26 March 2008

Recent readings on Iraq, myth, politics and more

Two must-reads on current events:

-David Brooks on the Obama-Clinton race.

-"Bush's War," a PBS Frontline documentary with extraordinary cinematography and interviews with key players involved in the political decisions surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I highly recommend watching it (it's free online), or at least poking around the website a bit. The site includes an annotated video timeline and transcripts from over 400 interviews.


"Biography, psychology, sociology, history," (historian John Demos) has written: "four corners of one scholar's compass, four viewpoints overlooking a single field of past experience." ...Once you have decided on such a multi-disciplinary approach, where do you stop? How wide do you open your arms? ...If you opt to be eclectic, there is no limit to scholarship, no end to your book. Yet you know you are working closer to some sort of truth.

Hilary Mantel
--Review of John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive; quoted in Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics & Theology in Myth

He was really a little fresh with that girl, I was mortified there for a moment. But then what he said about human dignity, afterward, sounded so spiffing, like formal oratory.
And, then, I'm not all that rash about forming opinions. I look at people and think: So that's how you are? Well, fine.

Thomas Mann
--The Magic Mountain


The chameleon quality of myth works in opposition to the more monolithic and dogmatic aspects of religion; where myth encourages a wide range of beliefs, dogma would narrow that range. Martin Buber made this point very well indeed:

All positive religion rests on an enormous simplification of the manifold and wildly engulfing forces that invade us: it is the subduing of the fullness of existence. All myth, in contrast, is the expression of the fullness of existence, its image, its sign; it drinks incessantly from the gushing fountains of life. Hence religion fights myth where it cannot absorb and incorporate it. ...It is strange and wonderful to observe how in this battle religion ever again wins the apparent victory, myth ever again wins the real one.

In the dark of bigotry, all the people you hate look alike.
The assumption that all members of a class are alike has been used in many cultures to demean the sexual or racial Other. After all, the essence of prejudice has been defined as the assumption that an unknown individual has all the characteristics of the group to which he or she belongs. "People like you," or "They're all alike," is always an offensive phrase. Racism and sexism are alike in their practice of clouding the judgment so that the Other is beneath contempt, or at least beneath recognition; they dehumanize, deindividualize, the racially and sexually Other. "All Japanese look alike" is the racist counterpart to the sexist "In the dark, all cats are gray." The use of large numbers to obscure humanity, particularly political Others, is a well-known sexist trick, too: Mozart/Da Ponte's Don Giovanni boasted, famously, that he had seduced a thousand and three women in Spain.

Wendy Doniger
--The Implied Spider: Politics & Theology in Myth (highly recommended)

24 March 2008

Readings from Mann, Golley, and Eliot

-Must-read: the New York Times on a severe case of protracted bullying. This is real, and it's an enormous problem. There is a spectrum of school violence ranging from verbal harassment and bullying all the way to school shootings, and it needs to be taken more seriously and addressed more quickly at every stage. An atmosphere of security and mutual respect in classrooms is essential to students' well-being and ability to learn.


A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries. ...All sorts of personal goals, purposes, hopes, prospects may float before the eyes of a given individual, from which he may then glean the impulse for exerting himself for great deeds; if the impersonal world around him, however, if the times themselves, despite all their hustle and bustle, provide him with neither hopes nor prospects, if they secretly supply him with evidence that things are in fact hopeless, without prospect or remedy, if the times respond with hollow silence to every conscious or subconscious question, however it may be posed, about the ultimate, unequivocal meaning of all exertions and deeds that are more than exclusively personal - then it is almost inevitable...that the situation will have a crippling effect, which, following moral and spiritual paths, may even spread to that person's physical and organic life.
Two days of travel separate this young man (and young he is, with few firm roots in life) from his everyday world, especially from what might be called his duties, interests, worries, and prospects - separate him far more than he had dreamed possible as he rode to the station in a hansom cab. Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time; from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways. Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing an individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state - indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and a philistine into something like a vagabond. Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink; and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly.

Thomas Mann
--The Magic Mountain

"All divine attributes have been taken over by human hands," (Hirato Renkichi) wrote. "Today, the engine of God is the engine of the city, and partakes in the activities of humanity's millions." Almost every sentence of this document seems to anticipate Paul Virilio's 1997 equation of "new technologies" with the "three traditional characteristics of the Divine: ubiquity, instantaneity, and immediacy." Although Virilio refers here to a much later technological revolution, the logic of his thinking echoes the poetics of Hirato Renkichi. ...For Hirato, the powers of the divine had come to reside in "the impulsive candor of the machine, in its light, its heat, its ceaseless rhythms."

Gregory Golley
--When Our Eyes No Longer See: Realism, Science, and Ecology in Japanese Literary Modernism

When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.

T.S. Eliot
--"The Metaphysical Poets," quoted in Golley, When Our Eyes No Longer See

23 March 2008

Readings on Easter, Just War Theory, and Japanese lit

Happy Easter!


The resurrection of Jesus is the sign to the world that God indeed does reign, does give life in death and that the love of God is stronger even than death (Rom. 8:36-39).
At the center of the church's teaching on peace and at the center of all Catholic social teaching, are the transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person. The human person is the clearest reflection of God's presence in the world; all of the church's work in pursuit of both justice and peace is designed to protect and promote the dignity of every person. For each person not only reflects God, but is the expression of God's creative work and the meaning of Christ's redemptive ministry. Christians approach the problem of war and peace with fear and reverence. God is the Lord of life, and so each human life is sacred; modern warfare threatens the obliteration of human life on a previously unimaginable scale.

U.S. Catholic Bishops
--The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response (The Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, 1983)

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

The aggressor is always peace-loving; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.

-Carl Von Clausewitz, quoted in J.T. Turner, "Threats, Values and Defense: Does the Defense of Values by Force Remain a Moral Possibility?"


His desire for a woman was not of a sort to make him want this particular woman - it was something to be taken care of lightly and with no sense of guilt. This woman was too clean.
The window of the waiting-room was clear for an instant as the train started to move. Komako's face glowed forth, and as quickly disappeared.
But this love would leave behind it nothing so definite as a piece of Chijimi. Though cloth to be worn is among the most short-lived of craftworks, a good piece of Chijimi, if it has been taken care of, can be worn quite unfaded a half-century and more after weaving. As Shimamura thought absently how human intricacies have not even so long a life, the image of Komako as the mother of another man's children suddenly floated into his mind. He looked around, startled. Possibly he was tired.
He leaned against the brazier, provided against the coming of the snowy season, and thought how unlikely it was that he would come again once he had left.
Komako had come up to him, he did not know when. She took his hand. He looked around at her but said nothing. She gazed at the fire, the pulse of the fire beating on her intent, slightly flushed face. Shimamura felt a violent rising in his chest. Komako's hair was coming undone, and her throat was bare and arched. His fingers trembled from the urge to touch it. His hand was warm, but Komako's was still warmer. He did not know why he should feel that a separation was forcing itself upon them.

Kawabata Yasunari
--Snow Country

Obviously he did not much enjoy reading and discussing a typical month's production of Japanese literature. In a 1935 essay Kobayashi expressed his annoyance with authors who complained that he had not been sufficiently kind in his reviews, and asked sardonically what kindness contemporary authors have ever shown their critics. The only kindness a critic really wants from authors is that they will supply him with the basis for writing decent criticism; but present-day authors do precisely the opposite.

Donald Keene
--Dawn to the West: A History of Japanese Literature (Vol. 4)

15 March 2008

Quotes from Hermann Hesse's "Beneath the Wheel"

Mathematics, as far as he was concerned, was a Sphinx charged with deceitful puzzles whose cold malicious gaze transfixed her victims, and he gave the monster a wide berth.
What would many happy citizens and trustworthy officials have become but unruly, stormy innovators and dreamers of useless dreams, if not for the effort of their schools? In young beings there is something wild, ungovernable, uncultured which first has to be tamed. It is like a dangerous flame that has to be controlled or it will destroy. Natural man is unpredictable, opaque, dangerous, like a torrent cascading out of uncharted mountains. At the start, his soul is a jungle without paths or order. And, like a jungle, it must first be cleared and its growth thwarted. Thus it is the school's task to subdue and control man with force and make him a useful member of society, to kindle those qualities in him whose development will bring him to triumphant completion.
For he was aware that in the academy he would have to be even more ambitious if he wanted to outstrip his new fellow students. Why did he want to surpass them actually? He didn't really know himself.
This magnificent monastery, hidden behind hills and woods, has long been reserved for the exclusive use of the students of the Protestant Theological Academy in order that their receptive young spirits will be surrounded by an atmosphere of beauty and grace. Simultaneously the young people are removed from the distracting influence of their towns and families and are preserved from the harmful sight of the active life. So it is possible to let them live under the definite impression that their life's goal consists exclusively of the study of Hebrew and Greek and sundry subjects and to turn the thirst of young souls toward pure and ideal studies and enjoyments.
If someone else were to approach him and vigorously seek to win his friendship, he would respond gladly. Like a wallflower he stayed in the background waiting for someone to fetch him, someone more courageous and stronger than himself to tear him away and force him into happiness.

Hermann Hesse
--Beneath the Wheel

06 March 2008

Quotes from David Damrosch, Kahlil Gibran, & Paul Tillich

Goethe comments that the Church erred in closing the canon of scripture, as God's creative work still continues, notably in the activity of great spirits like Mozart, Raphael, and Shakespeare, "who can draw their lesser contemporaries higher."
For the first time in history, authors of highly successful works can hope to have them translated into twenty or thirty languages within a few years of publication, and foreign countries may even provide the primary readership for writers who have small audiences at home or who are censored by their governments.
All works cease to be the exclusive products of their original culture once they are translated; all become works that only "began" in their original language.
Society melts away in the vast echo chamber of (literary critic Harold) Bloom's mind, replaced by the warring voices of the few great titans of the literary universe. The fewer the better: ...Bloom continually narrows his authors' already narrow circle. The Western Canon treats twenty-six writers, but what need twenty-six? "Most simply, the Canon is Plato and Shakespeare" (34). What need even two? "At once no one and everyone, nothing and everything, Shakespeare is the Western Canon" (71).

Yet even Bloom finally relents. Having spent almost five hundred pages extolling the greatness of the few greatest writers at the heart of his version of the Western canon, he closes with an appendix listing several thousand works by more than eight hundred and fifty writers whom he considers to be the key figures in the Western canon as a whole.

David Damrosch
--What is World Literature?

How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city. Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache.

It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands. Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger and with thirst.

Yet I cannot tarry longer. The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.
For to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould.

Fain would I take with me all that is here. But how shall I? A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that give it wings. Alone must it seek the ether. And alone and without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.

Kahlil Gibran
--The Prophet

Sociological analyses of the present period have pointed to the importance of anxiety as a group phenomenon. Literature and art have made anxiety a main theme of their creations, in content as well as in style. The effect of this has been the awakening of at least the educated groups to an awareness of their own anxiety, and a permeation of the public consciousness by ideas and symbols of anxiety.
The first assertion about the nature of anxiety is this: anxiety is the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing. ...It is not the realization of universal transitoriness, not even the experience of the death of others, but the impression of these events on the always latent awareness of our own having to die that produces anxiety. Anxiety is finitude, experienced as one's own finitude.

Paul Tillich
--The Courage to Be

04 March 2008

Quotes and poems by Goethe, Coleridge, and A. Daniel

I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind...the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.

--Goethe (quoted in Damrosch, What is World Literature?)

White Towels

I have been studying the difference
between solitude and loneliness,
telling the story of my life
to the clean white towels taken warm from the dryer.
I carry them through the house
as though they were my children
asleep in my arms.

--Richard Jones

From Canzone XII

May God, the Chosen, by whom were absolved the sins of the blind Longinus, wish if it please him, that I and my lady lie within one chamber where we shall make a rich covenant, whereon great joy attendeth; where, with laughter and caresses, she shall disclose to me her fair body, with the glamor of the lamplight about it.

--Arnaut Daniel (tr. Ezra Pound)

Duty Surviving Self-Love

Unchanged within, to see all changed without,
Is a blank lot and hard to bear, no doubt.
Yet why at others' wanings should'st thou fret ?
Then only might'st thou feel a just regret,
Hadst thou withheld thy love or hid thy light
In selfish forethought of neglect and slight.
O wiselier then, from feeble yearnings freed,
While, and on whom, thou may'st--shine on! nor heed
Whether the object by reflected light
Return thy radiance or absorb it quite :
And tho' thou notest from thy safe recess
Old Friends burn dim, like lamps in noisome air,
Love them for what they are ; nor love them less,
Because to thee they are not what they were.

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

From Canzone III

But when I consider how she is the summit of worth, much do I love myself the more for having ever dared to desire her, for now do I know that my heart and my wit will make me to make to their whim a rich conquest.
And since she is of such worth, do not think that my firm will can disperse itself or flow away or divide, for by that God who manifested himself in the dove, I am neither mine nor hers if I leave her.

--Arnaut Daniel (tr. Ezra Pound)

03 March 2008

Excerpts from Frost, Tillich, O'Hara, and Pound

From "Desert Places"

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars - on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

--Robert Frost

One cannot remove anxiety by arguing it away.
The affirmation of one's essential being in spite of desires and anxieties creates joy. Lucillus is exhorted by Seneca to make it his business "to learn how to feel joy." It is not the joy of fulfilled desires to which he refers, for real joy is a "severe matter"; it is the happiness of a soul which is "lifted above every circumstance." Joy accompanies the self-affirmation of our essential being in spite of the inhibitions coming from the accidental elements in us. Joy is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one's own true being.

Paul Tillich
--The Courage to Be

To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

--Frank O'Hara

The sceptical age hungers after the definite, after something it can pretend to believe.
You read, as a child who has listened to ghost stories goes into a dark room; it is no accurate information about historical things that you seek, it is the thrill which mere reality would never satisfy.
The history of literary criticism is largely the history of a vain struggle to find a terminology which will define something.
It is dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers above the Pillars of Hercules. All ages are contemporaneous. The Middle Ages are in Russia. The future stirs already in the minds of the few. This is especially true of literature, where the real time is independent of the apparent, and where many dead men are our grandchildren's contemporaries, while many of our contemporaries have been already gathered into Abraham's bosom, or some more fitting receptacle.
The history of an art is the history of masterwork, not of failures, or mediocrity. The ominscient historian would display the masterpieces, their causes and their inter-relation. The study of literature is hero-worship.
Good art never bores one. By that I mean that it is the business of the artist to prevent ennui; in the literary art, to relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the reader - at reasonable intervals - with some form of ecstasy, by some splendor of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase - laughter is no mean ecstasy. Good art begins with an escape from dullness.

Ezra Pound
--The Spirit of Romance