Aesop is Still Relevant

A MONKEY perched upon a lofty tree saw some Fishermen casting their nets into a river, and narrowly watched their proceedings. The Fishermen after a while gave up fishing, and on going home to dinner left their nets upon the bank. The Monkey, who is the most imitative of animals, descended from the treetop and endeavored to do as they had done. Having handled the net, he threw it into the river, but became tangled in the meshes and drowned. With his last breath he said to himself, “I am rightly served; for what business had I who had never handled a net to try and catch fish?’
This fable shows that by meddling in affairs one doesn’t understand, not only does one gain nothing, but one also does oneself harm.

Aesop's FablesNo, I’m not writing fables for council now, although you’d think it was tailor made for the current group at the table. Most of them, anyway. It comes from a website dedicated to fables (www.aesopfables.com), but the moral at the end comes from a recently-acquired Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated by Olivia and Robert Temple (Penguin Books, 1998). In the book, it’s fable number 304.*

The site offers many more, but I don’t know how many are actually Aesop’s originally, or later additions. Collaters and editors, especially during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were apparently somewhat liberal when building their collections and included much extraneous material. Which isn’t necessarily bad, because it also preserved material which might have otherwise been lost.**

The introduction to that book taught me that most of what I thought I knew about Aesop and his famous fables was wrong. And that many of the stories what I had thought were his weren’t – they were plagiarized from other authors or other traditions. And even those that were Aesop’s had often been rewritten and bowdlerized for Victorian sensibilities. Yet one can recognize the iconic fables within the originals.

What surprised me most is that the originals are bawdier, and often more violent (there’s a lot of death) and sometimes misogynistic. Despite what happened to them in later years, they weren’t meant for children.

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Reading Pablo Neruda

Pablo NerudaOne hardly expects poets to generate spirited debate in the media these days*, but they did, not that long ago, well within my own lifetime. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was one of those who sparked great, passionate emotions in people, for both his writing and his leftist politics. And in his own country, Chile, he was the equivalent of a rock star for many years.

Even his 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature was controversial: the award noted Neruda was a “contentious author” about whom the debate still raged. His death, shortly after the coup by the right-wing general, Augusto Pinochet, was long blamed on doctors under order by the former dictator, although a 2013 exhumation and autopsy failed to substantiate that claim (Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer at the time of his death).

My own experience of the prolific Neruda was, until quite recently, framed around a smattering of translations in anthologies. It broadened when I bought a comprehensive collection – more than 600 poems over 1,000 pages – that captures a fair cross section of the roughly 3,500 poems he published over his lifetime.

(To be honest, my appreciation of non-English poets comes mainly from such anthologies and translations; this is my first major collection of a non-English poet…).

Daniel Chouinard, writing in January Magazine, said,

No living poet is as famous today as Pablo Neruda was in his lifetime. He was a world figure, as famous as Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, but with the added cachet in some circles of being a politically active man of the left. His poetry exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin America, and he remains beloved in his native Chile… In his willingness to experiment and change styles repeatedly, and in the way in which these changes released a flood of new work, Neruda resembled no one so much as Picasso. Contrary to what he believed, the more personal he wrote, the more people he reached.

Mark Strand, writing in The New Yorker, recognizes the problem with foreign-language writers published in English, but explains how editor Ilan Stavans deals with it:

Stavans has been careful to include almost all of Neruda’s major translators, and readers will encounter translation styles that range from the wooden and amusical to the fluid and finely tuned. Fortunately, Neruda’s best work has attracted his most gifted translators. Without them, his best might appear to be a good deal less. Examples of clear success are W. S. Merwin’s translation of “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” Jack Schmitt’s translations of “Canto General” and “Art of Birds,” Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of the three books of “Elemental Odes,” and Alastair Reid’s masterly translations of “Extravagaria” and “Isla Negra.” These works alone would easily be enough to provide many hours of happy reading.

Stavans himself wrote in the New York Times:

Neruda left thousands of poems, a handful of which are of such inspired beauty as to justify the very existence of the Spanish language. Adolescents routinely give his “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” to their sweethearts. His ideological verses have been read aloud, often from memory, in one revolution after another, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the embers of the Arab Spring. Some of Neruda’s poems — “I Ask for Silence,” “Walking Around,” “Ode to the Artichoke” — have been rendered into English repeatedly, each version another effort to make him current and vital to a new generation.

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Decoding Alice in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland DecodedIt is tempting to suggest author David Day’s lush new book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded is the final word on the mysteries and secrets behind Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s fantasy, but alas, it would be an over-reach. Surely others will follow, perhaps even Day himself will extend his research to a sequel.

Aside from the difficulties of probing the motives of a man dead more than 125 years, there comes the question of interpretation, which is more like opinion than it is fact. Looking back 150 years at possible explanations for a reference or a character sometimes involves guesswork.

But even from its original publication, people knew there was more to Alice than a simple children’s tale replete with frivolous nonsense. As Day explains, Carroll himself acknowledged some of the references and metaphors. But there remain others for be dug out of the text like opals from the Australian bedrock. Day is a superb, if sometimes eccentric, prospector.

In an interview in the National Post, it notes,

Day also argues that the book was meant to give a classical education to someone like Alice, who, as a girl, wouldn’t be able to attend Oxford. Every character in Wonderland then becomes an allusion to a scholar or to a figure in Greek mythology; a reference to mathematical concept or to a famous work of art; or, quite frequently, a combination of all of the above.

It is fun, in a conspiracy-theory sort of way, to entertain hidden references to ancient gods, myths and mysteries, but as Sigmund Freud allegedly said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Those of you old enough to remember the Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods books know how quickly such egregious assumptions can be discredited and ridiculed.

Still, Day’s effort is not to be dismissed: his arguments and theories are well explained and generally compelling. It is, to date, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging peek behind the Alice curtain, and certainly most elegantly published version (the full-colour hardcover is gorgeous). It took the author almost two decades to research and write.

And it’s a good social biography of Carroll and his milieu, although it helps if you know something about the Victorian era, the British Empire, the impact of Darwin, and the social and political attitudes of the day.

But don’t lose track of the prime reason Carroll wrote the book: to entertain, delight and (possibly) educate children. Let’s not rub off all the innocence and the magic by too much analysis. As The Telegraph noted of the original book:

Future generations may see other hidden meanings. In a tale this rich, it seems highly likely they will. But for children the story itself, with its universal theme of an innocent youngster attempting to make sense of a strange adult world, is enough.

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Where Have all the Readers Gone?

books, glorious booksNo, it’s not a remake of Pete Seeger’s famous 1955 anti-war song. That’s the title of an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail this week, by Peter Denton, lamenting our overall slide into image-based information with the “…intellectual attention span of squirrels…” *

It grabbed my attention from the headline, but I stand at odds over his conclusions and his figures.

Denton worries that people are reading less and sliding towards “personal illiteracy”:

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books any more. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.
Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Now I realize I am not your typical reader, and may be the exception to the rule, but I think my generation is, on average, both very well-read and continues to read a significant amount. My parents were avid readers and they shared their love of books with me. But more than that, for me a good time is an hour or two simply browsing in a bookstore or library. Hell, even wandering through my own personal library is a delight because I always find something to pull off a shelf and look through.

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Who By Fire

I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

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Judas, a Biography

Judas kissLong before Darth Vader, long before Lord Voldemort, long before Stephen Harper, Judas Iscariot reigned as the supreme icon of evil in Western mythology. Judas betrayed God. How much worse can you get?*

For 2,000 years we’ve used the term Judas to refer to anyone who betrayed anything, any cause, any belief, any friendship. Yet, like all the icons of evil that came before, and who have followed, Judas holds a fascination for us that transcends his actions.

Dante consigns him to the ninth circle of hell, one of three traitors forever chewed in the mouths of the three-headed Satan. Yet Brutus, Cassius (the other two sinners in Dante’s story), Benedict Arnold, and Vidkun Quisling never achieved such attention or notoriety. They were all were members of their respective inner circles; all betrayed their friends,their beliefs and their leaders. But they are paltry shadows beside Judas.

Perhaps that’s in part because none of the others are religious symbols, and religion far too often brings out the extreme in people.

Susan Gubar’s 2009 book, Judas, a Biography, which I’ve been reading of late, is a fascinating look at the relationship the West has had with Judas these two millennia, and how he appears in art, music, literature, religion and popular culture. Judas has become a reflection of a lot about ourselves: our fears, our religion, our mythologies, our politics, our behaviour.

Many of us have had the deeply disturbing experience of betrayal in our own lives; someone trusted, a friend or lover, someone we cared deeply about who betrayed us. And when that betrayal is over something crass like money or political favour, it cuts us deeply. We never forget, never forgive our own personal Judas.**

But who was Judas that we still use his name for such acts?

The Gospels are spare in their actual history of Judas, even in his final acts. But a whole body of legend has grown up around the man, his family, his parents, his childhood and, of course, his afterlife. All of which, as Gubar points out, is merely imagined; unsubstantiated by any historical documentation, but become part of the mythology. All of it meant to polish his evil sheen, rather than redeem him.

What’s to redeem, you might ask? Well, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

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Myth and Meaning

From My Buddhist Life on Facebook
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us find within ourselves.

So says Joseph Campbell in an interview with Bill Moyers, 1987, published in the book, The Power of Myth. The book is based on a 1988 PBS documentary about Campbell’s life and studies. You can see the episodes of the show on billmoyers.com and read the transcript. The above quote comes from the book (paperback edn, p.4) which has considerable material not aired in the TV series.

Campbell was the doyen of mythology and comparative religion studies, and author of numerous books on the subjects. He was closely associated with the Jungian school of psychology, too. He died just before the TV series was aired.*

Campbell wrote the now-famous The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949, a book that has hugely influenced writers and screenwriters ever since. It lays out the core ‘hero’s journey’ in all mythology and great literature. Anyone interested in becoming a novelist will have read it by now, or at least read one of the many spin-off titles that explain the progression and cycle Campbell expounds.

In The Power of Myth, Campbell explains why reading mythology – and by extension by reading fiction – we humanize ourselves and connect with our collective past. And how it broadens our understanding of the world and other cultures:

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.

When you consider the parallel rise of the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists – the scripture literalists – you can appreciate Campbell’s advice. Reading only the mythologies of our own religion and culture, we fail to appreciate that they are myths. Without the broader vision, we collectively interpret our myths as facts, rather than allegories and metaphors.

One of the reasons I oppose home schooling as dangerous is that it tends to breed this sort of inward-looking approach; to keep children within the narrow confines of a particular religious interpretation, rather than let them experience the culture and myths of others. It creates irrational beings.

Home-schooled children never get to glimpse the rich possibilities of life, to see the choices and the options available to other children. They never get to realize their own visions, only to fulfill the visions of their parents. They never get to go through what Campbell called the necessary rituals to become members of the tribe and the community. They cannot function rationally in the world without those rituals.

Home schooling instead rolls out easily-indoctrinated child soldiers, sexist and racist, armed for the culture wars against the heathens, the pagans and other inferiors.

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The Secret to Good Writing

The urge to writeSpoiler alert: the secret to writing well is…. (insert drum roll)... writing. Writing a lot. Every day. Every possible minute you can spare. Writing and writing more and then writing even more. But doing so within a pre-specified limit. Oops…

Now we all know that, aside from some local bloggers and EB columnists, most of us get better the more we practice a thing. Writing – aside from the aforementioned inept exceptions – included.

It means not vegging in front of the TV all night, or trolling the Net for images of the Kardashian’s oversized ass, or scrolling through Facebook streams. It means writing. Sitting down and writing instead of doing a lot of less meaningful but pleasantly mind-numbing things.

That, in brief, is the message in a recent article in The Guardian. Author Oliver Burkeman distills this from his reading of How Writers Journey To Comfort And Fluency, an apparently highly over-priced book by Robert Boice (the reviewer didn’t check to see if Boice had re-packaged his book under a less-expensive format). As Burkeman puts it,

The kernel of Boice’s advice, based on writing workshops conducted with struggling academics, isn’t merely old. It’s the oldest in the world: write, every weekday, in brief scheduled sessions, as short as 10 minutes at first, then getting longer. Reading that, I nearly flung my £68 book across the room in impatience. But that wouldn’t surprise Boice. Because impatience, for him, is a huge part of why writing causes so much grief.

As the owner of a healthy library of books on writing and grammar, and as someone who writes every day, as if driven by compulsion, I can attest to his frustration. Far too many of these self-described experts blather on about what is basically a simple process, and make it both more complex and mystical than it really is: write, write some more, then write even more.

So far, Boice has that right. But he strays from the message.

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In Search of Kant’s Categorical Imperative

I have not read Immanuel Kant. Until recently, I did not feel at all apologetic about that statement. But when I watched the video above, I realized how much I was missing. A remarkable thinker, he proves to be, whose thoughts about society, religion, behaviour and politics appear at first glance quite akin to my own cogitations. And in many ways, his conclusions – at least as stated in the video – seem very Buddhist in nature. That “categorical imperative” seems most intriguing, and familiar in many ways, and I want more explanation.

The video, above, was posted on my Facebook timeline via Open Culture with this description:

His primary ethical mandate, which he called the “categorical imperative,” enables us—Alain de Botton tells us in his short School of Life video above—to “shift our perspective, to get us to see our own behavior in less immediately personal terms.” It’s a philosophical version, de Botton says, of the Golden Rule. “Act only according to that maxim,” Kant famously wrote of the imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

I had read about Kant, of course, mostly in works about the development of Western philosophy, but not his own words.

My personal efforts to read the European Enlightenment philosophers to date has been much like wading through treacle. This is why I usually prefer a more modern, conflated synthesis. But that has the problem of distance: I end up reading an interpretation of his words, not the words themselves (which would be a translation, compounding the matter). I need to know more; I need more depth to better understand his ideas and how they relate to my world.

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Read, Re-read, Repeat

Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Our Know-It-Alls

Municipal WorldCollingwood Council obviously knows more than anyone else in municipal governance. More, in fact, than anyone else in the entire country. In fact, they may all be geniuses in local governance issues.

Otherwise, why would council cancel their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the start of their term?

Previous councils subscribed to an issue for each member of council, plus others for administration. While I can’t say everyone read them, the brightest and most dedicated politicians on council read them cover to cover.

Now the whole town gets one issue. ONE for the entire workforce;  for the dozen or so staff AND politicians. That suggests council must be brighter not only than all previous councils, but brighter than all other municipal politicians, advisers, consultants, lawyers, planners and administrators in the whole country, combined.

Since 1891, Municipal World magazine has been Canada’s foremost source of information, best practices, issues, ideas, challenges, policies and opportunities for local governance. Every issue – 12 a year – is packed with important, informative articles and columns. This is considered the “bible” of municipal governance by every other politician across the nation.

But Collingwood council doesn’t read it any more. Clearly our council are all atheists, when it comes to the municipal bible.

I guess it’s because they already know so much they have no need to learn more. Their heads are just bursting with knowledge and just can’t fit any more in. No need for the ideas of others. No need to obey their own Code of Conduct which states councillors are obliged (underlining in the original) to learn more about their roles and responsibilities:

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development…

This council doesn’t need more learning because clearly they all know it all, already.

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