04/28/13

Rasputin: Two Perspectives


Grigory RasputinPerhaps no character stands out in pre-Revolution Russia as much as that of Grigory Rasputin. He was influential, enigmatic, charismatic, secretive, held no office, yet had enormous influence on the events and people of the era. How could a barely literate peasant affect the destiny of an empire?

In many ways, Rasputin was the icon of the changing times, in others he represents the end of the old era, the last gasp of the autocratic, superstitious Russia. Mythologies grew up about and around him during his life, and even more so in death. No matter how you view him, he remains a subject of popular interest and his death continues to generate conspiracy theories, almost a century later.

The period from 1881* to 1921 is one of (for me) the most fascinating periods in Russian history.** While the rest of Europe was hell-bent on progress, development and industrialization (as well as colonialism), Russia was a bulwark of almost medieval attitudes and economics against the tide of progress. The fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the Soviets is intriguing.

The same period that saw some of the most brilliant Russian writers and composers also saw brutal anti-semitism, pogroms, and a recalcitrant autocracy digging in to preserve its perceived rights to absolute power.

From a global perspective, given the situation, the Russian Revolution was inevitable, although the resulting Soviet state was not. What it began as, and what it became, are two very different things. But that’s material for another post.

Nicholas Romanov, the last Tsar is one of those great, tragic characters of history; weak and unsuited for the mantle of power in turbulent times that changed the face of the nation and the West. His wife, Alexandra, while stronger, shares much of the blame for his fall from power, in part for her religious interference in secular political issues. And that’s where Rasputin comes into the story.

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04/27/13

Shakespeare’s Lost Plays


Double FalsehoodShakespeare’s canon, as it is known today, is incomplete. The Bard is known to have written several plays that were not, for various reasons, included in the First Folio printed shortly after his death.

Other plays, several included in the third folio, were attributed to Shakespeare after that publication, but most are known not to have been written by him, and have since been rejected (called the Shakespeare Apocrypha).

Some, like Pericles, have be given grudging acceptance in the modern canon. Many modern scholars accept Pericles as a collaboration between Shakespeare and a lesser talent (George Wilkins is suggested), but some are willing to accept it as entirely by Shakespeare’s hand.

Other texts have crept into the canon as scholars assess and reassess contemporary works. Two Noble Kinsmen is now accorded a place in most collections as a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Edward III, published anonymously in 1596, has won considerable support as an early Shakespearean history, and appears in many modern collections.

Edmund IronsideAnd still others remain contentious. Eric Sams argued well (at least I thought so) for Edmund Ironside as an early Shakespearean history, and his book about the play created a small tempest in academia. Sams’ claim was rejected by some scholars simply because he was not a Shakespeare academic, but rather a talented musicologist.

You can read an analysis of the play and Sams’ claims for authorship here, (a good overview, although the writer incorrectly assumes Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere).

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04/20/13

The Pulp Renaissance


Burroughs novelIn the late 1950s, I came across a copy (1912; an original edition, I believe) of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first published novel, Tarzan, The Ape Man, on my parent’s bookshelf in the basement. A forgotten book, one my father had likely brought with him from England when he immigrated here in 1947, something from his own boyhood. It sat beside old volumes of the Boy’s Own Annual and other English books. Of course I had to open it and read it.

From the very start, I was fascinated by it, by the adventure, by the sheer fantasy of it all. It was, as I recall more than 50 years later, the first ‘adult’ novel I ever read.* It was also the only such book on the shelf – among the various textbooks, Agatha Christie mysteries, and a few odds end ends. Only Tarzan, among them, held my attention.

In the early 1960s, I discovered science fiction. I used to wait in the local library for my father to pick me up after work (my mother was in hospital for a couple of years), and the library was a safe, welcoming place, albeit the Bendale branch was small. I was precocious and bored; and the children’s section was too small to contain my restless intelligence. I soon graduated from the children’s section to adult books in my impatience. I read voraciously.

Top of the list of fiction I read then were novels by writers like Andre Norton, Ben Bova, Chad Oliver, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, John Wyndham, James Blish, John W. Campbell, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Lester del Rey, Jack Vance, Brian W. Aldiss and many others. By the time I reached my teens I had read hundreds of scifi and fantasy novels. A lot of ‘space opera’ among them.**

About the same time, in the early half of the 1960s, paperback publishers like Bantam and Ace started reprinting the pulp stories of the pre-war years. While some kids collected baseball and hockey cards, I collected paperback book series.

Soon all of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs were available in print, and I bought every one, building a library of his works (which I still have, mostly complete, although I may be missing a few of his western titles). I avidly read his Barsoom and Pellucidar series, finding them far more entertaining than the many Tarzan novels (which I collected and read, anyway). Given that the first Barsoom novel was written in 1912, it certainly has had staying power.

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04/20/13

Plato, Music and Misquotes


WikipediaI spent a pleasant morning, Saturday, browsing through the works of Plato, hunting for the source of a quotation I saw on Facebook, today.* I did several textual searches for words, phrases and quotes on sites that offer his collected works, along with other works by classical authors.

Now I must admit that in my reading, I have not read everything Plato wrote. I’ve read several dialogues, and then mostly pieces from his works. Reading the entire Republic has, sadly, defeated me, but I have it available for another try when I retire.

Despite my unfamiliarity with his full canon, when I saw this quotation today, I knew it could not be from Plato:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

And while the sentiment is good, the flowery quote wasn’t by the Greek philosopher.

I took some time to look at what the various “quotation” sites offer as words from Plato, related especially to music.** Here is another quote commonly, but erroneously, attributed to Plato online (and available on T-shirt, mugs, etc.):

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.

This one is actually listed in  the Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (1991, p. 45; proof that the printed word is not free of such mistakes), but is is incorrect as others before me have also found. Not even the Quote Investigator has tackled this quote and found the source, but it isn’t from Plato.

Here are more lines attributed to Plato on various sites***:

Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.

“Philosophy is the highest music.

“What a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colors which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.

“Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

“Give me the music of a nation; I will change a nation’s mind.

“If you want to measure the spiritual depth of society, make sure to mark it’s music.

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”

Now while most are misattributions, others may be paraphrases or even differences in translation. I decided to check through the collected works of Plato (online at MIT and the Perseus Digital Library)

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04/19/13

The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum - once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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04/17/13

Profundity


In 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote one of the most profound poems in the English language: The Red Wheelbarrow. It reads like a Japanese Zen haiku:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Wikipedia tells us that the poem’s title is not its original, but rather one applied by its readers. The poem was first published in anthology titled Spring and All. The poem itself was simply titled “XXII,” indicating its place in the collection.

Referring to the poem as “The Red Wheelbarrow” has been frowned upon by some critics, including Neil Easterbrook, who said that such reference gives the text “a specifically different frame” than that which Williams originally intended. The poem is removed from its place in the anthology and thus takes on a different meaning.

This I think is overly critical. The name isn’t the poem. It’s simply a mnemonic to help us remember.

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