Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Should Life All Labor Be?

A. E. Housman, Last Poems, XI:
Yonder see the morning blink:
  The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
  And work, and God knows why.
Oh often have I washed and dressed
  And what's to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I've done my best
  And all's to do again.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Dreams

Who can say what happens at the gates of horn and ivory, somewhere beyond the wall of sleep?  Most people dream, and most people who dream attempt to remember their dreams.  Do we do this just to complete the puzzle of the night's events?  Is it simply the pursuit of a frisson whose end comes in remembrance, no more meaningful than checking the morning headlines to learn what happened while our eyes were closed?

Literature, at least,  assigns a special role to sleep.  Spectral visitors are common in the somnolent hours--I think first of Hector's bloody ghost and the phantom in the dreams of Xerxes.  Aeneas and Xerxes recount and analyze these dreams because they are warnings and admonitions about the waking world.  But nocturnal ghosts need not be all business, and the emotional effect of a dream is perhaps an even greater incentive to those who wish to recall it.

In one of my favorite passages in Euripides, Admetus voices the desire of many a widow and widower. 

Alcestis, 354-356 (tr. Richmond Lattimore): 

                                                     You could come
to see me in my dreams and comfort me.  For they
who love find a time's sweetness in the visions of the night.

                                                 ἐν δ᾽ ὀνείρασιν
φοιτῶσά μ᾽ εὐφραίνοις ἄν: ἡδὺ γὰρ φίλους
κἀν νυκτὶ λεύσσειν, ὅντιν᾽ ἂν παρῇ χρόνον.
Dreams are a setting where one can experience joys denied by life's cruel circumstances, but always with a catch.  Admetus realizes it is only a time's sweetness before his sense of loss is renewed.  Like all outstanding experiences in life, the best dreams are bittersweet.  The most vivid and enjoyable can be a nightly Pisgah sight, whose conclusion leaves us resentful of the necessity of waking.  Seeming so real, they tempt us to believe they are another reality, another existence outside of our own.  In the daylight we reconstruct this existence only from the fleeting impressions that remain.

Borges said it well in his lecture on nightmares (Seven Nights, tr. Eliot Weinberger):
We don't know exactly what happens in dreams.  It is not impossible that, during dreams we are in heaven, we are in hell.  Perhaps we are someone, the someone whom Shakespeare called "the thing I am"; perhaps we are ourselves, perhaps we are God.  All of this we forget at waking.  We can only examine the memory of a dream, the poor memory.          

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another Post About the Rain

It's been rain--incessant rain, all day, all night in Maryland, and the house is leaky. 
So here's a well worn snippet of Verlaine:  
Il pleure dans mon cœur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre ma maison ?

Embryon Philosophers

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial; or A brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (London: 1669) p. 22:
The particulars of future Beings must needs be dark unto ancient Theories, which Christian Philosophy yet determines but in a Cloud of Opinions.  A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world might handsomly illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Plato's Den, and are but Embryon Philosophers.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, (Act III, Scene i, 70-82):
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Two Extra Notes on Burckhardt

A few more quotes from the introduction to The Greeks and Greek Civilization.

Jacob Burckhardt, ed. Oswynn Murray, trans. Sheila Stern, The Greeks and Greek Civilization (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999) p. xiii:
Politically Burckhardt was a natural conservative, who disliked and despised the new industrialization and the development of the national state: he foresaw in the course of his own lifetime the coming of an age of 'terribles simplificateurs' and demagouges, who would control the masses and bring ruin to Europe.  This pessimistic conservatism is characteristic of a reflective historian, who cultivated irony and distance form the enthusiasms of contemporary nationalist historians.  In so far as he foresaw the development of industrial society toward the totalitarian popular regimes of National Socialism and Marxism, he was of course a prophet out of his time, standing against the tide of history.
And a passage a bit farther down the page, I believe from one of Burckhardt's letters.
But, my dear friend, Freedom and the State have lost nothing in me.  States are not built with men like me; though as long as I live I mean to be kind and sympathetic to my neighbour; I mean to be a good private individual, and affectionate friend, a good spirit; I have some talent in that direction and mean to develop it.  I can do nothing more with society as a whole; my attitude towards it is willy-nilly ironical; the details are my affair...we may all perish, but at least I want to discover the interest for which I am to perish, namely the ancient culture of Europe.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shocking Ugliness, Stupid Hurry, and Slavish Uniformity

J. P. Mahaffy, Rambles & Studies in Greece, Third Edition. (MacMillan and Co., London, 1887), pp. xii-xiii:
But this is a digression into vulgar matters, when I had merely intended to inform the reader what intellectual novelties he would find in revisiting Athens.  For nothing is more slavish in modern travel than the inability the student feels, for want of time in long journeys, or want of control over his conveyance, to stop and examine something which strikes him beside his path.  And that is the main reason why Oriental -- and as yet Greek -- traveling is the best and most instructive of all traveling.  You can stop your pony or mule, you can turn aside from the track which is called your road, you are not compelled to catch a train or a steamer at a fixed moment.  When roads and rails have been brought into Greece, hundreds of people will go to see its beauty and its monuments, and will congratulate themselves that the country is at last accessible.  But the real charm will be gone.  There will be no more riding at dawn through orchards of oranges and lemons, with the rich fruit lying on the ground, and the nightingales, that will not end their long hours of song, still out singing from the deep-green gloom the sounds of opening day.  There will be no more watching the glowing east across the silver-grey glitter of dewy meadows; no more wandering along grassy slopes, where the scarlet anemones, all drenched with the draughts of night, are stringing to raise their drooping heads, and open their splendid eyes to meet the sun.  There will be no more watching the serpent and the tortoise, the eagle and the vulture, and all the living things whose ways and habits animate the sunny solitudes of the south.  The Greek people now talk of going to Europe, and coming form Europe, justly too, for Greece is still, as it always was, part of the East.  But the day is coming when enlightened politicians, like Mr. Tricoupi, will insist on introducing, through all the remotest glens, the civilisation of Europe, with all its benefits forsooth, but with all its shocking ugliness, its stupid hurry, and its slavish uniformity.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Paragons of Honesty

Herodotus,  3.72 (tr. Aubrey de Sélincourt)
If a lie is necessary, why not speak it?  We are all after the same
thing, whether we lie or speak the truth:  our own advantage.  Men lie
when they think to profit by deception, and tell the truth for the
same reason – to get something they want, and to be the better trusted
for their honesty.  It is only two different roads to the same goal.
Were there no question of advantage, the honest man would be as likely
to lie as the liar is, and the liar would tell the truth as readily as
the honest man.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Harvest, 1980), pp. 230-1:
And I hope the account I have given is not too misleading.  I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful.  It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan.  In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.  And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Might Makes Wrong or Try And Stop US

As a prelude to some upcoming posts on the perversity of war, I've culled a lovely group of lines from one of today's dispatches
The strike came as Pakistani-U.S. relations are struggling since the unilateral American raid that killed bin Laden in the northwest Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. The continued missile attacks, which Pakistan officially opposes, suggests Washington considers the tactic too valuable to give up.
Though Pakistan objects to the covert, CIA-run missile program, it is believed to have aided it at times. The U.S. rarely acknowledges the program.
The two missiles hit a house Friday in Sheen Warsak village in the South Waziristan tribal area, according to two Pakistani intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
The identities of the dead were not immediately clear. Although U.S. officials insist the vast majority of victims in the strikes are militants, Pakistanis and some human rights activists have said civilians are often caught up in the attacks.
Now to mount the soapbox.

The italics in the above quote are mine, because, to be blunt, that is pretty messed up.  'Please trust our secretive, CIA-run missile program to discern the good foreign people from the bad ones when it launches unilateral missile strikes.  Oh, and if we happen to kill a few innocent folks along the way, don't worry, most of the dead people were militants.'  Whatever gets the winds to blow at Aulis...


Terrorism, it seems to me, is bad because it punishes innocent people for not agreeing with the beliefs of the terrorist.  These innocent people encompass those killed or wounded in an attack, as well as the populace whose psyche bears a residual imprint from the action.  I am certainly not saying that U.S. drone attacks are equivalent to the actions of a suicide bomber in a marketplace, but 'mistakes' (pardon the meiosis) like this just might have similar psychological effects on nations that already distrust us enough. 

It upsets me to see things like al-Megrahi getting a hero's welcome in Tripoli, and I don't consider myself a citizen of the Great Satan.  I understand that there are dangerous, bad people in the world who wouldn't hesitate to kill complete strangers.  I get it.  I just wish my country would exercise more tact and precision--and a lot more respect for life--in its efforts to stop them.  There are enough dead innocent people already. 

Dismount soapbox.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Best Last Exit, or I Want To Die Like Roy

Euripides, Andromache, 100-2 (tr. James Morewood)

Andromache: No mortal should be called happy
before he has died and you see how he passes
his final day and goes below.

χρὴ δ᾽ οὔποτ᾽ εἰπεῖν οὐδέν᾽ ὄλβιον βροτῶν,
πρὶν ἂν θανόντος τὴν τελευταίαν ἴδῃς
ὅπως περάσας ἡμέραν ἥξει κάτω.

The death of Roy Orbison, as recounted by Wikipedia:*
While Orbison determinedly pursued his second chance at stardom, he reacted to his success in constant surprise, confessing "It's very nice to be wanted again, but I still can't quite believe it."[86] He lost some weight to fit his new image and the constant demand of touring, as well as the newer demands of making videos. In November 1988 Mystery Girl was completed and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was rising up the charts. Orbison went to Europe where he was presented with an award and played a show in Antwerp where footage for the video for "You Got It" was filmed. He gave multiple interviews a day in a hectic schedule. A few days later a manager at a club in Boston was concerned that he looked ill, but Orbison played the show to another standing ovation.[87] Finally, exhausted, he returned to his home in Hendersonville to rest for a few days before flying again to London to film two more videos for the Traveling Wilburys. On December 6, 1988, he spent the day flying model airplanes with his sons. After having dinner at his mother's home in Tennessee, Orbison died of a heart attack.[88]

*If this is incorrect in any way, I blame Wikipedia for being inaccurate.