Friday, January 21, 2005

This is just sad

Britney Spears says chocolate is as good as sex.
She says "chocolate for me is just like an orgasm."

(Reported on, Jan. 2002)

Well, either she enjoys chocolate way more than I ever thought possible, or she has a really, really lousy sex life. Don't get me wrong, I like chocolate very much, but to claim that it is as good as an orgasm is surely just plain silly. (I guess it's silly to even comment on a silly quote like this, but never mind.) I mean if this was the case, there'd be gigantic plantations of cocoa trees in every country whose climate could support them, and gigantic hothouses of cocoa trees everywhere else. So, alas, one has to believe the other explanation: even while millions of drooling, horny teenagers wank to a mental image of Britney, her sex life is so miserable that even chocolate can vie with it. This is truly sad.

(Yes, yes, I know. There is another explanation, namely the correct one: i.e. that she didn't really mean what she said in the above statement. But don't be such a spoilsport.)

Another bizarre contribution to the chocolate-and-orgasm connection: "Scientists have now developed chocolates that will not only satisfy the taste buds, but will help men and women experience orgasm without having sex!" (Hindustani Times, Dec 21, 2004.) The same story is also reported here. Given that both of them reference that venerable paragon of journalistic reliability, The Sun, I won't be exactly holding my breath waiting for the magic formula to hit the shelves.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

BOOK: Patricia Duncker, "Seven Tales of Sex and Death"

Patricia Duncker: "Seven Tales of Sex and Death". Picador, 2003. 0330490117 (hc), 0330419544 (pb), 0330490125 (2004 pb). xi + 228 pp.

How could I resist buying a book with such a delightfully lurid title and such an inviting cover illustration? It even includes a short author's note in which she explains that the stories were influenced by French B-movie cliches. Overall, I enjoyed reading them a lot, but they are the sort of writing which often leaves me somewhat frustrated: the stories are really quite short and don't waste much time on introducing the characters, explaining the background, etc. I guess there are people who enjoy this approach to storytelling, but I personally prefer long-winded works where the author takes his/her time to set things up, prepare an exposition, introduce us to the persons and places involved, etc.

The first story, Stalker, is told by the middle-aged wife of a successful archaeologist. A childhood friend of hers, who went on to become a famous TV personality, had been recently brutally murdered by a stalker. Later two of the murdered woman's lesbian lovers get murdered in a similar way. The narrator feels that she is being stalked as well and that she may be the next one to be murdered. However, the story ends without a proper conclusion; we don't really find out if there even really is a stalker, and what is going to happen to the narrator. Surely the harmless Greek boy on the motorbike whom we see approaching in the last paragraph cannot be the murderer in question.

The second story, Sophia Walters Shaw, focuses on a group of professional murderers who masquerade their operation behind a kinky sex agency. The story takes place in a moderately futuristic and dystopian world: the influential people all live in villas in the hills above the city, surrounded by checkpoints (p. 75); smoking is apparently largely forbidden, "only our most powerful clients still had the right to smoke" (p. 78). A volcano is mentioned (p. 77), and the environment is vaguely Mediterranean -- vineyards, cypress trees (p. 84), olive trees, goats (p. 86); perhaps it's meant to be south Italy, although the leading characters all have English names. Anyway, we get to observe the operation of a bizarre sex theatre, witness a couple of professional murders, and it makes for interesting reading as one discovers, little by little, more and more about the world in which the story takes place. However, once again this is really only a sketch, which leaves one wanting for more, especially for more explanation of the background. Who is the politician whom they murder on p. 82; how and why, given the situation, could he have murdered all three of them first (p. 83); who is his frail, young, drugged-up wife whom they rescue from the villa and transport her to the open land of olive trees etc. where her mother will supposedly be sure to find her (p. 84), and why is that area referred to as "the sacred spaces" on the same page? I find it unsatisfying if so many questions are left unanswered; I feel tricked, as if the author just peppered the tale with these little references here and there to puzzle the readers and make them wonder and try to figure things out although they obviously don't have enough information to really get anywhere. Would it be even possible to properly flesh out a reasonably logical and believable fictional world which is consistent with all the little details given in this story? If yes, what would it be like?

The third story, Small Arms, consists largely of two parts. During the years of the Vietnam war, a woman (who is the narrator of the tale) has a long conversation with a disillusioned veteran. He finds it difficult to reintegrate into the U.S. society back home, and is disgusted with the war and particularly with the enthusiasm still expressed for it by much of the civillian population. The next day he gives her a ride on his motorbike and they go their separate ways, never seeing each other again. Many years later, the same woman is on vacation in France with a man whom she doesn't really care that much about but whose lover she became because of his money and his sexual abilities. They are having a dinner in a fairly fancy restaurant and near the end of the dinner, a young man dressed up as a fisherman appears outside the window and opens fire with a shotgun, killing everyone inside except the narrator. There are many interesting passages in this tale, and in the last few pages there is a very nice buildup of tension as we get to see the seemingly innocent fisherman again and again, making his preparations, while the dinner progresses in its accustomed dull way, until the man finally opens fire. However, as a whole, I can't really say that I understand this tale. What is the connection between the two parts, other than the fact that the narrator is the same person? Who is the murderous quasi-fisherman? On p. 123 he is described as wearing some military clothes, but surely he couldn't be the same veteran whom we met in the first part of the tale; he would have been too old by now, while the fisherman is described as a young man. So frustratingly many loose ends again!

The fourth story, Moving, I found utterly baffling. The remaining members of a deeply religious family are moving from their remote house in Wales to some more accessible location. On the way they experience a harsh traffic accident. It transpires that some of the things they were moving were corpses, probably from the cemetery near their former home. There were a few untranslated sentences, in Welsh I presume, which look nice but which I of course couldn't understand at all. All in all I couldn't make heads or tails of this story. The fact that the author again doesn't bother to properly introduce the characters and the relationships among them is of course not of much help either. I guess I should try reading it again and more carefully.

The fifth story, The Strike, is one of my favourites in this book. The narrator is an Englishwoman who intends to spend the summer in a remote village in the French countryside, concentrating on her translating work. During the summer, a sequence of ever larger strikes leads finally to a general strike in which practically all the economic activities are shut down. Most of the inhabitants of the tiny village leave and our narrator is left with a friendly elderly peasant couple; they are quite self-sufficient and not really affected much by the strike. They are quite cut off from all contact with the outside world, and at some point the peasant couple disappears (p. 148; were they evacuated by the authorities who however overlooked our narrator, or were they kidnapped by some sort of looters, given that "they had not betrayed" the narrator (p. 149); but if looters, why had their house not been looted?). She thus finds herself alone, carries on reasonably well, having sufficient stocks of candles and food, which she also augments by gardening; she tries to reach the nearby town by bike but finds everything quite deserted, in some cases deserted apparently in a hurry; tracks of tanks appear on some of the streets; the only person she finds is the corpse of a gendarme. She feels unsafe and returns to her house, spends some more time there, but as it is already autumn and the weather is getting colder, she finally decides to leave and try to reach the coast, from where she intends to try reaching Spain by boat. The story ends with the narrator reaching the completely deserted city of Narbonne, the only person she meets there is a priest in the cathedral, who upon her asking what happened, merely says that there has been a strike.

I really enjoyed the story because it explores this fascinating what-if scenario -- what if something like this general strike made all the machinery of modern civilization shut down? It is fascinating to observe the gradual progress of the shutdown, first the gas runs out (p. 142), then the electricity (p. 145), the baker stops coming (p. 144), the phone goes dead (p. 147), all the people leave, nature and animals in particular start reclaiming the world (p. 150). Of course, as in the other tales in this book, frustratingly many things are still left unexplained. After the narrator is cut off from the rest of the world, we don't learn of the further progress of the strike. What exactly happened? How could such a huge strike go on for so long, and cause such a total shutdown of civilization? How could a town like Narbonne, which after all has 50000 or so inhabitants, be so completely deserted? Where did all the people go? And why did that particular priest stay? And our narrator, did she reach the coast safely, and get from there to Spain, and thence to her homeland? Could this even work, given that the strike seemed to be spreading to other countries (p. 146)?

Anyway, the idea that civilization could collapse just like that is certainly intriguing and I wonder how much it would really take for something like this to happen, and how far it could go. I have always been a fan of autarky, and this story is in a way a warning about one of the dangers of the excessive interdependency of all the parts of today's society. I hope I'll read Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed at some point, it looks like it will be a very interesting read. Incidentally, another very interesting read on the theme of collapse of civilization is Byron's poem Darkness, a very curious vision of a world in which "the bright sun was extinguish'd", everything is enveloped by darkness, and, despite some frantic efforts, human civilization, and indeed all life on Earth, slowly fails.

The sixth story, Paris, is narrated by an Englishwoman living in a village in the south of France, making her living by preparing English-learning programmes for the French radio. Paris is quite a distant place from the point of view of the villagers; they rarely go there and don't necessarily have a very good opinion of it, although they are sometimes somewhat curious about it. One day a Parisian couple comes to the village to spend their holidays in a house they have rented. They are obviously wealthy, young, good-looking, and remarkably fit, spending an enormous amount of time swimming, jogging, and cycling. They wear sunglasses everywhere they go, and their only contact with the villagers is a few greetings as they buy bread in the morning. All in all they are quite mysterious, even a little sinister, and excite a lot of curiosity among the villagers (pp. 167-9). One of the high points of the villagers' life is the boar hunt, and the narrator is invited by her elderly neighbor to accompany him. They stand on the road as a boar is approaching through the woods, the hunter ready with his gun; just then the mysterious couple come along on their bicycles, a moment afterwards the boar jumps on the road, is shot by the hunter, and a number of policemen appear out of the forest, having also just killed the two cyclists. They were apparently dangerous people and not innocent holidaymakers at all, but their real identity is not revealed in the story. I enjoyed this story, particularly as the sinister undertones progress slowly, ending in a truly B-movie-style climax. However, once again I was sad that things were left unexplained, particularly the identity of the mysterious couple. And I cannot help feeling a bit sorry for them (no matter what their real character was), to see them killed so ingloriously with their bicycles; I cannot help admiring people who are young, rich, elegant, good-looking, fit, etc., all at the same time; the world should belong to them, it's pity to see them killed by the police.

The seventh story, My Emphasis, is also narrated by an Englishwoman living in France; she spends every summer there to write a new play for her theatrical company. However, she is annoyed by her neighbours, a friendly but large and noisy family whose life is an endless sequence of dinners, parties, chattering, occasional quarreling, they have a noisy baby, etc. Finally she decides to try spending an afternoon away from home (p. 192) and ends up in a restaurant where her remarks about having run away from home are misunderstood and everybody thinks she is an abused wife (p. 195). She returns to the restaurant every day, spends some hours working on her play and strikes up a friendship with the young daughter of the proprietress. Then one day, as she is sitting at home, trying to watch a video of her theatrical company performing King Lear, she finally gets fed up with the neighbours, turns up the volume and treats them to a fine stream of Elizabethan curses from King Lear, interspersed with her own shouts and the breaking of objects she is smashing around the room (p. 202). The neighbours quiet down and soon appear at her door, full of concern, convinced that she has just been beaten by a violent lover (p. 204). On a similar occasion a few weeks later (p. 209), they notice a photograph of George, the narrator's friend and leading actor of the theatrical company, and naturally conclude that he must be the abusive lover in question (p. 215); they even start patrolling the neighbourhood to make sure he does not return (p. 216). Some time later the whole theatrical company arrives at the nearby town of Narbonne to perform King Lear at a festival there (p. 217). The neighbours come to watch it and eventually recognize George on the stage in the role of Lear (p. 225); just as the performance (which takes place in an open-air theatre) is interrupted by a commencing storm, the neighbours attack the stage and George and the narrator barely escape. In the subsequent performances, George has to hide while another actor plays Lear and the narrator takes up the role previously played by the substitute actor (p. 227).

This is definitely my favourite story in the entire collection. It is absolutely delightful and hilarious and is in fact one of the funniest things I have read in a long time. It doesn't have much sex and death in it, in fact no death at all and hardly any sex (p. 221); but never mind. I greatly enjoyed the fact that, unlike the other stories in this book, it isn't full of unexplained things and loose ends of the narrative. It even has a happy sort of ending. Domestic quarreling is the central theme of the story. Its clearest expression is the neighbours quarreling among themselves (p. 210), but it is also explored in the context of the theatrical company (p. 208; the idea of the theatrical company as a kind of family is also intriguing); as the fictitious quarrelling believed by the neighbours to have occurred between the supposedly abused narrator and her non-existent violent lover; and as a theme of King Lear, which is seen here as a drama of a family quarrel (p. 207).

The author's notes (p. viii) point out that there are parallels between this story and Small Arms, but I'm not quite sure that I see them. Perhaps the narrator of My Emphasis might have gone postal and shot all the neighbours in the same way that the young fisherman kills all the guests at the end of Small Arms, but we don't know anything about the fisherman's motivation; surely he cannot be having a quarrel with the rather diverse and randomly selected set of guests who happened to be in the restaurant at that particular time?

Another interesting aspect of My Emphasis is its portrayal of the theatre, of the actors' work and of the performance, which almost comes across as a fun event. I have a dirty confession to make: I don't like Shakespeare. I know, I know; this puts me completely beyond the pale. If there's any sure-fire way to recognize a complete and utter boor, it is by the fact that he doesn't like Shakespeare. In fact the only other people I have ever found who dared to admit they don't like Shakespeare were Tolstoy (see e.g. Orwell's essay Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool) and Henry Miller (see e.g. his The Books in My Life). I tried reading the originals (with plenty of notes and glosses), I tried reading translations, and in all cases I found them rather dull and couldn't get myself anywhere near to enjoying them. And this is what makes me wonder --- large numbers of people still enjoy Shakespeare, and in his own time the theatre was in fact the entertainment of the masses, not at all a highbrow or elitist cultural experience --- what is it that enables all these people to enjoy Shakespeare, but which I completely miss every time and therefore get bored? Perhaps part of the reason is that I always just read the plays; maybe seeing them performed would be different. The way the performance is described here in My Emphasis, it really sounds like fun. Anyway, I'm sure there are other reasons why I am bored by Shakespeare; maybe because I lack life experience; it would e.g. never occur to me to think of King Lear as a family quarrel, I just saw it as a stupendous tragedy and I couldn't get myself quite as touched by it as would be appropriate. Perhaps I should re-read a play like this several times, until I get comfortable with all the characters, their names and their relations to each other, until I get familiar with the plot etc. and can then perhaps finally start noticing some more of the little details and subplots and the like, which probably form much of the wealth of a play like this. This reminds me of Swinburne's Dolores, by which I was practically intoxicated and which I re-read many times, slowly getting more and more familiar with it and noticing more and more little details which contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the poem. But alas! there are few works by which I would be as fascinated as by Dolores, and consequently I am rarely motivated to re-read a book several times. Perhaps this is the main reason why my reading of literature is so superficial and why I so often end up scratching my head, perhaps fascinated but nevertheless baffled ("and their hearts were stirred, but they understood not the messages", Silmarillion ch. 12), wondering what the author must have meant. Maybe taking the trouble to think about what I have read, and write down something about it, such as I am doing here for Seven Tales of Sex and Death, will encourage me to read less superficially and get more out of some of the books I read.

Incidentally, the author uses the phrase "screen save" to refer to what would usually be called a "screensaver" (e.g. p. 71). This seems to be quite a rare term and in fact I haven't seen it before. I wonder if it is a Britishism, or a Mac term, or something of that sort? Google says there are 72100 occurrences of "screen save" on the web, 3.4 million of "screen saver" and 13.6 million of "screensaver".

A thing that I found slightly annoying sometimes is the abundance of foreign words. I understood the German ones and managed to guess most of the French ones, sometimes with a bit of help from the Babelfish; but the Welsh in Moving certainly leaves me baffled and helpless. And I cannot help wondering what is the use of talking about la boulangère (p. 207) when this seems to be nothing more or less than a baker? I guess some will say that it adds "flavour" or "colour" or perhaps "texture" to the text, but I think it's just a way of showing off the writer's knowledge of French and an opportunity to put that slick la in front of a word and a grave accent on top of it.

All in all, I found this collection of short stories to be really great reading, with many stimulating, amusing, or mysterious parts, with many interesting passages, and with enough unanswered questions that I guess I can safely say that it isn't completely trivial literature. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Should I rename this blog to torrents of verbiage?

Or logorrhea perhaps?

It occurred to me that I used to enjoy participating in exchanges of lengthy e-mail messages with friends and acquaintances. Alas, unlike me, most of these fine people have a life, having to spend time on which unfortunately precluded them from investing an appropriate amount of time into upholding the correspondence with me. The sad result of this is that these e-mail exchanges dwindled in size and frequency, long e-mails started to go unanswered, and pretty soon I realized that the well had run dry and I had to try finding another victim. After a while I gave up and stopped writing so much e-mail; this was several years ago. Well, now I see that blogging is a very good substitute. I can spew forth as much verbiage as I want, and the blog laps it up as quickly as I can produce it; nothing ever gets rejected. Of course I don't get any replies this way, but then I don't really mind; I guess I may deep down be one of those people who think that pontification is almost as enjoyable as conversation.

What age do you act?

I've seen links to this little quiz on several blogs today, so I decided to take it myself. I wasn't very happy with some of the questions, where (1) none of the answers provided seemed really suitable for my situation or my preferences, and (2) in many cases it seemed rather obvious which of the answers would be related by the quiz software to which approximate age group. I think that my overall pessimism and substandard zest for life made me answer some questions in a way that suggested I was older than I really am, but on the other hand this was probably partly balanced out by the fact that I like pigging out on sweets, so I ticked that my idea of a good party is lots of ice cream and cake. :-) Maybe I'm overanalyzing this whole thing anyway. After all, it's just a quiz. It is nonetheless true that it correctly guessed my age of 25. I wonder if I do act 25, however. I'm sure that I don't want to. Surely a person may be expected to have sobered up a little by 25 (Doyle recommends 27, however; The Sign of Four, ch. 2); am I not too immature and irresponsible, and my opinions too radical, for 25? I certainly wouldn't like to change from what I am now. I like to think I don't change very much anyway; I like to think that my opinions and inclinations are largely still such as they were ten years ago, and althought some might think such a thing regrettable I find it rather comforting. I wonder if it's true, though; if I could go back in time and meet myself such as I was ten years ago, would we get along? Or would I be a stranger to myself?

By Jove, I never thought I would feel this decrepit at 25. What's the point of even being alive anymore at this age? Perhaps the problem is that I haven't quite grown up in all the ways that a person should by this age, so I still retained some of that feeling, common among some younger people, that life ends, for all practical purposes, at age n where n is some suitable number but usually somewhere around 20 or 25. I initially thought of this age as 20, but later increased it to 22 as I was nearing twenty, and a bit later increased it further to 25. But now that I have reached 25 and am in fact getting dangerously close to 26, I haven't increased that threshold again; no, I stay firm in the opinion that 25 is the onset of decrepitude, the time when life becomes not only utterly pointless (as if it had ever had a point before) but also utterly worthless. Sure, people are alive past this age, and some even imagine that they are happy; but would any younger person really want to swap places with them? Surely this obsession with youth and age is an unhealthy and pathological peculiarity of my character (but then isn't the whole of our present culture youth-obsessed anyway?). I blame Oscar Wilde for it. I had to know The Picture of Dorian Gray really well for an exam at the end of secondary school, and I must have read it some six or so times during that final year. But only on the last of those readings did that melodious and hypnotic paragraph of Lord Henry's in the second chapter fully catch my attention:

For there is such a little time that your youth will last--such a little time. The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!

The sad thing here, of course, is that one shouldn't take anything said by Lord Henry too seriously; the man is after all a poseur and a manipulator and when he says something it is not at all necessary that he (or Wilde for that matter) really means it. But then maybe I shouldn't be blaming the above passage anyway; if I hadn't found the principle stated there I might have encountered it somewhere else, or came up with an equivalent of my own.

P.S. "Laburnum"? "Clematis"? Why must all the flowers have such dreadful, terrifying Latin names? Surely when, in the dim mists of time, the illiterate, uneducated peasantry of this, that or the other nation first encountered a particular plant, they didn't rush to their botany textbooks to look up its name, but gave it a name of its own, out of their own language. Why then do so many flowers seem to have Latin names only? And the curious thing is that people actually use them -- even elderly housewives who speak absolutely no foreign languages and who aren't even familiar with foreign loanwords in their own language will happily go on and on about geraniums, pelargonias and who knows what other big words that sound like they would fit a mythological monster better than some harmless little flower. And these same people are absolutely paralyzed if they encounter a foreign word in most other spheres of life.

I guess it's not really difficult to get people to accept scary Latin words as long as the words refer to something non-threatening that is easy to relate to, such as flowers.

P.P.S. Now I googled around a bit to find out what exactly clematis is. Funny enough, it turns out that the only representative of that genus with which I have so far been familiar is a nasty weed, a creeping parasite whose praises one certainly wouldn't expect Lord Henry to sing in the above-quoted paragraph. Well, apparently some of the other species of that genus are actually used as decorative plants. Oh well, one learns something new every day. :-)

The splendours and miseries (well, mostly the latter) of external storage devices

Many years ago, I made the unfortunate decision of buying a Syquest EZFlyer 230 MB external drive. At the time the choice was between this and Iomega's ZIP drive, and I chose the Syquest because its cartridges had a capacity of 230 MB while Iomega's had only slightly more than 100 MB at the time. The problem is that eventually Iomega's drives became much more widespread than SyQuest's. A few years after I had bought the drive, Syquest went out of business, and some time after that my Syquest drive went out of business as well. The cartridge ejection mechanism somehow got stuck in such a way that whenever you try inserting a cartridge into the drive, it gets ejected immediately. Even if I try somehow holding the cartridge in the "inserted" position, the drive is not happy and doesn't see the cartridge. Perhaps if I had immediately started nagging the local Syquest distributor, I might have gotten my drive fixed somehow, but I'm just not the right sort of person for that. (A year or two afterwards the local Syquest distributor went out of business as well. I guess I would have been next, if I had a business myself, which I of course don't.) Instead I decided to ignore the whole thing; I wasn't really dependent on the Syquest anyway, as far as backups are concerned I just relied on the fact that my hard disks just don't crash and my computers just don't get infected by viruses (touch wood), and although there were some things stored on my cartridges that I didn't have anywhere else, there was nothing really very important. I figured the problem may eventually sort itself out somehow anyway.

Finally, a month or so ago I remembered the old Syquest drive and decided to see if I could buy another one on eBay. Sure enough, I found not one auction but two, one of which shipped to the USA only, so I bid on the other one and got my new secondhand Syquest drive for the princely sum of $2.42 (I wonder how they chose this particular starting price -- why not 2.41 or 2.43, etc.?). Of course shipping cost way more, $44.75 in fact, but oh well, I figured it's worth trying anyway. Well, the drive arrived today, and it looks identical to mine, but since it came from the U.S. market it naturally had a cable meant to plug into U.S. electricity sockets. I tried to find the cable of my old Syquest drive which I could plug into our sockets, but couldn't find it, so I decided to try with the U.S. cable anyway, plugging it into one of those little socket-conversion thingies where you take the cable meant for one kind of sockets, plug it into the thingy and then plug the thingy into a different kind of socket. Apparently not all devices appreciate being tricked in this way :-). The little box-like part of the cable (behold my gross ignorance of, and indifference to, everything having to do with electricity) made a humming sound for a few seconds and then died ignobly amidst a small wisp of smoke and plenty of that weird and none too pleasant smell that usually accompanies burning electrical devices. A fuse went out as well. Fortunately the cable was not plugged into anything else, and my computer was off at the time, so no harm occurred to any other equipment. Looking at the little box-like part of the cable I noticed it mentions 120 V, and I guess the poor thing was simply overwhelmed by the 220 V it was getting from our sockets :-). I guess I'll never understand why the Americans, so megalomaniacal in all other respects, content themselves with the puny measly 110-V power system. Anyway, at least I have a new Syquest drive now, and if I manage to find the proper cable from the old drive (I don't have much hope for that, though, having already looked unsuccessfully over all the usual places where I thought it reasonable to expect to find it) I can plug it in and see if the new one works any better than the old one. Until then, it's just another new piece of worthless junk on my desk, but then it's been full of junk already and another piece is welcome enough as far as I'm concerned.

To end this posting on a more positive note, another thing that arrived today is Arthur Symons's Silhoutettes, the 1896 expanded edition, published by none other than Leonard Smithers. I got it on eBay for a very affordable sum, approx. a quarter of the price currently asked for the only copy on ABE. Here is my first tangible link with the 1890s and what was perhaps England's most notorious publisher of that period. I'm quite delighted with the book, which has at least two of the hallmarks of the period -- the absurdly wide margins, and the uncut fore and bottom edges. I'm not sure if I will be as delighted with the contents, for the little of Symons that I have read so far (in Beckson's anthology) I found rather boring than not. But we'll see. I'm excited anyway.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A rant about "The Return to Innocence"

Do you remember Enigma's 1994 hit song The Return to Innocence? (You do? Serves you right. That was more than ten years ago! I hope you start feeling old and decrepit, the same way I do.)

I rather enjoyed it at the time, and in fact I still do, but recently as I happened to hear it again I paid attention to the lyrics, which perhaps I hadn't done before. And I found plenty of rantworthy stuff in there.

"Love - devotion./ Feeling - emotion." Aren't feelings and emotions pretty much the same things? Well even if they aren't, I'm not going to bother finding out the difference and wondering what sort of painfully subtle effect is supposed to be conveyed by that oh-so-fancy juxtaposition of feeling and emotion.

"Just look into your heart my friend/ That will be the return to yourself/ The return to innocence./" Whoever wrote this seems to have a seriously rose-tinted view of human nature. Correct me if I'm wrong, but most people are not exactly saints and are not really particularly innocent. If they look into their hearts they will perhaps see many good and positive things, perhaps even some shreds (or maybe shards) of innocence here and there, but they will also see impressively large amounts of seriously messed-up shit which they cannot have helped accumulating along their way through the big sordid mess which we are pleased to call life. If you really want to return to innocence, a thorough brainwashing and plenty of mind-altering drugs might be useful first steps, but a look into your own heart probably isn't. As for "the return to yourself", heh, I think that by definition you can't really get away from yourself. If you try, that merely means that "yourself" is no longer the same thing (or in the same place) that it was five minutes ago. Thus, as you can't get away from yourself, you can't return to yourself either -- you are already there (or, better yet: you are already it (er, you (oh well, whatever))).

"Don’t care what people say/ Follow just your own way". Recommended by nine out of ten fascists, sociopaths, demagogues, and assorted other people whom you probably weren't used to thinking about as desirable role models.

"Just believe in destiny." How is this going to help? Surely a strong enough belief in destiny must encourage me to just sit and wait for things to come my way. After all, if they don't, this just means that they weren't destined to, so it's just as well that I haven't bothered to do anything about it as I would have been doomed to fail anyway.

"Don’t give up and use the chance/ To return to innocence". The choice of compulsive gamblers worldwide. The "return to innocence" probably refers to the state after they have gambled away everything they had, including the underwear, and end up lying on the ground buck naked, whimpering, and curled up in a fetal position. You just can't get any more innocent than that, can you? (If yes, I don't want to hear about it.)

OK, maybe I'm overdoing the sarcasm a bit and maybe I'm being a bit too harsh on them. Maybe I'm just not willing to play along at the moment, and if I were the lyrics might have begun to make more sense. And maybe the lyrics aren't even trying to mean anything or say anything; maybe they are just intended to sound nice and, when sung, to make a nice accompaniment to the instruments (and indeed they do, as far as I am concerned). But I really, really dislike this sort of vapid, vacuous, slippery stuff (which I'm afraid is rapidly proliferating nowadays) which seems to be so deep and fancy at first sight but which then somehow dissolves into thin air as soon as you try to touch it and look it up close. There's too much of that nowadays, and in areas where it really shouldn't be any (such as politics and the economy, cf. the book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World), that one ends up growing very impatient with it and is then prone to overreact even in situations where the vacuous slippery things are relatively harmless, such as in the lyrics of pleasantly-sounding new-agey songs.

P.S. I'll say one thing in favour of The Return to Innocence, though: I definitely like the video a lot. Showing scenes from the life of a peasant couple in reverse order, from old age to youth, was really a neat idea. Seeing that video I can almost understand those people who idealize the rural life (although I of course realize that, from a sober point of view, the rural life has relatively little to recommend itself and is probably rarely idealized by those who actually live it).

BOOK: Giannozzo Manetti, "Biographical Writings"

Giannozzo Manetti: Biographical Writings. Edited and translated by Stefano U. Baldassarri and Rolf Bagemihl. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 9. Harvard University Press, 2003. 0674011341. xix + 330 pp.

Manetti was a Florentine writer, orator and politician who lived in the first half of the 15th century. This book contains his short biographies of Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Socrates, Seneca, and very short biographical sketches of several other people, mostly less well known Renaissance authors and scholars.

As with many other books from the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, I found this fairly dull reading. I already had some very vague and minimal knowledge of the lives of Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Socrates, and Seneca, and I don't really care all that much about the extra details presented in the biographies in this book. Another thing I disliked is that these biographies consist almost exclusively of praise; I admit that the subjects weren't particularly evil people, but one still wonders if Manetti's presentation is not a bit too one-dimensional. But then, given what the editors say about Manetti's character on p. xiii, we shouldn't be too surprised; he seems to have been a bit of a self-satisfied bourgeois. When Seneca, who as a stoic would have advised people not to be too fond of perishable things, but who was himself obscenely wealthy ("Much of this he acquired by lending money in Britain; according to Dio, the excessive rates of interest that he exacted were among the causes of revolt in that country." -- Bertrand Russel's History of Western Philosophy, ch. 28), is quite justly accussed of gross hypocrisy, it is hardly surprising that Manetti the wealthy merchant and businessman comes valiantly to his aid (p. 269).

I guess one should be reading this book not with the intention of learning about the lives of Dante et al., but to learn how Manetti and authors like him approached the writing of biography, and to see what sort of relationship with the past they tried to establish through this. The editors admit as much in the preface, p. xiv: "More importantly, all of them [= these biographies] [...] show the Florentine humanists' great self-awareness concerning the rediscovery of classical culture they were self-promoting." In fact the self-awareness is sometimes so great as to be downright annoying; Manetti keeps on attaching "our" to the names of classical authors, as if he was one of them and the intervening thousand or so years of history merely a trifle which we can easily ignore or pretend it doesn't exist.

The way these biographies are structured reminded me of Plutarch and Suetonius, especially the latter with whom Manetti seemed to share the characteristic that they were good at gathering information about their subject but were then not very critical of these sources when deciding what to include in their biographies and how to present it. But at least Suetonius would always include plenty of lurid anecdotes about each of his emperors, while such condiments are sadly lacking in Manetti's biographies. No wonder that I found him dull, like Plutarch but unlike Suetonius. Still, I liked the idea of pairing the lives of Socrates and Seneca in the same way that Plutarch always wrote about one Greek and one Latin person, trying to choose two people with roughly similar roles in life and in society.

Anyway, although as I said I found this to be for the most part dull reading, there were a few curious and/or amusing passages:

From pp. 71-73 it seems that Petrarch had to deal with plenty of obsessive fans, just like the famous pop stars nowadays.

On p. 237 Manetti says that in his time, the house in which Seneca had been born was supposedly still preserved: "the Spaniards [...] point out a certain house at Cordoba as his dwelling, asserting that it has been in continuous existence down to our times". I must admit that this sounds more like a story for naive tourists, but it's a nice story anyway.

At the end of the biography of Socrates, Manetti briefly mentions four other people named Socrates (p. 233). He does the same for Seneca, but there, apart from Seneca the philosopher and his namesake father the rhetor, he only finds one other Seneca, a bishop. (Incidentally, in Manetti's time it was apparently not known that the philosopher Seneca and his father the rhetor were two different people, leading Manetti to compute with some admiration that Seneca must have lived well over a hundred years, p. 279.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

BOOK: Brian Bates, "The Real Middle-earth"

Brian Bates: The Real Middle-earth: Magic and Mystery in the Dark Ages. (First ed.: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002.) Pan Books, 2003. ISBN: 0330491709. xix + 292 pp. 12 pages of color plates.

The term "Middle-earth" is now perhaps best known for its use in J. R. R. Tolkien's fiction, and it is also quite well-known that Tolkien borrowed the term, and perhaps some aspects of its meaning, from Old English. Apparently the term was fairly important in the world-view of the pagan inhabitants of northwestern Europe in the first millennium AD. This book attempts to describe how these people saw the world and their place in it. This is what attracted my attention and encouraged me to read it; it doesn't deal with political history or material culture (except for one or two short chapters), but with the history of their ideas and beliefs. I was curious to see how these early people, whose way of life differed in so many ways from the life of later periods, saw the world and what sort of beliefs they held.

As it often happens to me when I read books about folklore, mythology, anthropology or similar topics, I found much of it rather boring. I'm sure this is no fault of the book itself; it's just that I'm not all that interested in details about myths, rituals, etc.; many other readers might be delighted by them, and anyway there aren't so many details that one should avoid the book on that account. After all, it is a book for the general public, not for experts. It has a lot of information about various kinds of mythological beings, about the magical nature of plants, shamans travelling into the otherworld, seeresses and their rituals, the belief that people can change into animals, etc., etc.

The author is sympathetic to the people and beliefs about which he writes, pointing out in several places how the scientific and rational explanations of the world, on which our modern society is based, often turn out to be unsatisfying in many ways, and how "the forces of fantasy, intuition, and imagination may yield some deeper perspectives which could help us better understand our place in the world" (pp. 254-255). This is something that I find difficult to agree with; I am inclined to think that fantasy and imagination, and intuition as well unless it is tested and held back on every step by reason and experiment, may produce fascinating or beautiful things but little genuine understanding of the world or our place in it; although it might give us the illusion of understanding, just like the early medieval people surely believed that they genuinely understood things although they really only had a bunch of myths. I think it's better to admit that there are many things which we just aren't able to understand and explain really well, rather than to dress it all up in fantasy and nebulous terms and pretend that we understand them better than before. But I don't want to give the wrong impression; this is not meant to be a big criticism of the book, and the author is not in any way a crank or anything of the sort; he does not in any way idealise the early medieval people he writes about, and is perfectly well aware of the harsh realities of their life and the many ways in which they were worse off than us.

Some of the passages I found particularly interesting:

Page 59 mentions the cosmological beliefs of the early medieval NW-Europeans; there was an Upperworld, the Middle-earth, and a Lowerworld, all connected by the giant ash tree Yggdrasil; the three areas were subdivided further and inhabited by various types of beings. It is all, however, fairly intricate and apt to start boring me fairly quickly. I often wonder why I do not find Greek mythology nearly as boring, nor the names occuring in it nearly as impenetrable and easy to forget, as that of other cultures; I can scarcely believe that there is some objective difference, some difference in quality, between Greek mythology and that of other peoples; but can it really all be only due to the fact that we tend to be exposed more to Greek mythology than to those of other cultures, and at an earlier and therefore more impressionable age?

Chapter 5 speaks about a very curious phenomenon: apparently, the Anglo-Saxons, after they had settled in England, tended to avoid the remnants of Roman towns, even though they could have settled there and taken advantage of the existing buildings, stone-work, etc. It seems that they didn't want to live crowded in towns or cities, and inhabit houses built primarily of stone (p. 71); apparently this was not just an aesthetic preference but a spiritual one, based on the idea that it would be wrong to set oneself apart from the natural world by living in walled towns and stone buildings (p. 74). I can't help wondering if this sort of explanation is really necessary or even correct; couldn't this be explained simply by the fact that they weren't used to living in cities, nor was their population so large as to require part of the people to inhabit cities, nor did they really have the skills to make the cities function properly? Not being at all used to living in cities, wouldn't they have very naturally avoided them as an unfamiliar way of life (the benefits of which would not have been apparent to them) and preferred to settle in villages with wooden houses and carry on the same sort of life that they were already used to and familiar with?

Page 77 refers to "the imagination-imbued world view of people in ancient England". Sometimes I wonder if all this imagination and fervid fantasy so often ascribed to early medieval Germanic peoples is not more an heritage of early nineteenth-century German Romanticism rather than any actual characteristic of those medieval people. Or if, anyway, since they had little concrete or definite or reliable information about some aspects of the world, yet they wanted answers anyway, they simply exercised their imagination instead and made them up. But I don't know enough about these things to be able to really form an opinion about this. Anyway, I am not saying that it is wrong to have a strongly-functional imagination, although I don't necessarily find it very praiseworthy in itself; still, it is not always bad; after all, the Greeks were also highly imaginative, and it led to plenty of amusing mythology but also, in due course, to philosophical speculation and to some rudiments of science.

Page 80 includes this suggestion about the wide distribution of legends about dragons: "Perhaps stemming from a folk-memory of dinosaurs, embedded deep in human memory -- even beyond the handing down of stories through thousands of generations they became a kind of instinctive adversary [...]." I think this is by far the weirdest idea in the whole book. As far as I know, 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs went extinct, our ancestors were basically small tree-dwelling primates whose appearance reminds me largely of squirrels. I sure wonder how they managed to pass on, through not thousands but millions of generations, having neither the ability to speak nor to draw, and perhaps not even to form the very concept of a dinosaur or dragon or anything of the sort, this folk-memory of dinosaurs which then finally allowed, sixty-five million years later, the ancient homo sapiens to come up with all those dragon-legends of myth and folklore. Surely almost any other explanation would be more reasonable than this; perhaps they saw fossil remnants, either of dinosaurs or of some later large animal, and wrapped the few bones they saw in a thick layer of imagination to produce the dragon; or even more likely they saw snakes and lizards and figured that larger versions of these same animals might also conceivably exist, just as they believed e.g. in antropomorphic giants. Incidentally, the book contains many other speculative passages, usually prefixed by "perhaps" or something like that; but fortunately most of them are not nearly this bizarre. Anyway some speculation is to be excused in a book like this, for it is difficult to write about the beliefs and rituals of a culture that left only a moderate amount of written records, and whatever is left often lacks many details.

Anyway, the legendary dragons come in two varieties: drakes, which could fly, and wyrms, which could not and only crawled on the ground like snakes (p. 84).

The concept of wyrd seems to have been fairly important (p. 76). It is somewhat like fate or destiny but with the emphasis that the course of events is the outcome of natural processes and previous events rather than of a capricious Fate. Nevertheless a group of three Fate-like deities was known (the wyrd sisters, p. 177-179). An interesting idea is that of everything in the world being connected, but through many intricate ways which an individual cannot really follow through and see them all clearly at the same time; like the threads in a complicated woven tapestry (p. 179). This has supposedly also influenced the intricate patterns found in e.g. Anglo-Saxon jewellry (p. 221).

"The implication, and an intriguing one, is that life is a gift, or at least a `loan', and it forms a debt to which we are subject, and which we eventually honour with our life -- or rather, with our death. [...] The life we lead has with it a responsibility, as in something owed. To the earth?" (P. 183.) Although I can't really agree with this view of life the concept is certainly fascinating. It reminds me somewhat of Kafka; life as guilt, death as a punishment for it.

"Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices." (An early-twentieth century shaman, quoted on p. 201.)

"A fine pattern-welded sword could have taken a team of smiths weeks or months to produce." (P. 217.) The superstitious beliefs of iron and metalworking in general as somewhat supernatural and magical activities, with the corresponding high reputation of smiths and metallurgists, seems to have been as common here as in many other cultures (p. 218-220). "Dwarves were known for driving hard bargains for their magical smithwork, and to obtain the necklace, Freya slept with all four dwarves." (P. 219.) That's still three less than Snow White.

Mound burial going in and out of fashion, and in again and out again; p. 247.

Describing how pieces of wood inscribed with spells were inserted under a corpse's tongue: "we do not know whether rune staves could be similarly inserted under the tongue of a ghost raised from the dead" (p. 250). Some of us might we willing to hazard a guess, however.

"Historical research has revealed that, stretching from Old England to Scandinavia and across to western Europe, there arose about two thousand years ago a largely forgotten civilization which foreshadowed Tolkien's imagined world. [...] this culture, made up of many colourful early European tribes now identified under the umbrella terms of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Norse [...]." (Pp. 3-4.) I haven't thought of those areas and that period as having so much in common, culturally speaking. I am intrigued by the use of the term "civilization" here; I wonder if they really had so much coherence as to form a civilization, and if this is a suitable term at all for such a largely non-urban culture.

Incidentally, the book would also be interesting for people who are not familiar with or interested in Tolkien's works, as it only refers to them every now and then when it mentions in a few sentences how this or that concept from early medieval beliefs may have influenced this or that aspect of Tolkien's imaginary world.

Introductory post

I intend to post here, from time to time, comments about books I've read, and perhaps other things as well if any other ideas what to write about occur to me.

Why is the blog called "ill-advised"? Because I am the sort of person who would do best to keep his mouth shut as much as possible, it being very likely that when I open it I will end up saying something silly that I will regret afterwards. Surely starting a blog is the last thing such a person should think of doing. Decidedly ill-advised.

Well, anyway, here's hoping that I'm wrong...

P.S. I've added a blog description now. It alludes to a line from S. T. Coleridge's delightful Fragment Found in a Lecture-Room. I remembered it when thinking about the fact that, were anybody but me to try reading these posts of mine, he or she would probably find them exceedingly dull.