Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Guardian is not reporting...


The Guardian is not reporting that the London Transport Museum conducted a private tour of the disused Aldwych Tube Station to a small group of scholars from the University of Southampton, Southampton, UK and Miskatonic University, Arkham, Massachusetts, USA on Saturday, November 22, 2014.  Anonymous sources reported that during the tour a small aluminum case was found.  No further information has yet been released.  Expect an update on Monday, November 24 at 4:00 PM GMT.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

As the 20th Century flies away from us

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “The Passenger” there is a wonderful cinematographic moment as Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson are driving through a forest in a convertible car.  She turns around in the passenger’s seat and then we simply watch the forest receding into the distance.  It’s a view  few, save perhaps unruly children have.  In the context of the film it is linked metaphorically to a  recession of experience, memory and identity.

We’re 14 years into the 21st century and the 20th is now receding away from us like that forest in Antonioni’s film.  The daunting task of how to understand, appreciate and learn from it remain, as it always will, but, because of its proximity, the imperative to do so is perhaps as strong now as it ever will be.

Fiction can be a particularly powerful instrument for such endeavors.  For example, anyone trying to understand European history of the early nineteenth century is supremely lucky:  there is Tolstoy and War and Peace.  Sure, it’s work, particularly for the casual reader in translation, but the immense rewards are so disproportionate.  It remains prima facie evidence of the towering value of reading “difficult” books, a pursuit perhaps less appreciated than it once was, and not unfairly.  The last part of the 20th century particularly suffered from innumerable works of questionable value which were contrived to be difficult but offered little in return.

A few books, many neglected, stand out for me as supremely useful for glimpsing the 20th century as it was lived.  Some are difficult, some are easy, many are rarely read.  Some I encountered as a child in my grandmother’s small library.  Others I’ve encountered quite recently.  Nearly all are memoirs.

The first is Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  The book remains as controversial now as when it first appeared.  As of late it seems particularly popular to denigrate it on the grounds of historical accuracy or for T. E. Lawrence’s presumed heroic self-portrayal.  I’ve even seen it categorized as fiction.  It is not.  It is clearly and unambiguously a memoir and Lawrence is nothing if not self-effacing and often very funny.  It is a difficult book.   It necessarily portrays a vast set of characters and it takes place in a rich and exotic geography entirely foreign to most English readers.  But it is the memoir of an intense, intelligent, supremely perceptive man at a place and time supremely important to subsequent history and current world events.  As proof, consider these two very different examples.  In chapter 2, Lawrence surveys the history of the Arabian Peninsula and forecasts its likely future history.  He was writing in the early 1920s yet he accurately, and sadly, predicts what did happen in the next seventy years.  In contrast of scale and immediacy, here is Lawrence writing of the experience of riding a camel in the desert,

“I seemed at last approaching the insensibility which had always been beyond my reach: but a delectable land: for one born so slug-tissued that nothing this side fainting would let his spirit free. Now I found myself dividing into parts. There was one which went on riding wisely, sparing or helping every pace of the wearied camel. Another hovering above and to the right bent down curiously, and asked what the flesh was doing. The flesh gave no answer, for, indeed, it was conscious only of a ruling impulse to keep on and on; but a third garrulous one talked and wondered, critical of the body's self-inflicted labour, and contemptuous of the reason for effort.”

At once the physical experience is visceral, metaphysical and psychological.  At so many levels you are along for the ride.

Here is another.  Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  He is known, of course, for “The Little Prince,” but the former is by far the much more important work in this context.  Human piloted aviation remains one of the signal and romantic achievements of the 20th century, so much so that even now, in the face of contrary evidence, space flight is portrayed as being like the dogfights of World War II fighter pilots.  “Wind, Sand and Stars,” like “Seven Pillars” captures not only the visceral exhilaration of flight, but the psychology and philosophical aspirations it created in those  few, brave adventurers.  One reads “Wind, Sand, and Stars” to experience not only the feeling and vision of pilots surmounting the Andes or flying across the sands of North Africa at night in fragile single engine airplanes but their psychology, and optimistic humanism as well.  There was a time when reading St. Ex. Was as much a part of learning to fly as learning the radio alphabet.

A very easy, and popular, read is Hemingway’s A moveable Feast, his loving memoir of life in Paris in the 1930s.  Woody Allen’s enjoyable film “Midnight in Paris,” can be seen as a paean to Hemingway’s memoir which is simply more fun if only because you’re in 1930’s Paris for the duration.  Here’s a treat:  order a café au lait at the Café Les Deux Magots or at the Café de Flore on Blvd. Saint-Germain on a weekday April Morning and read a couple of chapters.  You may find you’ll never forget the day, the weather, the people, or your particular thoughts that morning.

Two memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, the World War I poet, are unfairly neglected and probably rarely read.  Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer are a discordant pair that suggest questions that are disturbingly pertinent to the beginning of the 21st century.  The first gently eases you into the cares and interests of Edwardian country life; the second matter-of-factly places you in the overwhelming horror of infinite trench warfare.

One unifying aspect of all the books I’ve mentioned is the role of the writer and narrator.  In each, the author not only aspires to literary excellence, he also is an active participant in the events he narrates. He seeks to shape those events and consequent adventures, and feels a moral or aesthetic imperative to do so.  It is a rare gift of insight from a difficult, often seemingly incomprehensible century.  The words of Dylan Thomas come to mind:

Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Bear and Coyote - A Story


In the 1890s Charles Lummis lived among the Isleta Puebloan Indians of New Mexico.  He was a stranger and suspect but they allowed him to sit with them in the evenings as they retold stories around a small fire in one of the close adobe homes of the complex.  They were careful to let him observe only certain parts of their lives.  They were careful to let him hear only some of their stories.  This is one of those stories told a different way.

One spring, Bear, black and sleek after his winter rest, sat on his haunches on a ridge at the base of the Manzanita Mountains in the Juniper and Pinyon Pine shadows.  Below him he could see a man, one of the Isleta, diligently plowing the pale earth for the spring planting.  Bear watched for a long time.   The man worked hard for a long time.   Bear knew the man couldn’t see him because he was careful to shift his place so that he never appeared to be anything more than the Juniper tree’s shadow.  Further off, Bear could see the winding path of the Rio Grande River.

In the late afternoon, Bear left his prospect and went  to visit Coyote, who was an acquaintance.  Coyote, his wife and his pups, lived in a remote canyon well situated for his foraging expeditions.  Spring was one of the few good times of year for them.  Many creatures that barely survived the cold, wind and snow of the New Mexico winter died then or were so weak that they could be preyed upon by Coyote and his family.  They were busy.

The two predators greeted each other warily.

“I’ve been considering, Friend Coyote,” Bear said.  “I think we should work together and plant a field.”

Coyote yipped with amusement.  “Whatever for?”

“So that like the Isleta man we will have food in the fall and winter.”

Coyote quickly considered the idea.  He recalled all too clearly winter’s stab of hunger, the sorrow of not being able to provide for his new pups.

“And,” Bear added, “so that there will be no difficulty between us.  I propose we agree now upon how we will share the harvest.  I suggest you take everything that grows above the ground and I will take everything below.”

“What would we grow?”


All the hot summer long Bear and Coyote nurtured their field.  The rain came easily in the early part of the year and soon their field was filled with the luxuriant leaves of the plants.  Later in the summer it was very dry, the leaves wilted and the rain came less often but that was perfect for potatoes.  When the frost came and it was time for harvest, the plants and leaves shriveled and became nothing more than a black tracing over the pale ground.   But underneath were fine, rich, delicious globes.

“My portion of the harvest is useless,” Coyote observed with sorrow.  He had expected so much, particularly in the spring when the plants grew so quickly.

“It is unfortunate,” Bear agreed.  “But we made an agreement.”

Coyote was inconsolable.  He could foresee the cold, hungry season before him and his family.

The next spring, Bear came to Coyote’s lair again.  “It was a difficult winter for you, Friend Coyote,” Bear said.

Coyote didn’t answer.  He just watched Bear in his nervous, slightly frantic way.   It came of always having too much to do.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Bear said.  “This summer we should work together and plant a field so that like the Isleta man we will have food in the fall and winter.  And this time, so that there will be no trouble between us, I will take everything above the ground while you will take everything below.”

Coyote stared at Bear but could draw no conclusions from the sagacious face and black eyes.  But it sounded like a good idea.  “What would we grow?”

“I have been studying the Isleta man,” Bear said.  “I think it would be a good year to grow corn.”

So Bear and Coyote worked hard, like the Isleta man, and grew corn.  But in the fall when the stalks yielded many sugary cobs for Bear, there was nothing below the ground but the spider web roots of the plants that were impossible to eat.

“I understand you now, Bear,” Coyote said.  “You will never trick me again.  Ever.  I shall hunt and forage as I always have.”  And he trotted away, back to his family to tell them the terrible news.
Bear went the other way, back to his ridge and sat on his haunches for a long time considering the view in the gentle western, autumnal sun.  And, as the sun was setting he decided he would share his great store of corn with Coyote.  He went once again to Coyote’s lair with the good news.

But Coyote gave his long sorrowful howl and yipped telling Bear to go away that there was nothing he could say that he would listen to.  So, finally, when it was dark, Bear wandered away to sit alone on his ridge and study the stars.

Lummis says that is why, according to the Isleta Pueblo people, Coyote and Bear have been enemies ever since.

Late, one afternoon in August of 2008, my cousin Robert and I were returning with a group from a climb up a nameless mountain in Svalbard.  Our guides, who carried rifles because of the possibility of encountering polar bears, were well below us in part because it was a place bears were never seen and because Robert and I were intentionally hiking slowly to enjoy the afternoon light, the pleasure of walking alone and being last off the arctic mountain.  As we descended a ridge we came across an immense, fresh polar bear print in a patch of black mud that hadn’t been there that morning.  Someone had been watching us.  Someone might have been watching us at that moment.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rhetoric and the Stories of the Ancient Puebloans


Whether you write fiction from moment to moment or cast a large intricate design and then work to it, (I do both, necessarily), it’s an adventure at each stage.  I am currently as work on something that is partly concerned with the ancient culture of the Colorado Plateau.  That has led me to explore the archaeology as well as the ethnographic evidence of the extant puebloan cultures.  One thing that is immediately apparent is how different the stories in their mythologies (and those of Mesoamerica) are from the mythologies and religious stories of western Europe.

If you ask, quite naturally “how are they different?”  then you put me to the test and I can’t make a wholesome answer.  It’s just deeply different:  words, places, things and creatures have different connotations, more interestingly, the structure of the stories are different.  Many seem singularly undramatic to me, but I’m very skeptical of that opinion.  They were composed for oral recitation, even performance.  I expect for their native audience they were and remain very compelling and dramatic.  In an entirely different context, consider “Beowulf.”

So how to understand them?  Lately, I’ve been looking at the structure of the discourse itself, the rhetoric, for clues.  I’ve also been considering examples of how rhetorical figures in western discourse have informed the design and structure of western literature.  What better example to consider than Shakespeare.  Of course, I am far from the first person down that path, which led me to the work of the literary critic Kenneth Burke. However, his particular interest seems to be the development and exploitation of his own meta-rhetorical structure as opposed to exploring the innate function and consequences of the rhetorical devices themselves, from anadiplosis to polysyndetons, of which Shakespeare made such elaborate and virtuoso use.  That's the starting point I need.

To put it another way, my experience as a mathematician and writer continually affirms that we are, at the center, metaphor making and using creatures.  The rhetorical devices that Shakespeare used can be applied metaphorically in developing the structure of a play or story, just as they were used to determine the logic and direction of individual scenes therein.  To my problem, what are the rhetorical structures and devices that are the underpinnings of the ancient Puebloan myths and stories, for example the story of the White House?

Among the many people Al Pacino interviews in his film “Looking for Richard” one, a homeless man, discusses how Shakespeare creates what it is to be human,

          “...when we speak without feeling, we get nothing from our society. We should speak like Shakespeare. We should introduce Shakespeare into our academics. You know why? 'Cause then the kids would have feelings. We have no feelings. That's why it's easy for us to get a gun and shoot each other. We don't feel for each other. If we were taught to feel, we wouldn't be so violent."

How did the stories of the ancient puebloans teach them to be human?
           …each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
-T. S. Eliot