Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thin Postings but Rich Relaxation

The sudden trickling out of posts on Ghulf Genes (and elsewhere) is not a sign of trouble but of relaxation. This is the time of year when family visits come and I “get a life,” as it were. The heat has been such that I can’t get myself to go on long, rambling walks—in the course of which, looking at skies and clouds and trees and gardens—my ideas bubble to the surface. Brigitte and I discovered a wondrous green caterpillar munching away at the inhabitants of one of our dill pots. Its official name is a Black Swallowtail—the name of the butterfly it shall become. More about that later. Observing our green wonder, feeding it, studying it—has occupied days with genuine child-like pleasure already. That’s the sort of thing that’s going on. Sitting in the shade and sipping very tall glasses of iced tea. Picking up a book, reading a paragraph or two, and then putting it down again, face open, and looking at the wind moving the tops of distant trees. You get the general idea. A little excursion to Canada is in the works too, and perhaps a trip to Traverse City in Michigan (a favorite destination for us) after that. So if, here or there, something sprouts, so be it. Ghulf Genes (and LaMarotte, Borderzone) will revive soon again as the days shorten...

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Mystery?

Over the last several months I’ve picked what looked like promising mystery novels from the wall-sized shelf of our local library. In this I’m trying to discover a genuine story-teller. One test is to look at the first page of the novel. If it begins by plunging me into a scene—action, dialogue—I slip it right back into the gap I created removing it. I’m looking for a story, not a third rate movie executed as print on paper. Once it looks like that a story might be told, I look for other indications that give me hope: set in old times, for example, set in China. How though it is to find something good is illustrated by the last three I chose, admittedly rather rapidly.

The first of these begins in 1204 AD or thereabouts, in Swabia. It concerns a community of circus performers hiding in the Black Forest from a evil persecution of some Pope. (Had I gleaned that much from my examination of the book, it wouldn’t have made it to the house, but, alas.) The first person story teller is a member of this community but sounds, in speech, surprisingly like an American from the Midwest. At around page four or thereabouts I come across a “guild hall” built amidst the dense pines of that very mountainous region; it features four “class rooms” in which the circus-arts are taught. Really? Class rooms don’t really come into their own until Napoleon or thereabouts. And guild halls, well, don’t really fit the notion of a fugitive community hiding in the Black Forest at the tail of a path camouflaged by a “movable bush.” Soon the story-teller’s wife (she is great with bow and arrow by the way!!) mentions a “live audience” — as if that era had had any other kind. And then my story-teller talks of “Europe,” a geographical conceptions not in the day-to-day lexicon of some itinerant juggler of the thirteenth century.

The second book, set in modern times, starts smartly with nice, quick portraits of three Brits; amusing, nicely done. But settling down I rapidly find myself bogged down in a ten page description of a little section of The City in London the purpose of which, I’m guessing, is to show that our American author really was in England with notebook and digital camera. By now, leafing, ahead, I discover that description is the bulk, the tedium relieved only here and there by encountering the occasional charismatic ghost.

The last is a “Templar Mystery.” It kicks off with a low, turreted wall collapsing and killing a knight in armor. The description of this collapse, the listing of the materials present in the rubble, persuades me that the author knew naught about how walls like that were made. In the second segment we meet a young, vile sort of friar; he is just a brother, mind, but already the diplomatic go-between the king of England and the Pope. The third short segment already has us enjoying an obligatory sex scene between a female peasant I can’t actually believe in and a peasant hunk I fear might play a leading role in all that follows. Sigh. It’s a very hot and humid summer. I’m losing my touch even in sampling mystery novels in this age of the image. The mystery of all this? The mystery is that any of these books would actually have been published.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pumpkin's Progress

June 10, 2010

July 10, 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Note on Racism

As I’ve noted earlier, we saw The Jewel in the Crown again and I’ve read The Raj Quartet for the second time. Those experiences once more constellated a cluster of memories for me, dating back to my childhood and the days of World War II. In that time I was a child-member of an occupying force, a Hungarian army brat stationed in Serbia. It was a time when the little girl next door, a rather sweet child, suddenly appeared in the street to play with a huge yellow star sewn into her dress. A few weeks later she and her family vanished. I went to a Catholic school then; the teachers were all nuns; and for a while there, until they too disappeared, three member of my second-grade class appeared in school with the same sorts of stars, and our leading Sister lectured us about those stars trying to tell us that they meant nothing at all, just a little formality having to do with names. We’d had no idea at all that little Jewish children were our classmates. We’d never noticed. But we noticed that those children now had a strange shyness and sadness about them that they’d never had before. That was then.

Today’s context also included violent events in which Kyrgyz Turks killed Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan and in which in Pakistan Muslims did violence to a Sufi community. In the background are continual (even if by now barely audible) reports of Sunni on Shia violence in Iraq, and vice versa. And never mind Jewish violence on Palestinians. Murderous clashes between Muslims and Hindus, a feature of The Raj Quartet, has not stayed in the 1940s. No. It still recurs quite regularly now. In most cases, then, as now the race of those who kill each other is the same. Let me keep that simple. They look exactly the same on either side—much as the little girl next door looked exactly like I did, and her mom like mine, and her dad like my father.

My thesis is that “racism” is a culturally juvenile, overly simplistic tag applied to a category not of human but of subhuman behavior. It isn’t precisely animal behavior but closely linked to it; animals living in packs and groups behave in violently territorial ways and sometimes cause the deaths of members of the opposing group. Animals are protected by the limits nature sets to this sort of thing. Human are more clever—but there is a kind of threshold. Intelligence, calculation, and free-will are already present, but the genuinely human is not yet awakened. It’s only there as a dim potential. It’s a very harsh way to put it. But is it true? I think it is. Race is just a very convenient way of tagging the “alien other”—the other that, in a dim, subhuman consciousness threatens, and may therefore be violently attacked to give vent to one’s dread and fear.

The paradox of this, of course, is that external conditioning, thus social pressure for tolerance of other races, is just that, conditioning. The underlying biological imperative is stronger and will surface under the right conditions anyway. The bio-social tribalism behind group-on-group hatred and violence literally permeates political speech today, even if carefully coded. It’s purpose is not to “educate” or to persuade but merely to signal: if you feel this, here’s where you belong. To raise humanity to a higher level—now there is a job that can’t be done by propaganda or by broadcasting nest odor.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Recommendation

I mean every word of this. One of the most fascinating books I’ve seen in a long, long time is—believe it or not—titled The Book of Genesis Illustrated. It is a hardbound comic book. The words are from Genesis. The drawings are by Robert Crumb who is, perhaps, better known as R. Crumb, a comic book illustrator of the first rank. I don’t know quite how to put this. Perhaps the best way is to say that the book must be experienced. I guarantee that the reading of this text in this format is a genuinely new and indeed startling experience. The text Crumb uses is Robert Alter’s translation, The Five Books of Moses, although, as Crumb states in his introduction, he also used phrasing from other translations, including the King James Bible. The pages are unnumbered; a good guess is that there are about 200 pages or so plus a slender commentary. Subdivision is by chapters, but there is no table of contents. The publisher is W.W. Norton & Company, October 2009. It is available on Amazon for $16.47 last I looked. I found it amazing. I still do. This work, I think, teaches a number of different lessons; let me note two. One is the manner in which comic books work and what makes them a genuinely new medium of communication. The Japanese have realized and exploited this fascinating interaction. We've invented the comic book but have not let it fully develop on this side of the Pacific. To be sure, the Japanese Manga predates comics; thus the Japanese produced a new synthesis. The other lesson, at least for me, is to show how compressed a narrative Genesis really is but, if imaginatively received, how effective it is in concentrating a vast essence into a small space, contracting and expanding time, developing character where it is in dicated, and never losing its thematic vision.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Scan, Surf, Read

Functionally the Internet is like a paper and unlike a book. Papers can be scanned; books must be read. The very organization of a paper—with headlines, subheads—facilitates scanning. In the old days the lead paragraph was still uniformly a kind of digest or summary of the longer story that followed—so that the scanning eye could rapidly orient itself and choose to read or skip.

This act of survey, the act of quick examination, search, of scanning, the scan of the horizon is in part preparation for concentrated attention to some detail that, in the person’s personal context, signals the need to focus. In part it is a kind of on-going orientation in which the rapid, almost automatic noting of the same-old, same-old is as much a part of the act as the detection of significance, meaning the detection of unusual, noteworthy change.

Reading—even of a story in the paper—produces a different state. The quality of the attention changes. It’s perceptible; it’s a physical sensation. The sensation of motion, of gliding, of almost flying motion stops. A gathering of force is felt. The attention thickens and deepens. The perception of time also undergoes a change.

The physiology of this process, of this difference—between scanning or surfing and reading—is worth some careful consideration. In the scanning, in the surfing process the individual is open to stimulus, indeed is seeking it. He or she is out there, in the world, engaged. The richer that world, the more it changes, the more frequently new stimuli appear to draw the eye, the more engaging the mere survey becomes. And individual items, in that flow, however enticing they might appear to be, always suffer a kind of discount—because the next thing over might be more interesting.

Now, by contrast, to deepen concentration sufficiently to read an item is to leave the world, to go within, to descend, as it were, from a moving surface to a place where motion seems to stop and a kind of silence reigns. A short little item, in this context, is less threatening than a long one—because it promises rapid release so that the breathless scanning can resume.

Unless the person engaged in this activity has long since learned that seclusion from the world can bring much greater delights than skimming the surface—and has developed the necessary skills of discipline and concentration to get value from the process—the very medium in which information is presented will influence both its use (or non-use) and its presentation. I think it is a truism that more people “read” newspapers than books—and that the Internet is causing the slow demise of its printed counter-part. And on the Internet itself, the shorter the message, the more likely that it will reap a rich harvest of hits. New devices for “keeping in touch” are the hottest consumer products—and they prove that the most compelling “information” is information about our friends. As for institutions, even the most somber now have their Twitter feeds. Oh yes. The spelling must be streamlined too. And formality signals “out of it.”  In  that spirit I will close here, sayin’: See ya l8er, alig8er…

Monday, July 12, 2010

Where the Wimple Went

Reviewing childhood memories the other day, Brigitte and I remembered nuns with ordinary as well as showy headdress… Our discussion gradually evolved into this post, and with each layer lifted, as it were, the process became more fascinating. That’s life. Look at anything at all, pull on any string, and it will unravel reality.

But let me start with the simple object, our focus, the head-covering of nuns. It’s called the wimple (sometimes spelled whimple). It can be and sometimes is a quite elaborate garment in which a tight-fitting cap (a coif) is the inner portion and the wimple is the scarf-like outer portion; the most elaborate wimple, the cornette, is a highly starched item supported by an internal framing made of wire or wicker.

Let me next walk you through the collage I present for illustration. Top row, left to right: The first image is that of the best known nun or our times, whose name needs no mention, the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity; that order did not exist when I was born. Next is a Sistertian nun, shown first in her formal habit and, next, in her working clothes. In order thereafter are shown a group of Carmelite nuns in Spain, a Benedictine sister reading, a Carmelite sister in Austria, and sisters of Our Lady of Sion engaged in making candles.

Second row: The first two images are Benedictine nuns, again, with a differently fashioned wimple, and a group shot of Sistertians, showing both white and black wimples. Next comes a painting depicting the cornette, the very object we were remembering from childhood. It turns out that this is the headwear—but not the only headwear—of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. This order is known in shorter form as the Sisters of Charity. The last image shows the variety of wimples worn by Sisters of Charity; a closer look shows three kinds.

Third row: We start with an image of Franciscan nuns at a cookout. Do not assume that ladies without wimples aren’t nuns. The fading of the wimple is part of the subject of this post—below. Next comes an Ursuline nun, and next to her a Passionist sister. And then comes another photo of a group of Sisters of Charity at the Washington DC airport saying good-bye to some of their sisters bound for a conference in Africa. Their cornettes appear like wings—as if they were about to take flight too. Then, for good balance, I thought I’d show the interesting headwear, or lack thereof, worn by Buddhist sisters. If the sun shines hotly, however, the Asian umbrella is there for support.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Culture Without Media

Our only real access to “modern culture” is via the media. Our actual daily life shows very little of it; we're retired and living in reasonably well-off circumstances. What if the media fell silent? It’s difficult to picture that, but I can play with the notion in my imagination. In that case we’d have to take our cues from what we actually see and hear. Most of that is quite coherent, peaceful, and orderly; much of that is actually laudable. We have strong indications of trouble and incoherence only where modern “systems” touch us, particularly the health care system, and specifically its administrative and financial aspects.The same is true of banking arrangements. Brigitte battles “the culture” at right regular intervals by telephone, fax, Internet, and mail trying to force it to behave properly. Occasionally we interact with a wider public. Sometimes, in those settings, the greater problems of the culture surface in word-of-mouth contexts. Shopping trips sometimes bring to view, up close and personal, signs that don’t always encourage good cheer. We have glimpses of France—its educational systems, its work environment, its health system—through the eyes of our daughter, Michelle. Shards, strips, filaments of cultural shredding thus occasionally come into view directly too. But our actual image of the great whole reaches us by means of papers, magazines, the Internet, radio, and television. These surround us, as it were, with a ghostly dance of words, sounds, and images of gathering chaos. Not our actual lives. But then we live a kind of sheltered life. The evil roars, filled with shrieks, the sound of explosions, the rumble of collapse come from beyond the thick walls and the deep moats that surround us.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Metalled Road

Words, in seems, have always fascinated a subset of humanity, whereas the majority speak “as me my mouth has grown”—to translate, literally, a common German saying (“Wie mir der Mund gewachsen ist”). I first consciously remember reading that phrase, “a metalled road,” in a history of the Civil War; from the context I gathered that a tarred road was meant, or so at least I understood it. Why it would have been called metalled puzzled me, but not enough to lay the book aside. After that, like a tiny bit of rock inside a shoe, the phrase came up occasionally to irritate me for a moment, but never enough to sit, take the damned shoe off, and shake the pesky little thing out. Now, recently, it happened again, and this time my resistance snapped. Herewith the explanation of the “metalled road.” Writing such posts on words or phrases always makes me feel like a weird friend I had in high school who had no friends, never mind girl friends, but had a basement full of parakeets; meandering from the subject, I once spent an afternoon living his passion in that basement, staring at these, for me, quite ugly birds and breathing in that strange atmosphere of feathery mold. Metalled road? Well, whatever. Long time ago. Tarmac to you.

Curious history. Metalled roads have nothing to do with metal, nor metal with metalled roads, but both have an intimate connection to mining. A mine, in Latin, is called metallum. Aha. Of course. Things start to unpack. The big product of mines was ore which, smelted, yielded such things as bronze, copper, and iron. All of these came from the metallum and therefore their generic collective name was metal. But, of course, mines also yielded other things. They yielded stone and rock and gravel. A carefully constructed road, such the Roman road, was made of layers of stone packed inside dug trenches. Big rocks made the foundation, pressed-down gravel and crushed rock constituted the middle layer; paving stones completed the structure. The phrase “road metal” came into use to distinguish one product of a mine or quarry from another. Later on tar was used to give a binding to the crushed rock. While we’re on the subject, tarmac comes from the name of a Scotsman called John Loudon McAdam; he pioneered an updated technique of making Roman-style roads; his technique came to be called macadam, a method of construction—thus spreading rock on prepared road beds. The rock was carefully selected for size. When tar was applied to these roads, we got the name tarmac.

The stone is out of the shoe. The strange butterfly is pinned to the wall. The new parakeet is in its cage…

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Separation of Poetry and State

The appointment of a poet laureate happens every year. Every year I have the same reaction. If there is such a thing as a poetical party, I would adhere to the one founded by Robert Graves. In that school poets make their own weather as best as they are able—and serve only the White Goddess if she even deigns to notice them. The position of poet laureate—the official title is (please get the little bag out of the seat pocket in front of you) Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—is a creation of Crongress. The laureate serves from October to May. The short term seems to indicate that the United States needs a “poetry-free” period in summer to recover from the hardships of the colder season. I object to all of this. I want true separation of poetry and state. I might acquiesce to an institution entirely outside of government which might, every decade or so, bestow such an honor on the top pop-music lyricist or, better yet, song-writer. John Denver. Now there’s a name I would accept.

Why The Raj Quartet Resonates

Herewith the beginning of a chapter from a family memoir I wrote in 2003. The chapter is entitled “Bordertown — 1942-1943” and talks about a brief period in our life in what was then a temporary Hungarian possession of a piece of Serbia. The city I call Szabadka here is now called Subotica.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tiki-Night and Fireworks at Wolverine Lake

Our traditional Independence Day celebration always takes place at Wolverine Lake, on the West Side of our metro area, where Monique and John host Tiki-Night and the fire works are brought to us on July the third by the Lake Wolverine community. We’ve had extraordinarily good fortune with the weather going back a decade now. It has never been cloudy; it has never rained; touch wood. Pictures courtesy of my humble little Kodak camera; it is just about to turn one year old. What picture can’t you take, little Kodak?

The Resonance of Literature

The subject is vast like the ocean, and here I’ll simply dip a toe. I want to contemplate two twentieth century authors neither of whom reached top rank as writers because, it seems to me, their vision didn’t resonate with the mood of their times. Now phrases like “top rank” might benefit from elucidation. By that characterization I simply mean fame—thus names known well-enough to have become household words, as it were: Mailer, Updike, Salinger, Roth in the United States—Joyce, Tolkien, Huxley, Orwell in Britain. The authors I have in mind are known to the public, if at all, because of television specials: Fortunes of War, which appeared in 1987, and The Jewel in the Crown, which aired in 1984. Both came from a series of novels written in the 1960s and 1970s.

Fortunes of War is the collective name for six novels by Olivia Manning (1908-1980) grouped into two trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy (1960-1962) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-1980). This highly autobiographical story is that of a couple’s struggles and experiences as British expatriates on the fringes of Nazi Europe during World War II, beginning in 1939 in Romania and ending in Egypt in 1943, with other places in between. I haven’t read these novels myself, which applies a kind of discount to these comments, but the TV series had a great resonance for both Brigitte and for me. It reproduced with unerring accuracy the experiences of our childhood years—not in precisely the same places but in identical border regions, in Poland for Brigitte and in Hungary for me. The dramatic and the human quality of this production is accessible to all people of the requisite sensitivity, but for Brigitte and me it had in addition a depth and magic only accessible because the well of memory is deep, and to have lived a time, however young, vastly increases its re-experience as drama. Manning had an extensive literary career both as a novelist, critic, and non-fiction writer. She had her admirers (Anthony Burgess, alas, was one), but if the Wikipedia article titled “British literature” is a good random sample, her name didn’t make it into the top drawer. (Whereas, I would here note parenthetically, Anthony Burgess managed a perch there for his evil work, A Clockwork Orange.) I find this interesting.

The Jewel in the Crown (1964) is the first volume of Paul Mark Scott’s four-volume The Raj Quartet. Jewel gave its name to the television series as well. The others in the quartet are The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971), and A Division of the Spoils (1974). Paul Mark Scott—the Mark is his mother’s maiden name and sometimes put into parentheses—was born in 1920 and died in 1978. He was a bookkeeper, later a literary agent. In that role he was Arthur C. Clarke’s agent, among others. His experiences in India began as an enlisted inductee into the British Army in 1940; he worked in intelligence. Later he earned a commission and ended his career in the Indian Army Service Corp providing logistical support for that Army’s war against the Japanese in Burma; Japan had taken Burma in 1942. His writing career began in this period and was powerfully influenced by his experiences in India. In this case I’ve actually read The Raj Quartet. I rank the TV show among the very best I’ve ever seen—but reading those books (my copy has all four in one volume) makes me realize both the virtues and limitations of movies. The virtues are that we are physically there; thus when Scott writes that on a clear day in Pankot we can see the Himalayas very far in the distance, as if floating in the air, The Jewel and the Crown shows us what Scott saw himself—and what his greatest character, Sarah Layton, saw as she went riding with her father. The limitation is that The Raj Quartet is vastly richer in content. The experience of seeing and reading both—and both works splendidly done—is one of those gifts only our own age has bestowed on humanity. May we never lose it again.

The book, I think, is a masterpiece of the first order. Someday it may be recognized as such. Reading it now that outcome appears to be a near-impossibility, in part because it seems that reading itself may now by the last flickering activity of a dying generation. But, of course, I know better. No curve ever rises forever; just when it appears as if it had become a permanent state, that, no doubt, is the very moment when it has already begun to plummet again. That a work like this would have had so little resonance—and that it’s author also ended up beneath the salt of literary recognition, thus only as a solid also-ran—has been due, I think, to a brief flare-up in human history that now approaches its demise. In times to come when the burdens or real life replace the frustrations and distractions of modern life, The Raj Quartet may yet be rediscovered.


The picture of Olivia Manning comes from the Wikipedia article about her accessible here. I am very glad to present here an actual portrait of Paul Mark Scott. This, I believe, is the only other site that has it. I found it on the Facebook page of the Paul Mark Scott Appreciation Society. It has twenty members, of whom I count myself one. There are many web pages on Paul Scott, but no other that I came across had an image of the man.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Turning the Page

Calendars play a big role in our family; we give them at Christmas, but—it's their nature—these objects make themselves felt the year around. One of ours this year gives special pleasure. Over the last several decades wall calendars have emerged as a new genre in publishing so that, these days, they have themes and even titles. This one’s called The Paths; the publisher is Avalanche. “Finding Your Way on Life’s Journey.” Photographs of many paths, roads, bridges, and ways illustrate the calendar. Each month has its quote. The one for July is by Jean Paul Richter:

What has puzzled us before seems less mysterious, and the crooked paths look straighter as we approach the end.
Jean Paul Richter? Turns out that Richter (1763-1825) was a German school teacher and popular author. The quote above suggests that he was on the pious side, but the contrary turns out to be true—and the quote, therefore, grows in value. No. Richter was a humorist; his writing verged on the grotesque. Johann Gottfried Herder, the philosopher, liked Richter’s productions a lot, but both Goethe and Schiller thought that Richter lacked literary style. The flavor of the man’s writing is perhaps better reflected in this quote from one of his novels (Siebenkäs):

Einen solchen Fürstenbund zweier seltsamen Seelen gab es nicht oft ... dieselbe Lachlust in der schönen Irrenanstalt der Erde.

Such a princely bonding of two odd souls wasn’t often seen…this frenzy of laughter in the beautiful insane asylum of the earth.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Little Straw

I mean that as in “in the wind.” Something new, almost “millennial,” happened to me on my walk. People sometimes stop to ask a question. I come from a time—it has now pretty much faded—when the casual question almost anybody was likely to ask a total stranger—while almost certain to get a positive answer—was “Have you got a light?” The reflexive answer to that question was to reach into your pocket or your purse. Once upon a time everybody had a light. Today a young couple approached me. Each led a little dog on a leash. Their faces showed distress visible even from a distance. As I came into range they both looked at me a little forlornly and both asked, simultaneously: “Have you got a bag?” Now it so happens that, just before my walk, I’d been at Kroger. In the process of unpacking I had rolled up several plastic Kroger bags and put them in my pocket to deposit into the “bag for bags” that Brigitte maintains as one of our ecological activities. Quite reflexively, therefore, I reached into my pocket—but, alas, I’d already put the bags away. All three of us made sad-smile faces with head inclined to one side. Next time I’ll head out with a bag in my pocket. It’s a new millennium.