetts demonstrate accurately just how unsafe the mind can be.  Families with suicides can tell you.  So can addicts, or just folks with a good old-fashioned guilt complex.
            It's scary in there, the mind.  Full of the past.  Full of fears, both well- and ill-founded.  Full of loathing and nausea and so, so grasping.  Full of...well, you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Before the Words

            I watched Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette back in November.  I was so taken I actually bought it (something that almost never happens) and re-watched the movie.  There are many things to love about Coppola's work in this film, but chief among them, I think, is her ability to tell a story "before" a script.
            What I mean by this is that most filmmakers need the script in order to tell the story.  I'm sure if you watched most movies with the sound off, you would understand the story arc fairly well (we will exclude super-artsy Criterion Collection-type stuff for the moment).  But this is for two reasons which are not flattering to filmmakers:  one, we are visual creatures and love images; and two, there are only a few stories that keep getting retold, and even fewer in American movies, so as long as they didn't tell a completely nonsense tale, we'll get the gist of what happened.
            Coppola offers far more in Marie Antoinette.  Before the words (and I'm drawing a distinction between "script," which I think of as the whole conceptual storyline, and spoken words or lines), there is Coppola's movie.  There is Marie Antoinette, her eternal boredom and cluelessness, both of which she was clearly bred up for.  There is the fumbling and blandly endearing Louis XVI.  Marie's sexual frustration at the inept hands of her husband, and eventual passion with Count Fersen.  The necessity of producing a male heir, and her social stigmatization up until that feat was accomplished.  And of course, court politics assert themselves over and over again, far more, in fact, than the actual politics of France.
            "The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure."  In the opening of the film, Gang of Four's lyrics tell you quite clearly the central problem of Marie's life.  It sounds like a joke problem — "Oh, how awful for you dear, so much money and no idea how to spend it" — but by the end of the film her life looked miserable to me, and not because of how it ended.  As in Lost in Translation, there are long, beautiful scenes which might very well lack words altogether, and Coppola has told you the story perfectly.
            It's been a long time since I saw it, but in Visions of Light: the Art of Cinematography, I remember some discussion about the ability to tell a story without words, before talkies came along.  Coppola, of course, doesn't deserve sole credit; Lance Acord, her cinematographer for both Marie Antoinette and Lost in Translation has a not-too-shabby list of credits to his name as well.  But I guess the point I want to make is that Coppola gives us a whole piece.  Not just a bunch of actors acting; not just a bunch of well-put-together scenes; and not even just a bunch of pretty pictures.  Her movies — from their soundtracks to their acting, from their cinematography to their lines, and even the post-production decisions — are of a piece.  One, lovely, consistent whole.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Daniel Craig and the Modern Bond

            I hereby dedicate this post to stating how much I love Daniel Craig.
            So yes, I am moving from The Pilgrim's Progress and discussions of reformation Christianity to James Bond, beautiful blond men, and movies in general.
            This past weekend I saw the new Bond movie, Skyfall, with the *sigh* gorgeous Daniel Craig.  I have seen a number of Bond movies, including all three of the Craig films, as well as most of those which Sean Connery starred in.  I haven't been keeping up on my internet reading, but I know I am not the first to draw comparisons between Craig and Connery's versions of Bond.  Sean Connery was always my favorite, until Daniel Craig came along, and I admit to having been somewhat surprised at Craig's casting and unsure as to how it would work out.
            This brings me to the first quality Craig brings to Bond which initially struck me as perplexing, but which ultimately I find much more satisfying to modern audiences:  brutality.
            Connery as Bond was always and forever suave and in control.  He moved with elegance, and seduced women with absurd ease.  Daniel Craig, however, is an entirely different man.  I suspect a great deal of Craig's brutal aspect has to do with his physical appearance.  He is stocky, extremely muscular, and while he does clean up nice in a tuxedo, his shortened and springy gait belies the surface of smooth decorum.  Certainly this is part of his appeal, in particular sexually.  Sean Connery appears to be the sort of man who makes love.  But a woman feels quite certain that Craig would (please excuse me, but I can't think of any other way to say it) fuck her silly.
            But as any person who has seen Craig's Bond will know, he also brings a vulnerability to the character which is at strange odds to Bond's necessary callousness about killing.  While there is a great deal of casual sex, Craig's bond seems to occasionally make the mistake of caring about some of the women he sleeps with.  And while I know I'm confusing fact and fiction here, I cannot help but see the fact that Craig sliced off the tip of his finger while shooting Quantum of Solace as symbolic.  To me, Craig is intent on making Bond both darker and more believable, a combination which almost always results in a far deeper connection between character and audience.  I never for a moment believed Sean Connery's Bond would get an owie; Craig, one worries, might well end up dead.  Christian Bale in The Dark Knight also comes to mind here.
            The weird juxtaposition of these aspects is brought out, in Skyfall, with Bond's brief encounter (and requisite shower-scene) with Sévérine.  When Bond meets her, he notes her tattoo, showing her long-ago abuse in the Macau sex trade.  He points out she must have been forced into the sex trade young, perhaps twelve or so, and that in seeking to free herself from one oppressive system she has made herself the victim of a sadistic man, Raoul Silva.  Bond offers to kill her employer if she can get him to the man.  All of this seems to indicate that Bond feels at least some sympathy for Sévérine.
            Later, however, Bond's empathy seems to have been false.  Silva has Sévérine beaten by his henchmen, and then carefully places a glass of 64-year Macallan on her head and invites Bond to shoot it off.  Bond misses the shot glass (and her head), after which Silva intentionally kills Sévérine; but Bond's only response is that it was a waste of good scotch.
            For me, the fascinating aspect here is that the contradiction within Craig's Bond is lodged there by necessity.  His brutality fits perfectly with our forever-escalating political violence, which itself belies our supposed concern for abused women.  Even now, drones are killing women who might very well be every bit as beautiful as Bérénice Marlohe, and even some less attractive ones we might be able to find it in our hearts to care about.  This is the world we live in, and it is the world of espionage which the modern Bond films try to inhabit.  Craig has, in my opinion, been instrumental in situating them here, and not in an imaginary world where the greatest threat is the disruption of a rocket taking off into outer space for safely unbelievable reasons.
            Craig's vulnerability also seems to bring him more into the modern world.  But then again, the Bond movies clearly depend upon tropes and clichés to convey meaning:  the unreachable heights of wealth; the gorgeous and exotic locations; even Bond's insistent egotism and somewhat tired jokes are needed.  And right along with these tropes are the women, who are themselves a kind of cliché.  But there is a problem here for modern audiences; on the surface, we find it less acceptable to dispose of women without any sense of empathy or justice.  Hence the modern touch about the sex trade, Marlohe's highly believable portrayal of a trapped and terrified woman, and Bond's eventual capture of her killer.
            Still, Bond is essentially a hired assassin, though he might be hired by a nation we currently have as an ally.  But Daniel Craig's interpretation of Bond, and the clichés upon which the Bond movies depend, hold a fascination which I look forward to seeing for two more films.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dark Clouds

Okay, okay.  I swear after this I'm really done with The Pilgrim's Progress.  I was too charmed by Bunyan's "Author's Apology for his Book" to not include just a tiny little excerpt here.  The next few posts will probably center around movies and maybe an opera, and then onward to Swift or Plato (not sure which yet).  For fun, note the definitions of oldish words at the bottom.

Dark Clouds bring Waters, when the bright bring none.
Yea, dark or bright, if they their Silver drops
Cause to descend; the Earth, by yielding Crops,
Gives praise to both, and carpeth not at either,
But treasures up the Fruit they yield together;
Yea, so commixes both, that in her Fruit
None can distinguish this from that; they suit
Her well, when hungry:  but if she be full,
She spues out both, and makes their blessings null.
    You see the ways the Fisher-man doth take
To catch the Fish; when Engines doth he make?
Behold how he engageth all his Wits;
Also his Snares, Lines, Angles, Hooks, and Nets:
Yet Fish there be, that neither Hook, nor Line,
Nor Snare, nor Net, nor Engine can make thine;
They must be grop't for, and be tickled too,
Or they will not be catch't, what e're you do.
    How doth the Fowler seek to catch his Game
By divers means, all which one cannot name?
His Gun, his Nets, his Lime-twigs, light and bell:
He creeps, he goes, he stands; yea, who can tell
Of all his postures, Yet there's none of these
Will make him master of what Fowls he please.
Yea, he must Pipe and Whistle, to catch this,
Yet if he does so, that Bird he will miss.
If that a Pearl may in a Toad's head dwell,
And may be found too in an Oyster-shell;
If things that promise nothing, do contain
What better is than Gold; who will disdain,
(That have an Inkling of it,) there to look,
That they may find it?  Now my little Book,
(Though void of all those paintings that may make
It with this or the other Man to take)
Is not without those things that do excel
What do in brave, but empty, notions dwell.

                     from "The Author's Apology for his Book"The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan

carpeth:  to "carp" is to find fault and complain constantly, to harp on petty grievances; or nag or fuss.
Yea:  Yay!  Actually, you probably already knew it meant "yes."
spues:  old spelling of "spew"; to vomit or cast out through the mouth.
divers:  old spelling of "diverse"; often used where we might say "various" or, if you want to sound really glamourous, "sundry."
a Pearl may in a Toad's head dwell:  a toadstone was a stone believed to be formed in the body of a toad and worn as a charm; believed to be an antidote to poisons.

            All definitions from my good old American Heritage Dictionary, with a detail about toadstones from Wikipedia.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

for I come unto Thee

            Recently on speculum criticum traditionis, skholiast responded to a post by my most recent addition to the blogroll over on the right, Love of All Wisdom.  They are particularly dealing with some of C.S. Lewis's claims, which aren't my main point.  But they, and some of the comments following the posts, do resonate with my wrap-up of Bremer's Puritanism.
            To put it briefly, I am overwhelmed by how easy it is to put a spin on a belief.  I am neglecting the real point of his post, but on Love of All Wisdom, Amod Lele says,

            Christians ... can put you in jail for your choice of sexual partners. They can make it impossible for you to access abortion or even contraception. And they can fight for – and achieve – the equality of people of all races amid a society that denies it. In the past century, Christians of various sorts have done all these things many times, and done them because they were Christians: because they believed in, identified with and/or practised Christian tradition.

            The different ways of reading Christian scripture, and even of reading the practices people develop out of those scriptures, are what fascinate me here.
            Take my little trivia sheet from last week.  Puritans insisted that all believers have access to scripture, and that those scriptures be in their mother tongue.  How easy it is to read this not as a fact, but as a towards your own personal argument.  As a reader and writer and aspiring thinker, it is essential to me that I have access to books in my own language.  And yes, to insist on keeping any essential religious texts in a language with which religious participants have lost familiarity is an obvious power move.  Looked at from this angle, the Puritans look like honest and curious intellectuals who want to engage with their belief system personally and sincerely.  Sounds good.
            But I can just as easily see myself arguing that worrying too much about the meaning distracts from the beauty.  In the modern world, where beauty seems to be largely a consumer/erotic response that can be summed up in "I like/I don't like," I'm not sure we know what beauty means anymore.  But I am still hopeful that it can actually transform my heart and life.  When I sing an Ave Maria or Salve Regina, frankly I have no idea what I'm saying.  I know that I'm singing (gorgeous) music composed for the praise of the Holy Virgin.  Looked at from this angle, I am left to wonder why the churches didn't insist on teaching basic Latin to everyone.
            So we can engage in readings and cross-readings until we end up with a divided nation that constantly cites the same Constitution to support wildly different ideals.
            My own disposition is such that I like the readings and cross-readings so much I convince myself a decision can/should never be made.  The Puritans, however, and my own Huguenot ancestors, won't let me off the hook so easily.  By the end of the book, I realized what aroused so much empathy for them:  passion.  
            The Puritan passion and devout love are why I fell for The Pilgrim's Progress far more than I would have expected.  In fact, Bunyan may have given me what I'd like engraved on my tombstone:  Take me, for I come unto Thee.  These are the last words of Mr. Stand-fast, and also the last words of Bunyan himself.  These are not the words of a dogmatic prude.  They are the words of a man deeply in love, and though they may not call me to love in the same manner, they make me distinctly less inclined to remain (forever) my loosey-goosey, reading/cross-reading self.
            Whatever my personal inclination may be, how one reads the Bible has obvious and, at times, terrifying consequences.  My general stance is that people are people and they more often than not take religion as it suits them.  In other words, to take Lele's examples from above, I suspect that our attitudes towards sexual partners, abortion, racial equality, etc. precede our religious beliefs and that we tend to take religious beliefs which support what we already wanted to think anyway.  But again, the Puritans (and to give it some credit, Christianity in general) are always there to remind me that the beliefs themselves are capable of transforming the individual so radically that the preceding attitudes are threatened.
            Too often Christians (myself included) use religion as a towards:  we tell its stories as though they were our actual point, when we are actually telling the stories in a very certain way so as to align the religious doctrine with our own egos.  Whatever their shortcomings, I have to admire the Puritans for standing, in the face of death, for a truly passionate love of transformation.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Puritan Trivia Night

            Well, I apologize for having been so long away, but I consider my excuse to be a good one.  I wanted to actually read a book on Puritanism before I started saying too much about it.  I have done so (well, a few more pages to go), and I would like to share some information I've gleaned from it.
            The book is one of Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introductions," a series I would highly recommend for those trying to familiarize themselves with the broad outlines of a topic without an interest in becoming an expert.  It is called, simply, Puritanism.  It is written by a well-known New England scholar, Francis J. Bremer, a professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.  I have learned to be suspicious of much of what I find on Wikipedia, though it can be useful for small things.  An actual paper book, by a person with his career interests involved, sounded appealing.
            I'm thinking I will do only two more posts on Puritanism/The Pilgrim's Progress, so for now I think it would be fun to focus on some factual information I found interesting.  The final thoughts will probably be developing further on the facts themselves.  Full disclosure:  most of these facts are ones I didn't know prior to reading the book, and were ones which allowed me to have a less judgmental attitude towards the Puritans.  While I may not be about to advocate for a reinstatement of their system, I have gotten a little tired of throwing around the term "Puritannical" as an insult whose meaning I'm not sure I even know.
            So here is some Puritan trivia for you.  May you win big money at the next "Puritan Trivia Night" at your local bar.
            Did you know that Puritans were among the earlier Christians who insisted that all believers have access to Scriptures, and that those Scriptures be in their own mother tongue?
            Did you know that Henry VIII broke from Rome in 1534?  (I'm just throwing that one in because I think everyone should know it.)  And that most of the English church managed to get along okay for awhile, avid Protestants and simple anti-Romans alike, because of their shared hatred of the Roman Catholic Church?  It's amazing how a common enemy can convince you that you're getting along with your neighbors!
            Did you know that the color black has been somewhat erroneously connected with the Puritans?  I found this one particularly fascinating.  Black gowns were, I discovered, a sign of University education.  Puritans wanted their pastors to have University training.  In other words, they wanted them educated in more than just theology.  Their training was certainly theologically grounded, and of course Christian in character.  But "the Puritans" did not wear black, if we're talking about all of the non-clergy, because black was the most expensive color to make a fabric.  They wanted their pastors to wear black because it was a sign of the pastor's status, his education, and how much his flock esteemed him, to be wearing such a rich, expensive color.
            Did you know that in 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen people — fourteen women and five men — were put to death as witches?  I always had a sense of it, without knowing much more.  But did you also know that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of men and women were executed as witches as a result of often unruly witch hunts throughout Europe?  Just for some perspective.
            Another fact which was good for me to learn about was their opposition to icons.  I, personally, love icons.  I have a whole little altar with about eight of them.  But part of the reason the Puritans were opposed to images of God was that "such objects fixed in people's minds a specific and therefore limiting view of God."  This is a fairly obvious reason — Islam shares their concern — but what I did not know is that the Puritans were so fond of referring to the feminine aspects of the divine.  If you limit your idea of God to masculine terms, you miss out on a lot of possibility.  Peter Sterry, John Cotton, and Nehemiah Wallington all wrote about God as mother.  I think that many Christians who consider themselves perhaps the spiritual descendants of the Puritans would find Sterry's references to sucking at the breasts of the Godhead uncomfortable.
            And one last thought on sex, probably the area where we are most prejudicial towards the Puritans.  Did you know that the Puritans advanced what were actually considered the "new" views on marriage and sex?  In medieval Europe, celibacy had been seen as the higher spiritual state and sex for pleasure, even within the bounds of marriage, was often discouraged.  In Reformation Europe, and this included the Puritans, marriage was starting to be seen as something which existed for more than simple procreation.  The companionship and support marriage provided was becoming more highly valued, and sexual intercourse was seen as strengthening this bond.  Puritan ministers often encouraged their parishioners to engage in sexual intercourse "willingly, often, and cheerfully," and one Massachusetts man "was excommunicated by the Boston church for withholding sexual favors from his wife."
            Amen, Hallelujah.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Inescapable. Inescapably Painful.

some further thoughts on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

            I'm pretty sure I shouldn't assume people have read The Pilgrim's Progress, so here's a crash course.
            First of all, it's an allegory, so everyone has names like "Hopeful," "Ignorant," "Great-Heart," and my favorite, "the Giant Despair."
            Secondly, Bunyan was what would then have been called a non-conformist and what we would probably oversimplify a little as a Puritan.  I could take issue with that label, but I won't here.  It is significant that he was what we would definitely consider a conservative, both morally and theologically.  In other words, he not only adhered to a strict moral code (he is reported to have repented of a life which was, ahem, morally reprehensible as a result of his sins of profanity, dancing, and, of course, bell-ringing), but he also adhered to what I might call doctrinalism.  That is, the idea that what you believe — the specifics of what you believe, the specific list of things you believe to be true — was in fact what determined your spiritual fate.
            Thirdly, it's written in two parts, and this is where it started to get interesting to me.
            In the first half, we meet a man who takes the name Christian when he begins his journey.  Christian has become convinced that he needs to leave the world of sin, repent, be forgiven, and make it to the Celestial City.  He sets out.  Along the way, he encounters all sorts of obstacles and helpers, temptations and raptures.  After many tears, much soul-searching, and many debates with pilgrims along the way, he does in fact make it to the Celestial City.
           But then there's a whole second half I knew nothing about.  In the second half of the book, his wife (whom he left behind in the first part) repents of her hard-heartedness and sets out to follow in his footsteps.  She takes with her their four sons and a young woman joins her named Mercy.  Christiana (Christian's wife) and Mercy and the boys also meet many obstacles, helpers, temptations, and raptures, and they also make it to the Celestial City.
            What I discovered in going over my notes on The Pilgrim's Progress intrigued me.  At first I thought it was just an impression I got, and that looking at the details of the book would prove me wrong.  (How often do I form theories about books only to discover that the actual book doesn't support my theories at all?)  But then I went over it in much greater detail and discovered something interesting.
            Both Christian and Christiana are evangelizers.  That is, as they go on their respective pilgrimages, they draw other people into their pilgrimage.  But there are also people they meet along the way who either try to mislead them - try to send them off the correct path - and still others who think that they're pretty much doing okay, but are shown to be so off base that they really have no hope of ever seeing the Celestial City.  These latter folks are those I would say are turned off by a person remaining entirely, uncompromisingly true to their calling.
            So we'll say we have two groups of people:  those who join up, and those who don't, with those who don't falling into that category for a couple of different reasons.
            What I found so interesting in comparing the pilgrimages of Christian and Christiana is that the numbers are wildly different.
            Even taking into account people who fall into gray areas, I count thirteen people who turn away from Christian as a result of his steadfast and uncompromising faith.  Number he gathers to him?  Two.
            On Christiana's pilgrimage, there are two people who can be said to be turned away.  There are many to try to turn her and her group away, but none succeed.  (None succeed with Christian, either, of course.)  And the number she gathers to her?  Well, I'm going to count her kids, because they do actually seem to have a choice at the beginning.  And the final number is technically unknown because along the way all four sons marry and start procreating, so there is an unknown number of children involved.  But let's just keep them out of it, and we have fifteen people who join Christiana on her pilgrimage.
            I can't seem to form a consistent response to this.  On the one hand, my modern side reads this as blatant gender stereotyping.  Bunyan's male is strong, an individual who needs no one to support him or his beliefs.  He fights hand-to-hand combat with the Devil himself, and conquers all his own weaknesses.  Whereas Bunyan's female needs help.  A man called Great-heart must escort her the entire way because she is too weak to stand up to the problems along the way; but she graciously makes up for her physical weakness by carrying on with the time-honored role of social organizer, and social propagator.
            But then the church-going, realistic side of me reads some truth in this difference between how men and women often express their spirituality.  I find it amusing to strike up conversations about science or religion or whatever prickly topic I can think of, with my atheist couple friends.  Within minutes the men are as explosively religious in their atheism as a Huguenot, while their wives (who are probably the more convinced atheists anyway), roll their eyes and finally sigh, "Just drink your wine and be nice, okay honey?"  And at church, yeah; the women make 99% of what happens socially in a church, happen.
            And then on my third hand (yes, my third hand), I think about the daughter of a friend who's struggling hard with wanting to be a boy because she hates all of the stereotypes that practical (and sexually typical) people like me are happy to keep in place.
            And this gets back to who is ultimately responsible:  me.  I am happy to keep these norms in place, on some level at least.  I find it helpful, not to mention poetic, to think of the world in masculine and feminine.  Most of us think we can say certain things about "the way men typically are," and "the way women typically are."
            I never wanted to get rid of that until my little seven-year-old friend wanted to shave her head and wear boys' clothes and go by a boy's name and be called  "him."  And it absolutely breaks my heart, because when her mom and I talk about it, we just keep turning over more and more reasons it's really tough and lame to be a girl, and that the best I could offer is that it gets better someday.  Assuming you make it through the bitchy bullying and rejection by your peers (a thousand times worse than getting your ass kicked), and the anorexia, and the cutting, and the expectations that you will always and forever be pretty and sweet and not too, too smart.
            The only conclusion I am left with, especially in light of that last list of pains of being a female human creature, is that gendering seems to be inescapable, and inescapably painful.  Many, many women don't hit up against these particular pains of being a woman as hard as some.  Others hit up against even more brutal consequences of sex and gender.  But even my friends who seem to have gotten off easy are...confined.  We are all confined.  Men, women, and even those brave souls who really try to subvert the norms and move away from gender altogether.  They are confined by how the majority of their peers will respond to them, even if it's with a benign bewilderment.
            Which is all to say, I can't decide who I want my hero to be:  Christian or Christiana?  Maybe I can find another option.  Or maybe not.  Sometimes, I'm afraid, there doesn't seem to be a third option.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On Puritanism, and Finding Myself in the Corner

            Puritanism is a tricky subject, I've discovered.  I haven't even begun to do what would qualify as research on the subject, but two issues have crept up in the little bit of reading I have done.
            The first, which surprised me, is that the term "Puritanism" is a bit more wiggly than I'd realized.  Somehow I imagined that a large number of English folks, who'd all read Calvin, got together and started being English and Calvinist at the same time and called it Puritanism.  From what little I'd already known about religious developments and revolutions, I should have known better than to imagine it as nearly so tidy.
            The second might be a bit more obvious.  Really, it has to do with prejudice, and the apparent convenience of having a scapegoat.
            Scapegoats work great when you'd like to avoid the unpleasantness of confronting reality.  Let's just say, for example, I lose my temper on a given day.  Easiest thing in the world to respond (even if only to myself) by saying something like, "Well, I was raised in a very emotionally volatile home, and my parents yelled a lot, and so I'm just like this.  I have a bad temper, and there's nothing I can do about it."  Scapegoats: mom and dad.  Imaginary redeemed: me.
            So when I notice sexual discomfort in myself and those around me, when I feel myself cringe at the sight of an unattractive/elderly/same-sex couple kissing in public, I can thank Great Britain for having graciously provided me with the Puritans.  Ready-made scapegoats upon whom I can heap my own physical and sexual unease.

            Recently I read The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan.  I want to talk about the book for two or three posts, but I realize it's not a book I can count on having been read by most people.  So it would seem that a brief summary, with some historical notes, would be in order.
            But these complications...that I don't really know what the term Puritanism refers to...that I have loaded a term, whose original referent I don't know, with so much personal baggage...they worry me.
            So I'm just sort of pausing for a moment.  I realize the whole month of September has been a pause so far.  And I do want to correct this problem of lack of knowledge with some reliable facts and reading.  But I am in reading deprivation right now (from The Artist's Way), and I'm a little intrigued by my feelings about the Puritans.  Come to think of it, it might be a similar feeling to what most Americans have about Muslims.  A whole lot of emotions worked up about a concept which might not even exist.
            Think about that.  It's like getting all worked up because you think, say, the German side of your family was Nazis, only to discover they fled Germany before the worst of anti-Semitism had erupted because they were terrified by the xenophobia gripping their country.  You know that phrase, "All dressed up, and nowhere to go."  It's kind of like that.  "All worked up, and no one to hate."  Because they're not there.  In the corner I direct all of my judgment for nasty, fearful, repressed monsters, I have looked, and I find not Puritans there.  Only parts of myself.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A quiet month

Well, in "real world land," where I live in a body and a home and eat food and sleep, the past two months have been two very, very quiet months.  This has resulted in spending lots of time online, which isn't exactly quieting to the mind.

So in the next month (that's September) I'm going to be trying to avoid internet connectivity as much as possible.  So if you pop by during that time, I might just have one or two recent posts.  Otherwise, I'm planning on reading, writing, chatting with friends, and hoping very much for an Indian summer.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Poems About Summer, and Alone

I hadn't planned on posting poems by other folks on here, but lately these have been holding on too tightly.

All Summer You Kept Trying to Answer
by Jane Hirshfield

All summer you kept trying to answer the knocking.

Down the hill,
the new houses composed themselves,
first story, second story, roof.

Your own story stayed unvisited, unfurnished.
What lived there
was smaller than mouse-sized.  Perhaps a cricket still moved.

The heart, wanting to waken,
drank its tiny cups of morning espresso.
One morning choosing a green cup,
the next morning yellow.  Red.  Blue.  Then once again green.

All summer the heart circled the wheel of its colors.

What does it matter if now a dog wakes you,
night after night, in the dark?
Comes to the bed and stares until you open the door,
then goes out to start up a racket that no neighbor hears.

When Tu Fu turned forty,
he drank rice wine, dipped his cup over and over,
barked like a dog into wind.
Perhaps this dog is Tu Fu, still going on,
howling at time, at friends gone to the Yellow Springs.

Does he hunt some impossible answer —
beauty?  or justice? — there in the outer dark of the world?
Or, more modern questioner,
hunt only the scented knock of a better question?

He is gone a long time.
Who stands in the doorway is you.
Still, waking is waking.  It is good to have a companion.

The late stars shine in the cold, some red, some blue.

And this isn't Tu Fu, but Hirshfield made me think of my Chinese poets.

Bamboo Retreat
Wang Wei

Sitting alone amid dense bamboo
strumming my lute and whistling
deep in the forest no one else knows
until the bright moon looks down

            -translated by Red Pine

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Manhattan and Woody Allen's Non-Neurosis

(Which Looks a Lot Like Neurosis When You're Surrounded by Nutcases)

            During the film Manhattan, Isaac (played by Woody Allen) walks down the street with his girlfriend Tracy, his friend Yale, and Yale's mistress Mary (played by Diane Keaton).  Mary is laughingly listing off her nominees for a special list of overrated artists which she and Yale are compiling, and when she mentions Ingmar Bergman, she hits a nerve.  Isaac has thus far tried to ignore/avoid this highly nervous and annoying woman, but Bergman, Bergman he has to stick up for.  He states unequivocally that Bergman is one of the only real geniuses in cinema.  Sounding exasperated and maybe even a little bored, Mary replies:
            "His view is so Scandinavian.  It's bleak.  My God, I mean all that Kierkegaard, right?  Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism.  I mean the silence, God's silence.  Okay, okay, okay.  I mean I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but I mean alright, you outgrow it... Don't you see, don't you guys see, that it is the dignifying of one's own psychological and sexual hangups by attaching them to these grandiose philosophical issues.  That's what it is."
            So on the subject of psychological and sexual hangups...
            The funny thing about this movie to me was that I ended it feeling like Isaac (yes, that's Woody Allen's character) was the sanest person in the whole thing.  It made me realize how much I come to Allen's movies with expectations about how crazy/neurotic his characters are.
            Don't get me wrong: Allen is the perennial nebbish.  (Sidenote: learn this fun word!  Learn it, and use it!)  He mutters constantly, wanders physically and verbally, and while we might tend to find it funny, the truth is that little he says is very important or meaningful.  And he's sort of pathetic, with his novel writing, and his own terror at the one decisive action he takes during the movie, leaving his miserable job.
            But I couldn't help feeling some shared suffering with Isaac.  He is fixedly moral, but he is driven to being almost obsessively so by the lack of morality around him.  Everyone around him seems to think the solution to confused morality is to relax and not get so wound up.  Meanwhile, Yale is cheating on his wife, Mary announces that she and Yale are going to move in together, and when Isaac points out that Yale is going to destroy his marriage for something that can't make it past two weeks, Mary (all shock) says, "Two weeks!  I can't think that far into the future!"
            I should probably mention that Isaac is something like 42 years old, and his girlfriend is 17.  Okay, okay, okay.  I know this is frowned upon for a million reasons.  All I can say in my defense is that, like Isaac, I'm pretty committed to the idea of fidelity in marriage, and when I was 17, I was no fool about men.  If I'd had a relationship with a 42 year old man, I would probably just grow up to be vaguely embarrassed by how wrinkly he was.
            I wonder what it says about me that I think Isaac is the sane one in this movie.  He certainly seems to have the smallest number of psychological and sexual hangups.  He's just awkward, and I can confirm one bit of his experience: nothing will drive a slightly-more-morally-strict-than-average person to the deep end of self-righteous isolation and judgment faster than a bunch of loosey-goosey heathens who destroy themselves while insisting they're having a good time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Big Books and Creativity

            Creativity is strange.  Frequently humiliating, sometimes exhilarating, and always out of nowhere.
            Except that it's not.  The artist, writer, whoever, has a lot of power to create the appropriate circumstances.  This is absolutely crucial of course.  But then, it either comes or it doesn't.  So it sort of is out of nowhere.
            To make clear why I'm on about this, let me explain something about how I've engineered this blog and my brain to work together:
            First, there is a Big Book.  In my case, the last Big Book was Don Quixote.  The next two I'm currently reading are Five Dialogues, by Plato and translated by G.M.A. Grube, and The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan.  So I read the Big Book.  My brain gets really, really into it at first.  I'm so into this super-intellectual book, I'm sure I should have been a college professor.  No, no, wait, I'm way smarter than any and all college professors because I'm not working my tail off for five dollars an hour to pay off tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.
            But I digress.
            So my brain gets really into it.  Then it says it's done.  Long before the end.  We argue, I compel, and the brain completes its work grumbling and refusing to ever generate another light-hearted thought or genuine emotion ever again.  (This is a total lie, by the way.)  Usually just as my brain and I are nearing the finish line I throw it a couple of general interest books and murder mysteries, maybe some movies, just something to help it out.
            Second, there is the stare-at-the-wall phase.  I stare at walls, and stare at blank sheets of paper, go out for drinks with friends, and wonder why I didn't marry that nice guy who wanted to set me up in a house on the Mediterranean seven years ago.  (Oh, wait; he wasn't that nice, and I don't tan well.)
            Third, I write something.  It is actually more linked to the first phase than might seem obvious, but it's difficult to explain how non-linear things happen in linear time.  Anyway, I write something. But the something I write will most likely never see the light of day.  In fact, it will be bad.  It will be very, very bad.  Then I'll write something else.  Maybe I'll combine the first and second things.  Maybe I'll start over.  And then maybe I'll start over again.  Hey, why not start over again?
            All this time, I am writing things which I will most certainly not post on this blog, let alone dream of publishing.
            After awhile, I'll start to get something.  A poem, an essay:  a piece.  Then I'll tweak it.  Maybe I'll write another piece.  More revising.  More writing.  Honestly, probably more staring and drinking with friends.
            At some point I'll be able to look at what I've been working on, and I'll say, "Hey, look!  I had a thought!"
            And that thought, gentle reader, is what goes on this blog.
            Which is to say, it takes me a long time to form a thought.  Or at least to articulate it.  So I started the blog when I had pretty much wrapped up this whole process with the Quixote.  As I've been posting things about that Big Book, I've been somewhere in the middle of that process with Plato and Bunyan.  I just finished The Pilgrim's Progress and Apology, but I don't consider that to mean I'm ready to offer a thought on them.  And while I'm trying earnestly to put some effort into Bunyan, for some reason he's not prompting ideas like Plato is.  I would have expected the opposite.  The Pilgrim's Progress is far more beautiful than I'd remembered, and (yes, it's true) very spiritually inspiring.  But for whatever reason, nothing linguistic is happening.  And Plato/Socrates (more on that conundrum later) seemed so dry from far away that I never would have thought I would write an actual poem to, um,
            So consider the next few posts a small interim.  A time for me to share other, more-easily formed thoughts:  what I think about Jad Abumrad; how cute Jad Abumrad is; Jad Abumrad's recent and wonderful essay on creativity.  Okay, no, I won't only talk about Radiolab.  But in the next month or so you'll probably see some posts on philosophy in general, Agatha Christie, The Artist's Way, Woody Allen...whatever stuff I've been throwing my brain to get it across the finish line without completely rebelling against me.
            So for my next trick, maybe not exactly Plato.  Maybe...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Adios, Signor Quixote

            I believe I read somewhere that there are two different kinds of fairy tales.  I'm sure there are far more than that, but the two types serve my purpose well here.
            Often people flippantly say that all fairy tales are morality tales, but that is patently not true.  The only moral to be gained from Jack and the Beanstalk is that it's a good idea to break into the houses of people who are infinitely stronger than you are.  The only moral to the Frog Prince is that you will be rewarded for being a little bitch.  You could sarcastically argue that these morals are actually true, but these stories were not told to children to make them good.  Like religious stories, fairy tales are told from a certain perspective from which you will read certain characters as protagonists; this does not make them good in the sense that most parents wish their children might occasionally be.
            So there are morality tales ("Steal and God will strike you dead"), and there are the more complicated stories, which I might call metaphorical tales.  The kinds of stories where we give the listening child a character to identify with, and then guide them through a story which will, we hope, help equip them to deal with the complexities of childhood and adolescence and adulthood.
            I swear this relates to the ending of Don Quixote.  Just give me a minute.
            Don Quixote is defeated.  He is defeated in a fair fight, and the consequence of his defeat is that he is sworn to return to La Mancha to spend a year in retreat from the life of a knight-errant.  Defeat, and its subsequent enforced sedentary life, breaks Don Quixote.  What's more, he begins to see things are they really are: pigs are not an army, but simple pigs; an inn is no longer a castle, but a humble inn.
            However, on their way home, he begins a new scheme.  He plans for Sancho and himself, and hopefully also the barber and the curate, to embark upon a life pastoral.  In other words, he has decided to take up another literary-allusion-as-guiding-life-principle.  They will be shepherds, roaming the fields and woods, and pining after their assorted lady loves.  Quixote will become Quixotiz, and Sancho will become Pancino, lover of "Teresona, which will fit her fatness to an hair, as well as be agreeable to her own name Teresa," (Ibid., p. 1047).  Quixote tells his friends the curate and the batchelor (student) Sampson Carrasco of his plans, and they, lost in the face of this new species of madness, go along with it.  Thus far, though he is sad, and though he is seeing things as they are, we still clearly have an imaginative man before us.
            But then suddenly, Don Quixote develops a fever.  He remains in bed for six days.  A physician is called, and he foresees the worst.  Quixote falls asleep shortly after the doctor has come.  Waking, he announces, "I now enjoy my judgment undisturbed, and cleared from those dark shadows of ignorance, in which my understanding hath been involved, by the pernicious and incessant reading of those detestable books of chivalry.  I am now sensible of the falsity and folly they contain," (Ibid., p. 1085).
            To be clear, I'm sort of belligerently devoted to reality, so Quixote is no hero of mine.  I don't doubt that Quixote was insane.  I also think he was a bit of a jerk sometimes, and it often felt as though he consciously knew what he was doing, and how ill-suited his actions were to reality.
            What bothers me here is that it feels like a placation of the audience.  Like a movie or an opera where the bad guy has been so well-developed, and so intelligent, and pointed out so many flaws in, oh, I don't know, maybe a political/economic system, that his or her death in the end feels like the wrong kind of fairy tale.
            Up until the end, I feel like I've been reading the weird, wobbly-ethical-lines kind of fairy tale: how can the Sleeping Beauty fulfill fate only by disobeying those she is supposed to submit to, those who are sworn to protect her from, um, fulfilling her fate?  How can it be right for Don Quixote to wreak havoc at Juan Palomeque's inn, destroying his property and ruining his wine in an effort to vanquish a monster?  And more pointedly, how can it be right for it to be necessary to the story for him to do this?  For it is necessary.  Necessary for many reasons, not the least of which is bringing one Don Fernando to his senses enough that he chooses to honor his marriage to Dorothea (long story).
            And now Cervantes has decided to wrap things up into a different kind of fairy tale.  Now Don Quixote is dying, and he willingly denounces all the weirdness, all the insanity, all the interest.  Suddenly, he denounces the very reason we are reading his story and declares his books to be detestable.  Does that make this book detestable, at least in his eyes?
            I suppose the complicating factor here is the question of which comes first: the immanence of the knight's death, or his return to sanity?  Does one cause the other?  Or do they arise simultaneously, necessarily part of the same event: the transformation of Don Quixote back into Alonso Quixano?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

overtaken by the morning

In the longer Quixote piece, there were several of these smaller bits, which I thought of as something like "those messed up abstract night sections." Messed up because, unlike the following one, most had copious quantities of footnotes. I chose this one because for whatever reason Copy/Cut/Paste doesn't seem to work with footnotes, and the task was too daunting to recreate them for one of the weirder sections.

overtaken by the morning*

at twilight night begins at twilight.
such beautiful terror all this

day’s dust settles in a thicket not far
not far from a great and shadowy building looms
not far from twilight
such beautiful twilight.

not there yet in a thicket
of oaks not far from the gate in a thicket
night is pulled on its course by the old
alonso quixano
resting in some thicket
of oaks listening to barking dogs cats mewing of
resting in some thicket of oaks young,
plump man, eyes exhausted by day’s light, on a donkey
stars and day’s dust.

from the gates, not far from shadowy thickets of
thickets of oak trees a moon a man
a moon, exhausted by the day’s light
the building that casts the shadow
where where is it?
the palace dogs, dogs barking

that great shadowy tree.

where is the palace of dulcinea?

that great shadowy ¿where? toboso, yes!  but
toboso, silent, and lying
with outstretched legs
eyes , exhausted by the day’s light watch.

where is the palace of dulcinea? 
far far from the gate far
from the thicket that great and shadowy building
that great embowery building casts the shadow.
and sancho
the plump
ventures forth on his donkey
passes oak trees
and gates
hears the barking of dogs and grunting of hogs
sancho pulls the moon across the sky
    draws the moon along its course
  while the night’s dust
cools, and settles.

* Ibid., p. 614.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

people sometimes go in quest of one thing, and meet with another

As some readers might know, I've been slowly working through my own creative response to Don Quixote for quite some time.  It's technically in the revision stages, so I wouldn't call the little bits I'll share here finished.  But I wouldn't be sharing all of my thoughts on a literary work if I didn't share some of my more "poety" thoughts.

The following is an imaginary letter from Sancho, Don Quixote's squire, to Dapple the donkey.

people sometimes go in quest of one thing, and meet with another*


            Having given more time to considering the matter of the history of our adventures, I found I was puzzled by certain matters which seem to occur in the book differently than I remember, and others which I was shocked to discover any person could have known of.  In the first instance was, your very own abduction by Gines de Passamonte.  For either Cid Hamet Benengeli, or Signor Cervantes Saavedra (or perhaps the English-man*** Mister Smollett) has mistakenly depicted you as having mysteriously re-appeared, before you were joyfully retrieved from Passamonte, the scoundrel.
            With regard to those accounts which I would have thought the author ignorant, there is the most strange matter of the loss of our history, and its retrieval at the exchange of Toledo.  I do not understand how the first part of our exploits came to be known at all.  For, as there was no one present to record the assailment of the innocent wind-mills, the incident of the Benedictine fryars, and the auspicious sally of the sage Don Quixote, upon the Castle of the Innkeeper, together with its damsels—I say, I do not comprehend how these things came to be known if Signor Cervantes (or Cid Hamet Benengeli, or again Mister Smollett) only found the history, as it commenced after these extraordinary adventures.

            And finally, there is the occasion of my own entry into the history, along with your own most valorant self, precisely at Volume One, Book One, Chapter Seven, page eighty and five.  For how could anyone have known that we did in fact list ourselves as Don Quixote’s servants, at that very moment, as no one but our selves was there!  I might almost believe you to have spoken to Signor Cervantes, if I did not know you to be a donkey who keeps his own counsel.
            Altogether I find the explanation of our travels to be almost more confusing than the traveling of them.  I find cause here to rejoice at my own inability to read, or to write, and leave such confusions and obfuscisions to the perusal of such men as the clerk who records this letter for your perusal.
Your humble master and friend,
Sancho Panza

*  de Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel.  The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote.  Trans. Tobias Smollett.  New York:  Modern Library, 2001.  Print, page 150.  No, no, that's not right.  Page 367.**
**  Sorry.  I was right the first time.  Page 150. 
***  Sancho here makes a slight error as to the nationality of the translator.  Tobias Smollett was in fact a Scottsman, and not an Englishman.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

darkness visible: an homage to a phrase, and the art of translation

            I'm guessing that I'm not the only writer who feels this way, but I like to imagine that words and language have a sort of life and intelligence of their own.  That words contemplate, breed, die, ache, and chat over tea (or scream recriminations at one another).

            Darkness visible.
            Beautiful phrase, even though (or because?) it refuses to articulate its meaning on casual encounter.

            In the midst of this and other such savoury conversation, they quitted the tent, to examine some snares they had laid; in which amusement the day soon elapsed, and was succeeded by the night, which did not appear so serene and composed as it might have been expected at that season of the year, which was midsummer, but along with it came a certain darkness visible, which greatly assisted the design of the duke and dutchess.  (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, trans. Tobias Smollett.  Modern Library 2001 edition, p. 809.)

            I first met the words in the 1989 memoir by William Styron.  Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness.  In the book, Styron carefully and hideously details his descent into depression, and what he found lurking in the pit.
            Strange to meet the phrase in a 17th century Spanish novel.  For a moment, I wondered if it had come into English from Spanish, through the Quixote.
            But then I remembered, some long-ago-learned detail:  the phrase "darkness visible" entered the English language with Milton.  Note that in the following quote, the "he" is Satan:

            At once as far as Angel's ken he views
            The dismal Situation waste and wild,
            A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
            As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
            No light, but rather darkness visible
            Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
            Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
            And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
            That comes to all; but torture without end
            Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
            With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd.  (Paradise Lost, John Milton.  Book I, lines 59-69)

            But Milton's poem was published in 1667, over fifty years after the second half of the Quixote.
            Enter the translator, Tobias Smollett.
            It suddenly dawned on me that Smollett, translating Cervantes' novel almost 150 years after it was published in Spanish, and nearly 100 years after Milton's poem, chose this phrase as his translation of an entirely different phrase in Spanish (would that I could read Spanish and locate that phrase).  In his book Is that a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos states, "all utterances have innumerably acceptable translations."  This of course does not mean that any translation of a given utterance is acceptable, but it does mean that the ways an "utterance of more than trivial length has no one translation."
            In the scene following, Don Quixote and Sancho meet "Merlin," as well as several other "inchanters," and a Dulcinea who is actually a young, attractive man in drag.  All being pulled along on a cart by oxen with candles made to look as though they are growing out of their horns.  It strikes me that the Pythons might have read Cervantes.
            If words have a life and intelligence of their own, then I think here Smollett's words are undoubtedly poking at Milton's, and saying something along the lines of, "Hey!  Don't take yourself so seriously!"  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Inns and Castles

            Among other confusions, Don Quixote is prone to view inns as castles.  One night, at one particular, resting-place/noble abode, four men on horseback arrive and ask for entrance.  Don Quixote (fairly justifiably) points out that it is ridiculously early and they should stop making a ruckus at such an ungodly hour and wait for the king to wake up.  They object to the notion of royalty residing in said building, one of them declaring that "in such a sorry inn, without any sort of noise or stir, I cannot believe that any persons of such note would lodge."
            "You know little of the world, replied Don Quixote, since you are so ignorant of the events that happen in knight-errantry."
            Quixote has many such comical "fall-backs" as it were.  Here, as in other places, he responds to others questioning his interpretation of a situation by attributing the conflict in views to the ignorance of others.  I.e., I have read more than you, and therefore understand this situation far better.  An expedient I have known more than one professor (or pseudo-intellectual such as myself) to fall upon.  But aside from these diversions, this scene starts to get at my ambivalence towards Quixote.
            The part of me that is all nostalgia — the part of me that gets completely nailed by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris — can't help but sympathize with Don Quixote.  I am always wanting a different time and place, and I chafe at the texture of the world I find myself in.  Quixote has decided to do away with the chafing altogether, and somehow change reality, insofar as he is able through a movement of consciousness.  But this, I think, is where I begin to feel a slight disgust at the apparently logical conclusion of my own nostalgia.
            I cannot countenance such a denial of reality.  When I was younger, I would have found it romantic.  I was insecure enough to want art and religion to manipulate reality, to make it into something less frightening and less painful than it is.
            But now, even if the reality is that life is ambiguous and unsatisfactory, frightening and painful, and, God, so humiliating...even then, I would like to face up to it with some honesty, and to hopefully not cause anyone else pain while doing so.
            I know this is idealistic, in a sense, and probably sounds very proud and self-righteous.  Also, it is easier said than done.  But I spent most of the book not liking Don Quixote.  I felt about him the way one might feel about a friend, whom one loves, but doesn't really trust to have any common sense.
            But how can I say I didn't like Don Quixote, when I absolutely adore Don Quixote?  There is no book without the star-gazing madman.
            Before I read the book, I had him romanticized into a hero of my own rose-colored glasses tribe.  But having read the book, and seen the fallout of his actions and misguided violence, my feelings changed considerably.  There was the initial revulsion, of course, followed by the adolescent's "I'm not going to be like that anymore!"  Which mellowed into something weirder and more complicated.   (That last sentence seems to be the theme of my thirties so far.)
            I can't help wondering how Quixote is viewed by people who know him through the book, versus those who know him by reputation only.  For those who haven't read the book, is he a figure of nostalgic heroism?  Or of pity?  Something else?  And for those who have read it, was there a change in your view of him?