31 August 2008

The only thing missing

Someone should start up an online library with thousands upon thousands of ebooks. For a small annual subscription fee, users would be able to "check out" books by receiving temporary passwords, which would "expire" when the time limit (of two weeks or so) is up. (This would probably mean that the ebooks would have to be kept on certain password protected websites and not be available for download.)

Does anyone know if anything like this exists yet? If not, I hope it's only a matter of time. Once it does, my life here will be complete. Imagine--a global lending library!

29 August 2008

Brief resurfacing

Today was my last in this little office, running an EFL program to support several small groups in the elementary school. On Monday, I'll cover for the resident librarian for two weeks before embarking on my postgraduate work in literary translation. Here are a few things I've been gathering in the meantime...

22 August 2008

Marvelously suggestive

James Pollock explores Anne Carson's Decreation at the Contemporary Poetry Review:
Carson has been for many years a professor of classics, she is a superb translator from ancient Greek, and in her own writing she returns again and again to the ancient roots, the classical and biblical origins of Western literature. These obsessions, self-consciously combined with her more fashionable interest in the new traditions of certain great innovators of the twentieth century like Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, enable her, at her best, to be truly original. Merely to rank her with “the triumphant march of the avant-garde,” in Zbigniew Herbert’s sardonic phrase—cultural amnesiacs endlessly shooting at the easy target of novelty—is to miss completely much of what is most interesting and valuable in her work. In fact, Carson has always been a writer in the Romantic tradition of the sublime, a tradition stretching back through Longinus to Sappho, Homer, and the Bible. And never more so than in her recent book, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera.

The book explores, from a wide variety of perspectives, the theme of the sublime annihilation or decreation of the self. Carson borrows the term “decreation” from the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, for whom the purpose of such an act was to get out of the way of God, to let God’s will prevail over one’s one. Any student of religions will recognize this as a very old idea. But one way of understanding Carson’s focus on this theme is to think of her place in literary history: as a self-consciously post-confessional poet, she is concerned with finding ways to displace the self from the centre of the work. Not, mind you, in order to replace it with the cold, inhuman babble of Language, but rather to make way for “spiritual matters”. And this, as I say, places her squarely in the Romantic tradition of the sublime. “Not I,” writes D.H. Lawrence, in his “Song of the Man Who Has Come Through”: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.” The main difference is that where English Romantics like Shelley and Lawrence speak of “wind,” Carson often speaks of the still more traditional “God.” [...]

Lest we forget that the sublime is a concept that was applied in the eighteenth century especially to certain aesthetic experiences of nature, Carson’s third essay, “Totality: The Colour of Eclipse,” considers the sublime experience of the total eclipse of the sun. She describes it as follows: “You are now inside the moon’s shadow, which is a hundred miles wide and moves at two thousand miles an hour. The sensation is stupendous.” Carson takes her literary examples this time from Archilochus, Pindar, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard. Surprisingly, she finds the experience is often associated in these writers with copulation, marriage, questions and doubts about marriage, and, less surprisingly, with a feeling of wrongness; in a metaphor borrowed from her own essay in praise of sleep, she compares seeing an eclipse to “waking from a dream in the wrong direction and finding yourself on the back side of your mind.” Taken by itself, this is the slightest of the four essays; however, when read together with the other three its images and ideas help to link all four in marvelously suggestive ways. For instance, although she never makes the link explicitly, the image of a total eclipse of the sun is perhaps her most powerful metaphor for her central notion of “decreation,” which may be understood as a kind of eclipse or annihilation of the self.
I also recently enjoyed listening to Michael Silverblatt's conversation with Carson (from January 2007) about her translations of Euripides.

20 August 2008

More on Solzhenitsyn

Linh Dinh at Detainees points to one of Solzhenitsyn's last interviews:
SPIEGEL: And your strength did not leave you even in moments of enormous desperation?

Solzhenitsyn: Yes. I would often think: Whatever the outcome is going to be, let it be. And then things would turn out all right. It looks like some good came out of it. [...]

SPIEGEL: In 1987 in your interview with SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein you said it was really hard for you to speak about religion in public. What does faith mean for you?

Solzhenitsyn: For me faith is the foundation and support of one’s life.

SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of death?

Solzhenitsyn: No, I am not afraid of death any more. When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me -- he died at the age of 27 -- and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced. I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one’s existence.

SPIEGEL: Anyhow, we wish you many years of creative life.

Solzhenitsyn: No, no. Don’t. It’s enough.

15 August 2008


I just finished solving a fun little puzzle on the Lostpedia Blog. (Yes, I'm one of those people.)

I owe what cryptogram skills I have to Poe's "The Gold Bug" and Fours Crossing by Nancy Garden. Both stories had me solving the cryptograms in the local paper when I was a kid. (In the evenings after Jeopardy!, of course.)

Thanks to Lost for helping me relive a bit of my childhood...

By the way, their book club is currently reading Carrie (a live chat will happen on the 23rd, but this discussion thread is interesting). Lord of the Flies is September's selection.

13 August 2008

Remembering Solzhenitsyn

Too many deadlines, not enough time. It has taken me awhile to absorb the shock of this death and finally have something to offer. I reread an interview he gave in June 2005 (which discusses the challenge of democracy) and the interview his wife gave in April and feel a great sense of loss. He lived an amazing, full life--but such urgency, such purpose!
Solzhenitsyn's most recent years have been characterised by frantic activity - and an austere preoccupation with historical patterns rather than fleeting events, she added.
(One can only wonder if this pace had something to do with the October 2005 fire that destroyed many of his archives.)

A friend once recommended Daniel J. Mahoney's Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology. I was fascinated by the complex ideas presented and the (yes) urgency of what Solzhenitsyn was trying to communicate. This book is an excellent exploration of the ramifications of his work (highly recommended).

So I was disappointed and troubled by the tone of many of the obituaries I read, as well as by Jane Smiley's personal response "article." She is honest (I'll give her that) and openly admits that
Russian novels are a treasure, and I have long treasured them. But, like most Americans, I, too, had a very shallow understanding of Solzhenitsyn. When he came to the US, took up residence in Vermont, and began criticizing the US and the modern world, I was surprised, put off, and then lost interest in what the old man had to say.
Yet she never confronts this loss of "interest" and simply winds up saying,
He didn't conform to anyone's program. No one could make an ally of Solzhenitsyn, at least for very long. He was prickly, he was opinionated, he was independent, he was peculiar. For this, and this alone, I thank him and honor him.
It is unfair to demand that she "understand" him, but it's unfortunate that there is no willingness to examine his criticisms. He is reduced to some type of curiosity.

This is precisely what must not happen to his work and his memory--especially now. We must be willing to analyze what he had to say and confront its implications.

More worthwhile responses can be found here:
A cold drizzle was falling, and as the translator rolled out one section at a time, it took a while for the listeners to take in how radical it was. “This is terrible!” a middle-aged woman near me finally burst out.

As for me, I didn’t agree with everyone Solzhenitsyn said, but it was bracing to hear him inveigh against Western complacency and materialism from the same platform where President Derek Bok had been proudly announcing how much money each Harvard class has donated to its alma mater.

Tolkien and Lewis illustrator Pauline Baynes

passed away last Friday at the age of 85. When I was 8, her illustrations for The Chronicles of Narnia taught me to "read" images. It seemed that every time I looked at her lovely pen drawings, I saw something new.

Brian Sibley writes,
There are certain illustrators whose work is so intimately interwoven with the author's text as to rank as the books' co-creators. Sir John Tenniel, for example, the first illustrator of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and E H Shepard who, with A A Milne, led us into the world of Winnie-the-Pooh. Similarly, Pauline Baynes' pictures of country and denizens in C S Lewis' seven Chronicles of Narnia are still - despite the recent big-screen movie imagery - the definitive depiction of that extraordinary land beyond the wardrobe...
It is a lovely personal tribute that goes on to describe her achievements, her illustration of the lost chapter of Through the Looking Glass, and the stories behind how she met J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
After producing illustrations for various books of fairy tales, Pauline Baynes' career was established when, in 1949, J R R Tolkien's publishers showed the author of The Hobbit a portfolio of her artwork. Tolkien had written Farmer Giles of Ham, a fanciful novella with a faux-medieval setting, and being dissatisfied with the pictures that had been produced for the book was looking for a new illustrator.

Pauline produced a series of witty line illustrations that perfectly caught the essence of Tolkien's story to an extent that he declared them to be "more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme." He also delighted in reporting that friends had said that the pictures had reduced his text to "a commentary on the drawings"!
Here is his full obituary in The Independent. It is very sad that she is gone, but what a beautiful life she led.

(via NarniaWeb via cleolinda)

11 August 2008

Life-changing books

El País recently surveyed 100 Spanish-language authors about the top ten books that changed their lives. (Here is a PDF of the complete list of the authors and their choices.)

A few interesting bits:
  • The top five authors turned out to be (from one to five) Cervantes, Proust, Homer, and Kafka (in both fourth and fifth place).
  • Jorge Luis Borges is number one of the Latin American authors mentioned.
  • Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov is number one on Horacio Castellanos Moya's list.
  • Alberto Manguel's first pick was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
  • Javier Marías placed both Richard III and Macbeth at the top of his list.
  • Proust's In Search of Lost Time was at the top of Antonio Muñoz Molina's list.
  • Iván Thays has Ana Karenina at the top, with Pale Fire a close second.
  • Enrique Vila-Matas' number one is Kafka's Diaries.
(With thanks to A.)

08 August 2008

Beautiful mistakes

Earlier this week, Anne shared the whimsical discovery of a new word:
I was listening to “Proud Mary” and googled the lyrics to figure out the phrase “pumped a lot of tane.” The Tina Turner version is ‘tane, for octane, which makes sense as the kind of lousy, hard job someone might have in New Orleans, but wikipedia suggests, too, that the line may be a mondegreen, helpfully linking to an entry on the topic.

The coinage comes from a 1954 essay by Sylvia Wright in Harper’s:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic]
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green." As Wright explained the need for a new term, "The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original."
I was immediately reminded of Walker Percy's essay "Metaphor as Mistake" (from The Message in the Bottle):
I remember hunting as a boy in south Alabama with my father and brother and a Negro guide. At the edge of some woods we saw a wonderful bird. He flew as swift and straight as an arrow, then all of a sudden folded his wings and dropped like a stone into the woods. I asked what the bird was. The guide said it was a blue-dollar hawk. Later my father told me the Negroes had got it wrong: It was really a blue darter hawk. I can still remember my disappointment at the correction. What was so impressive about the bird was its dazzling speed and the effect of alternation of its wings, as if it were flying by a kind of oaring motion.
Percy goes on to explore the implications of this sort of linguistic "error":
It might be useful to look into the workings of these accidental stumblings into poetic meaning, because they exhibit in a striking fashion that particular feature of metaphor which has most troubled philosophers: that it is "wrong"--it asserts of one thing that it is something else--and further, that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.
It's a fascinating essay that praises the lovely paradox of metaphor and the possibilities of poetic meaning:
That is to say, is it the function of metaphor merely to diminish tension, or is it a discoverer of being?