Thursday, October 28, 2010

Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States — Begun 2010.10.17

After finishing Bryson's Shakespeare: The World as a Stage a couple of weeks ago, and loving it; and after having been blown away by his The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid; my friend BV clomped into work with two more Bryson books — In a Sunburned Country and
Bill Bryson.
Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.
New York: Perennial (HarperCollins), 2001.

Of the two I chose this one first for two reasons. What better book to follow up on his Shakespeare book and Mair's Tao Te Ching with its fascinating etymological journey. The second reason is my enjoyment of the English language, its uses, abuses, creativity, and pure 'dance-ability.'

I'm on page 190 300 or so, as I write this, and it is brilliant! And not just because it is an engaging, interesting, entertaining and humorous history, but because of the ostensibly heretical history Bryson seamlessly incorporates into the narrative. I love learning that everything, and mean EVERYTHING I was taught or have learned about the history of the European's entry into the Americas is wrong. Okay, okay, so Europeans settled here and effectively wiped out the aboriginals in one way or the other — but that is pretty much the sum total what has at least a grain of historical truth from my schooling both formal and informal.

And, very amusingly, it has provided, to date, two amusing fushigis, or synchronicity-petites; the first about the train porters of American all being called George; and now about 'jerk' chicken.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

And what makes this, my reading Bryson from book's borrowed from BV, is that back in 2003-4 BV pestered me about reading Bryson!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way &mdash Finished 2010.10.12

Lao Tzu (老子).
Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way.
Translated with an introduction by Victor H. Mair.
Toronto: Bantam Books, 1990. ISBN 055334935X.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

This book is in every way a delightful read! The translation is excellent to read in English — but given my lack of ancient Chinese language skills, I'll trust the experts who claim the actual translation to be excellent.

I had very high expectations for this book because Mair's translation and commentary to Chuang Tzu's Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu is one of the books in my top ten all time favourites. Well, the Tao Te Ching translated by Mair has snuggle up to it, and surpassed the half dozen other respected translations of it I've read.

But it isn't just the translation that makes this book so good. It is the level of scholarship in the common language threads linked etymologically between ancient Chinese, Sanskrit, the Indo-European languages, and old English. Mair does an extensive look at the cognates of Tao, Te and Ching. The information is fascinating, and completely extirpates the idea that China was isolated from the world in the development of its philosophy.

Mair also draws attention to many parallels extant between the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Ghita. This discussion is equally fascinating and, for me, timely, given that I have been recently reading and re-reading the Bhagavad Ghita. His observations are well founded.

Anyway, Mair's examination of Tao, pronounced 'dow', is worth sharing, at least in part. So, from Mair's appendix, 'The Way/Tao:'

... The archaic pronunciation of Tao sounded approximately like drog or dorg. This links it to the Proto-Indo-European root drogh (to run along) and Indo-European dhorgh (way, movement). Related words in a few modern Indo-European languages are Russian doroga (way, road), Polish droga (way, road), Czech draha (way, track), Serbo-Croation draga ([path through a] valley), and Norwegian dialect drog (trail of animals; valley). The latter two examples help to account for the frequent and memorable valley imagery of the Tao Te Ching; ways and valleys, it would appear, are bound together in our consciousness.
The nearest Sanskrit (Old Indian) cognates to Tao (drog are dhrajas (course, motion) and dhraj (course). The most closely related English words are 'track' and 'trek,' while 'trail' and 'tract' are derived from other cognate Indo-European roots. Following the Way, then, is like going on a cosmic trek. Even more unexpected than the panoply of Into-European cognates for Tao (drog) is the Hebrew root d-r-g for the same word and Arabic t-r-q, which yields words meaning 'track, path, way, way of doing things' and is important in Islamic philosophical discourse (132).
The world, it would seem, has been a small place for a long time.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Shakespeare: The World as a Stage — Finished 2010.10.07

A delightful, funny, shocking, interesting, learned and wonderful read. I found particularly amusing the final chapter, in which Bryson de-bunks the Shakespeare debunkers — which have included Orson Wells, Derek Jacobi, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, and more than a few others despite an overwhelming lack of evidence or even clear arguments.

Anyway, here is a nice sample of Bryson's writing from that final chapter:
... in 1918 a schoolmaster from Gateshead, in north-east England, with the inescapably noteworthy name of J. Thomas Looney, put the finishing touches to his life's work, a book called Shakespeare Identified, in which he proved to his own satisfaction that the actual author of Shakespeare was the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere. It took him two years to find a publisher willing to publish the book under his own name. Looney steadfastly refused to adopt a pseudonym, arguing, perhaps just a touch desperately, that his name had nothing to do with insanity and was in fact pronounced loney. (Interestingly, Looney was not alone in having a mirthful surname. As Samuel Schoenbaum once noted with clear pleasure, other prominent anti-Stratfordians of the time included Sherwood E. Silliman and George M. Battey (p186).)

Bryson describes how this whole anti-Stratford movement appears to have gotten started by an unstable  American woman with the surname Bacon and charm enough to get money to travel to England and for an extended multi-year period, do research without talking to people. The trip proved to her mind that Francis Bacon was the author, although she did not actual state that in her book but rather inferred it.

Reading this is very amusing! The more so because a few years ago one of my co-workers dropped off some documents that contained links to proofs that Shakespeare's words were the work of someone else. But of course they didn't actually prove anything. JB found it amusing to try to stir me up, given my organizing annually for my work mates a group trip to our local Shakespeare festival. Anyway, he made the argument that '... historically it doesn't make sense that Shakespeare wrote what he did' he argued in similar vein to all anti-Stratfordians. (I think it a weak argument, but it would seem that others like it.)

'So, JB,' I asked him, 'have you read any Bacon or Marlowe?' These were the two with intellect and education enough to be the 'real' Shakespeare in his research.

'No,' he said, 'I'm looking at this strictly from an historical perspective.'

'Well, JB,' I responded, 'I have read both those writers — and they did not write the words that the world ascribes to Shakespeare. Bacon's writing is pontifical dreck and Marlowe's is black and lacking the depth of human understanding you get from Shakespeare.'

Paul Budra, Professor of English @ SFU,  was asked to express his opinion on the matter  at a well attended lecture at Vancouver's Bard-on-the-Beach Shakespeare festival a few years ago. (The tone of the querent suggested that he was one of the anti-Stratfordians.) Prof. Budra's answer was short and to the point: 'I am open to that possibility. However, there is not one single piece of evidence in existence, not even a tiny one despite years of painstaking research, that would indicate that anyone else wrote these plays. On the other hand, there is a great deal of direct evidence that he did.'

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Bill Bryson.Shakespeare: The World as a Stage. London, GB: Harper Perennial 2008. ISBN: 000719790X.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Noam Chomsky Lectures: A Play — Finished 2010.09.30

A delightful introduction to the degree to which the corporate news media disseminates dis-information. And it is a fun reminder of the importance of Chomsky in providing a voice against the agents who are manufacturing consent.

I also was inspired by how the writers morphed theatre into an entertaining lecture hall! Or did they morph a lecture into theatre?! This is what great instructors do naturally, of course, but who are very rare. Well, in this little play that could, Brooks and Verdecchia proved themselves great instructors — and better than passable dramatists.

Daniel Brooks, Guillermo Verdecchia.
The Noam Chomsky Lectures.  Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991. ISBN 0889104131.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆