Saturday, December 13, 2008
But the recent news cycle has provided a better brand of consolation, one more suited to the exceptional times we're living through. Just five days ago the Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI for blatant acts of political corruption only matched by the blatancy of his recorded phone conversations. (His wife's were no church picnic either.) Then yesterday came the news of former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Maddoff's unprecedented $50 billion Ponzi scheme, embroiling some of the country's and indeed the world's most prestigious investors, hedge funds and philanthropies. Whereas Blagojevich had been under investigation for years, Maddoff appears to have flown essentially under the official radar until the recent financial crisis made his historic fraud too hard to hide.
Homecoming puppies are adorable but when we're all hurting and confused nothing succeeds like schadenfreude. The stories of these two men provide precious journalistic theater in a time of troubles, holding a mirror up to our current economic and political disasters but reflecting them in a form everyone can enjoy (at least if you weren't investing with Maddoff). Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus - just don't ask how he funds his operations.
Sunday, October 05, 2008
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Actually I will spare some anger for everyone, Democrat or Republican, who contributed to not passing the bailout package in the House of Representatives yesterday. And for the ugliness and arrogance and stupidity of John McCain's recent carping against Barack Obama on this subject. Though maybe I should take the longer view. One small bright side of the recent crisis amidst so many dark ones is that Democratic presidential candidates always do better in bad economic times. And McCain's posturing and erratic judgement appears to be eroding his support yet further, to judge by polls in the last few days. The more McCain inflates his own role in the Congressional deliberations, the more he blames the Democrats even while touting bipartisanship, the more he's likely to suffer as partisanship by both sides drags out the process and the pain. Happy thoughts!
I don't know if it's the mental image of being on a beach, reminding me of the opening scenes of the movie "Chariots of Fire," but this song from Blake's Milton--which has become a popular Anglican hymn--has been playing in my head for the last few minutes. So let's pause the Rosh Hashanah retrospection and move ahead to post visions of Yom Kippur (as expressed in Blake's crypto-gnostic, post-Christian imagery) of the year to come:
- And did those feet in ancient time
- Walk upon England's mountains green?
- And was the holy Lamb of God
- On England's pleasant pastures seen?
- And did the Countenance Divine
- Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
- And was Jerusalem builded here
- Among these dark Satanic mills?
- Bring me my bow of burning gold:
- Bring me my arrows of desire:
- Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
- Bring me my chariot of fire.
- I will not cease from mental fight,
- Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
- Till we have built Jerusalem
- In England's green and pleasant land.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Whatever the sense of the title, there's less of the cold, dark depths than you might imagine in this book, and much more of the butterfly, fluttering half deliberately half impulsively from memory to fancy to sharp, funny and moving observances of himself and the people and things around him. I think only a French writer could create a book like this from a condition, a history like this. Flipping through the narrow volume of short, evocatively or evasively titled chapters, it strikes me that that protean French prose genre the essai has itself come to the diver's rescue. Or rather it becomes the vehicle (submarine? helicopter?) by which he rescues himself, even while his efforts give a whole new meaning to the form.
I page though the book to find the exact wording of one image that had stuck in my mind, celebrating the letters Bauby receives in the hospital from friends, family and colleagues: "I hoard these letters like treasure. One day I hope to fasten them end to end in a half-mile streamer, to float in the wind like a banner raised to the glory of friendship." I remembered these being the last words in the chapter, which they were, except for this one line closing paragraph: "It will keep the vultures at bay". Interesting that I'd remembered the hopeful fancy not the black humor. There's an ever present, ever shifting mix of both moods in the communications Bauby crafted, as he describes, so carefully in his head before conveying them the world through a carefully orchestrated system of winks -- no stranger a mechanism when you come right down to it than tapping on laptop keys or incising wedge-shaped marks on wet clay.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
What's in a name? Or what's in a word, like 'reformer' or 'deregulation'? The presidential candidates are each trying to cash in on Wall Street's woes -- "John McCain casting himself as an outspoken populist outraged at corporate greed and Barack Obama hammering what he called a Republican-led climate of deregulation that McCain championed" (Boston Globe, 9/17). Personally, I worry that more people will embrace the faux-maverick "populist" who channels their visceral fear and resentment than the earnest liberal who asks his audience to pay mind to legislative and economic history.
Conclusion: did Nicholas Lehmann's immigrant ancestors think "lemon" was less Jewish sounding than the alternative?
Sunday, February 24, 2008
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And changed some part
Of a day I rued.
If I were still a literature teacher I would set my students to pondering the fine blend of the playful and the stately in these short rhymed lines, particularly the concussion of 'mood' and 'rued'. Poor Frost - he couldn't even talk about being happy without thinking about regret. As a genuine countryman, however, he was more careful about projecting his moods onto the natural landscape than Coleridge, in 'Frost at Midnight':
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud--and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
’Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
Sitting inside by fire is obviously more conducive to pathetic fallacy than tromping around in the woods. But Coleridge too discovers a change of mood in his own internalized landscape, blessing the sleeping manchild next to him - as only a citified English Romantic poet can do - with the promise of a daily heaven on earth:
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
What a turn of phrase - 'the secret ministry of frost'. Enough to give you chills, sitting warmly indoors on a sunny weekend morning. I love Robert Frost but I'm more temperamentally aligned with Coleridge, leaving aside his addictive penchant. Still I'll have to face crusty New England nature a little more directly when I start jogging next week. Nothing secret about the ministry of frost on the roads of the North Shore in February.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
If Chekhov had written the tale of my commute, my whimsical self- satisfaction would have been quickly and not so whimsically cut short: I would've forgot myself and rammed a surly marine mechanic in his pickup. Or I would have had to stop to watch someone's aging mother inch her way across the street to 'Our Lady of the Sea' church - putting me in mind of my own mother or my own age. Or I would have simply ignored a sky painted the color of hope as I passed Swampscott harbor. But modern life is not so well-constructed or so true - the sky and the people kept to themselves, and I was able to lose myself in Chekhov's sly, tender and rollicking Russian panoply all the way to Cambridge. The one unexpected twist in the trip, a utility truck fixing a street light near the airport, which backed up traffic to Wonderland, only prolonged the enjoyment. God bless your pointy little beard, Anton Pavlovich!
Saturday, February 09, 2008
Our dog Casey lying in the sun reminds me of John McCain. She is a nine year old Glen of Imaal terrier - in dog years the presumed nominee's junior by almost a decade. But they share the same shaggy eyebrows and truculent, mercurial temperament. Inside the house she is mostly interested in trolling for table scraps, rolling over for belly rubs and digging for badgers under the couch. Outside, when not chasing tennis balls, she sits on the steps barking furiously at any alien dog that passes our gate, or sometimes - to all appearances - at nothing at all. It's her job to patrol the borders and keep the homeland and her family safe. She would definitely stay in Iraq for 100 years, if necessary.
On Super Tuesday Julie and I were riveted to the widescreen TV in the family room, expertly critiquing the talking heads and the production values on CNN, MSNBC and PBS. Today's events in Washington State, Nebraska and Louisiana flew somewhat below my radar. I was more absorbed with with the struggle to choose a new car (Prius..? Matrix..? Jeez, I don't even need a Democratic party bumper sticker...) and another moody Keira Knightly performance at the Danvers Hollywood Hits, this time in the sad, dark, slightly over wrought "Atonement". But at 9 pm I caught up with my Google homepage, which trumpeted the news that Obama won with a margin of nearly 70% in both western states - Louisiana had not yet been called.
This earned approval from the three teenagers in the house, one of whom voted for the first time in Tuesday's primary. They like pretty much all their friends are Obama supporters. Although they may not know much about his platforms he is "the man" - so transparently cool and connected that he might as well be the only candidate in the race.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
“Of what I, your father,” he says, “did to others.” [The Dew Breaker, 22]
Monday, May 01, 2006
A response to “A Star is Shorn”, the Boston Globe’s editorial on Kaavya Viswanathan,
Of course, Chaucer didn't have a profit-hungry publisher and book packager crafting his stories into commercially viable chick lit, while at the same time touting the "freshness of the voice" (to quote a publicity letter cited by Ann Hulbert in Slate). As the Globe and commentators like Hulbert have pointed out, both publisher and packager share some blame for the pressures that led Viswanathan to echo thirty or more passages from one of her favorite novelists. Yet we as readers are at fault as well, demanding books that are "fresh" and "innovative" but also sound just like the other books we like – as long as it's not in a way that's legally actionable. While contestants on American Idol can aspire to be "original" artists by copying famous songs and singers, fiction writers and more importantly fiction publishers must keep the reality of literary imitation a guilty secret.
It's been suggested that Viswanathan's handlers subtly changed her original ideas to make her story more saleable. But we should not take the alleged plagiarism itself as a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ironically, it may be that in echoing and transforming words that inspired to become a creative writer, Viswanathan has most authentically proved herself to be one. She and her handlers just forgot the rest of the modern equation – being creative in covering your tracks.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
[Draft of contribution to Electronic Bulletin of Dante Society of North America]
Canto XII of Purgatorio inhabits the terrace of the Proud, where Dante the Pilgrim purges what might be Dante the Poet’s chief sin. Like the rest of Purgatorio, the events of this Canto interweave outer symbolic spectacle and inner spiritual drama. The center of the spectacle in Canto XII is a striking series of images hewn into the very stones of the Purgatorial mount, combining Classical and Biblical stories in a powerful symbolic narrative of superbia – Pride – the first of the seven cardinal sins. Dante famously uses an acrostic, a popular device of medieval Latin and vernacular poetry, to link these images of pride together so as to spell out V-O-M, short for uomo – “Man” in Italian – embodying in the most literal way the stories’ moral symbolism and this most characteristically human of sins. I will look here at Dante’s study of pride in Canto XII and how his acrostic of Man is rendered in English verse by three translators – Ciardi, Mandelbaum and Esolin.
Since we are in Purgatory, of course, sin punished is also sin transcended and redeemed. Dante’s Purgatorial symbolism shows us how the aspirations of human pride parody and corrupt the deepest and most truly human of aspirations – for God. In Dante’s late medieval Christian theology, such aspirations lead from the grave of the earthly Man, Adam, to the perfected and redeemed Man embodied in the risen Christ, whose story pervades the Easter-time setting of Purgatorio.
The Canto opens with Dante and the shade of Oderisi of Gubbio plodding side by side, “like oxen at the plow.” Virgil, always a step ahead of his companion, psychologically at least, abruptly tells Dante to lift up his head and move forward. The “sweet teacher” now tells his pupil, in Esolin’s pointed rendering, to:
“Come and leave the man 4
For here it's well that each should speed his boat
With wings and oars as quickly as he can.”
Instead, Virgil urges him to:
“Come, turn your eyes and look upon the road. 13
It will be well for you to soothe the way,
Seeing the bed on which you plant your soles.”
It’s a strange bed, and a strange kind of soothing. But Virgil is not being ironic: this is the paradoxical truth of Purgatory, where struggle soothes and painful truths brings rest. The tragedy of all of human history now unrolls before Dante, from the fall of Satan to the fall of
The significance of having the word UOM or “Man” woven into very verbal fabric of a narrative on human pride is profound. While to modern tastes acrostics may seem a mechanical device, they are found in the most serious medieval poetry, providing both a source of structural invention and a hidden key to unlock a work’s meaning. The word “Man” running through these tercets is like a half-obscured title on a statue, declaring: This is where man’s pride can lead. But also (since we are in Purgatory): This is an aspect of fallen man that must be overcome for true, spiritual humanity to appear. As Pontius Pilate says of the mocked and scourged Jesus in his crown of thorns: Ecce Homo – “Behold the Man”.
Like Dante’s other symbolic uses of poetic technique, such as his terza rima, this acrostic has posed a challenge to translators, and most have avoided rendering it directly. John Ciardi (in his 1957 version) was the first English translator to attempt this – deftly transposing Dante’s U-O-M to the three letter English equivalent, M-A-N. Here’s his version of the opening tercet in the series, describing the fall of Lucifer.
Mark there, on one side, him who had been given 25
A nobler form than any other creature.
He plunged like lightning from the
For comparison, here is Singleton’s 1973 prose translation:
“I saw, on the one side, him who was created nobler than any other creature fall as lightning from heaven.”
Dante’s first person past tense, “I saw” or vedea, is rendered by Ciardi as the imperative verb “Mark”. Dante’s three O’s become three “Ah”s (“Ah mad Arachne!”), and “it showed” or Mostrava, becomes “Now see” (“Now see Alcmaeon, there on the hard pavement”).
Ciardi’s syntactic shift from the first person past of “I saw” to the imperative of “Mark” is not just a random grammatical choice. It radically changes how we relate to the poetry. Instead of our viewing the scene through the narrator’s eyes, the narrator – sounding more like Virgil than Dante – commands us to note the image and the lesson it bears. Ciardi might well cite Dante’s own freedom in rendering Virgil and other Latin poets as a model for his bold gesture here. But while his changed wording lends dramatic immediacy, Ciardi sacrifices a haunting quality of the original -- the sense that Dante is not just looking at a picture, but watching the events of history unroll before his eyes.
Dante’s sequence of images ends powerfully with a tercet that incorporates all three letters and all three words of the acrostic, describing the greatest historical example of human pride, the fall of
Now see your hollow shell upon that stone.
Ciardi the poet is at engagingly work here, but his lyricism obscures the blunt mixture of sorrow and divine contempt in the original Italian. To quote Singleton’s prose version again:
Allan Mandelbaum, a more recent translator (1983) is also a poet like Ciardi, and also works inventively to preserve some of Dante’s poetic structure. His approach focuses less on the rigid Italian rhyme scheme and more on Dante’s play of formal and vernacular diction and line to line syntactic flow. Mandelbaum for his part doesn’t try to reproduce Dante’s acrostic in Canto XII, translating the tercets more literally with “I saw”, “O”, and “It showed”. Looking again at the first and the last tercets in Dante’s parade of Pride, we can see how – while lacking some of Ciardi’s music – he better approximates Dante’s stately sentence flow from line to line of verse
I saw, to one side of the path, one who 25
had been created nobler than all other
beings, falling lightning-like from Heaven.
The description of the fall of
O Ilium, your effigy in stone-
it showed you there so squalid, so cast down!
Mandelbaum shows us proud
The Purgatorio’s most recent translator, Esolin, returns to Ciardi’s formalism while preserving some of the rhythmic fidelity of Mandelbaum. He also renders the acrostic with M-A-N, though with a slight change of wording, translating Vedea again as “Mark…”, the exclamatory O as “Alas” (vs. Ciardi’s “Ah”), and the Mostrava lines starting with “Now…” but with more varied phrasing than Ciardi’s. As Esolin notes in his “Introduction”, he avoids Ciardi’s strict rhyme scheme, favoring rhyme or near rhyme only when available without too much strain – such as in the opening tercet of this passage:
Mark, on this side, the one whom the Most High 25
Created as the noblest of his creatures—
And see him fall like lightning from the sky.
Having embraced the imperative mood in the first line, he continues it in the final one (“see him fall like lightning from the sky”), preserving the sense of history passing before our eyes that Ciardi lost. Here, as in many other instances, Esolin does better than either predecessor in conveying not just the literal sense but the poetry and the pathos of Dante’s stony anthology of sin.
He is not always so felicitous, however. In his rendering of the fall of
Mark Troy, in gutted palaces and ash. 61
Now show you for a thing of scorn, and trash!
Ultimately, of course, both translators and readers of Dante are in the same boat as Dante himself, as he tries to convey in human language the more than human realities of spiritual life. Whether reading in English or in Italian, we have to lift our vision to grasp symbols and meanings that are beyond any “master of pen or stylus”, as Dante describes this walk of sculpted images. Even in Dante’s Italian, the acrostic of UOM is partially hidden, a kind of riddle that has to be glimpsed and deciphered by the attentive reader. In the Commedia, one must always look beyond the images of the otherworld, even beyond their function as metaphor, to grasp their real significance – as the poet now goes on to illustrate. The Canto ends the way it began, with Virgil telling Dante to turn away from the sights of sin, and “lift up your head./ The time is past for walking so intent” (77). Compared to the start, Dante is now more able to see and understand for himself, but his mind and vision are not yet completely free:
More of the mountain had we gone about 73
and far more of the sun’s race was now spent
than could my mind believe, all bound in thought,
Feeling humbled, but unexpectedly rewarded for his piety, Dante looks up to see an angel rushing towards him and his companion – rather their having to move towards it. Virgil tells Dante:
“With reverence dress your face and bearing now, 82
that he may please to let us climb beyond—
and think, this day may never dawn again”
We might say that what Virgil asks Dante to present, in his own “face and bearing”, is the authentic image of a humbled, redeemed humanity – not Man in history as we’ve seen sculpted on stone, or the title MAN inscribed in a poet’s ingenious acrostic, but mere man facing himself and the prospect of salvation. Which is not to say the Purgatorio is beyond wordplay even here. We see this vividly at the end of the Canto, when the same angel beats its wings over Dante’s forehead, removing the first of the seven P’s (for peccati, “sins”) that both scar and adorn the poet’s face, like another crown of thorns. Dante, it turns out, is nothing less than a living acrostic himself.