The hour of reckoning–honestly, a PayPal button? Yes, please.


			

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Halloween, wolves, lights out!–and whimsy

Today, I am going to tell you the very brief, horrific (and admittedly whimsical) tale of a naughty little girl of my acquaintance and how she (for some time at least) lost the friendship of a near relative through a lie about wolves, radiators, and lights out! time.  If you suspect that I know that little girl a bit better than I am letting on, so be it (heaven forbid you should think it is actually myself I am talking about, though they do say that confession is good for the soul).

Cast your mind back to the early 1960’s, when little girls still wore puffy petticoats with short skirts over them, and either had to have pigtails and ponytails or Shirley Temple curls (made arduously, if not “natural,” by painstaking mothers using bobby pins, at least on school nights, when everyone the next day had to believe the curls were genuine).  Picture to yourself a weedy young imp who preferred to lie curled up with a good book all day, and hated being told to go outside and play (hey! that rhymes!).  This young person of the female persuasion only liked going out to play or even playing inside with dolls, for that matter, when one or the other of her female cousins were around to make the game interesting.

Of course, Halloween comes in the fall of the year, and at that time, vampires, spooks, and werewolves are in the juvenile mind in abundance, not only for trick-or-treat, but even after, to spice up daily conversation and slumber parties.  And, of course, to supply material for ghastly nightmares, which, once they’re over continue to supply a pleasurable frisson of fright, a harking back to horror.

Well, it so happened that this little girl had never acquired a fear of the dark.  She was afraid of many things, but unlike her female cousins, had never become afraid of the dark, or required a night-light to sleep.  But she was afraid of wolves.  Not just werewolves, but the real animal, which she’d never seen except in books, nor was likely to.  But her cousins slept with a night-light, because it was decreed that parents had different verdicts about what was the best way to deal with nightmares, and theirs had been known to give way more easily to the specific of waking only to find the light shining, and nothing wrong.

Now, our little girl, we’ll call her Beth (for nothing would induce me to reveal her true identity), abhorred a night-light.  She was proud of not needing one, and when she had an occasional fright in the night, she simply stumbled out of bed and went to her parents’ room for comfort and reassurance, or better yet, and more often, called out for the long-suffering (and perhaps overindulgent) parent(s) to come to her.  But one other thing that she was perhaps less rational about than even wolves was floor registers to radiator systems, the kind that have a few little slots in the floor that can be made to shut firmly by pushing the knob.  Doing so of course shut off the warm air flow to the room, but it at least produced a firm surface which didn’t show a long, mysterious floor passageway below it, leading off into who knew where.  Nevertheless, Beth had been warned to leave the floor vents open, and by and large she was a good child and not too terribly mischievous.  She did tell the occasional untruth when it was advisable in her view, but as she usually got found out and punished, it didn’t often strike her as a viable option.

There was one notable occasion, however, when Beth found it to be the sine qua non, the absolutely necessary element, to add comfort to her existence.  And this was when her cousin Bella came to stay the night.  Now Bella was about a year or two younger, and wasn’t used to being lied to by Beth, so she was unprepared for what happened when the two girls were left alone for the night.  Just as Bella had requested, there was a night-light burning to one side of the bedroom, and while Bella found this a fine method of reassurance in a strange place, Beth found it irksome and just knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink with it on.  She had been warned by her mother to leave the light burning if Bella wanted it on, as a mark of courtesy to her guest, yet since it was her bedroom they were sleeping in, in her nice warm bed, and everything was beckoning for an evening of confidences and strange stories in the dark, she just knew there must be some other way to arrange things to her satisfaction.

Suddenly, it came to her in a flash of inspiration!  She’d share with Bella one of her own nightmares that had happened once or twice to trouble her own sleep; only, she’d pretend that it had really happened, and surely Bella couldn’t refuse to allow her to turn off the light then!  So, slowly and carefully, trying to suit her story to what Bella was likely to believe, Beth explained, with many a gesture and fearsome expression:

“Well, see, Bella, it’s not that I don’t want the light on; but at night, there’s a big, fat, mean ol’ wolf that comes up in the floor register, and if he can see us, he might eat us.  Or tear us up to pieces, and then eat us.  But if we have the lights all out, then he can’t even see where we are, and all we have to do is go to sleep, and he’ll leave us alone and go away.”

Bella’s eyes grew large.  “But won’t he hear us talking?” she asked, her voice shaking with the faithful tremors of the new convert, gullible but still with questions.  “Naw,” said Beth airily, “He never hears me when I sing to myself in the dark.”  “Well, then, won’t he smell us?” Bella persisted, not liking this strange mutated creature of frightful fairy tales at all.  “NO!  He doesn’t smell; something is wrong with his nose.”  “Well, can’t we just close the register and keep him out?”  This example of independent thinking, which moreover had all the marks of her own previous thoughts on the subject, riled Beth.  “NO!  Not unless you want to be a baby and freeze all night, without any heat.  I’m telling you, the only thing to do is to turn out the light.  And we’d better hurry, because I think I hear him coming now!”

Had Beth had time to think the matter through at leisure, before her parents had sprung the surprise on her that she was expected to endure a night-light all night, she might probably have thought of a better solution.  Because this one clearly had serious drawbacks, one of which was that Bella now wailed in a loud voice, “I want my mama!  I want my mama, and I want to go home!”  Why this lie?  Especially since no wolf or even any self-respecting werewolf was likely to come up through a floor register in a modern house at night?  Suffice it to say that this took place back in the 1960’s, when naughty children were still likely to be punished with at least a mild spanking, as well as having privileges taken away, and such methods were enough to reassure the erring Beth that whatever wolves lurked below the floorboards were best left unmentioned when company came.  Bella went home still frightened, though in a huff as well for a few weeks when she was assured that Beth had only been “telling a story,” as such matters were euphemistically called by the children’s doting grandmother.

And there ends this whimsical (and true) tale of the fall season, my second early contribution to the Halloween holiday which will come next month.  But you should know that if it’s ever a choice between being in the dark all night and managing to sleep, or sleeping with a light on in a room with a floor register, old memories have convinced me that the dark room is the best (and for good measure, I might even pile up extra blankets on the bed and shut the floor register as Bella suggested–after all, even a cousin who’s a ‘fraidy-cat can’t be all wrong!).

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A (very) early post for Halloween–Does Edgar Allan Poe’s long poem “The Raven” have an adequate “objective correlative”?

Well, everybody in the continental U.S. seems to feel that fall weather is here early this year, that instead of having a blissfully warm autumn in September, we are already into October weather, and in some parts of the western mountain chains, it’s already snowed.  So now I’m going to celebrate Halloween a little bit earlier than I usually do, and do a sort of partial Halloween post, for fun and edification, mine as well as yours.  And since it’s officially a Halloween post, I’m going to make some of your worst dreams come true and involve T. S. Eliot’s theory of the “objective correlative,” a concept which has made the rounds more often and sometimes more drunkenly than Mrs. Murphy’s sousing poodle (a dog of fame in some quarters, mainly amongst fellow spirits at the bars).

Before beginning the fun of Poe, therefore, let’s suffer through a little literary theory.  The concept of the “objective correlative,” according to Wikipedia, comes originally from Washington Allston and his 1840 Lectures on Art.  You can find his explanation on Wikipedia in brief.  The modernist poet T. S. Eliot popularized the concept, however, in an essay called “Hamlet and His Problems,” and so it’s more important for the nonce (and for us too) to look at his essay.  Here are some quotes, also gleaned secondhand from Wikipedia:  “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”  Eliot felt that Hamlet was an artistic flop because Hamlet’s “strong emotions ‘exceeded the facts’ of the play, which is to say they were not supported by an ‘objective correlative.’  He acknowledged that such a circumstance is ‘something every person of sensibility has known'; but felt that in trying to represent it dramatically, ‘Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.'”

Now let’s turn to Poe’s poetical excursion into his usual macabre fare, “The Raven.”  I’m sure most of you are familiar with at least some of the poem’s setting and probably have been jounced and bounced around by the alliteration and rhyme scheme a couple of times at least in reading.  The poem has a lot of alliteration and rhyme, including internal line rhymes, and a repetitive structure and refrain, which depends upon variations of the “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” variety.  Just to refresh our memories, let’s look at how the poem starts out:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./'”‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–/Only this, and nothing more.”‘/Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,/And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor./Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had tried to borrow/From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–/For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–/Nameless here for evermore.”

This fearing and questioning and apprehensive meditation goes on for four more sing-song stanzas, and then the speaker decides that it’s actually something at the window, and so goes to open it.  Here’s what happens when he does:

“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,/In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;/Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;/But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–/Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–/Perched, and sat, and nothing more.”

Next, for seven or eight more stanzas, the human speaker persists in speculating about “the lost Lenore,” and whether he will see her again, and while his own soul answers “Nevermore,” he also persists in directing his loaded questions to the bird, who eerily answers, “Nevermore.”  Though the speaker is intelligent enough, and the circumstances possible enough, at least earlier in the poem, to consider that perhaps this is the only word the bird knows (“‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store….'”), he shows himself to be in tune with the bird’s apparent “predictions” to the extent that his questions are all shaped to fit this early form of “magic eight ball”:  for example, why doesn’t the speaker say something more cogent, like “Will I be alone for the rest of my life?” and thus “spike” the question to go his way?  Or, he could say, “Will I continue to be unhappy?”  Since the bird always replies “Nevermore,” the speaker could thus get a better prediction if he tried, but instead of this, he asks sad and negative questions which portray a depressive obsessive frame of mind.

Finally, the speaker becomes irate enough to tell the bird to leave, and of course the bird replies, “Nevermore.”  So far, the mysterious death of Lenore isn’t made enough of to function as an objective correlative, and just having a (possible pet, trained by somebody) raven peck at the window and fly in isn’t enough to act as an objective correlative either, by T. S. Eliot’s explanation of that phenomenon.  It’s not actually until the very last stanza (of the 1845 edition of the poem) that anything sufficiently supernatural or odd happens, which doesn’t rely on the human speaker’s rigging of the game by asking the “right” questions.  Here is that stanza:

“And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;/And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,/And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;/And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted–nevermore!”

This stanza is truly weird:  the bird, without the mention of its being fed, or given water, or stirring from its place, is still there, apparently not having died or decayed.  The same seems to be proposed or at least implied of the man, who can’t really be imagined to have broken his concentration by getting up to get a sandwich or a Scotch and soda, and then come back.  Yes, in the last stanza I think we find a wee bit of an objective correlative in Eliot’s terms in the set of circumstances being what they are, the man’s enslavement to the bird’s malevolent spell, the neverendingness of his torment.

Now see, we had fun, didn’t we?  At least I did, and I hope you did too.  If not, comfort yourself with the reflection that your “torment” of reading this post has not been “neverending” (and I hope you’re not sitting in a dark room staring meaningly at your pet mynah bird, as I can’t answer for the consequences)!

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Filed under A prose flourish, Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

Where have I been? Here. What have I been doing? Creating!

Well, the time has come around (actually, come and gone) when a new post is due, and I have been busy doing other things and not getting anything much read to post on.  Oh, I read three tankas (an Eastern poetic form), but I don’t think it’s a case of “there’s glory for you,” as another character said to Alice about the matter of interpretation, and so I desisted from interpreting a foreign poetical form due to my lack of experience with it.  That needs some explaining, I see.  In Through the Looking Glass, Alice is conversing with Humpty Dumpty, and in re of their discussion, he says, “There’s glory for you.”  “‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knockdown argument,”‘ Alice objected.  ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’  ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’  ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master–that’s all.'”  Now, since it would be quite immodest of me to pretend to be master of a very ancient poetical form and sets of symbols in a tradition quite different from my own (not that I won’t ever take a stab at things that way, but the tanka form is not like the haiku, which I might be able to be a pretender about), I decided this week to use my time doing some other kind of creating than the critical.  Since I’m on a new diet which is quite successful because it is not a diet but a lifestyle change, a permanent thing, very delicious and fulfilling, I’ve been cooking and storing food and cooking again, and sharing my treats with my family members.  But I’ve also lost 9 pounds in 2 weeks’ time, and though most diet plans suggest that slow and steady wins the race, this diet plan is known to be safe for faster weight loss because it’s just plain good sense and safe all around.

I don’t know if those of you who watch PBS have ever caught Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s programs on the tube, but that is where I first encountered this diet, during one of their periodic and typical fundraisers, where special programs are aired that break occasionally for a fundraiser message.  This is the very type of program which generally speaking most annoys me, and I hate self-improvement speakers and diet plan managers.  But there was something compelling about this guy.  He seems like just an ordinary guy, whom I was ready to dismiss as a bit of a health-food nut until I just somehow got hooked, I can’t explain how.  Of course, I like veggies and most of the foods he was pushing, beans, whole grains, but I like a lot of stuff that’s not that good for me too, so I was at first inclined to be skeptical when he said I wouldn’t miss those foods after a week or so.  For me, it was even faster than that, despite the fact that I’d had potato chips in my mouth the night before:  I had no detox period from “toxic” foods, and took to the diet right away.  And the rest is history.

Of course, everybody has something that’s particularly hard for them to give up, and following a largely vegan diet with occasional “meat as a condiment only” supplements and my daily yoghurt-and-fruit smoothie (and he recommends giving up as much dairy as possible too) sounds grim.  But I actually enjoy it.  And there’s no denying that it works.  I decided at the beginning rather than buying the very expensive fundraiser kit of several CD’s or DVD’s and a couple of cooking guides and books to just pick the two books I wanted most from the admittedly copious list of his publications, and order them cheaper from Amazon.com.  So, after some studying, I chose “The End of Dieting,” his basic guide to the plan complete with a daily schedule and some recipes, and “The Eat to Live Cookbook,” and had them in the mail the next week.

I know this all sounds crazy, but it’s been a real pleasure to eat food again, because not only is it a general health plan for life (i.e., there are many menus not just for people dieting), but I can eat it without feeling guilty, as much as I want until I’m full.  I’ve cooked this two weeks from it and put some food in the freezer, such as a veggie-bean-and-mushroom stew, a baba ghanouj-cum-hummus (eggplant hummus, basically), a mushroom-walnut-Swiss-chard-onion-etc. burger, a bean-turkey-spinach burger, a creamy almond vinaigrette dressing; I’ve also indulged almost every evening in one of two fairly lo-penalty desserts, a fudgy black-bean-and-date brownie (the icing is made partially with avocado–I know, sounds gross, but tastes delicious) or a banana walnut soft ice cream dessert you can make in the blender.

Of course, I’m getting 80 minutes a day of exercise most days too, but I haven’t started strength training yet, and that 80 minutes consists mainly of stretching and walking at a moderate pace inside a carpeted hallway (many people in our condo walk inside to avoid the weather and bad sidewalk conditions outside, or for other reasons of their own).  Life is good.  I’ve even been able to supplement my food plan (it’s hardly fair to call it “diet plan”) with recipes from some of my older vegetarian cookbooks, making sensible substitutions where necessary.  So far, I’ve got a recipe for a chunky dill borscht (we had it last night and it was quite delicious), an eggplant-and-onion-and-red pepper-and tomato sauce dish with whole wheat pasta or brown rice, a whole wheat pita bread, and a braised celery with walnut dish (this last is actually from FreeAmericanRecipes.com).  [The borscht and the pita recipes come from Julie Jordan's "Wings of Life," a cookbook from Cabbagetown Café in Ithaca, NY].

One thing that of course has to be considered is the cost of eating this way, but it’s not as bad as you might think, though things may get a little tighter as the cold weather sets in.  We haven’t regularly bought processed foods much for quite some time already, and were already eating mostly poultry and fish and eschewing much red meats or salted ones.  The grocery costs have skyrocketed almost everywhere in the U. S. and probably elsewhere too in the last year, with several rises having happened almost in a row, but many grocery chains are now trying to follow Market Basket’s exemplary lead and pay more attention to the customer’s needs and costs, so we’ll see what happens.  It’s always possible, once you get the hang of things, to figure out which ingredients you can’t do without and which recipes you need to substitute on because of cost of ingredients; this allows you to take advantage of store sales that you may not know about when you leave home.  You can be inventive, and make up your own recipes, too, once you know the very-easy-to-follow rules.

Dr. Fuhrman and his colleagues of course discourage cheating, but they allow a lot of leeway for experimentation, and allow for occasional backsliding, simply warning that you can’t let it become a habit once it has happened, but need instead to start back in your fairly easily acquired good habits.  I’m so happy on this plan, and it’s quite true as far as the claims that are made for it (clearer thinking, better sleeping, lighter feeling, better body, etc.).  At other times, even on a Weight Watcher’s diet for a while, I had convinced myself–even though I’ve always liked vegetables–that people who claimed they could entirely or mostly go without meat had probably starved themselves so silly that they were digesting their brain tissue in desperation.  But now I find that an ice cream scoop size serving of salmon salad (made with only 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise for the whole batch, technically a “cheat,” since regular vegetable and olive oils are supposed to be used only rarely) is enough to keep me happy, and I’ve not eaten chicken for quite some time.  I usually have the salmon on my daily vegetable salad at lunch, and whatever fresh vegetables and even some fruits (like apples) I have which can be eaten raw go in this as well, along with some cooked beans.

So, when I say that I’ve been creating this week since I last posted, I have:  it’s just been creating in the kitchen instead of on the page.  And now that I’ve thoroughly bored and exasperated you with my fervor and enthusiasm for something you yourself might not especially like (though in my zealot’s glee I can’t imagine that possibility particularly well), I’ve told all.  For now, anyway–see you in a few days, I hope with another literary post.

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The Element(s) of the Fantastic in Three Latin American Writers: Borges, Rosa, and Bombal

Hi, folks!  I’ve been taking an end-of-the-summer break while trying to decide what to post on next, and reading a number of short stories.  One thing that stands out in my mind as I’ve read some Latin American writers in particular is how heavily they rely on the fantastic element or elements in their writings.  The first writer I’ll mention today is Jorge Luis Borges, and his very well-known tale “The Gospel According to Mark.”

The main character, Baltasar Espinosa, is a medical student who goes to stay with his cousin Daniel at a country ranch, and becomes isolated in Daniel’s absence with the Gutres, the foreman, his son, and his daughter, who live as caretakers and servants on the ranch.  They are spoken of as being part-Indian gauchos, unlearned and superstitious, inheritors of both their native ancestors’ and their Calvinist ancestors’ perspectives, and when a major flood shuts Baltasar off with them, they all begin to eat meals together and Baltasar decides to read to them.  Though he is dependent on them for his continued existence, they quickly become dependent upon him for the stories he reads and the things he knows how to do, such as saving their pet lamb with medicine rather than applying a cobweb to the wound in the old country manner.  “The Gutres, as if lost without him, liked following him from room to room and along the gallery that ran around the house.  While he read to them, he noticed that they were secretly stealing the crumbs he had dropped on the table.  One evening, he caught them unawares, talking about him respectfully, in very few words.”

He reads to them the entire Gospel of Saint Mark, and that night and the next morning early thinks that he hears in the rainstorm the hammering as if the ark is being made.  The Gutres tell him, however, that it is the roof of the toolshed which is damaged, and that they are effecting a repair which they will show him when it’s done.  One night, the daughter creeps to his bed naked, and allows him to make love to her, though he realizes that she is a virgin.  The next day, the father asks him if Christ had allowed himself to be killed to save everyone on earth, and Baltasar affirms that this is true, even including the Roman soldiers who crucified him.  They ask him to read the last chapters over again, and then when Baltasar is standing looking at the flood receding and says “It won’t be long now,” the father repeats his words.

Here is the astounding last paragraph:  “The three had been following him.  Bowing their knees to the stone pavement, they asked his blessing.  Then they mocked at him, spat on him, and shoved him toward the back part of the house.  The girl wept.  Espinosa understood what awaited him on the other side of the door.  When they opened it, he saw a patch of sky.  A bird sang out.  A goldfinch, he thought.  The shed was without a roof; they had pulled down the beams to make the cross.”

The fantastic in this story is kept to a minimum in the first sections, though hints of it crop up here and there, in such odd portions as the remark that it’s not done to enter a settlement galloping on a horse, or that one never goes out riding “except for some special purpose.”  It’s only slowly that Espinosa advances in the Gutres’ perspective to be an image of God, and the first-time-through reader probably doesn’t suspect that a crucifixion is approaching, because the irony of the stance of humankind towards the Christ-figure is itself odd:  it seems that it’s out of an excess of respect that they select him to mock and spit at, rather than the reverse, and this points out the odd contradiction of the original Gospel according to Mark.  This is especially true because Baltasar Espinosa is a rather ordinary if intelligent and kind young man, who repeatedly imagines telling his friends about his exploits in the country, and grows a beard as a sort of egotistical support for his tale.  But as we have seen, he never gets back.  The simplicity in this tale highlights the fantastic elements in the original gospel story, and brings the gospels into the light of common day.

The second story which features some element of the fantastic is the story “The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa.  Again, this story takes place in a “watery” set of surroundings, and again the story starts out with a not-unlikely situation, which turns out to have a more strained resemblance to reality the further along it goes.  The first sentence reads:  “My father was a dutiful, orderly, straightforward man.”  This is both true and not true, or fantastic.  On the one hand, the father never goes further away than the “third bank of the river,” which is to say at a certain distance from the home, where the narrator, his son, can still see him sometimes, or imagine him to be.  On the other hand, he has left as the second parent to his family, to all intents and purposes.  What happens is this:  one day, the father orders a boat.  He goes out without any supplies of any kind, and as he is leaving, the mother says, “If you go away, stay away.  Don’t ever come back!”  He does stay away, and where reality begins to be strained is that the boy continues to steal food for him and leave it by the waterside, and the mother, the boy realizes, is making it easy for him to steal food.  This is not so fantastic as a symbol of family love, but it seems more fantastic when one is told that this condition persisted for years and years, in all kinds of weather.  Finally, the other members of the family drift away elsewhere, including the mother, and the boy, who has become a man, and an old man at that, still stays by the water, tending at least to the memory of his father.  One day, the man goes down to the riverbank and sees his father in the distance and shouts to him that he has been out long enough, and if he will come in, the man himself, once a boy, will take his place, that he no longer has to do what he does.  When the father gestures to show that he accepts, however, the younger man loses his nerve and runs away.  He feels cowardly, but says his father was never seen again.  “But when death comes I want them to take me and put me in a little boat in this perpetual water between the long shores; and I, down the river, inside the river…the river…”

Obviously, this story is based upon the many tales of men leaving their families and not coming home at all or not until they’re old, or of fathers dying and leaving their families undefended.  But the difference is, of course, the fantasy that the father is near at hand at the same time, only held within the currents of the “third bank” of the river, in all weathers, wearing the clothes he went away in, though the boy also leaves him clothes by the near bank from time to time.  All in all, it’s a saga of loss and a boy’s attempt to understand the limits and extensions of the adult world, and his inability to deal with the situation between his mother and his father in any “real life” way.  Is the boy or his father crazy?  This question is raised, but dismissed.  This is the way, after all, that the world is, huge, flowing, and incomprehensible, like the river.

The third short piece (not a story as much as a paean to the elements of sky, sea, and earth) is by Maria Luisa Bombal, and is called after its characters eponymously “Sky, Sea and Earth.”  It is unlike the other two pieces of fantasy in that it is more like a chant, or a poem, and has no fictional structure, per se.  The fantasy comes into play in the number of things which the narrator (an “I” unidentified) claims to be able to know; some things she claims can of course be known scientifically, others, such as mermaids and sirens, cannot.  She begins thus, with the sea and earth first:  “I know about many things of which no one knows.  I am familiar with an infinite number of tiny and magical secrets from the sea and from the earth.”  She relates in a poetic manner some of the things that one could find in the sea and on the earth, realistically if poetically enough, but then breaches the element of reality by saying “…[I]f one lifts certain gray shells of insignificant shape, one is frequently sure to find below a little mermaid crying,” “”There is a pure white and nude drowned woman that all of the fishermen of the coast vainly try to catch in their nets,” “No one knows it, but the truth is that all frogs are princes,” and “‘La gallina ciega’ is smoke colored, and she lives cast below the thickets, like a miserable pile of ashes.  She doesn’t have legs to walk, nor eyes to see; but she usually flies away on certain nights with short and thick wings.  No one knows where she goes, no one knows from where she returns, at dawn, stained in blood that isn’t her own.”

Of the sky, unlike the sea and earth, however, she says:  “The sky, on the other hand, does not have even one small and tender secret.  Implacable, it completely unfurls its terrifying map above us.”  Her images and notions of the sky are just as extreme in their fantastic and poetical elements as of the other two, the sea and the earth, but they are intimidating, overwhelming, fearful; they involve “atoms that change their forms millions of times per second,” shooting stars, and a “sidereal ladder…through which I climb toward the shining dome….”  She says in her last paragraph, “No, I prefer to imagine a diurnal sky with roaming castles of clouds in whose floating rooms flutter the dry leaves of a terrestrial autumn and the kites that the sons of men lost, playing.”

In this third bit of fantasy, it is obvious that some biological study has contributed to these images, just as it is also clear that the fantastic is being invoked as one of the “secrets” the narrator knows and imagines.  Again, as in the stories by Borges and Rosa, the narrative flows along smoothly, adding unlikely and technically impossible notions to the story.  In Borges’s story, the unlikely is not absolutely impossible, but could have happened; it’s rather in the manner of the title that a double image of the two crucifixions makes two into one in a surprising manner.  In Rosa’s story, again the impossible is not an absolute, but more than in Borges’s story, the unlikely is accentuated to an extreme degree; it’s in Bombal’s story that we actually encounter some of the creatures of myth and mystery, and notice that the author is making claims to know about them from personal vision and experience.

One would possibly conclude from this brief study, were it not for the great number of other Latin American writers writing, that fantasy is an integral part of Latin American fictions, whether Christianized fantasy as in Borges or naturalistic fantasy as in Bombal, with Rosa somewhere in between.  In any case, in these three writers at least, the imaginary element is used to accentuate the unusual or peculiar in our everyday encounters and experiences, which perhaps without these fictions we would be in danger of overlooking or underestimating.  After all, when’s the last time you thought in an impartial manner about how odd a story the Christian gospel is; how common it is that parents desert their families, yet how it’s always a tragedy and different for each one; or, how miraculous and ingenious and various the natural world around us is?  If nothing else, these stories provoke these sorts of ponderings and speculations, and entertain us at the same time as they are filling us with wonder.

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“Don’t be such a tease, love; we don’t have forever!”–or, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

Have you ever wondered what was the best way to spur a potential lover to make the possible actual and real?  Have you ever tried to decide just which purveyor of public wisdom could give you a hint as to what to say?  Well, if you don’t mind reading a witty and rhetorically versatile 46-line poem from 1681 (or perhaps reading it together in a romantic setting with your chosen one), you might not have to look any further.  The Restoration poet Andrew Marvell put it excellently well in his short poem “To His Coy Mistress,” in which the word “mistress” represents only a potential sometimes, not necessarily an actual physical lover.  It may, in fact, be a woman whom one admires and addresses poems to, or it may be an actual mistress in the physical sense.  Yet, in this poem, the physical interaction doesn’t seem to have happened yet, which is the source of the lover-poet’s grievance.  Let’s give it a quick read, shall we?

“Had we but world enough, and time,/This coyness, lady, were no crime./We would sit down, and think which way/To walk, and pass our long love’s day./Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side/Shoudst rubies find; I by the tide/ Of Humber would complain.  I would/Love you ten years before the flood,/And you should, if you please, refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews./My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and more slow;/An hundred years should go to praise/Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;/Two hundred to adore each breast,/But thirty thousand to the rest;/An age at least to every part,/And the last age should show your heart./For, lady, you deserve this state,/Nor would I love at lower rate./But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near;/And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity./Thy beauty shall no more be found;/Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound/My echoing song; then worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity,/And your quaint honor turn to dust,/And into ashes all my lust:/The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace./Now therefore, while the youthful hue/Sits on thy skin like morning glow,/And while thy willing soul transpires/At every pore with instant fires,/Now let us sport us while we may,/And now, like amorous birds of prey,/Rather at once our time devour/Than languish in his slow-chapped power./Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball,/And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Thorough the iron gates of life:/Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.”

This is quite a charming poem, but it would be foolish to ignore the definitely frank summary of what lies in the grave, also.  Let’s take the poem apart and explicate it in a standard way for a moment.  First, the lover points to the “clock” of their daily life and says that if they had time, only had time, that his mistress’s “coyness were no crime,” which is to say that 1) they don’t have time and 2) it is therefore a crime for her to be so coy.  Then using a rhetorical figure in which one says, “if such and such were the case, I would say so and so, but it clearly isn’t the case, so I’m not saying it,” he in fact does come up with a bit of the (hurried) and overdone praise which he assumes the lady is desiring before parting with her favors.  He therefore does say what she is wanting to hear, but says it in cagey brief form.  Just a few points in passing:  when he says that she would find rubies by the Ganges, he is using a standard symbol of virginity, rubies, and when he says that if only they had time, she could hold him off and barter and continue coy “until the conversion of the Jews,” he is speaking of an old-fashioned religious folk tradition which says that the Jews will convert at the end of recorded history.  Clearly, she cannot continue to deny the poet until then in actuality, because both will be dead by such an unimaginable time in the future.  He next says that if he could court her as she deserves, his “vegetable love” would progress very slowly, which is what she seems to want in holding him off.  This “vegetable” element is important because it was believed at the time that eating only vegetables was a way of curbing sensual appetites, and thus his “vegetable love” would have time to mature at a very slow pace.

Next, he tells her just how long he would spend on praising each part of her, but notice always the conditional tenses throughout the poem, those “had we [if we had],” “shoudst,” “should,” “would,” etc., all indicating in this case conditions contrary to fact.  He admits that she certainly deserves this amount of time for her praise (and of course he’s using the figure of hyperbole, or extended exaggeration, here), and that he would not love “at lower rate,” which suggests a slightly mercantile metaphor of exchange, his praise and adulation in exchange for her maidenhead, which is the subject of the next part of the poem.

First, he brings up the subject of time directly again, and tradition has it that when he says “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near,” Marvell is expressing his awareness of the difference in their ages, he being a somewhat older man to her younger years and bloom of youth.  He in a sense makes a desperate but quite articulate, direct, frank, and sneaky attack upon her vanity and attempts to affect her by an account of graveyard rot, in what were for the time both metaphorical and well-known terms:  he says that when she is in the grave, no one will see her beauty and he won’t be there to praise it; worms will “try” (pierce) her “long-preserved virginity” (hymen, or maidenhead), and turn her “quaint honor” into dust, as well as “all [his] lust” (his penis and the rest of him) into ashes.  The term “quaint” at the time was a standard pun upon “cunt,” and so he is moving in for the bald and forthright rhetorical “kill shot,” trying to encourage her by a different and quite original plea to her vanity.

The rest is very obvious.  He praises her again for the “youthful hue” which “Sits on thy skin like morning glow,” and notes that her soul is willing, and she is as aching with passion as he (“every pore” has “instant fires”).  He suggests that like birds of prey they bolt the “food” of their love rather than letting time eke them out little by little.  In suggesting that they put their “sweetness” all into “one ball,” he is invoking a game image of the several different games like croquet that were played at the time, only their play is quite serious, because they are rolling this “ball” not through wickets, but “Thorough the iron gates of life.”  One alternate explanation is that the ball is a missile aimed at a city under fire, and the iron gates are the city walls.  As the hymen is torn in the initial act of love, so the lovers will “tear our pleasures with rough strife,” yet though there is an element of truthful roughness in the language, their pleasures are still seen as pleasures.  The reference to being unable to make the sun stand still is a reference to the myth of Zeus, the Greek father of the gods, who made the night remain for a week so that he could experience love with Alcmena, a mortal.  What this part of the poem in effect means is that though the lovers cannot do what Zeus did, they can make their sun “run,” that is, they can force the days and nights to pass quickly in their enjoyment of each other.

The virtuosity of this poem I think I have indicated, and I believe it’s quite clear that this poem is a masterpiece of the “make much of time,” or “make hay while the sun shines” genre.  So, the next time you’re genuinely in a pickle and need a persuasive set of reasons as to why a lover should pay attention to your pleas, you could do worse than quote Andrew Marvell’s poem–you might succeed with such a master at your shoulder, and the worst that could happen to you is probably receiving an “Oooh, gross; how can you say that to me?” when you explain the graveyard bits!  Oh, well; maybe it just wasn’t “meant to be.”  At least you learned a great poem, and that’s something.

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China Mieville’s “Embassytown”–The mindbending adventure and danger of language

Though it may seem odd or simply untrue to say, there’s a good chance that at some point in our Terran history, self-expression and dialogue with others were among the most dangerous forms of activity possible.  Maybe it could justifiably be said that they still are.  This is not simply due to the possibility of being misunderstood, but also because of how language can cause us to go beyond our own limitations and into unknown, uncharted mental and emotional territory.  In China Miéville’s sci-fi masterpiece Embassytown, a whole way of life is riding on dialogues with the indigenes of the planet of Dagostin, the Ariekes, or the Hosts, as they are called by the humans who have come there to live, and as they are also referred to by the “exoterres” the Kedis and the Shur’asis as well.

This book is a challenge to read, not only because there is at least one new vocabulary term or concept to be mastered on each page, but because the author leaves one to put the pieces together himself or herself, with only a few subtle hints here and there.  Some of the new conceptual territory includes the notion that age is measured not in Terran days, months, weeks, or years, but in something called kilohours.  The children are not brought up by their birth parents and may never even see them, but instead are brought up by a series of “shiftparents,” who look after them in turn.  The buildings and devices?  Many of them are not built, but grown, to be called biorigging and other such terms, and they are largely produced by the Hosts, who trade them with the humans in exchange for favors and considerations I will get to in a moment.  The air in Embassytown is not breathable by humans, so a special atmosphere is created with the help of the Hosts for their guests.  One step outside with lungs open, and the humans begin to sicken and die.

Embassytown is technically an outpost of Bremen, which is officially in charge of what happens, yet is in fact a little out of touch, as it turns out, with some of the most dangerous events to its own supremacy.  Yet in the tale told by Avice Benner Cho, a female human born in Embassytown, who has been an immerser (a crew member of space ships), it’s neither the elements which seem strange to us in the science fiction nor the encounters per se with the Hosts, the Ariekes, which pose the danger.  It’s language itself which not only ends up being the real challenge to the humans, but which is also the “main character” of the story.  But you want things in an orderly fashion, don’t you?  So I’ll give a bit of how the story goes at the beginning.

Avice is remembering her childhood and past in sections called “Formerly,” and is telling things which have happened in a more recent time, the “middle distance” of the story, in the sections called “Latterday.” It’s only halfway through the book that the action becomes simply sequential.  One of the first things that happens early on is that a friend of her, Yohn, becomes ill because of a childish game the young humans play, which consists in seeing how far out of human bounds and into the Hosts’ section they can go to leave a mark and come back.  Yohn accidentally breathes the inimical natural atmosphere, and a strange “cleaved” human named “Bren,” a middle-aged man, who is an acquaintance of the Hosts, helps the Hosts retrieve him.  Avice is asked to comfort Yohn while he is ill.  Avice doesn’t know exactly what “cleaved” means until much later in the book, or why Bren is avoided by other humans, but the children giggle at him and are in awe of him as well.

Not long after this, the Hosts ask to “borrow” Avice to make a simile of her for their Language.  This is Language with a capital “L,” because to the Hosts, Language and thought are simultaneous, and they apparently cannot lie.  It simply is not in their nature, as it seems.  When they want to be able to say that something is “like” something else, or that someone did something “as” something or someone else did, they first have to have an actual instance of the person or event having been or happened as they describe, so that they can make the comparison.  In order that they can say “like the human girl who ate what was given her,” they first have to borrow Avice to construct the factual sentence “There was a human girl who in pain ate what was given her in an old room built for eating in which eating had not happened for a long time.”  They therefore cause her a minimum of pain and give her something to eat in an old deserted restaurant; after that, she becomes a simile and is part of their Language rehearsals from time to time.  As it later turns out, there are humans who represent other tropes and parts of speech as well.  But first, before Avice becomes aware of them, or perhaps it’s only before the reader is told about them, she becomes an immerser, a crew member for space voyages, and is admired when she voyages and returns for the questionable activity of “floaking,” a sort of goofing off and hanging out which is a kind of glamour cast by immersers over the people who admire them for their piratical abilities.

The story progresses, and we learn that humans can only communicate with Hosts by using Ambassadors, two cloned humans who speak different words at the same exact instant, which is what the Hosts understand, and is how they speak.  But the Hosts initially perceive these two humans as one, and don’t have any conception of individuality.  In fact, they are unable to lie, and are simultaneously thrilled and fascinated by listening to humans construct lies, from simple lies such as telling them that something is red which is blue, or perhaps saying something ridiculous, innane, or poetical, such as that birds swim in the ocean.  But even though Avice is used to things which would seem strange to most real-life contemporary humans, such as marrying her husband Scile in a “nonconnubial love match,” or having for a best friend Ehrsul, a trid (tri-d projection of a woman), when she becomes involved in an intrigue caused by the dominant Bremen’s plot to circumvent Embassytown’s status by sending an Ambassador from its own ranks (an Ambassador of a variety described in advance, mysteriously, as “impossible”–but I won’t ruin the suspense), her glamour as a “floaker” can only help her own so far.  Instead, she must throw in her lot with those who are trying to save Embassytown by a very unusual means of dealing with the Hosts, and again, it’s spoiler alert time.

Suffice it to say that this is a grand sci-fi adventure with structuralist and deconstructionist theories of language acquisition and usage, yet it’s also a great read that anyone, versed in language theories or not, can enjoy.  In fact, the very difference between a simile and a metaphor, between “referring” and “signifying,” is at stake, and Embassytown itself revitalizes and casts it own glamour over how we speak and relate to each other every day.  I hope all my readers will have a chance to finish this book, and will enjoy it as much as I did.  What more could one ask for as a reader, after all, but a sci-fi adventure thriller which takes its venue of play in the fields of language themselves?

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Leslye Walton’s “The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender”–A Tour de Force of Magical Realism

If I wrote to tell you today that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is the tale of a young woman named Ava who becomes the victim of a crime, you’d probably yawn a bit, stretch and sigh, and say “There are lots of stories of that kind out there–why should I read one more?”  But if I were to tell you that she had previously been mistaken as an angel by a whole Seattle neighborhood, perhaps you’d be a little more interested.  And if I then told you that this is because she had wings, maybe I’d have you hooked.  You’d say, perhaps, “Okay, then, I’ll read your crime story, and we’ll see just what this is really all about.”

Well, what it’s really all about, in the author Leslye Walton’s words, is this:  the story is “inspired by a particularly long sulk in a particularly cold rainstorm spent pondering the logic, or rather, lack thereof, in love–the ways we coax ourselves to love, to continue loving, to leave love behind.”  That sounds ordinary enough, doesn’t it?  But then, Walton tells us that sulking in the rain is the general way she herself, like a daffodil, can achieve beauty, and our attention is drawn away from logic and towards the whimsical.

As you might guess, the crime is only in a minor way what the story is “about.”  It’s a novel of magical realism, and passes continually to and fro between realistic descriptions and events and magical ones, in a nearly seamless flow that keeps one reading to see what miracle or odd happening will occur next.  Some realistic odd happenings or conditions, such as Ava’s twin brother Henry’s not being willing to speak most of the time, are explained by his seer-like state; his main vision of doom and disaster turns out to be verified, not only in the attack upon his sister Ava, but also in the more realistic natural world’s symptoms of global warming, first a drought and then a flood of rains, connected in this story with magical happenings as well.

To begin at the beginning, however, the connection between Ava Lavender’s non-functional wings and her ancestry is quite clear:  for at least a third of the novel, before we ever even meet her mother, we are in the equally magical world of her immediate forebears, her maternal great-grandfather Beauregard Roux, who moves his family to the New World and into his beloved “Manhatine,” followed by her grandmother Emilienne and her siblings René, Margaux, and Pierette.  The connection with both birds and ghosts is fairly constant throughout the novel also:  great-aunt Pierette, upon having fallen in love with an older man who liked bird-watching, turned herself into a canary, we are told.  And Emilienne, after her husband Connor Lavender moves her to Seattle, her siblings all having died, continues to see and converse with their ghosts in her new home.  As well, she sees the ghost of the little girl who previously lived in the house, one Fatima Inês, appearing along with theirs, particularly at crucial times in the novel.  In this sense, Ava’s connection with birds is not only a matter of heredity, but also of environment, because in Fatima Inês’s room, there are a host of doves who have mated with crows, leaving feathers everywhere.  As well, after Jack Griffith, the young erring father of Ava and Henry deserts her mother Viviane for another woman, the handyman Gabe, who lives in the house, becomes a sort of foster father to the children even though Viviane remains for a long time emotionally remote due to her unrequited love for Jack; Gabe hangs a feather mobile over Ava’s crib before she is born, which is rather as if yet another line of “inspiration” has occurred to make her part human, part bird.  Yet, her fondest wish is to be treated simply as a girl, and before the end of the novel, a young man, Rowe, brother to her friend Cardigan, seems to be the solution to this problem.

There is also the obsessed young Nathaniel Sorrows, however, a strange kind of religious fanatic who poses a threat to Ava’s desire to be ordinary, as he has an idolatrous fixation with her.  Though I won’t give away the very end of the novel, I should say that he is key to the resolution of the plot, and is disposed of plot-wise as well, just as the other odd characters have sometimes been.

Among some of the minor characters there is Wilhelmina, a native American woman with mystical powers who helps Emilienne run the family bakery, and Penelope, who does so as well.  And though it may not be usual to include a bakery as a character, as a magical sort of personality, the bakery is responsible for all the superlative tastes and good smells and wonderful pastries and breads that finally lure the townspeople away from their belief that Emilienne and Wilhelmina are both witches, and draw them in to enthusiastic support of the business.

Times of the year, seasons, solstices and equinoxes, are symbolically important in this story too; the summer solstice, for example, is Fatima’s anniversary of her birthdate, and the people of the town celebrate it as much for the one reason as for the other.  Other odd happenings include things from the very first of the book, when Mama Roux, Beauregard’s wife, is said to become transparent and disappear after he has (actually) mysteriously disappeared; this is not simply a symbolic book, however, and it’s not just that she becomes “transparent” and so forth in terms of personality.  By the way the event is recounted, it’s clear that it’s meant to be “real.”  Then, there is the man in Seattle who, after his wife leaves him, begins to dream her dreams; once again, though there is a symbolic element to this statement, it is also meant to be real, as real as it ever is in a work of magical realism.

Walton does show her rhetorical hand in her fiction here and there of course, and in direct statements that occur alongside the plotline rhetoric.  For example, about three-fourths of the way through the book, she speaks of the “malformed cousins of love,” “lust, narcissism, self-interest.”  When the children Ava and Henry, now in their teens, finally venture outside of the protective surroundings of their house on solstice, Walton has her narrator comment:  “..[C]hildren betray[] their parents by being their own people.”  Near the end of the novel, when grandmother Emilienne is sitting by the bed of the wounded Ava, she is said to think of “all the scars love’s victims carry.”  Still, the main tendency of the novel is to be whimsical, mysterious, magical, and thoroughly engaging, without that emotional drop that the reader often feels when the ending is not unrelievedly happy (and that’s a hint but not a spoiler).  It is, however, a quite spell-binding book, from start to finish, and I would encourage everyone interested in this type of fiction (and even those for whom it would be a first encounter with magical realism) to read it.  Who knows, maybe if you read it, your canary or parakeet will begin giving you significant looks before dropping a feather on your page and initiating an intellectual or poetic conversation!  At the very least, you will have experienced a gifted new writer’s début novel, and may be a bit more mystical, philosophical, or wise about the departures or desertions of loved ones and other machinations of fate.

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