Archive for February, 2013

Frontier moralities

February 24, 2013

If Whitman is the poet of vagabonds fleeing the colonial conceit for a breath of fresh air at the edge of the wilderness, Virgil is the poet of colonists who garden for love of an empire, domestic dreamers who dwell on the past when they look at the stars, and threaten to rise up over “tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd.”

I feel that I have lost you now, evil
times have made of love pain without relief.
The world that has lost you will replace you,
a yellow leaf framing a cluster of grapes
will shine, grief will hide itself, hope of wine
remind us of sweetness in loss, belief
in rebirth console us.

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape,
take back the bitter medicine of time
and give me back my solitude – the nape
of my neck longs for your hand, and I mime
your presence with my own. No rhyme
or reason is enough to make this lack
a philosophical burden.

I haven’t read Virgil, but I’m curious. The book Strangers at the Gate held my attention on a day when I had been skimming all the other library books until I’d read it cover to cover, by mixing prosody with anecdote for modern South Africa’s Latin poetry fandom. Africa has more than great migrations to offer the 20th century, and can keep a writer busy doing things other than writing, while abroad.


Airports are also good, for writing foreshadowing to sequence.

A writer not writing will even listen enough to become a better writer without having noticed. Aspiring to something more than residence in Kenya, Karen Blixen kept too many found mottos not to be known for it, and could not refuse when Denys gave her his family’s motto, “Je responderay,” as a present – it means I will answer and give account.

She said this motto spoke to her, partly because “the Danish word for responsibility is plain ‘Ansvar.’”

She did not like to see frontier morality as an off-color idiom of polite sayings from home, about what is not intended to pass for justice so far from the courts.

“.. just the same .. and everyday, there comes a song ..”

Martha Nussbaum’s phrase “the frontiers of justice” resonates for just this reason – at the edges of the map we find an unconstructed society, where invaders and invaded have each begun losing their capacity to govern in good faith. Their ambassadors must be ready to betray the trust they cultivate at any moment, or be set upon by their own people instead.

What privacy the wild affords is false –
a public mind works on the natural world.
I can’t forget my oath, the flag unfurled
above our fort to give the weather’s pulse
an air of expectation. What promise
this overwhelming strange enchantment holds
for me teases my sentiments, but folds
before harsh terms for trade. There is but this:
the nourishment of the James River’s fish,
the closeness of the timber to the sea,
our access to the tributaries’ kings –
such circumstances dictate every wish
and govern blindly. “Subsistence first” brings
strength without warmth, our mere security.

Some people seek out the frontier with the wilderness, rather than with strangers whose laws are not their own.


Tomohiro Inaba

My grandfather retired as far from the nearest neighbor as he could without losing access to a grocery store. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, of company in moderation. I remember my grandfather best for his hospitality, keeping house in the Oregon woods.

Farming trees in a black bear neighborhood called airplane ridge after a small plane accident, he never used a gun there, except to kill a porcupine that tried to eat his house. A salt lick in view of the breakfast table brought in morning guest lists of deer that would scuffle over the dirt it had percolated into, when it had washed down to nothing.

Coyotes could be heard singing there at night, though the wolves had been gone for generations. Listening for bugling elk, though, you are more likely to hear the cattle sounding in the dark. Coyotes inspire a healthy fear in ranch hands, and can sometimes be found crucified on a fence line where the range is being used for grazing. But coyotes have never been that easy to run off.

Coyote is the trickster hero, everywhere he’s known to storytellers, a savior everyone is loathe to turn to, but an acknowledged genius, sure to be rather brilliant when all else fails. A thief and a practical joker, he gave the world stars by stealing a bag of sacred white corn from a goddess of the Southwest, and carelessly spilling it in the sky.

A great basalt landmark in Oregon is all that remains of an all-swallowing monster he slew in the origin story of the Nez Perce people. Even the monster that swallowed every other living thing in the world hesitated to eat coyote, suspecting somehow that this could backfire.

But coyote bathed, and rolled in sagebrush, and persuaded the world’s enemy nothing could be tastier, so that he could roast the gorgon’s vitals from within, rescuing all the demoralized survivors languishing in stomach juices but not without humiliating the only marsupial known to him.


“Feathered” is from The Daily Coyote (Charlie, 2013).

Baby coyotes have big voices, and make for an eerie local caroling troupe. But it’s easy to fear for them, since the national forest on all sides of the tree farm is used for grazing. Ranchers don’t mind the cattle often while they’re there, or gather them efficiently, but they kill predators sometimes.

Things have begun to change. Even wolves are showing themselves lately, from the jogging trails of Boise to the meadows above Joseph, Oregon. A few weeks after my grandfather’s funeral, neighbors gave word a wolf pack had taken on his part of airplane ridge.

Mottos for adventure

February 23, 2013

Although Karen Blixen used the pseudonym Isak Dinesen mostly to publish short stories, my favorite piece of writing under that name is her essay “On Mottoes of My Life”, in the collection Daguerreotypes.

Here she reveals that she kept mottos in her heart that she had forgotten in the Latin original (like “still I am unconquered” and “often in difficulties, never afraid”), and she shares the legend behind Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse est! (“This audacious order was flung from the lips of Pompey to his timid Sicilian crew when they refused to set out against the gale and the high seas to bring provisions of grain to Rome.”)


Montaigne was just as much of a fangirl about quotable Latin. He relates in a great hurry how Bias said to shipmates during a tempest while calling to the gods for help, in keeping with traditions that it is unlucky to go to sea with those who are “dissolute, blasphemous, or wicked” but humorously: “Be quiet, so they may not realize that you are here with me.”

She gives another nautical motto in the story of a French scientific expedition lost at sea. The boat “had gone down below Iceland with her flag flying. And the boat had been named Pourquoi pas? – ‘Why not?’”

The Endurance expedition to the Antarctic, an adventure chronicled in Craig Parker’s Shackleton’s Captain, named their ship by brave words and sent her to a similar fate. The ship rechristened in honor of Shackleton’s family motto, “by endurance we conquer” was abandoned in pack ice, but the journey earned its epithet. Through the courage to endure brutal conditions and much waiting on a distant thread of hope in their own rescue expedition on the last serviceable boat hauled over ice from where the ship was lost, all men survived.

The film has its own motto, from Napoleon’s memorable saying: “it takes more courage to live than to die.” Napoleon is said to have hoped, above all, that his own life would be remembered like a motto, as an inspirational story.

I used to think being blown away by Master and Commander at the Far Side of the World made me a Peter Weir fan. Then I saw his toilet repair man movie. It’s diabolically clever, but I’m definitely just another Russell Crowe fan, and a genre fan of epic adventure. You need a lead actor the whole cast can hook on to for an ensemble performance that strong. And at sea (beyond the cinema’s massive tank for ocean adventure staging), some of the same rules apply.

In an essay on tragic drama, Maxwell Anderson conveys this hope for the role of theater in the modern world: “The theater is much older than the doctrine of evolution, but its one faith … is a faith in evolution, in the reaching and the climb of man toward distant goals, glimpsed but never seen, perhaps never achieved, or achieved only to be passed impatiently on the way to a more distant horizon.”

“Thow of foaming seas, dost still the tumultuous outcries
thow their high swelling, dose coole with lowly residing”
(Pembroke, Psalm 89).

On winds, it is easy to dwell with unease on a thought that the weather has seemed to answer before you had finished the question as a thought itself. This is for actors to see, but not because the wind is not indifferent, all phenomena that make up spectacles of convergence are, they whisper deja vu and are no less unpredictable than if they had said nothing. What you read into it you know, but the world is resoundingly silent before you have spoken.

The weirdness was from finding yourself the only one present who seemed to notice what you just came to think, as if those all around you should have heard the same passage of wind through the nearby treetops tell them the same thing, because you fear it is urgent and yet obscure. It is obscure, but you’re an actor so you noticed.

Theater helps us risk a glimpse at ourselves at the very worst, distancing the specter of our darker nature from ourselves just far enough to make a bit more honesty about the way we live our lives feel palatable. Only after such a glimpse does serious thinking about making the world any better become possible.

Literature and history could do no better, though the one is easily distracted with experiments in style, and the other with experiments in politics. The Babylonians encountered by Herodotus began (and never completed) a tower of Babel, and the traveling historian climbed its scaffolding.

But for the Greek this anecdote was only one among many, and it shrinks in perspective, one of volumes of stories engagingly told. Any story with a motto transcends the distance and time.

In the first lines of “Australia”, a sonnet by Bernard O’Dowd, kingfishers misplace the large, habitable island and all its marsupials in another salt body of water:

Last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space,
Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West
In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?

The halcyon myth is the kingfisher’s origin story, about a couple mercifully transformed into water birds, after a god tried to drown the husband at sea. The bride’s father, a god of winds, yearly gives the lovers seven cold days of calm at solstice to tend their floating seaweed nest. The root syllables in Greek mean ‘salt’ and ‘to conceive’.


Halcyon painted by Australia’s Sidney Nolan

The Euripides Hyppolytos quoted in The Spirit of Tragedy uses the same stranded-at-sea image, as a metaphor for the human condition:

I have a secret hope
of someone, a god, who is wise and plans;
but my hopes grow dim …
Unpiloted we’re helplessly adrift
upon a sea of legends, lies and fantasy.

Of course, to be forgiven and begin again may not prevent us from repeating our mistakes. But there is repetition of mistakes in any life of adventure. Isak Dinesen’s essay ends with lines from The Tempest better than the saying a great hardship “shall pass.”

Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer a sea-change
into something rich and strange.

She concludes, “We may make use of the words – even when we are speaking about ourselves – without vainglory. Each one amongst us will feel in his heart the inherent richness and strangeness of this one thing: his life.”

Being only about as seaworthy as a hobbit, I’ve never dared colder water than a glacier lake, and then only because I had to dive for binoculars dumped when I overturned a kayak at the pier, after a kite-drawn expedition manned by an intractable tinkerer who has likely still not finished building his own plane. But that was cold.

The captain played by Craig Parker (Frank Worsley) was an actor himself, in the sense that what seemed to have saved the crew (beyond not dropping the sextant in the choppy waters) was keeping up morale by example. This was in his nature, we are told, as if his spirit of adventure “keeps on the windy side of care” and had always been infectious and inexhaustible.

But then George Bernard Shaw would have us see Caesar as a comedian. They’re not the open books, they say.

The sense of the past

February 23, 2013

In the art of narrating history, few can compete with the Baron Corvo for flair. In a masterful attempt at rehabilitating the reputations of the Borgia clan, he juggles rationalizations on necessity for possible misdeeds right alongside exhaustive catalogs of exculpatory evidence, on the logic that redundancy is the secret to thoroughness.

Corvo was the pseudonym of Frederick William Rolfe, son of a piano manufacturer, dubbed “baron” by one Duchess Sforza Cesarini while living as an indigent freelance writer and tutor in Venice. His history of the Borgia pope’s career in nepotism would not necessarily be considered an authoritative one, but his diligence in shoehorning the available evidence into firm conclusions is not truly unusual.

Take C.V. Wedgewood’s assessment of Machiavelli’s legacy in The Sense of the Past (1960): “It has sometimes been said that the divorce of politics from ethics begins with Machiavelli. This was not true in practice; politics and ethics have been through a series of marriages and divorces since the beginning of recorded history. Machiavelli happened to live at a time and in a country where this divorce appeared to be absolute; his observations rested on this assumption.”


“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Then Wedgewood corrects Machiavelli for his pretense of objectivity in the study of politics, arguing that in truth he favored flattering the politics of antiquity, and discounted most evidence he encountered of agreement between moral policies and pragmatism, out of “his natural taste for subtlety, and his admiration for cleverness and force” (exemplified in the personalities of contemporaries like Cesare Borgia).

You can find Corvo’s sense of humor in the voices of more circumspect historians. These are the masters of good poise, presenting compromised source material to a skeptical readership with good humor and not too many apologies for its questionable nature.

He updated in style the reputation of a political crime family as colorful as a Caravaggio, just in time to capture the Victorian era’s passing discomfiture with what a contemporary audience forgets to blush at.

Tip their mouths open to the sky. Turquoise, amber, the deep green with fluted handle, pitcher the size of two thumbs, tiny lip and graceful waist.

Here we place the smallest flower which could have lived invisibly in loose soil beside the road, sprig of succulent rosemary, bowing mint.

They grow deeper in the center of the table.

Here we entrust the small life, thread, fragment, breath. And it bends. It waits all day. …

But the child of Hebron sleeps with the thud of her brothers falling and the long sorrow of the color red.


Of course, if like an ambitious politician he is full of rhetorical intensity but “trained in the art of inexactitude,” the narrator’s blind spots will come at a price. Some significant omissions in our history conceal from us what we still need to learn about ourselves.

Orientalism, historiography and travel writing

February 23, 2013

“Peacocks flew south while wild geese glided north
I left you with eyebrows furrowed and tears running down.”

– Li Mengyang, “The Song of an Abandoned Woman”

Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” to expose an intellectual tradition of looking at far-away places as a dreamscape where our unfulfilled dreams should, by rights, come to life. If a princess of Jerusalem says in Kingdom of Heaven, “in the east, between one person and another, there is only light,” as far west as the Atlantic are dreams of the same kind.


Wide Sargasso Sea, the prequel to Jane Eyre

But even within the westernmost European milieu, there have always been romantic histories that put the author’s imagination, and his audience’s ideals and aesthetics, ahead of mundane facts about other countries’ politics. Take Schiller’s account of the Dutch revolts against Spanish imperialism, using just enough scenic detail about unfamiliar places to bring grand, rhetorical images of the past to life:

Nothing is more natural than the transition from civil liberty to religious freedom. Individuals … whose minds have been enlightened by activity, and feelings expanded by the enjoyments of life; whose natural courage has been exalted by internal security and prosperity … will be the first to emancipate themselves …

Italy, it might be objected, [was then] the seat of the greatest intellectual culture … But to a romantic people, whom a warm and lovely sky, a luxurious, ever young and ever smiling nature, and the multifarious witcheries of art, … keenly susceptible of sensuous enjoyment, that form of religion must naturally have been better adapted, which by its splendid pomp captivates the senses, by its mysterious enigmas opens an unbounded range to the fancy; and which, through the most picturesque forms, labors to insinuate important doctrines into the soul.

On the contrary, to a people whom the ordinary employments of civil life have drawn down to an unpoetical reality, who live more in plain notions than in images, and who cultivate their common sense at the expense of their imagination – to such a people that creed will best recommend itself which dreads not investigation, which lays less stress on mysticism than on morals, and which is rather to be understood than to be dwelt upon in meditation.

The History of the Revolt of the Netherlands

This style of remembering the past may be disloyal to the messiness of the facts, but it has a good deal to do with why anyone is the least bit curious about the past in the first place, by introducing a tableaux vivant on which light from the same sun “must have” played.

Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott credits 19th century writers like Walt Whitman with teaching “the new world” further West not to dignify its own history this way, to abandon the style in which Americans “produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates into pathos.”

Better, Walcott argues, if one “neither explains nor forgives history [and] refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.” Whitman and Neruda, insisting on an Adamic vision of man in America, “reject this sense of history .. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder.”

Perhaps there is little danger in looking back. “Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations. .. Violence is felt with the simultaneity of history. So the death of a gaucho does not merely repeat, but is, the death of Caesar.”

An academic trained in historiography struggles to find some other thread to follow, and misses this egalitarian bent to the social memory of the Western hemisphere looking hard for polity in the plot. But not all well-worn paths have been exhausted in the archives. Chakrabarty argues one does not simply resort to “a simplistic, out-of-hand rejection of modernity, liberal values, universals, science, reason, grand narratives, totalizing explanations, and so on…”

He would rather pick up the machinery of “othering” civilizations conscientiously, and turn it experimentally against European intellectual authority, than renounce historical romances with their tourist-abroad attitudes altogether.


So, do we recognize the room when we change the light?

A poet translating himself from Russian like Joseph Brodsky might find “a crossing to another place, an accommodation of temperament, a shadowing of sensibility as the original poem pauses at the frontier where every proffered credential must be carefully, even cruelly, examined, .. an ordinary experience, if one thinks of the original verse as being merely an equivalent rendered by interlinears, then heightened, touched up, like a fake passport photo.”

In this sense, the reversal of orientation Chakrabarty proposes for “othering” everyday life, rendering Europe’s local history exotic and quaint, with all the unforgiving rigor of Enlightenment-era skepticism, is a very natural one. Temporal distance makes this easier than contemporary anthropology in the researcher’s own society. Self-scrutiny among the neighbors feels risky, compared to meditations on the letters of the dead. Do you want to know your audience that well?

For some reason, literary translation is already abundant.

The Western tradition can find itself selectively interpreted in Oriental hands, just as the Eastern landscape has been markedly distorted through Western eyes. Edmund Kostka’s Schiller in Russian Literature is a delightful glimpse at this process, capturing giants like Dostoyevsky in their schoolboy years (reading Schiller in secret), and showing how their own work reinterprets his exotic imported German idealism with a thoroughly Russian sensibility.

Seek ecstasy and frenzy, we are told, for while
we breathe the moistened air and drink the heady wine
we are the mystics of religious life, and fine
feelings for mankind will flow from us, and Christian
faith will soon deliver us, through that same passion.
There is a Dionysus in Christ, fierce and free
of hunger, teaching out of superfluity.
The soul’s inebriation is the source of good,
and in our wildness is confession understood.
Give us a leader of gorgeously-wreathed dancers,
deliver us from the crescendo of hunger
for a great accomplishment, take us far beyond
the creation of need to where the gods respond
to a fathomless golden bowl overflowing
with magical sentiment, giving and singing,
by making holidays of holy sacraments,
and sanctifying oaths on books of testament.
Lead us on to the West, corrupted and divine,
let us survive to see another lighted shrine.

To a Westerner, on the other hand, the Russia that received Schiller was an anachronism of European life.

Oscar Wilde said this of 19th century life in Russia: “A few Russian artists have realized themselves in Art; in a fiction that is mediaeval in character, because its dominant note is the realization of men through suffering. … A Nihilist who rejects all authority, because he knows authority to be evil, and welcomes all pain, because through that he realizes his personality, is a real Christian. To him the Christian ideal is a true thing.”


Pushkin, whose Eugene Onegin read Schiller and Goethe

Through the fascination with Schiller’s romanticism that generations of great Russian writers shared, this relatively obscure German poet enjoyed a Russian legacy that would find a way to stand tall even under Stalin.

His great translator for a generation of Russian novelists was an actor appearing frequently in The Robbers, and through the same play, Russia’s Schiller has been retained as a literary icon in the world socialist tradition to this day, although the poet’s plays are largely forgotten in the West.

Formerly a communist herself, Doris Lessing has argued that the story of salvation through pain in Christianity was absorbed by the communist rhetoric she learned in Southern Africa, during one of the more obscure wars in the fabled heart of darkness. Only in hindsight did it seem silly to her that communism had been promising young radicals that purges and collective sacrifice could pay the price for not just a better world, but a utopian social order. She had been taught to hope that through collective action, all could live peaceably, prosper, and experience a world without crime or discrimination.