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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from April 1, 2013 - April 30, 2013

Tuesday
Apr302013

The Insoluble Problem

The heat and weight and obscurity of the thunderous sky seemed to be pressing yet more closely on the landscape; the clouds had conquered the sun which, above, in a narrowing clearance, stood up paler than the moon. There was a thrill of thunder in the air, but now no more stirring of wind or breeze; and even the colours of the garden seemed only like richer shades of darkness. But one colour still glowed with a certain dusky vividness; and that was the red hair of the woman of that house, who was standing with a sort of rigidity, staring, with her hands thrust up into her hair. That scene of eclipse, with something deeper in his own doubts about its significance, brought to the surface the memory of haunting and mystical lines; and he found himself murmuring: ‘A secret spot, as savage and enchanted as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted by woman wailing for her demon lover.’ 

What is an insoluble problem? Philosophers – that is to say, wisdom-lovers, not those whose idea of philosophy comprises cigarettes, pretty women, and anarchical manifestoes – will affirm that the grandest problems do not really have any solutions, that is why they have remained both grand and problems. Some, far wiser than any philosopher, will acknowledge that there is only One problem, and that this One is, in fact, no problem at all. We cannot convince everyone of such a view, nor should we: uniformity breeds as much contempt as familiarity. But perhaps, during the long course of a bright summer's eve, we can admit that there do exist puzzles, wonders, and riddles that merit our distraction. And as any Romantic poet might tell you, few bedevilments are of greater charm than the literary mystery. Which brings us to this well-known tale.

Our hero you will know by his cassock, his assistant by his gargantuan shadow. Their assignment will be bland in comparison to what Flambeau would prefer to do, namely track down a notorious jewel thief thought to be amidst a most daring plan. Instead of that adventure, one of mortal danger and little philosophical interest (notorious jewel thieves tend to be kleptomatons), the sleuths are summoned to the Green Dragon, "a certain hotel ... some forty-five miles on the road to a neighbouring cathedral town." As they progress "through a densely wooded but sparsely inhabited landscape, in which inns and all other buildings seemed to grow rarer and rarer," they note that they have arrived at a special time:

The daylight began to take on the character of a stormy twilight even in the heat of noon; and dark purple clouds gathered over dark grey forests. As is common under the lurid quietude of that kind of light, what colour there was in the landscape gained a sort of secretive glow which is not found in objects under the full sunlight; and ragged red leaves or golden or orange fungi seemed to burn with a dark fire of their own.

What happens in "that kind of light"? We may survey various languages for their expressions of dusk and find a collection of doubts and suspicions, half-lit and half-formed, although the old Latin chestnut inter canem et lupum might still be the finest (I also nurture a personal fondness for "gloaming"). But we are only at dusk morally – the cloak of shadows conspiring in crime time  not physically. It is then perhaps appropriate that, after meeting the red-haired "woman of the house," as mentioned in the quote that begins this review, they next encounter someone out of the corner of their joint memory:

Both Flambeau and Father Brown felt that they had hardly ever clapped eyes on a man who was so difficult to place. He was not what is called a gentleman; yet he had something of the dusty refinement of a scholar; there was something faintly disreputable or déclassé about him; and yet the smell of him was rather bookish than Bohemian. He was thin and pale, with a pointed nose and a dark pointed beard; his brow was bald, but his hair behind long and lank and stringy; and the expression of his eyes was almost entirely masked by a pair of blue spectacles. Father Brown felt that he had met something of the sort somewhere, and a long time ago; but he could no longer put a name to it. The lumber he sat among was largely literary lumber; especially bundles of seventeenth-century pamphlets.

A ghost, or simply another shadow? A wolf or a dog? O, the questions we could ask ourselves were it not for the corpse hanging on the tree outside, the beloved old man of the house (and grandfather of the woman of the house), the "sacrilege" of having a body already dead before it is hanged and impaled! You will be relieved to learn, dear reader, that this crime sounds as putrid to our detectives as a faint whiff of it smells to us. More importantly, it also sounds ridiculous and trivial (earlier, "the telephone seemed to be possessed of a demon of triviality"), an aspect explained in satisfactory detail as the sun finally sets, both morally and physically, on the Green Dragon inn.

Those who love wisdom should undoubtedly love Chesterton: in the English language at least, no author is as consistently and profoundly correct. And while one need not adhere to his system of beliefs to appreciate the breadth of his genius, a fair and open mind regardless of creed will be necessary. What Father Brown has given literature cannot be quantified simply because he, this fictive monk, has never sought renown or repute. He would have been more than happy to submit the solution on a small and anonymous leaflet, which in our skeptical times might recur to the image of a fortune cookie (those who seek guidance inside a vanilla cracker will likely not have made it this far down the page). But what then of the very scenic scene of the crime itself?

The garden bed was dotted with tulips that looked like drops of dark blood, and some of which one might have sworn were truly black; and the line ended appropriately with a tulip tree, which Father Brown was disposed, if partly by some confused memory, to identify with what is commonly called the Judas tree. What assisted the association was the fact that there was hanging from one of the branches, like a dried fruit, the dry, thin body of an old man, with a long beard that wagged grotesquely in the wind. There lay on it something more than the horror of darkness, the horror of sunlight; for the fitful sun painted tree and man in gay colours like a stage property.

We may dread the casualness of such an image, even if experience has taught us not to mock death in its endless manifestations. Yet blood-like tulips bespeak an alternative to our expectations, even if experience has taught us not to mock flowers, blood-like or otherwise. And who or what, then, is Tiger Tyrone? O powerful love that, in some respects, makes a beast a man, in some other, a man a beast.  

Saturday
Apr272013

Blok, "Так. Буря этих лет прошла"

A work ("So now the storm of these wild years is through") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

So now the storm of these wild years is through;   
Here trudg'd the peasant's furrow, black and grey.  
Above me would my senses chance to stray,
Where I might hear the vernal wings anew ... 

O Spring, with whispers you bid me to rise,  
Words horrible and painful, yet so light: 
Gorged on sweet prayer, I will then delight 
To kiss your fabric, unseen to all eyes.   

Too rapidly my lonely heart does beat, 
With too much youth is my old blood endowed, 
When from behind a gently feathered cloud, 
My very first love glides on sprightly feet ... 

Forget this fearful world, my love, forget;
Lift forth your wings and to our place now home;
At that great feast I did not eat alone!  
And you I never, never shall forget!    

Monday
Apr222013

Borges, "Sobre los clásicos"

A short essay ("On the classics") by this Argentine.  You can read the original here.

Few disciplines could be of greater interest than etymology; this is owing to the unforeseeable transformation, over the long course of time, of a word's original meaning.  Given such transformations, which may border on the paradoxical, a word's origin is of little or no value in the clarification of a concept.  Knowing that, in Latin, "calculus" means a small stone, and that the Pythagoreans used such stones before the invention of numbers, does not allow us to master the mysteries of algebra.  To learn that a "hypocrite" is an actor and a "person" a mask is hardly a valuable tool for the study of ethics.  Similarly, to understand our current designation of a "classic," it is of no utility that this adjective comes from the Latin classis, a fleet, which later would assume the meaning of order.  (Let us recall in passing the analogous information contained in the term "ship-shape.")  

So what is now a "classic" book?  Within arm's reach I have the definitions furnished by Eliot, Arnold, and Sainte-Beuve, undoubtedly reasonable and luminous, and I would be grateful to concur with these illustrious authors, but I did not consult them.  I am now sixty-odd years old; at my age, coincidences or novelties matter less than what one believes to be true.  Therefore I will limit myself to my own thoughts on the subject.

My first stimulus was A History of Chinese Literature (1901) by Herbert Allen Giles.  In his second chapter I read that one of the five canonical texts which Confucius edited was The Book of Changes or I Ching, composed of sixty-four hexagrams which exhaust possible combinations of six whole or partial lines.  One of the schemes, for example, consists of two whole lines, one partial line, and three whole lines, laid out vertically.  A prehistoric emperor had discovered them in the carapace of one of the sacred turtles.  Leibniz thought he detected a binary system of numeration in the hexagrams; others saw an enigmatic philosophy; still others, like Wilhelm, a tool for the divination of the future since the sixty-four figures correspond to the sixty-four phases of any undertaking or process; and while others espied the vocabulary of a particular tribe, some gazed upon a calendar.  I remember now that Xul Solar used to reconstruct this text with matches and toothpicks.  For foreigners The Book of Changes risks seeming like a mere chinoiserie; yet thousands of generations of very educated men have read it and referred to it with devotion, and will continue to read it.  Confucius told his disciples that if destiny granted him a hundred more years of life, he would consecrate half of it to its study and its commentaries or outgrowths.  

Quite deliberately I chose a simple example, a reading which requires an act of faith.  I arrive now at my thesis.  A classic book is that which a nation or a group of nations – or time itself in its length – has decided to read as if everything in its pages were deliberate, fatidic, as profound as the cosmos, and capable of endless interpretations.  Predictably, these decisions vary.  For Germans and Austrians Faust is a work of genius; for others, one of the most famous forms of tedium, such as Milton's second Paradise, or the work of Rabelais.  Works like The Book of Job, The Divine Comedy, and Macbeth (and, for me, some of the sagas of the North) promise long immortality.  Yet we do not know the future, apart from knowing that it will be different from the present.  A preference may well be a superstition.

I do not have the vocation of an iconoclast.  Until the age of thirty I believed, under the influence of Macedonio Fernández, that beauty was the privilege of very few authors; now I know that it is common, lurking even in the casual pages of the mediocre or the conversations of the street.  In this way, my ignorance of Malaysian and Hungarian literature is perfect; yet I am sure that if time were to grant me the chance to study these traditions, I would find in them everything the mind requires to nourish itself.  Linguistic barriers do not intervene as much as political and geographic ones.  Burns is a classic in Scotland; South of the River Tweed, however, he is of less interest than Dunbar or Stevenson.  In short, the glory of a poet depends on the excitement or apathy of the generations of anonymous men who put him to the test in the solitude of their libraries.    

Literature may evoke eternal emotions, yet how it does so, even without intention, must constantly vary for it not to lose its virtue.  These means persist to the extent that they are recognized by the reader.  Hence it is dangerous to confirm the existence of classic works, or their eternity as such.

Each of us loses faith in his art and his artifices.  I, who have resigned myself to doubting the indefinite persistence of Voltaire or Shakespeare, believe (this evening, on one of the last days of 1965) in that of Schopenhauer and Berkeley.

A classic book is not a book (I repeat) which necessarily possesses these or some other qualities; it is a book which generations of men, driven by various reasons, read with that same initial fervor and that same mysterious loyalty.

Saturday
Apr132013

Petrarch, "S'io credesse per morte essere scarco"

A work ("If I believed through death myself released") by this Italian poet.  You can read the original here

If I believed through death myself released, 
Of loving thoughts which bind me to this earth, 
Already placed would be my hands inert,
Each dull limb burdenless beneath the peat;   

But since I fear a passageway would bend
'Twixt crying eyes, from war to bloody war,  
So I remain, alas, behind a door,  
Amidst a serried path of doubtful end.   

Enough time's laps'd for final bowstrings drawn  
In arrows merciless, tint'd in their aim
With others' blood, nay bathed, my whole to breach;  

Yet deafest Love I still cannot beseech,
Who left me color'd in his painted frame,  
Forgetful now to call me to his pawn.  

Wednesday
Apr032013

Goethe, "Abschied"

A work ("Farewell") by this German man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Unsated, I a thousand kisses nurse; 
Upon the thousandth and one must we part.
O deepest pain, O separation's curse, 
'Twas this dark shore from which I rent my heart.

Blue mountains, hillocks, rivers, huts behold!
Horizons stretch in joy, a treasure pure; 
For my eyes then a feast remained too sure: 
Let darkness clear and distant truth unfold.

At length, as seas our vista ring and close, 
Most warm desire retakes my wretched heart; 
And, peevish, I anew seek what I lost. 

As if the heavens shone, yet at no cost 
To me, for missed I would have not one part, 
As if all once enjoyed again arose.