Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011.12.30 — I Ching, Chomsky, Poetry, C.G. Jung, and R2's The Signal[, and Barrack Obama] — a fushigi* Collection.

Today's *fushigi collection began over a week ago when I began struggling to write a poem in response to a visual prompt supplied by Rose Mary Boehm at Houseboat, the Photo/Poetical blog RMB is moderating — and which I am extremely happy and surprised to be a part of.

As the poem evolved I decided that I required something from the Chinese book of Changes, The I Ching.
I grabbed my copy of the Richard Wilhelm / Cary F. Baynes Princeton University Press edition and flipped it open at random to see what came out. I was disappointed, initially, to see that my random flip had put me outside the hexagram readings and inside the section called Ta Chuan / The Great Treatise. However, what I read there could not have been more on point to complete the poem and tie in with what I was reading in Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview by Justin Leiber.

This is what I read from The I Ching:
2. The Master said: Writing cannot express words completely. Words cannot express thoughts completely.

Are we then unable to see the thoughts of the holy sages?

The Master said: The holy sages set up the images in order to express their thoughts completely; they devised the hexagrams in order to express the true and the false completely. Then they apprehended judgments and so could express their words completely.

(They created change and continuity, to show the advantage completely; they urged on, they set in motion, to set forth the spirit completely.) (pg 322)
I've emphasized the bit I incorporated into the poem. After undergoing the group's critical eye, and being severely pared down, it evolved into a piece of flash prose that I titled What Cannot be Expressed:
Far from urbane strictures, while passing through yet another distant land, I paused, stopped reading, marked my page. Unexpectedly I remembered the day that I read 'live life as a tourist' on the bumper sticker of a rusted VW van in rain. I was a young man then and, because I could read, I thought I understood. And when I became that well-booked tourist I thought I was happy.

The bus slowed at a corner crowded with raggedly-dressed ebullient villagers. Behind them my word-drunk eyes mistook the makeshift grain bag windbreak as a soiled deconstructed yin-yang art-piece. I laughed at how easily the eye is fooled by false appearance and because the book in my hands was the I Ching. With a bemused shake of my head at this odd coincidence I returned to the book, where I read Writing cannot express words completely. Words cannot express thoughts completely.

At that moment the stony weight of verbiage I had made myself blind to left my heart and in an animal panic I pushed my way past the press of shoulders and jabs of elbows. With my hands grasping my mouth and books I stumbled down the bus's step-well and crashed though the rickety doors to splash down on the rain-soaked earth.

Now silent, the villagers' heads turned and their eyes watched my hands flail uselessly as my body wordlessly heaved its stomach into the muck.
The idea of the problem of words not containing the 'real' meaning of existence was the point I was making in the poem, of course. This is not an unfamiliar theme with me, as both Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu discuss this problem. However, I did not think of going to them when I wanted to include a quotation, which is whom I normally would go to. For some reason the manner which I thought of the photo as a deconstructed 'yin-yang' symbol nudged me towards The I Ching,
which is where I went, this time. And proceeded to flip open to that exact page on which was exactly what I was writing about. Curious.

But now here is where things become curiously fushigi. And, I apologize for what is to follow because it is a rather complex discussion on philosophical issues of language. But one that is truly fascinating, and makes for a very subtle fushigi.

Long after I'd started writing What Cannot be Expressed, but in the morning before flipping to The I Ching I was continuing to read with great fascination Leiber's description of the problems and proposals in
establishing what would constitute a universal language generation mechanism, basically an effort to address how humans can learn language let alone learn how to speak. (It is not an exaggeration to say that Chomsky's effect in revolutionizing the philosophical science of linguistics was at the same scale as Einstein's effect on physics: it was forever changed.) What Chomsky proved was that a list of all the words and all the sentences of a language cannot describe how a language works because meaningful sentence generation is infinite and so cannot be captured by any list. The consequence of this, which is still being argued by some die-hard empiricists, is that an empirical study of language-constituents will be inadequate to explain the language. Chomsky has argued that meaning, called semantics by linguists, plays an important, perhaps even pre-verbal role, which he assigned to something called deep structure. Without quite saying it, at least in Leiber's overview of Chomsky's work, Chomsky is saying that meaning pre-exists words, and words pre-exist sentences.

Wow, when I write it out like that, there would appear to be virtually no significant difference between what the Chinese Master said about language 2500 years ago and Chomsky is saying today!

But to solidify the fushigi here is what I read that morning, and even flagged with a little sticky note on which I wrote A[nswer]: because the 'deep structure' is preverbal. What was I answering? A series of questions Leiber posed on behalf of those hoping to keep language empiricists alive by arguing that Chomsky is incorrect. Paraphrased, they argue that within deep structure meaning and syntax are synonymous, and as such if the right syntactical form can be discovered there a natural language generating mechanism capable of creating meaningful sentences will have been ascertained. Anyway, here's the paragraph. I have italicized the particular questions my sticky note was addressing:
The general thrust of the generative-semanticist proposal for improving transformational grammar is very simple: if some semantic features of sentences can be specified in their syntactical deep structure why can not all such features be specified? Why split the syntactic and semantic components at all? Why not equate ultimate syntactic deep structure with semantic representation? Or, more speculatively, one can ask, why not take the system of semantic representation to be something like the familiar predicate logic (with perhaps a few additions), and the base to be such a system supplemented with a relatively small number of "atomic predicates," or semantic primitives, universal to human thought? The words of particular languages, just as their surface syntactical structures, would decompose into extremely abstract and complex syntactic-semantical deep structures; the features constituting the lexical-syntactical peculiarities of a language would be given as a series of transformations relating the syntactic-semantical deep structures (or "natural logic formulas") of the "universal base" to their particular realizations in the language in question, similarly for the peculiarities of other human languages (122).
Like I said, complex language to argue that syntax might be enough to create a language if it is at a 'deep' enough level in the 'deep structure' of what ever it is in being human creates language. (Does not that sound very much like Jung's idea of the collective unconscious — which Jung argues is preverbal or even non-verbal and is expressed in archetypes that struggle to express their meaning in dreams and stories?)

Well, that is the main fushigi, but another one cropped up that I'll throw in. It began yesterday, when I used Photoshop Elements — which I almost never use because it is counter-intuitive to me — to play around with my poem version of What Cannot be Expressed and Rose's photo. After playing with it for an hour or two, I came away dissatisfied with the result, as was RMB. But here's what I did:
I think I could have refined it using individual pixel adjustments to make it more readable, but I don't really have the time for it. Today, while I was preparing to do this blog, I went to the Houseboat blog to get links and text and was suddenly struck by something very, very peculiar. I re-read RMB's excellent poem, Magic Markers on Houseboat, and noticed, now, something fushigi-ish with the poem's title and how it closes:

Wondrous transformation:
sackcloth and ashes
become precious lace
with the help of magic markers.
What stood out this time,when I read Magic Markers, is how it connects to the font with which I chose to use in my overlay onto the photo.
The font I used is … can you guess? Marker Felt, which I picked from over a hundred available fonts.

To close on an even more peculiar note: last night, as I was beginning
to work on this blog, I turned on CBC R2's The Signal, with Laurie Brown. And typical of me when I'm working, the music is more background entertainment than the locus of my attention. (If a particular song or artist grabs me, then I will concentrate). At some point, I guess about half way through the show, Brown began talking about one of the artists. I didn't pay attention until she commented that the composer stated in an interview that the last person to ask about what their music means is the composer. That is for others to decide.

Well, a few days ago I picked up and looked through one of my latest and most delectable book finds: Volume 15 of the Collected Works
of C.G. Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, and found an amusing little comment he'd made about poets. I was amused initially because of my participation with the Boathouse/Houseboat poetry group, and our critiquing each others poems as to their structure, impact, meaning, etc.
Poets are human too, and what they say about their work is often far from being the best word on the subject. It seems we have to defend the seriousness of the visionary experience against the personal resistance of the poets themselves (p.94).

Fushigi Addendum 2012.01.01.
RMB today sent me a link to an announcement that there is an immanent paradigm shift in how the world's economy is going to be managed because of an expanding spiritual awareness on the part of our economic and political leaders. A New Global Economic Restructuring is an announcement presented by James Martinez of recent recognition by some important economic and business people that if humans are to survive they cannot continue to do what they are doing. During the somewhat disjointed discourse my ears picked up when I heard him say, citing President Obama,
… And that theory fits well on a
bumper sticker. But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked. It didn't work when it was tried…' Funny, that, because that is what my poem was about, from a personal spiritual level and used bumper sticker in the exact same way: as being too small to contain real wisdom, but which was acted on as if true.

It is bemusing that Obama was cited in a delivery that was given in the context of a spiritually motivated human change in economic behaviour. And, even funnier, is that this quotation comes from the Osawatomie speech given by Barrack Obama December 7, 2011, in which he avers that Reagonomics a là Milton Friedman is wrong.

Thank you, RMB, for helping to initiate and cap off a truly bizarre collection of fushigis.

Monday, December 12, 2011

2011.12.11 - Waiting for Godot — Finished 2011.11.21

Samuel Beckett.
Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts.
New York: Grove Press, Inc. 1954. [Now Grove/Atlantic: ISBN 978-0-8021-4442-3.]

I am struggling to begin this review. But, before I do, WfG gets from me a solid ★★★★★ out of ☆☆☆☆☆. In fact, it was so good that as soon as I finished it the first time, I promptly re-read it.

My struggle is between being too glib: "This is a brilliant metaphor for the condition our human condition has conditioned us to unconditionally accept" — to being too dismissive, such as was expressed by a co-worker who, upon learning I was reading Godot, said "I watched it on TV. It was great! A great play about nothing." Now I suspect that because he reacted to 'nothing' so strongly that his unconscious did not in anyway find it to be empty.

And so it, is, that despite an ostensible appearance that it is about nothing, nothing is further from the truth. WfG is definitely not about nothing. The metaphors are nearly endless,
from the simple ones such as the too small boots pinching the feet — constricted understanding hobbles psychological/emotional movement. Beckett even extends that to include putting on another's boots in the hopes of acquiring the ability to walk with less discomfort, metaphor for putting on another's ideas.

I haven't gone onto the web to search for the likely endless reams of ideas this play has generated. Nor do I want to do a review of the play, as such. Instead I would like to briefly concentrate on the character Lucky. [Note: I will discuss this role in some detail, so if you want to be surprised by Lucky in the play, do not read on before reading the play.]

Lucky comes onto the stage with a noose around his neck carrying a collection of stuff. The end of the rope extends out of sight, off stage, making Pozzo, Lucky's master, initially invisible. (Is that the smallest of hints of Adam Smith's Invisible Glove?) Pozzo controls Lucky with the use of the noose, via jerks (Lucky has open sores from it), and with a whip and short, usually one word, commands such as the On! and Back! that introduce the pair. Later, Pozzo wants to put Lucky's intellectual prowess, specifically his ability to think, on display for Estragon and Vladimir, the pair waiting for Godot:
POZZO: Stand back! (Vladimir and Estragon move away from Lucky. Pozzo jerks the rope. Lucky looks at Pozzo.) Think, pig! (Pause. Lucky begins to dance.) Stop! (Lucky stops.) Forward! (Lucky advances.) Stop! (Lucky stops.) Think!


LUCKY: On the other hand with regard to—
[I blogged this section more extensively as part of a peculiar fushigi @ Godot, Ballet, Pocket Watch & Alice.]

This has particular resonance for me because of a recent employee motivational propaganda campaign I (and at least several thousands of others) were subjected to. It was comprised of a series of 3 posters and their electronic facsimile being festooned across the offices. The posters were comprised of two parts. The top half was a single word, a command: Say, Stay, Strive. The balance were terse reasons for obeying the command, for the last two, and what to say for the first one.

Less specifically, the extended thinking that Lucky expresses is, of course, a perfect metaphor for what passes
for thinking through the news media and many official journals: a huge pile of impressive sounding phrases that at best hide the truth but at worst promulgate false truths and ideology. And all co-mingled with a curious obsession about sports. [I wonder if Beckett was influenced by some of George Orwell's pointed criticism of the media and much intellectual thought, such as he delineated in Homage to Catalonia? Wikipedia does not reference such a connection.]

But why does Lucky stay with the physically and verbally abusive Pozzo? He is, ostensibly, a free man. Pozzo even ascribes to him freedom. Well, the answer is an interesting one, and reminds me of the current batch of presidential candidates who blame the poor for being poor because if they didn't want to be poor they could work themselves out of it. Here's Pozzo's reasoning for Lucky's enslavement to him:
POZZO: Ah! Why couldn't you say so before? Why he doesn't make himself comfortable? Let's try and get this clear. Has he not the right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he doesn't want to. There's reasoning for you. And why doesn't he want to? (Pause.) Gentlemen, the reason is this.

VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Make a note of this.

POZZO: He wants to impress me, so that I'll keep him.

POZZO: Perhaps I haven't got it quite right. He wants to mollify me, so that I'll give up the idea of parting with him. No, that's not exactly it either.

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: He wants to cod me, but he won't.

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: He imagines that when I see how well he carries I'll be tempted to keep him on in that capacity.

ESTRAGON: You've had enough of him?

POZZO: In reality he carries like a pig. It's not his job.

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: He imagines that when I see him indefatigable I'll regret my decision. Such is his miserable scheme. As though I were short of slaves! (All three look at Lucky.) Atlas, son of Jupiter! (Silence.) Well, that's that, I think. Anything else?


VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: Remark that I might just as well have been in his shoes and he in mine. If chance had not willed otherwise. To each one his due.

VLADIMIR: You waagerrim?

POZZO: I beg your pardon?

VLADIMIR: You want to get rid of him?

POZZO: I do. But instead of driving him away as I might have done, I mean instead of simply kicking him out on his arse, in the goodness of my heart I am bringing him to the fair, where I hope to get a good price for him. The truth is you can't drive such creatures away. The best thing would be to kill them.

(Lucky weeps.)

ESTRAGON: He's crying!

POZZO: Old dogs have more dignity. (He proffers his handkerchief to Estragon.) Comfort him, since you pity him. (Estragon hesitates.) Come on. (Estragon takes the handkerchief.) Wipe away his tears, he'll feel less forsaken.

(Estragon hesitates.)

VLADIMIR: Here, give it to me, I'll do it.

(Estragon refuses to give the handkerchief.)

(Childish gestures.)

POZZO: Make haste, before he stops. (Estragon approaches Lucky and makes to wipe his eyes. Lucky kicks him violently in the shins. Estragon drops the handkerchief, recoils, staggers about the stage howling with pain.) Hanky!

(Lucky puts down bag and basket, picks up handkerchief and gives it to Pozzo, goes back to his place, picks up bag and basket.)

ESTRAGON: Oh the swine! (He pulls up the leg of his trousers.) He's crippled me!

POZZO: I told you he didn't like strangers.

Interesting. Lucky has enslaved himself in order to appease his master, to be liked enough to be seen as worthy by Pozzo.

So why did Lucky kick Estragon in the shins? As I have been thinking about this, it struck me that Lucky's behaviour corresponds exactly with those who have fully submitted to their lot in life. My first realization of this tickled out from Noam Chomsky's reference to the 'benevolence' expressed by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to 'his' workers in 1896:

These are the fruits of the fierce corporate campaign undertaken as soon as American workers finally won the right to organize in the mid-1930s, after long years of bitter struggle and violent repression
unmatched in the industrial world. Perhaps we may even return to the days when the admired philanthropist Andrew Carnegie could preach the virtues of "honest, industrious, self-denying poverty" to the victims of the great depression of 1896, shortly after he had brutally crushed the steel workers union at Homestead, while announcing that the defeated workers had sent him a wire saying, "Kind master, tell us what you wish us to do and we will do it for you." It was because he knew "how sweet and happy and pure the home of honest poverty is" that Carnegie sympathized with the rich, he explained, meanwhile sharing their grim fate in his lavishly appointed mansions fn37 (37. Sexton, Patricia Cayo. The War on Labor and the Left Westview 1991, p83f.)

So a well-ordered society should run, according to the "vile maxim of the masters." (Year 501: The Conquest Continues, pg. 56-7).
Eventually, the people brutalized recognize the futility of fighting it, and so beat anyone who might offer them hope as being trouble makers or a threat to the status quo. Social critic and comic Bill Maher makes frequent reference to the American labourer who descries as a kind of evil the benefits European workers get in terms of time off, health, paternal benefits, etc. instead of struggling to achieve them for themselves.

Similarly, in the movie Guess Who's Coming for Dinner the parents actively dissuade the interracial couple because there would be trouble for the couple and their parents, too. Freedom roped off with fear.

Lucky is Estragon and Vladimir. Lucky is enslaved to Pozzo by choice — more specifically having chosen willingly or not to accept the lack of choice — not the rope. Estragon and Vladimir are enslaved to the hope of Godot providing them their direction in life.

The metaphors are obvious: we make our choices to remain as we are, whether we are societally successful or not, by accepting the situation we find ourselves in by submitting to choices others have made for us, then hoping that abandoning our Selves to those seen or unseen others will bring us succour.

The challenge, here, is twofold. The courage to see things exactly as they are within ourselves and in the society, and the wisdom to know what can and cannot be changed. I have no idea how either of these things are done.

This play is endlessly rich in meaning. I would now like to see it, and to produce an amateur production of it — or perhaps a reading. Hmmmm.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

2011.11.12 — The Dock Brief & Other Plays by John Mortimer & Two Tiny Fushigi* — finished 2011.10.29

Started 2011.10.22
Finished 2011.11.12

John Mortimer.
The Dock Brief & Other Plays.
New York: Grove Press Inc., 1962.

The two other plays are I Spy and What Shall we Tell Caroline? With Caroline I experienced two tiny but distinct *fushigi. The first one began with a conversation with my used bookseller of our both having extensively read Hardy Boys. (Click Caroline to go to an extract of the play. Click fushigi #1 to go to fushigi #1. Click fushigi #2 to go to fushigi #2. Click Dockbrief to go to an extract from Dockbrief.)

I stumbled into this book of three plays while looking for something else. I was both excited and surprised to learn that the author of the excellent Rumpole of the Bailey series and books had also written plays.

I came to these comedies with very high expectations, and so it is unlikely anything would have met them. However, these plays were far less than I thought they'd be. I have given them three stars instead of the two I was tempted to confer in order to compensate for dishonourably possessing those unrealistic expectations. Sadly the best writing came in the introduction Mortimer wrote:
"Comedy is, to my mind," writes John Mortimer, "the only thing worth writing in this despairing age, providing it is comedy which is truly on the side of the lonely, the neglected and unsuccessful.... In all plays, as in any sort of writing, what seems to me important is the moment of recognition: the small time when you realize, sitting in a theatre, with a shock of excitement and unease, that you are watching yourself."
I've been wrestling with what it was about the plays that didn't engage me and it comes down to believability and sympathy.

I didn't believe the situations, especially for The Dock Brief and What Shall We Tell Caroline? And I found the writing within the prescribed situations to have humour but lacked what ever it is in writing that takes completely unbelievable characters and makes them believably human. I was unable to empathize with them.

Finally it struck me that the characters, male and female, all had a very similar voice. At least that was I how I interpreted my reaction/feeling about what I'd read. But when I re-read that, that wasn't really the case. What gave me that impression was a common feeling of flippant irreverence in the characters language. I suspect that seeing a production with competent actors would largely eliminate this 'problem,' but as I read it came across monotone.

In 1961 Lewis Funke in his New York Times review of What Shall We Tell Caroline? and The Dock Brief closed his mostly negative review with "The Dock Brief has been done with reported success in other cities abroad. It would be interesting to know how that was accomplished."

Perhaps my reaction is simply a measure of my getting older. I have become jaded because in my real life experience I have certainly seen incompetent boob-heads successfully rise into positions of real authority and power. And since truth is stranger than fiction, and with my now living this kind of boob-head truth, its written portrayal is stuck competing against that unbelievable truth.

Anyway, a very easy and marginally fun read. I did see flashes here and there of what was to come from Mortimer with Rumpole of the Bailey, and 'she who must be obeyed.'

I've included three extracts, one from The Dockbrief and two from What Shall We Tell Caroline?
The Dockbrief

MORGENHALL: [barrister] Now. Let's get our minds in order.

FOWLE: [accused of murder] Sort things out.

MORGENHALL: Exactly. Now, this wife of yours.

FOWLE: Doris?

MORGENHALL: Doris. A bitter, unsympathetic woman?

FOWLE: She was always cheerful. She loved jokes.

MORGENHALL: Oh, Fowle. Do be very careful.

FOWLE: I will, sir. But if you'd known Doris. . . . She laughed harder than she worked. "Thank God," she'd say, "for my old English sense of fun."

MORGENHALL: What sort of jokes, Fowle, did this Doris appreciate?

FOWLE: All sorts. Pictures in the paper. Jokes on the wireless set. Laughs out of crackers, she'd keep them from Christmas to Christmas and trot them out in August.

MORGENHALL: You couldn't share it?

FOWLE: Not to that extent. I often missed the funny point.

MORGENHALL: Then you'd quarrel?

FOWLE: "Don't look so miserable, it may never happen." She said that every night when I came home. "Where'd you get that miserable expression from?"

MORGENHALL: I can see it now. There is a kind of Sunday evening appearance to you.

FOWLE: I was quite happy. But it was always "Cat got your tongue?" "Where's the funeral?" "Play us a tune on that old fiddle face of yours. Lucky there's one of us here that can see the funny side." Then we had to have our tea with the wireless on, so that she'd pick up the phrases.

MORGENHALL: You're not a wireless lover?

FOWLE: I couldn't always laugh. And she'd be doubled up across the table, gasping as if her lungs were full of water. "Laugh," she'd call, "Laugh, damn you. What've you got to be so miserable about?" Then she'd go under, bubbling like a drowning woman.

MORGENHALL: Made meals difficult?

FOWLE: Indigestible. I would have laughed, but the jokes never tickled me.

MORGENHALL: They tickled her?

FOWLE: Anything did. Anything a little comic. Our names were misfortunate.

MORGENHALL: Your names?

FOWLE: Going down the aisle she said: "Now we're cock and hen, aren't we, old bird?" Coming away, it was "Now I'm Mrs. Fowle, you'll have to play fair with me." She laughed so hard we couldn't get her straightened up for the photograph.

MORGENHALL: Fond of puns, I gather you're trying to say.

FOWLE: Of any sort of joke. I had a little aviary at the bottom of my garden. As she got funnier so I spent more time with my birds. Budgerigars are small parrots. Circles round their eyes give them a sad, tired look.

MORGENHALL: You found them sympathetic?

FOWLE: Restful. Until one of them spoke out at me.

MORGENHALL: Spoke—what words?

FOWLE: "Don't look so miserable, it may never happen."

MORGENHALL: The bird said that?

FOWLE: She taught it during the day when I was out at work. It didn't mean to irritate.

MORGENHALL: It was wrong of her of course. To lead on your bird like that.

FOWLE: But it wasn't him that brought me to it. It was Bateson, the lodger.

MORGENHALL: Another man?

FOWLE: At long last.

MORGENHALL: I can see it now. A crime of passion. An unfaithful wife. In flagrant. ... Of course, you don't know what that means. We'll reduce it to manslaughter right away. A wronged husband and there's never a dry eye in the jury-box. You came in and caught them.

FOWLE: Always laughing together.

MORGENHALL: Maddening.

FOWLE: He knew more jokes than she did.

MORGENHALL: Stealing her before your eyes?

FOWLE: That's what I thought. He was a big man. Ex-police. Said he'd been the scream of the station. I picked him for her specially. In the chitty I put up in the local sweet shop, I wrote: "Humorous type of lodger wanted."

MORGENHALL: But wasn't that a risk?

FOWLE: Slight, perhaps. But it went all right. Two days after he came he poised a bag of flour to fall on her in the kitchen. Then she sewed up the legs of his pyjamas. They had to hold on to each other so as not to fall over laughing. "Look at old misery standing there," she said. "He can never see anything subtle."

MORGENHALL: Galling for you. Terribly galling.

FOWLE: I thought all was well. I spent more time with the birds. I'd come home late and always be careful to scrunch the gravel at the front door. I went to bed early and left them with the Light Programme. On Sunday mornings I fed the budgies and suggested he took her tea in bed. "Laughter," she read out from her horoscope, "leads to love, even for those born under the sign of the Virgin."

MORGENHALL: You trusted them. They deceived you.

FOWLE: They deceived me all right. And I trusted them. Especially after I'd seen her on his knee and them both looking at the cartoons from one wrapping of chips.

MORGENHALL: Mr. Fowle I'm not quite getting the drift of your evidence. My hope is—your thought may not prove a shade too involved for our literal- minded judge. Old Tommy Banter was a Rugger blue in '98. He never rose to chess and his draughts had a brutal, unintelligent quality.

FOWLE: When he'd first put his knee under her I thought he'd do the decent thing. I thought I'd have peace in my little house at last. The wireless set dead silent. The end of all that happy laughter. No sound but the twitter from the end of the garden and the squeak of my own foot on the linoleum.

MORGENHALL: You wanted. . . .

FOWLE: I heard them whispering together and my hopes raised high. Then I came back and he was gone.

MORGENHALL: She'd. . . .

FOWLE: Turned him out. Because he was getting over familiar. " I couldn't have that. " she said. " I may like my laugh, but thank God, I'm still respectable. No thank you, there's safety in marriage. So I'm stuck with you, fiddle face. Let's play a tune on it, shall we?" She'd sent him away, my last hope.

MORGENHALL: So you . . . .

FOWLE: I realise I did wrong.

MORGENHALL: You could have left.

FOWLE: Who'd have fed the birds? That thought was uppermost.

MORGENHALL: So it's not a crime of passion? (28-31)
Now, an extract from What Shall We Tell Caroline? And, oddly enough, it includes a tiny fushigi. To go directly to the fushigi click here, otherwise, carry on reading.
What Shall We Tell Caroline?

TONY: Many, many, happies, Caroline dear. (He stoops to kiss the top of her head. Caroline lifts her face and kisses him on the mouth. She is still expressionless. He sits down, disconcerted, patting his lips with his handkerchief.)

LILY: Caroline, my baby. Don't grow up any more. (Lily hugs Caroline like a child and then sits down.)

ARTHUR: She didn't like you saying that.

TONY: She didn't mind. (Pause while Lily begins to cry.)

ARTHUR: (suddenly loses his temper) Will you provoke me, Bin, with these bloody waterworks?

TONY: Look. She hasn't noticed her presents yet.

ARTHUR: She was upset.

TONY: No she wasn't. (Caroline looks down at her place and lifts her hands in amazement. Her face is still without expression.)

LILY: (recovering) She's seen them now.

ARTHUR: (eagerly) She may open mine first.

TONY: Well, of all the selfish....

ARTHUR: She's going to. I hope you didn't notice me buying it, Caroline, in the High Street yesterday. Creeping out ofW. H. Smith's.

TONY: Now you've given the game away.

ARTHUR: What are you hinting?

TONY: The mention of W. H. Smith. Now she can rule out stockings or underwear or any nice toilet water. (Caroline shakes the parcel.)

TONY: Now she's guessed what it is.

ARTHUR: I don't believe she has. (Caroline shakes her head.)

ARTHUR: No, she hasn't. (Caroline opens the parcel, it contains a Halma set and three boy's adventure books.) [Here's the fushigi, which began October 22, Saturday, with my talking to my local used bookseller about our childhood reads. The conversation turned specifically to the boys adventure series, The Hardy Boys. And I read this on Monday, October 24th.)

TONY: Same old things. She's bored with Halma.

ARTHUR: No she's not.

TONY: Yes she is.

ARTHUR: Anyway it's a wholesome game, Peters, unlike the indoor sports you're addicted to.

TONY: And these books. You only buy them to read them yourself. Three midshipmen stranded on a desert island. (Picks up one and starts to read.) "Give over tickling. Harry, giggled his chum, little guessing it was the hairy baboon that had crept up behind the unsuspecting youngsters...."

ARTHUR: She appreciates it.

LILY: (soothingly) Of course she does, don't let's quarrel. Not on the birthday.

TONY: (putting down the book) I suppose it takes all tastes.

LILY: Perhaps now she'll open mine. (Caroline picks up a parcel.)

LILY: I made it for you, dear. It took so long. It seem to have been making it all my life.( Caroline opens the parcel. A long sweater, white and endless with the school colours at the neck. She holds it in front of herself. It's far too long.)

LILY: Oh Caroline. There's too much of it. I had far too much spare time.

TONY: (putting his hand on Lily's shoulder) She likes it. She thinks it'll keep her warm.

ARTHUR: Warm? Keep her warm did you say? I tell you it's perfectly warm here, all the year round.

TONY: There now. Headmaster. Lily's right. We shouldn't quarrel on the birthday. And look. She's knitted in the school colours. That'll cheer you up, you know. When you see those colours always round your daughter.

ARTHUR: At least it shows some sense of loyalty.

TONY: Of course, not being, strictly speaking, a parent my present, gets opened last.

ARTHUR: (resentfully) A treat saved up for you. (Caroline picks up Tony's present. Holds it against her cheek. Listens to it.)

TONY: I believe.... Yes. I think I am right in saying (radio commentator's voice). "The ceremony is just about to begin. It's a wonderful spectacle here to-day. The Lady Mayoress has released the pigeons. The massed bands are striking up. The Boy Scouts are fainting in unprecedented numbers and...." (Caroline undoes the parcel, produces a gilt powder compact).

ARTHUR: What can it be? (Caroline opens the compact and sprinkles powder on her nose.) (81-3)

And now, for fushigi #2. Again, small, but directly on point. On October 26th, Wednesday, I did something I haven't done in more than 3 years. I had lunch with SJ. We were talking about various things, catching up. The conversation turned to personal growth and the interpersonal challenges of living with spouses. I suggested that a book I found very helpful, perhaps the most helpful because of its absolute basic approach to living, was Thirsty Swimming in the Lake by David K. Reynolds. There are two basic components to his approach: do what needs to be done and acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of others, including parents no matter how flawed, for contributing tangibly and realistically to your being alive. This was a quite extensive conversation.

Well, that night I resumed reading What Shall We Tell Caroline? and within a few minutes of opening the book I read the following:

ARTHUR: But you don't know why she didn't speak? I told you, Peters, all the terms of endearment start shouting and screaming when I utter them. When I love someone all my love turns to irritation. I lost my temper with Caroline! I hit her! I actually hit her!

LILY (crossing towards him): No dear. You didn't.

ARTHUR: How do you know?

TONY: We were here in the room. You didn't hit her, Headmaster.

ARTHUR (deflated): I did. I wanted to hit her. After that, I thought she didn't speak. The nervous shock. Was it the nervous shock do you think, either of you?

LILY: Perhaps she didn't want to.

TONY: Or she had nothing to say to us. Although we had enough to say to her ….

LILY: Who shall we talk to now?

TONY: Each other. Lily. Always to each other.

LILY: Caroline! Why should she have to go. Tony?

TONY: She has to go sometime.

ARTHUR: I made her go. I hit her. I must have hit her. There's no other explanation.

TONY (sits down in the basket-chair and picks up his ukulele): How shall we ever know?

ARTHUR: What do you mean. For God's sake explain what you mean?

TONY: Was it your temper or her temper that
stopped her speaking? Was it just the complete lack of interest that overcomes all children at the thought of the parents who gave them birth?

ARTHUR: I wasn't responsible?

TONY: What's responsible for Caroline as she is? What you told her? What you didn't tell her? The fact we told her a lie? The fact we told her the truth? Look back, Arthur. Look back. Lily do. What made us what we are? Anything our fathers and mothers said? More likely something that happened when we were all alone. Something we thought of for ourselves, looking for a passable disguise in a dusty attic, or for a path that didn't exist in the hot summer in the middle of a wood that smelt of nettles.

ARTHUR: Is that how you found things out?

TONY: My dear old headmaster. I've never found out anything. I'm not a parent, but in my weak moments, like this afternoon, I've wanted to tell things to the young. Why do we do it? Not to give them information, but to make them repeat our lives. That's all. It's finished with us and we don't want it to be finished. We'd like them to do it for us—all over again. It'll be better for Caroline to work in the bank. If only her adding weren't quite so shaky. Let's hope she errs. Headmaster, on the side of generosity. (Lily gets up and begins to put things on a tray.)

ARTHUR: What are you doing. Bin?

LILY: Clearing away the tea. (She goes out with the tray.)

TONY (looking at his watch): Just ten minutes and the boys have to stop their so called " free time " and be hoarded into prep. I shall sit with them in silence (113-114).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

2011.10.23 — The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje — finished 2011.10.17

Began 2011.09.27.
Michael Ondaatje.
The Cat's Table.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7710-6864-5.

Michael Ondaatje is one of the true masters of English poetry in prose. But when I learned that The Cat's Table was in the style of a memoir, I was slightly disappointed because, with some exceptions, I have not been fond of memoirs as such. However I felt curious and expectant that he would convert me. He did. He exceeded expectation because he managed, again, to convince me while reading his latest book that the one in my hands is my new Ondaatje favourite.


And to describe it as a memoir is an accurate description, but only in the same way that to say the sky is blue is accurate: it misses the complexity of the experience. The arc of the story is a memoir of a pre-pubescent boy sent to England on a ship with scant adult supervision. Some critics I've read found that to be a stumbling point, but my childhood spent with scant adult supervision for extended periods of time is eerily echoed in how Michael interacts with the adult social marginals he and his new found friends are assigned to sit with at the cat's table, which is, I learned in this book, that one table in a public space that no one wants to be seated at. Thus he is lumped in with the ship's other dining room undesirables and comes to learn that what does not glitter may very well yield gold and beyond that the even more valuable stuff of a lived life.

In the Q&A portion of the reading I attended, Ondaatje insisted that the book is not a memoir. He claims that, even though he did take a ship from Columbo to England as a child the age of the protagonist, Michael, he has little if even any memory of it. Ondaatje avers that his unremembered childhood trip sparked an idea for a story, that evolved as it was written, to include unexpected characters moving downstage into significance that
he had not imagined.

Regardless memoir or fiction, Ondaatje's writing here is as beautiful as anything he has written:
A peculiarity of Miss Lasqueti was that she was a sleeper. Someone who at certain hours during the day could barely stay awake. You saw her fighting it. This struggle made her endearing, as if she were forever warding off an unjustified punishment. You'd walk past her in a deck chair, her head falling slowly towards the book she was attempting to read. She was in many ways our table's ghost, for it was also revealed that she sleepwalked, a dangerous habit on a ship. A sliver of white, I see her always, against the dark rolling sea.

What was her future? What had been her past? She was the only one from the Cat's Table who was able to force us out of ourselves in order to imagine another's life. I admit it was mostly Ramadhin who coaxed this empathy from Cassius and me. Ramadhin was always the most generous of the three of us. But for the first time in our lives we began to sense there was an unlairness in someone else's life. Miss Lasqueti had, I remember, "gunpowder tea," which she mixed with a cup of hot water at our table, then poured into a thermos before she left us for the afternoon. You could actually see the flush enter her face as the drink knocked her awake (p74).
Sleep is a prison* for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship. We could not wait to continue exploring this universe. Lying in my bunk I would hear Ramadhin's gentle knock on the door, in code. A pointless code, really—who else could it have been at that hour? Two taps, a long pause, another tap. If I did not climb down and open the door I would hear his theatrical cough. And if I still did not respond, I would hear him whisper "Mynah," which had become my nickname (p24).
*I read the evocative phrase Sleep is a prison the day after I finished reading the play A Sleep of Prisoners. The uniqueness of both phrases — I hadn't read either one anywhere that I remember — has prompted me to include this as a fushigi. Or at least close enough for me to blog it as such. [Addendum: The Cat's Table is also loosely entangled in another, 'future' fushigi, involving cats. See The Cat & the Camel blog.]

Beyond the sheer beauty of the writing Ondaatje seamlessly moves through the story using various voices. He has captured with perfection what I remember as the feelings of childhood wonder and acceptance of the process of being alive through Michael's eyes. Things simply are: the trip, the people, the intense life changing friendship that lasted for only 21 days. But Ondaatje also brings to the telling the reflectiveness of an adult considering a particular childhood passage. And he does this with a grace and lightness of touch that manages to keep the child's feeling of life's magic fully alive. And then he plays the omniscient writer's role to elaborate the background of two of the characters.

And Ondaatje brings to fruition a mystery that is introduced, invisibly, quite early, that becomes a mystery well into the book, and closes with human simplicity and gentle, quiet satisfaction.

All seamlessly. A breathtakingly beautiful and fulfilling read.

Friday, September 30, 2011

2011.09.26 — A Sleep of Prisoners by Christopher Fry — finished

Christopher Fry.
A Sleep of Prisoners.
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1952.


I found this to be an extremely difficult play to read. If A Sleep of Prisoners had been straight prose I'd have given it only one star. I think that I like what I think Fry was trying to do, but it just didn't quite work for me. I've been wrestling with pinpointing the source of my antipathy, and it comes down to basically three reasons.

The first is an inherently confusing structure. The four actors in the drama play their 'title' characters which are foot soldiers being held in a church, but while sleep-walking they also portray different figures from the Old Testament at different times and sometimes more than one them. Thus the various soldiers are at various times either awake or asleep but sleep-walk and sleep-talk, and in some cases interact physically.

This is the part I like in theory because the play takes on the confused structure of a dream and creatively turns the play itself into a series of dreams within dreams. Unfortunately that structure is inherently prone to confusion, amusingly very much like when trying to recall a multi-layered dream. Sadly Fry wasn't able to overcome that confusion, with me, and I found myself frequently and repeatedly unsure if the designated speaker was awake or asleep and personifying Abel or God. It was with growing frustration that I found myself frequently flipping back to see who was whom.

Branagh in The Lady's Not for Burning
It is probable that seeing the production would help keep the distinctions. However, and most importantly, the second failure was that Fry forced the language in a way that surprised me after my having read and seen two versions of his brilliant 'The Lady's Not For Burning'.

And he forced it in two ways, both of which added to the confusion. The first was in shrilly striving to be profound and rustic at the same time. Perhaps here he was trying to emulate Shakespeare's Feste from Twelfth Night, but failed.
Ben Kingsley's Feste

The other way that the language failed was in how nearly identical the four soldiers sounded to each other, whether awake or sleep talking a Biblical figure. I suspect that this may well have been a result of Fry trying to have all the characters say accidentally profound and even memorable things.

And here is the final reason: the meaning was heavy-handed and coloured unfavourably by an excessively sentimental existential angst. Let's see if this citation captures what I mean.
DAVID.                                          Oh, go
And discard yourself. G'night, Corporal Joseph Adams.

[ADAMS goes to his bunk.
MEADOWS turns in his sleep.
The church clock strikes a single note.

MEADOWS [asleep]. Who's that, fallen out? How many men?
How many? I said only one.
One was enough.
No, no, no. I didn't ask to be God.
No one else prepared to spell the words.
Spellbound. B-o-u-n-d. Ah-h-h-h …

[He turns in his sleep again.

It's old Adam, old, old, old Adam.
Out of bounds. No one said fall out.
What time did you go to bad?
Sorrow, Adam, stremely sorrow.

[CORPORAL ADAMS comes towards him,
a dream figure.

Adam, Adam, stand easy there.

ADAMS. Reporting for duty, sir.

MEADOWS. As you were, Adam.

ADAMS. No chance of that, sir.

MEADOWS. As you were, as you were.

ADAMS. Lost all track of it now, sir.

MEADOWS. How far back was it, Adam?

ADAMS [with a jerk of the head].
Down the road. Too dark to see.

MEADOWS. Were you alone?

ADAMS.                           A woman with me, sir.

MEADOWS. I said Let there be love,
And there wasn't enough light, you say?

ADAMS. We could see our own shapes, near enough,
But not the road. The road kept on dividing
Every yard or so. Makes it long.
We expected nothing like it, sir.
Ill-equipped, naked as the day,
It was all over and the world was on us
Before we had time to take cover.

MEADOWS. Stand at peace, Adam: do stand at peace.

ADAMS. There's nothing of that now, sir.

MEADOWS. Corporal Adam.

ADAMS.                      Sir?

MEADOWS.                         You have shown spirit.

ADAMS. Thank you, sir.
Excuse me, sir, but there's some talk of a future.
I've had no instructions.

MEADOWS [turning in his sleep]. Ah-h-h-h-h.

ADAMS. Is there any immediate anxiety of that?

[DAVID, as the dream figure of Cam, stands leaning on the lectern, chewing at a beet.

How far can we fall back, sir?

DAVID [smearing his arms with beet juice].
Have you lost something?

ADAMS. Yes, Cain: yes, I have.

DAVID. Have you felt in all your pockets?

ADAMS. Yes, and by searchlight all along the grass
For God knows howling. Not a sign,
Not a sign, boy, not a ghost.

DAVID.                               When do you last
Remember losing it?

ADAMS.                   When I knew it was mine.
As soon as I knew it was mine I felt
I was the only one who didn't know
My host.

DAVID.      Poor overlooked
Old man. Allow me to make the introduction.
God: man. Man: God.

[PETER, the dream figure of Abel, is in the organ-loft fingering out ''Now the day is over'.

ADAMS. I wish it could be so easy.

DAVID. Sigh, sigh, sigh!
The hot sun won't bring you out again
If you don't know how to behave.
Pretty much like mutiny. I'd like to remind you
We're first of all men, and complain afterwards.
[Calling.] Abel! Abel! Hey, flock-headed Peter,
Come down off those mountains.
Those bleating sheep can look after themselves.
Come on down.

PETER.             What for?

DAVID.                            Because I said so!

PETER [coming down]. I overlooked the time. Is it day or night?

DAVID. You don't deserve to inherit the earth.
Am I supposed to carry the place alone?

PETER. Where will you carry it?
Where do you think you're going to take it to,
This prolific indifference?
Show me an ending great enough
To hold the passion of this beginning
And raise me to it.
Day and night, the sun and moon
Spirit us, we wonder where. Meanwhile
Here we are, we lean on our lives
Expecting purpose to keep her date,
Get cold waiting, watch the overworlds
Come and go, question the need to stay
But do, in an obstinate anticipation of love.
Ah, love me, it's a long misuse of breath
For boys like us. When do we start?

DAVID. When you suffering god'sbodies
Come to your senses. What you'll do
Is lose us life altogether.
Amply the animal is Cain, thank God,
As he was meant to be: a huskular strapling
With all his passions about him. Tomorrow
Will know him well. Momentous doings
Over the hill for the earth and us.
What hell else do you want?

PETER.                               The justification.

DAVID. Oh, bulls and bears to that.
The word's too long to be lived.
Just if, just if, is as far as ever you'll see.

PETER. What's man to be?

DAVID.                         Content and full.

PETER. That's modest enough.
What an occupation for eternity.
Sky's hollow filled as far as for ever
With rolling light: place without limit,
Time without pity:
And did you say all for the sake of our good condition,
All for our two-footed prosperity?
Well, we should prosper, considering
The torment squandered on our prospering.
From squid to eagle the ravening is on.
We are all pain-fellows, but nothing you dismay,
Man is to prosper. Other lives, forbear
To blame me, great and small forgive me
If to your various agonies
My light should seem hardly enough
To be the cause of the ponderable shadow.

DAVID. Who do you think you are, so Angel-sick?
Pain warns us to be master: pain prefers us.
Draws us up.

PETER.          Water into the sun:
All the brooding clouds of us!

DAVID.                                  All right.
We'll put it to the High and Mighty.
Play you dice to know who's favoured.

PETER. What's he to do with winning?

DAVID.                                           Play you dice.
Not so sure of yourself, I notice.

PETER. I'll play you. Throw for first throw.
Now creation be true to creatures.

ADAMS. Look, sir, my sons are playing.
How silent the spectators are,
World, air, and water.
Eyes bright, tension, halt.
Still as a bone from here to the sea.

DAVID [playing]. Ah-h-h-h!

ADAMS. Sir, my sons are playing. Cain's your man.
He goes in the mould of passion as you made him,
He can walk this broken world as easily
As I and Eve the ivory light of Eden.
I recommend him. The other boy
Frets for what never came his way,
Will never reconcile us to our exile.
Look, sir, my sons are playing.
Sir, let the future plume itself, not suffer.

PETER [playing]. How's that for a nest of singing birds?

ADAMS. Cain sweats: Cain gleams. Now do you see him?
He gives his body to the game.
Sir, he's your own making, and has no complaints.

DAVID. Ah! What are you doing to me, heaven and earth?

PETER. Friendly morning.

DAVID [shaking the dice]. Numbers, be true to nature.
Deal me high,
Six dark stars
Come into my sky.
[He throws.
Blight! What's blinding me
By twos and threes? I'm strong, aren't I?
Who's holding me down? Who's frozen my fist
So it can't hatch the damn dice out?

PETER [shaking and throwing].
Deal me high, deal me low.
Make my deeds
My nameless needs.
I know I do not know.
... That brings me home!

[DAVID roars with rage and disappointment. (10-15)
This is typical of the entire play. Forced but false earthy wisdom, and dialogue that makes all the characters sound the same, even when they come from The Bible. I was very disappointed.

But curious to see a production, to see how someone approaches the problems of staging this play. And to see how the presence of individuals acting the play helps to distinguish the dialogue and make it less heavy with sentimental angst.