Sunday, October 28, 2012

1,001 Nights- Part 3

It seems clear to me that these stories were not all written by the same person.  In the final four stories in this collection two are at nearly opposite poles of quality from the others.

I should have mentioned earlier that this volume is selections from the 1,001 Nights, not the entire series of stories.  The full set usually comes in several volumes.

We start with "The City of Brass" which is another story with which I had no prior familiarity.  My verdict is that the stories worth reading in this collection are the commonly known stories and "The Humpback."  Upon reflection after completing the volume, I assume the book falling out of vogue may have a good deal to do with the racial and religious elements that harken back to a less enlightened time.  Indeed, this may be best for young readers with the maturity, intelligence, and cultural awareness to be able to properly understand books like Uncle Remus or Babar.  I would argue that these are valuable reading experiences in spite of (and occasionally because of) the unenlightened times in which they were written.  I am decidedly against the suppression of any book in any context and for any reason.

"The City of Brass" did contain another Homeric parallel (or appropriation perhaps) with the appearance of the Sirens in everything but name.  Otherwise, it is a story of a man who finds people who free Jinn ("Genies" might be the more familiar term although they bear little resemblance to pop culture's approximation of the mythical beings.  More on that later.) confined to bottles by Suleyman (That's Solomon to those of us in Judeo-Christian circles.  And there is a whole load of Solomon fan fiction concerning how he dealt with Jinn).  The man decides that he wants to gather similar bottles and is directed to The City of Brass.  There is an adventure tale of getting to the city and then pages upon pages of the man reading a cautionary inscription on the tomb of someone, then tearing his beard, rending his clothes, and crying until he is insensible.  Eventually they find the cache of Jinn bottles.

"Jullanar of the Sea" seemed to have echoes of  Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" but with a happier ending.  I don't really have much to say about it except that I fully expect to die without ever having read it again.

We end with two of the most famous stories from the series.  The first is "Ala-Ed-Din and the Wonderful Lamp."  This was, in my humble opinion, the best story in the whole series.  It differs significantly from the Western pop culture re-tellings.  There are two Moorish wizards and a Wezir as the antagonists.  The princess is named Bedr-el-Budur.  The body count is WAY higher than the Disney version.  But mainly I thought it was simply the best told story in the book.  I was riveted.

"'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" was, likewise, a ripping yarn, albeit a short one (the shortest in the collection I believe).  I was a little surprised to find that 'Ali Baba's maidservant is the true hero of the story.  In fact, one of the wonderful surprises of the whole collection was that the role of women was not nearly as unenlightened as I might have expected. 

As a quick ending note, this particular volume of the Harvard Classics I found to be stingy with the footnotes.  However, there was an interesting suggestion at the beginning of this last story that 'Ali Baba was, in fact, a retelling of a Germanic myth.  Their evidence is in the phrase "Open, Simsim" which in Arabic would be the more familiar "sesame," but in the old German would read more like "Open, Mountain!"  Which would make more contextual sense as that is precisely what they are asking when they walk up to the rock wall and ask it to open.  

And now I have another volume of myth and folklore ahead of me!

Friday, October 26, 2012

1,001 Nights- Part 2

This section contained two stories that I was entirely unfamiliar with, one which I enjoyed, the other in which I had moments of enjoyment.  I meant to stop and comment there, but continued reading through a story that I had heard of.

"The Humpback" was another story in which stories were told within stories to the point that every time they would emerge to the original narrative I would think "Oh yeah, right, the humpback thing."  It's a story about a humpback who is cruelly murdered, the body then passed off to someone else who thinks they accidentally killed him, and then passed off to another person, and so on.  The whole line of presumed murderers are hauled before the Sultan who seems delighted by the odd tale and says, "Who has ever heard a story so strange?"  One of the presumed murderers is innocent of knowledge of rhetorical questions and tells a strange tale. The Sultan does not think it more wonderful than the tale of the humpback and condemns them all to die.  Then they each take a stab at telling a more wonderful tale.  The barber in the final portion of the tale brings Sancho Panza to mind so tangibly that it suggests Cervantes was familiar with the story.  The story ends far more happily than I ever could have imagined the story ending, save for the fact that the people who initially forced food down the humpback's throat never receive their comeuppance. 

In that story, we get a taste of some of the cultural differences.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all appear within the tale.  There is also this culture of criminal justice that seems, at once, horrible and effective.  For example, thieves who are caught get their right hands cut off.  This, essentially, dooms them to be social outcasts in the extreme (in essence, they will be universally shunned, most likely to the point of one form of death or another).  Which is good if you want a crime-free society, bad if there is ever occasion for someone to be wrongfully accused or misunderstood.  And guess what!

"Nur-Ed-Din and Enis-El-Jelis" was, for me, the weakest offering in the collection thus far.  The only point of interest for me was the secret lair which reminded me very much of the garden of Hassan-i Sabbah.  Other than that I am not sure why Dr. Eliot included this piece.

You may be familiar with "Es-Sindibad of the Sea" in other incarnations more commonly known as Sinbad the Sailor.  Like so many classics that have suffered multiple reinterpretations for popular general consumption, I found it to be both familiar and alien.  This is not a cutesy Popeye cartoon.  I like how the fantastical is presented in such a matter of fact manner in all of these stories.  I also like how the fantastical is not mere brain candy but pushes the narrative forward.  I was taken aback at the appearance of the cyclops story from The Odyssey.  It isn't exact, but it is very close to the same story, although the racial undertones may be problematic to modern Western eyes.

I audibly gasped when Sindibad is dropped into the pit with his dead wife, and specifically at how he sustains his life in the pit.  I think one of the compelling elements of 1,001 Nights is that it presents a world both whimsical and dark, often mingled in the same moments.  I am a little surprised that this book is not more widely read in our time as we seem to love being attracted and repulsed at the same time.

In the next section, I have two more stories I've never heard of and two I have.  Of the two I have heard of, if they resemble the versions I grew up knowing, the first deals with a door that requires a secret word to open, the second deals with a magic lamp.

More soon.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Chrimbus Wish List P.S.

I have two additional items to add to my wish list as I've just discovered the Oxford Classics website.  The first is the major works of St. Anselm, he who satisfactorily proved the existence of God to the point where it even stumbled Bertrand Russell for a bit, many centuries later.

The second comes from the realization that I will most likely be hitting Dante's Divine Comedy around the top of next year if my current progress in my reading project continues at this pace.  I will need a copy of The Divine Comedy and this seems to be the one to get.  The translation fits my criteria and there seem to be valuable notes involved.

And I promised myself I would stop there so I wouldn't get grabby.  Although I will add that you could pretty much throw darts at the Oxford University Press catalog and find something I would adore.  It occurs to me that I'm like that with most book catalogs.

Chrimbus Wish List for 2012

I thought I might post a Christmas wish list as "shopping season" is around the corner and "avoiding the crowds shopping season" is upon us.

My first entry is one that I meant to purchase for myself as soon as it was released, but its release date coincided with, as coincidence would have it, a tight belt moment, so I still do not own it.  It is a book in which Tim Gunn talks about common items in one's wardrobe and illuminates the history of the garment.

I should very much like to read the autobiography of my favorite president.

I would like to have this specific edition of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

And, I know I've mentioned this before, but I still would very much like to own a copy of Robert Burton's treatise on the humors.  No home would be complete without it:

As for non-book items, clothing is always welcome.  I could use slacks, a few more dress shirts, always sweaters (I could stand to have a few more cardigans), and sports coats.  I run around the off-the-rack designation of Large at this point for upper body wear and pants are around a 34-36 inch waist with around a 30-31 inch leg.  Also, of course, elegant and traditional ties are always blissfully well received.  You might look here: and on that note, for stocking stuffers, I am in desparate need of tie tacks.  I only have one and it is both falling apart and only goes with blue.  Also, speaking of stockings, socks are also always welcome, preferably in argyle.  I am also in need of mid-dress black dress shoes.  I have a pair that are a little too dressy for everyday use and my other black shoes are on the wrong side of manky after years of wear.  I wear a size 10 in US sizes (and may I say, why can't the world get along at least enough to have universal shoe sizes?  Are we really that dreadful of a species?  We will never get to Gene Roddenberry utopianism while we still have to refer to esoteric charts every time we want a European shoe!)

For food items, we could stand to have some better teaware:

Otherwise, there is always the Unemployed Philosopher's Guild, the more tasteful sections of Design Toscano, and the Ancient Sculpture Gallery (my house is still inexplicably without a bust of Socrates).

So, there you go.  A few suggestions for those inclined to shower me with their largesse. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Let's All Write a Cento!

The cento comes from the Latin word for "patchwork."  As you may well guess from this bit of trivia, the cento is a poetic form in which a poem is assembled entirely from lines from other poems.  You may think that sounds easy, like you don't actually have to write anything at all.  Boy oh boy, would you be wrong!

I found the cento be a painstaking process, albeit also a highly rewarding one.

Here, as an example of the form, is a humorous cento from Groucho Marx.

Groucho Marx - Poem From The Play "Animal Crackers"

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The inspiration from the one I've written here came from, well, Laurie actually.  I was explaining the form to her and explaining how Mr. Padgett tells, in our text, of a cento that was written about the life of Christ but was written entirely from lines from Homer who lived 900 years before Christ.  Laurie suggested what I ended up composing below which is a poem about Christ composed entirely of lines from the Psalms.  The words are entirely David's, assembled by me with a few adjustments to punctuation (and capitalization) where I deemed appropriate for my purposes.  I used the Geneva Bible, which is the one I mainly use for my at home study (partly because I find it to be one of the more beautiful translations, but mainly because of the footnotes!  The footnotes in the Geneva Bible are some of the best I know of.)

“I am like a pelican of the wilderness.
“The Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.  Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for thy possession. The Lord sware, and will not repent, thou are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.  I have made a covenant with my chosen: I have sworn to David my servant, thy seed will I stablish forever, and set up thy throne from generation to generation.
“Then said I, ‘Lo, I come: for in the roll of the book it is written of me.’
“Thou didst draw me out of the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.
“He that hath innocent hands, and a pure heart; which hath not lifted up his mind unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully.
“I wept and my soul fasted.”
There shall none evil come unto thee, for He shall give Angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways. “And if he come to see me, he speaketh lies.”
The dragon shalt thou tread under feet.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied; they that seek after the Lord, shall praise Him; your heart shall live forever.
“Cruel witnesses did rise up: they asked of me things that I knew not; They that hate me without a cause.
“The kings of the earth band themselves, and the Princes are assembled together against the Lord, against His Christ.
“Mine enemies speak evil of me, saying, ‘When shall He die, and His name perish?’  For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me.
“Yea, my familiar friend, whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up the heel against me.
“I am like water poured out.
“Thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
“They pierced mine hands and my feet.
“They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.”
“He shall cry unto me, ‘Thou art my Father, my God.  My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”
“Mine eyes fail, while I wait for my God,
“For they gave me gall in my meat, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
“I am weary of crying: my throat is dry.” He keepth all his bones: not one of them is broken.
“Pour out thine anger. This also shall please the Lord better than a young bullock that hath horns and hoofs.
“Raise me up: so shall I reward them.
“He restoreth my soul. For thou wilt not leave my soul in the grave: neither wilt thou suffer thine holy One to see corruption.
“He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon the rock, and ordered my goings.
“The stone which the builders refused, is the head of the corner.”
He shall come down like the rain upon the mown grass, and as the showers that water the earth.
Then shall he judge thy people in righteousness, and thy poor with equity. “I make thine enemies thy footstool.”
His enemies shall lick the dust.
His name shall be forever; His name shall endure as long as the Sun: all nations shall bless Him, and be blessed in Him.
Blessed are all that trust in Him.
I have declared thy truth and thy salvation.
I will declare thy Name unto my brethren.
So be it, even, so be it. Here ends the prayers of David.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

1,001 Nights- Part 1

I remember as a boy reading Frankenstein for the first time and marveling at the story within a story with, at some points, other stories told within that one.  I have witnessed the stream and now I see the lake from which it flows.  1,001 Nights contains these great labyrinthine narratives within narratives.  I almost wanted to say that I found it remarkably sophisticated for a book of its vintage, but on second thought, I'm at a loss as to why I persist in tending toward that point of view.  If anything, the ancients, in my experience, at least matched if not exceeded our sophistication.  I repent of my chronocentrism.

They are all extraordinarily well told stories.  The experience is reminding me of the joy I had as a child reading Carl Barks comic books.  They are ripping yarns and I haven't even hit any of the ones I had heard of before (save, of course, for Scheherazade herself).  It is the sort of thing I imagine reading, devouring, and loving as a young man (in spite of, or perhaps more honestly because of the more prurient bits.  The Harvard Classics translation is hilariously modest in those bits.  "...and immediately a black slave came to her, and embraced her; she doing the like.  So also did the other slaves and the women; and all of them continued revelling together until the close of the day."  Sort of the translation equivalent of being invited to your first college party and bringing cake and paper hats.  Which, if I understand the Lane translation correctly, is precisely what he had in mind.  And so we are left to have fun filling in the blanks for ourselves... or getting a better translation I suppose, although the Harvard has specific pieces represented from the much larger work.  And, frankly, I didn't feel up to finding a better translation and then recreating Dr. Eliot's selection in my own reading.  I thought about going with the Lyons translation which comes highly recommended and the slipcased edition looks fabulous!  I'm afraid I don't have that kind of disposable spondulicks).

Why is this book included in this series?  Along with the aforementioned masterful story structures, it is a book that largely painted the West's image of the Middle East for the previous three centuries, which is not to mention the extreme cultural importance of this book in its own region of origin.  Put simply, as far as books of cultural significance go, this is one of the top in world history.

In short, I am enjoying it a great deal.  There is no chore in reading this piece whatsoever.  I am also learning a great deal, partly in what it has contributed to the culture, and partly as an architect paying a visit to a great cathedral.

So far I have made it through The Merchant and the Jinni, The Fisherman, The Porter and The Ladies of Baghdad, and am in the story of the Humpback (which reads like a Tom Waits song.)  I will deal more on the matter of the tales in my next post.  For now, here is Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade:

 More soon.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Lives of Donne and Herbert

I took the photograph above when I was in London studying theater in 1999.  It is St. Paul's Cathedral.  The whole time in England I felt the hallowed weight of history at every turn, as if the land I had trod in my life until that point was somehow a newer creation.  Which, largely, I suppose it is.

On top of that, I was so often struck by the magnificence around me.  St. Paul was, as it were, the apotheosis of this feeling.  When I walked in for the first time, tears streamed unbidden from my eyes.

In the crypt below were some names that, also, impressed history upon me.  At the time I think I was more impressed to be in the presence of the remains of Arthur Sullivan, but also present were those of John Donne.

This volume of the Harvard Classics rounds out with biographical sketches of two famous Anglicans, both written by Izaak Walton.  Walton was he who wrote The Complete Angler, a fishing book which, along with The Pilgrim's Progress, is one of the most printed books ever, although I am sure the spiritual aspect of this material is a more likely connection in regards to its inclusion in this volume.  Another unlikely connection is that Ralph Vaughan Williams also set works by George Herbert to music.

Walton writes glowingly of both Donne and Herbert.  I would almost say to a fault, but I found it refreshing, in this jaded age, to read such glowing recommendations of men whom one would do well to imitate.

I had previously read some of the poetry of Donne.  I am not sure I've ever read anything penned by George Herbert.  I imagine that they will show up in the volumes of English poetry.

John Donne was, among other things, the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral (which is what lead me to dig out my old photo albums by the light of the scanner for this post).  He reluctantly took holy orders at the urging of King James.  Yeah, let that sink in for a moment.

I think what I found most inspiring was the man's perseverance in the face of grave illnesses, which seemed to compose the larger portion of his life.  More on that in a moment.  I was also struck by the fact that there is no volume of sermons in the entire Harvard Classics series.  At the end of Walton's short biography, the bar was pretty high for George Herbert.  He excelled.

Herbert's mother (a force of nature by herself!) knew John Donne.  George Herbert is described at some length as a highly intelligent man, but also as a strikingly earnest Christian.  He was indefatigable in his duties as a priest.  At one point he wrote to his wife that he did not fear death, but he feared sickness, as sickness would prevent him from performing the Lord's work.  These are my exact sentiments.  I knew at this point that George Herbert and I were going to be great friends.  And his actions backed up his sentiment as he did become quite ill with consumption.  Walton describes Herbert continuing sermons and daily prayers in the chapel by his home well into the late period of his illness, to the point where one day his second had to come up to the pulpit, as Herbert was praying while in the act of dying, and tell Herbert to go lay down, which Herbert would only do after being assured that his second would complete the prayers.

The too solid cares of this world which, to most of us, are such frightening apparitions, were seen by these two men as mere shadow plays in the light of the Real Work.  Their eyes were fixed upon their commission and upon the grace of God.  I dare pray I could have such grace.

When we look to the great cloud of witness, we look for inspiration for the race that we have left to complete.  In spite of my love of previous volumes in this series, this very well may have been the most personally profitable book in the series thus far.  It is to the supreme credit of Mr. Walton (and I fancy he would be delighted to know this) that I will now read Donne and Herbert with great savor for the rest of my days.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Let's All Write a Canzone!

The Canzone is the first form covered in Ron Padgett's book which left me with some questions as to how I would actually write one of the blasted things.  He states that it is a complex form and a musical form.  He says that they often deal with the subjects of beauty, love, philosophy, or metaphysics.  He tells us that Dante wrote La Vita Nuova, a book about his love for Beatrice, in the style (and includes an example).  He concludes by saying:
"To write a canzone these days, you must find a complicated and challenging form that you think is right for answering questions of love, beauty, and why we exist.  Then set the poem to music, and do it in a sweet new style."
None of which really illustrated to me how to write in this style.  Attempts to learn more online only muddied the waters.

So, I decided to write a love song to my wife, cobbling together bits of recurring songs in our marriage, bits of literature, and our life together...  To the tune of 'Lady of Spain!'

Dulcinea, woman of virtue,
I never will desert you.
I'll see to it nothing will hurt you.
My cara mia, mine!

We really got it together, didn't we?
I'd travel through Hell just to be with thee.
I've married my ideal to be with me.
Your kiss spins my head just like wine.

Your hand on my brow gives me fevers.
I've left all behind just to cleave to her.
I pray I may never grieve her,
My Lady from Hawthorne and Vine!

Perhaps not the most complicated form, but three rhymes are harder than two!  I promise to be more serious in the next one.

As a bonus, here's an all banjo band playing 'El Cumbanchero' and 'Lady of Spain':