Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Dog's Tale, Mark Twain

Image from Wikipedia.org
Mark Twain is surely one of America's best popular writers. He often skirted along freedom of the press and censorship. "A Dog's Tale" is a clever short story which works to show the intelligence of a dog and the poor reply that the dog so often receives.

Released in 1904 in Harper's Magazine, according to Wikipedia.org, it became an example against what the treatment of animals by certain types of scientists and, in particular (also according to Wikipedia's article) the antivivisectionist movement. Later it would be revised and become a book.

It is a sad tale of a dog's life. Initially, Mark Twain introduces us to the intelligence of the animal. The animals understand certain words, pretend to understand more complex words, and communicate in somewhat simplistic fashion with each other. They meet, converse, and think, in much the same degree as a regular person. However, there are many things that I felt were relatively similar. That is to say, too often talk about being expert in many things with which they are not. Many people use words and participate in conversations which they do not have the knowledge or intellectual wherewithal to participate in. Though, I am not saying that we should not try to strive above our own abilities.

However, shortly, we arrive at the irony of the man's inhumanness and the dog's humaneness. The dog from whom the perspective is written manages to save the master's child from a fire by dragging it from the nursery. The master, not knowing that there was a fire, struck the dog so severely that she would never completely recover her leg and would forever hobble around on three. Soon it is discovered that there is a fire in the nursery, and that she saved the baby.

No effort is made to help the dog with her injury. What's worse, is that her puppy becomes the cruel experiment of her master in front of his friends. The puppy is cruelly killed in front of the narrator. Then, a servant takes the body of her puppy to the yard to bury her. The dog remembers how a bush grew from a seed, and so expects the puppy to sprout from the earth. This never happens, and it's assumed that the dog dies waiting for her puppy to be resurrected. (Gutenberg.org) It's noted by the servants of the household that while the master's child was saved by the dog, the master killed the dog's puppy.

It is well worth reading this story.

Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn and his wifeImage via WikipediaJapan: An Attempt at Interpretation, by Lacadio Hearn, is just one of many titles by the author available, for free, at Gutenberg.org. It attempts to compare and reconcile both the history and custom of Japan and Japanese for those of European and American origin. In his preface, he declares that most works covering Japanese culture and history are 'sworn enemies of that religion.' It has been a fascinating study. I cannot help but wonder how much of this text might apply to Korea and Korean culture as well.

Lafcadio Hearn initially shows how far the Orient is the very exact opposite of the Occident. Everything from literature being read from what we associate with the last page to the first, and writing which reads from right-to-left, and even weapon smithing, are vastly different with what was done classically in the west.

Typically, Hearn compares Japanese culture with that of the ancient Greek. Both cultures would have had what he calls a family cult: a family cult worships the ancestors before them. While there have been many changes to this, great respect owing those before us was extremely important both to the ancestors and their living after death, and to the living and their success or tragedy in life.

There is neither heaven nor hell in the Japanese religion. Also, in the early part of religion, words like ghost and god were much the same. That, once dead, a man or woman would then be a god. This was much the same as was believed in the Ancient Greeks.

The family structure is another very interesting aspect of Japanese culture which Hearn puts a fair amount of detailed description to. The family unit has a single male figurehead. The family unit itself could be quite massive, and may include as many as a thousand members. While this family member had control over life and death of any of the other members, it is pointed out that he had many responsibilities and had to act in a seemly way. If he would act improperly with his family, the authorities of the village or town in which he lived could be contacted by members of his family with complaints; once this was done, he would have to abide by the decisions of the village elders or leaders.

Gravestones, Koyoto, JapanImage via Wikipedia
Hearn points out that though the patriarch of the family had this power of life and death over the family, he too was bound by law and custom to follow what was expected of him: The reader will be able to understand, from the facts of this chapter, to what extent the individual was sacrificed to the family, as a religious body. From servant to master—up through all degrees of the household hierarchy—the law of duty was the same: obedience absolute to custom and tradition. The ancestral cult permitted no individual freedom: nobody could live according to his or her pleasure; every one had to live according to rule. The individual did not even have a legal existence;—the family was the unit of society. Even its patriarch existed in law as representative only, responsible both to the living and the dead. Thus, it could be said that the patriarch really was not free to do as he wished.

Some customs of the past, such as "the term applied to this form of immolation,—hitogaki, or "human hedge,"—implies a considerable number of victims in each case," is quite fantastic and horrific. Further notes of Japanese horrific myth are tantalizing to one, such as myself, who is interested in unique horror stories.

Despite the statements that the leaders or higher classes had to submit to certain codes, and surely while that is true, those codes might be lost on myself and any modern person. For the merest hint of an insult or slip, a superior could execute an inferior. For any reason whatsoever, a Samurai might kill an offender though the offence be slight. An example, "One had to be careful about the quality of the smile: it was a mortal offence, for example, so to smile in addressing a superior, that the back teeth could be seen." So, every smile had to be exact. Neither too little nor too much, else it would be a capital offence.

Hearn's tsuchigumoImage via WikipediaHearn points out about some traditional villages left visited by a westerner that "the ordinary traveller can little understand what it means. That all are polite, that nobody quarrels, that everybody smiles, that pain and sorrow remain invisible, that the new police have nothing to do, would seem to prove a morally superior humanity." However, this seemingly perfect village would be the result of centuries of rigorous and bloody oppression.

Sumptuary laws were quite vigorous as well. Every class had their possessions clearly defined, from the type of cup that they might drink from, to what they might drink, and even what gifts they were able to give and coffins they could be buried in.

Last year I watched the TV series, Shogun, which I had believed to be an entirely fictitious work. However, it seems there was quite a bit of historical account upon which it existed. There was indeed a pilot who somehow managed to rise to a quite high status in Japan. In the TV series, the pilot is derived from both events and real people.

Hearn shows how, initially, Japan had been relatively open to several religions. However, well after the pilot Adams had played out his role in history and in the time of Elizabeth I, Japan had had enough of Christianity. Hearn suggests a part of this was due to their activity in the country, and also their reputation for having committed grievous crimes against humanity in the Americas with the natives. I cannot help but agree with their sentiment: if the Christians had continued to grow in influence, it would have been inevitable that Japan might have fallen under the weight of the Christian doctrine and started their own cleansing of Japan.

As a result, when Japan had felt the violence and cruelty of the Jesuit priests, it worked to expunge itself of Christianity altogether. It seems that the Christians went to a nation open to religion, and made of it intolerant.

Hearn at last delves into modern Japan. He states that while the Japanese farmer may actually own his farm, he may also lose it entirely.

The author speaks of how the imperial edict of the late 19th century was made to encourage and demand that Japan take on the knowledge of the west. To fulfil the edict, 'Only those who have lived in Japan during or before the early nineties are qualified to speak of the loyal eagerness that made self-destruction by over-study a common form of death,-- the passionate obedience that impelled even children to ruin their health in the effort tio master tasks too difficult for their little minds, and the strange courage of persistence in periods of earthquake and conflagration, when boys and girls used the tiles of their ruined homes for school-slates, and bits of fallen plaster for pencils. What tragedies I might relate even of the higher education life of universities! -- of fine brains giving way under pressure of work beyond the capacity of the average European student, of triumphs won in the teeth of death, of strange farewells from pupils in the time of dreaded examinations, as when one said to me: "Sir, I am very much afraid that my paper is bad, because I came out of the hospital to make it--there is something the matter with my heart." (His diploma was placed in his hands scarcely an hour before he died.)"

Lafcadio hearn wife sonImage via WikipediaI cannot even comprehend this level of dedication from the student to the teacher. I don't know if I would want that level of responsibility. However, it most certainly helps to explain how much collective pressure can build upon the mind of a Japanese student, and how, tragically, this unfortunately and too often translates into suicide to the extent that Japan has the highest student suicide rate in the world. It would seem that life takes a back seat to success, and that failure is a greater spectre than the grave.

Hearn finally concludes his  fascinating book with a look into his modern Japan. In 1904, when this book was released, Japan had been at war with Russia. He warned that should she win this war, that she might become outwardly aggressive. How remarkable and accurate his belief was, considering that it would not be too long from this period that Japan would indeed embark on an aggressive campaign during WWII.

This book was a delight to read. It was a simple taste of what surely would be an invigorating indepth study of Japanese culture and history. It gave a glimpse into a fascinating world, a tiptoe into a pool of wonder. It gave me a taste and made me wanting more. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants an outline of Japanese culture and history in a way that is easy for an occidental mind to understand.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Le Mort d'Arthur (Volume One), Sir Thomas Malory

A detail of the painting "The last sleep ...Image via WikipediaLe Mort d'Arthur is an extremely famous work of literary collection preserved by Sir Thomas Malory, or 'Malleorre,' as he may have called himself. The collection of stories is quite impressive. Originally, it spanned a series of eleven volumes. It remains as one of the most favourite cornerstones of English legend, lore, and fantasy. Most people, and even children, know something of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Guenevere. These books have long been on my wish list. What's more, it's something that, if ever I find succour in my own books, that I would love to rewrite for a massive series of Arthurian graphic novels whose narratives would be true to Malory's versions. They are available freely available at Gutenberg.org.

I always find it remarkable, and more than perhaps lamentable, how refined most tales become over the centuries. Modern Arthurian tales often suggest relatively perfect heroes. However, the original tales, considered under the microscope of modern heroic ethos.

Nothing brings to home my point of how characters of long ago were not the characters of today like Book I.

Book I explains the origin of Arthur. Uther Pendragon was his father. Pendragon had hosted a good couple, Duke of Tintgail  and his wife Igraine, to his castle when he fell in love or lust with Igraine. As a result, as they stay in his home, he tries to lay with her. She repulses his advances, and the couple flee from Pendragon. This, however, is not sufficient for him, and he follows in hot pursuit with his knights and his mean wizard, Merlin.

Immediately following the death of the duke, Pendragon took on the likeness of the duke and quickly satiates his lust on Igraine. Thus was Arthur begat. By the following morning, she discovers the deception and weds another named Ulfius. Morgan Le Fay would be their daughter and Arthur's sister, sent to a nunnery where she learnt necromancy. What a bizarre place to learn necromancy, I find. Pendragon also sent Arthur away from his castle to be raised by foster parents.

One of the most famous scenes from the legend of Arthur is in this book. Here, as a young man or a nearly grown man, he manages to withdraw the legendary sword from a stone: more than once to prove to other contenders that he was the rightful king of them all.

There are many kings who fight to resist Arthur's claim to the throne. Many of them rise up to fight against him. Through a combination of strength, cunning, guile through wizardry, Arthur and his knights manage to defeat all his opponents.

Also noteworthy is the finding of Excalibur which will give Arthur some magical powers. First, a matchless sword, and second the scabbard which will save him from bleeding for as long as he holds onto it. So, though an excellent warrior, a part of his excellence is through magical power. However, in a later chapter, his biological mother is accused by her husband, of bringing the calamity of war to the land. Arthur does not know at this point that Igraine is his mother. Soon it comes out that Igraine is Arthur's mother, and that the sin which had caused so much vexation was that Arthur had had sex with his sister. However, it does not reveal which. The anger which Morgan Le Fay had for Arthur makes me suspect that it was her that she had lain with, and an analysis at Timeless Myth seems to confirm my suspicion. The child of this union was Mordred.

Merlin warns Arthur that Mordred would result in the end of Arthur. The closing chapter describes how many young children, "some four weeks old," were put onto a ship that was then put to sea. Many of those who had lost their children blamed Merlin. The boat was dashed near a castle, and all the children lost save Mordred, who was reared by a good man 'Till he was fourteen.'

Lancelot and GuinevereImage via Wikipedia
These characters of Arthur, Pendragon, and Merlin are deceptive and do things which would be unforgivable in our era. Of course, laying with his half-sister, might be forgiven for not knowing. However, the pointless sacrifice of the children to save himself is something difficult to forgive.

Of course, it reminds me somewhat of the ancient Greek legend of Oedipus where his father had cast him aside due to the fate he'd heard of his son killing him and marrying his mother. As a result, he sent Oedipus away hoping to stop fate from fulfilling her story. However, all could not be stopped any more than Arthur will prevent his own death at the hands of his ill begotten son.

Sir Balin

A sword comes in by lady which may only be drawn from its scabbard by the best knight. That best knight so happens to be Sir Balin, who is cursed to be the one who achieves the drawing. He is reviled and chased out of the court.

Away from court, he vows to do such great deeds that Arthur may no longer revile him, and earn his love. He does so by slaying, alongside his brother Balan, nearly all of Arthur's immediate enemies. Without the two brothers, it may have been that Arthur never would have left England.

Finally, the two brothers find their demise at each other's hands. They do not recognize each other when they come together to fight until they have been so sorely wounded that no aid may save them. So they die and are well entombed by Merlin.Pyle, Howard, Image via Wikipedia

Though the first part is about Arthur and his getting Guenever, Book II is primarily about the adventure of Sir Gawaine. His a particular favourite of mine, thanks of course to the story, Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight which is one of best early English stories I've read.

Gawaine is sent on a quest to capture a hart, or deer, that happened to enter the court of King Arthur.

These books are all very violent. Everything from beheading of undesirable ladies to a seemingly endless series of battles, it is choke full of adventure. The purpose of violence can be many: revenge for another killing, regardless of whether or not the deceased being avenged was the cause or not; and even in one instance to settle the argument of who is the fairest queen.

Sir Tristram

Sir Tristram is one of the interesting knights. He is the one, it is said, who is closest to Sir Lancelot in prowess. However, it is unknown who would be the greater knight, since they almost never come to clash one against the other while they are both fresh. Sir Tristram is often conflicted with his duty and his own best interest. In every instance, where duty calls, regardless of the consequence to himself, he always does what duty requires of him.

Detail from window of King Mark of Cornwall il...Image via WikipediaThe most destructive relationship he has throughout is with King Mark, his uncle. His uncle, for instance, knowing how much Tristram is in love with Isoude. For this reason, King Mark demands that Tristram fetch her to serve him as his own wife. Tristram does as he is told.

Volume I leaves without having completed the story of Tristram. So, I will have to conclude my thoughts of Sir Tristram in my review of Volume II.
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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Elements of Drawing In Three Letters to Beginners, John Ruskin

Portrait of John Ruskin after HerkomerImage via WikipediaThe Elements of Drawing in Three Letters to Beginners was an onerous book to read. John Ruskin is definitely an accomplished figure in multiple fields of academia. However, he is not one to whom I have ever been drawn. The real reasons I read this book were 1) it was free, and 2) it's about art, which is a big source of interest for me these days. It can be found from Gutenberg.org.

Overall, I found the reading of this book to be particularly onerous. Although an accomplished painter, certainly competent, much of his advice seemed to try to shove the aspiring artist into a particular box which he thought to be the best style. That said, there were some things that were worth learning about.

In particular, he emphasises the need to concentrate on details and getting pictures done right, and taking the time to do them to meet his criteria of good. There is something to be said about taking the time to do something very well. While I cannot find myself wanting this as the dominant exercise as I work to improve (wherein there is a tremendous amount of room for improvement), I believe that a proper study of nature, whether in line, shade, tone, or shape, is likely one that will improve the eye and the hand. So that, after some time, the hand and eye will move more quickly and accurately.

I am not a particular fan of the realists. This was his domain and the passion of the book. However, I am a big fan of the likes of Picasso. Much of what Ruskin declared might be considered a basic cornerstone to even Picasso's childlike and primitive style that I love so much. That the details of such might not exist, but things such as contrast and colour coordination might. And, I suppose also, being aware of these rules may not only make one a better naturalist, but also be better aware of how to break those rules to a desired effect. A lot of what he says throughout about what not to do I found myself thinking, "Maybe I ought to do that when I want the effect he is describing."

The best quote I found out of the book was, "If any young person, after being taught what is, in polite circles, called "drawing," will try to copy the commonest piece of real work—suppose a lithograph on the titlepage of a new opera air, or a wood-cut in the cheapest illustrated newspaper of the day,—they will find themselves entirely beaten. And yet that common lithograph was drawn with coarse chalk, much more difficult to manage than the pencil of which an accomplished young lady is supposed to have command; and that wood-cut was drawn in urgent haste, and half spoiled in the cutting afterwards; and both were done by people whom nobody thinks of as artists, or praises for their power; both were done for daily bread, with no more artist's pride than any simple handicraftsmen feel in the work they live by." I liked it because it really does state the way things are: how easy even a common artist may make common things look, when in fact they are neither all that common nor that easy, nor all that profitable for their efforts.

He does list a number of exercises to improve one's art. However, I felt for the most part that this book was much inferior to the one I had read previously, Harold Speed's The Practice and Science of Drawing. Where Ruskin tried to corner me into a box, even if it is a good box, Speed more tried to explain the laws of art as they stand for all art, rather than just the art he loved.
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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Practice and Science of Drawing, Harold Speed


Harold Speed's The Practice and Science of Drawing is a book which attracted me due to my current major hobby of sketching and painting. Its cost was insignificant, and as a result, it has become my first Kindle book purchase at the ripe cost of 99 cents. However, it was unnecessary to spend this money, as it could have been had via Gutenberg for free.

Initial expectation: perhaps I was overhasty in its purchase. It has not yet met my expectations. My expectation was that there would be a lot of figures and explanations from which I might gain knowledge on the craft of sketching. Thus far, it hasn't been exactly what I was looking for. Within it, rather, is something of the history and philosophy of drawing.


Pablo Picasso 1962Image via WikipediaI am always interested in the deeper parts of things. So, it is a bit interesting to read about the history of art and how it has changed and the authors of those changes. Though I have read of the effects of change on the world of art through the study of Picasso, I had not really thought much about invention and accreditation for certain processes that I take for granted before.

Perhaps the first thing I noticed was a reference to the science of light and its effect on the appearance of the observed within a given work of art. To that, Leonardo da Vinci was named as the father thereof.

Some interesting theories about creativity are posited. The first that hit me with some force was this:

The freer system of the French schools has been in many cases more successful. But each school was presided over by an artist of distinction, and this put the students in touch with real work and thus introduced vitality. In England, until quite lately, artists were seldom employed in teaching, which was left to men set aside for the purpose, without any time to carry on original work of their own.

I have taken this to mean that those who are trained to be teachers are often not the best teachers: but rather those of distinguished careers within the art ought to be. I cannot help but think that this approach would be wonderful to see in more education systems; and in particular, I refer to Canada where the education of teachers is centred more on educational psychology rather than the subject which they teach. In my study of their required syllabus, I discovered that there was very little learning in the subject of English, and great emphasis on child psychology. When I discovered this, it dawned on me why it was that so many of my teachers seemed to have no knowledge outside of the requisite textbooks from which they taught. All those years of reading the extra books about the subjects they taught were in fact harmful for me. Or, what might have been best, was this realization and that I really ought to have merely regurgitated the propaganda of the government texts. I suppose this seems obvious in hind sight.  

Again, another quote really hit home when I considered it in relation to my public education:

If a student, moved by a strong feeling for form, lets himself go and does a fine thing, probably only remotely like the model to the average eye, the authorities are puzzled and don't usually know what to make of it.

I remember quite distinctly an episode in an English class years ago when I had to give a speech introducing someone. I chose to do it WWF style to introduce someone. The teacher literally threw up his hands and cried out, "I don't know how to mark this!" I sat down with him, and went over with him the criteria with which he was to judge the merit of the presentation.


There are a number of techniques which are explored in the text. This is, however, a minority of the text. They centre around line, rhythm, and tone. There is a fair amount that I learned from these pages about colours and tone. In particular, the way lines can be used to convey feelings, and further, how it is important to create a balance in a work. For example, one cannot have too many wavy lines without having some straight lines, or, vice-versa; There needs to be a variety. With tone, he declares that there needs to be balance. If there is white, there must be black. If there is a cold colour, then also there needs be a warm colour.

However, his treatment of such techniques for the layman is only rarely illustrated well. There are a few illustrations to help with his explanation of things. However, more so he relies on illustrations from the masters. Perhaps it is good to see this as an explanation of how to get to this elevated height of the master.

Very Dated

The fact of the matter is that the text is very dated. This book was written before Picasso turned the world on its ear, to name but one of the most famous artists. However, some things, it turns out, are always fashionable.

Around me lay a variety of unfinished paintings which I'm afraid may or may never be finished. A part of the reason for this is a certain fear of ruining that which the painting has in pursuit of an elevation which I am uncertain I can achieve. Speed addresses this here: Never paint with the poor spirit of the student who fears to lose his drawing, or you will never do any fine things in painting. Drawing (expressing form) is the thing you should be doing all the time. And in art, "he that would save his work must often lose it," if you will excuse the paraphrase of a profound saying which, like most profound sayings, is applicable to many things in life besides what it originally referred to. It is often necessary when a painting is nearly right to destroy the whole thing in order to accomplish the apparently little that still divides it from what you conceive it should be. So, somehow I need to find it in me to forget about the fear of ruining that which has not been finished.

He also mentions how the perfect images should be reserved for the camera, for when the painter captures it, it will result in a cold work, as in the illustration of a person's head: A perfect type of head, if such could exist, might excite our wonder, but would leave us cold. In other words, he suggests that perfection is something that is sterile: like the sceptic of a hospital room. Finally, A composition may be perfect as far as any rules or principles of composition go, and yet be of no account whatever. The life-giving quality in art always defies analysis and refuses to be tabulated in any formula. This vital quality in drawing and composition must come from the individual artist himself, and nobody can help him much here.

Using Memory

He suggests exercises of using memory to paint from. Look at something, and try to reproduce it. He suggests that the things we remember are the things that we need to draw most attention to anyways, and that the rest may not be the most important in terms of detail.Try always when your mind is filled with some pictorial idea to get something put down, a mere fumbled expression possibly, but it may contain the germ. Later on the same idea may occur to you again, only it will be less vague this time, and a process of development will have taken place. It may be years before it takes sufficiently definite shape to justify a picture; the process of germination in the mind is a slow one. But try and acquire the habit of making some record of what pictorial ideas pass in the mind, and don't wait until you can draw and paint well to begin. Qualities of drawing and painting don't matter a bit here, it is the sensation, the feeling for the picture, that is everything. and then, later, What students should do is to form a habit of making every day in their sketch-book a drawing of something they have seen that has interested them, and that they have made some attempt at memorising. Don't be discouraged if the results are poor and disappointing at first—you will find that by persevering your power of memory will develop and be of the greatest service to you in your after work.

Finally about the exercise in improving pictoral memory, Try particularly to remember the spirit of the subject, and in this memory-drawing some scribbling and fumbling will necessarily have to be done. You cannot expect to be able to draw definitely and clearly from memory, at least at first, although your aim should always be to draw as frankly and clearly as you can.

Think Before You Move

One of the things that Speed takes some time to point out is that one should not immediately attack the canvas or paper until one has a concrete thought in one's mind. I don't know if I can support this entirely: but I can say that my best drawings have often come from such a method: a clear idea in my mind that needs to be expressed. However, happy mistakes have taken me to places that I would not have gone before; or the wild expression of random image cannot explode if one always forces the thought to come before the instinctive thrust of the pencil or brush.

Misc quotes

I believe the gardener of Darwin when asked how his master was, said, "Not at all well. You see, he moons about all day. I've seen him staring at a flower for five or ten minutes at a time. Now, if he had some work to do, he would be much better.

Additional Thoughts

Some theories of mine that were not touched on and may be invalid in any case is that the basics of many things are well covered. However, Speed did not note the effect of finding consistency in one's performance: rather, finding perfection in art first before finding expression. Perhaps by following this suggestion one would subsequently find consistency, and therefore my postulation is irrelevant. However, I don't think art is necessarily about painting or drawing that photographic image. He pointed out that this is not the ideal end, but a means to an end or a mastery of technique. However, as a mere hobbyist, can I really hope for that much? No, I don't think so. Simply finding a happy medium is what I am looking for.

I also noted his suggestion of using fewer colours in the beginning rather than more. This is something I've heard echoed over and over. However, it's not something I've done at all well. Maybe I can try it once again: find those two colours with black and white and learn to blend them together to find the tones to make the painting rather than always battling with colours and watching one thing disappear into the background.


I would have to say that this book was well worth reading. However, my 99 cents were wasted, since the book could have been got for free at Gutenberg.org. Simply, the essential techniques that are pointed out likely remain true regardless of the goal of the aspiring artist.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Figures of Earth, James Branch Cabell

Cover of "Figures of Earth"Cover of Figures of EarthFigures of Earth was written by James Branch Cabell. It is available for free at Gutenberg.org. I know well his maxim: "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true."

It is rare that I have ever read a book twice. This Figures of Earth, however, is that rare exception. Oddly, Cabell is not highly recognized for his works. His work has largely settled into obscurity. I don't know what little I can contribute towards the enlightenment of the world upon the marvellous work Cabell's excellent pen cut from the eternal fountain of literary cloth, but I shall do what little part I might.

An Outline of Events

"Mundus vult decipi" is the motto of the hero, Dom Manuel. Also known as the biography as Dom Manuel, he is the central figure of the text. He is met first as a swineherder. He quickly discards the weight of expectation: that he might forever herd swine for his brother-in-law, marry some low born woman, and knows not his own father. However, he quickly shirks his duties declaring, "I am Manuel, and I follow after my own thinking and my own desire."

He has a geas on him to make himself a fine figure of a man. I would have told him, of course, that she meant that he ought to make himself into a good man. But he takes it to mean that he needs to create a man who is good. In order to accomplish his geas, he searches for sorcery.

On his way to conquer a sorcerer who supplied him with the very sword with which to conquer him, to rescue him from his unwanted life of marriage. Along the way, he meets with an ally: a plainly described and common looking servant woman, Niafer. Through her help, they accomplish the mission of finding the wizard, Miramon Lluagor despite the adversity of many fantastical creatures.

As Manuel attempts to behead Miramon Lluagor, he is checked by the consequence of winning the beautiful woman, he discovers that he no longer wants to her, and longs rather for Niafer, who is usually universally described as "stupid and plain-featured girl who is years older than he."

On the way down from the wizard's castle, the newly minted couple are met with grandfather death who declares that it is required of him to take the first person whom he met, but that Niafer and Manuel being abreast in their walking, may choose which is to go with him and which is to remain alive. After some quick conferencing, it is decided that Niafer shall go. Manuel declares, "I love Niafer better than I love any other person, but I do not value Niafer's life more highly than I value my own life, and it would be nonsense to say so."

Eventually he gains the magic through his relation to powerful women, to actually make a clay figure of a man and animate him. In no way, however, can he shake the love he held for Niafer, nor the guilt for his choosing her to leave the world when the choice was his. Having successfully set aside the geas given him by his mother, he then sets about bringing Niafer back to himself. Ultimately, this demanded of him a great sacrifice: he served a bodiless figure named Misery for a period of thirty days. Each day he served Misery took from him a year of his life so that, when at last he had finished those thirty days, he was thirty years older than when he had begun servitude.

Paradise for the Pagan is described much as it is by the Greek Ancients. The inhabitants of which had no memory of life. But, the love she had for Manuel was not a memory, but rather a part of her, "When the kindly great-browed warders asked her what it was she was seeking, the troubled spirit could not tell them, for Niafer had tasted Lethe, and had forgotten Dom Manuel. Only her love for him had not been forgotten, because that love had become a part of her, and so lived on as a blind longing and as a desire which did not know its aim."

Manuel sets his mind to go on his quest to discover the ends of the earth and to judge it as he will. But, the resurrected Niafer cannot allow it: Niafer now wept more and more broken-heartedly. And the big champion sat looking at her, and his broad shoulders relaxed. He viciously kicked at the heavy glistening green head of the dragon, still bleeding uglily there at his feet, but that did no good whatever. The dragon-queller was beaten. He could do nothing against such moisture, his resolution was dampened and his independence was washed away by this salt flood. Where the dragon failed to kill him, the two beautiful fairy queens failed to still his heart or feet from seeking his own desires, these tears from this plain faced, stupid woman, was enough to overwhelm his own desires.

After fighting a war and winning through his acquaintances of potent magic the province of Poictesme, he raises a family and begets children (via a stork whom he had earlier saved from an eagle).

When death knocks once more, seeking a single person, Manuel and his daughter Melicent on his lap are found abreast. However, Manuel this time decides to foot the bill, sends Melicent away, and accompanies Grandfather Death.

In the waters of Lethe, his life flashes before his eyes, "So in the moment which remained Dom Manuel looked backward and downward, and he saw that Grandfather Death had spoken truly. For all the memories of Manuel's life had been washed away from him, so that these memories were left adrift and submerged in the shadowy waters of Lethe. Drowned there was the wise countenance of Helmas, and the face of St. Ferdinand with a tarnished halo about it, and the puzzled features of Horvendile; and glowing birds and glistening images and the shimmering designs of Miramon thronged there confusedly, and among them went with moving jaws a head of sleek white clay. The golden loveliness of Alianora, and the dark splendor of Freydis and, derisively, the immortal young smile of Sesphra, showed each for a moment, and was gone. Then Niafer's eyes displayed their mildly wondering disapproval for the last time, and the small faces of children that in the end were hers and not Manuel's passed with her: and the shine of armor, and a tossing heave of jaunty banners, and gleaming castle turrets, and all the brilliancies and colors that Manuel had known and loved anywhere, save only the clear red and white of Suskind's face, seemed to be passing incoherently through the still waters, like bright broken wreckage which an undercurrent was sweeping away."


That is a mere summary of the events, and in nowise adequately describes the brilliance of Cabell's descriptive power. I suppose I see some of myself in Manuel. Though, I never will be a prince or a slayer of dragons, his expression of following after his own desires and his own thoughts were very much a part of my psyche when I first read the wonderfully tailored tale perhaps more than fifteen years ago. And now, that I am married, how checked my own desires and thoughts are, and how helpless I can do nothing against such moisture, my resolution was dampened and my independence was washed away by this salt flood.

Figures of Earth is truly remarkable. To fans of fantasy, there is not much to which Figures of Earth may be compared. I highly recommend it as I would recommend very few.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

The Salvaging of Civilization - H. G. Wells

Cover of "The Salvaging of Civilization: ...Cover via AmazonIntroduction

As a fan of science fiction, the name H. G. Wells is awe striking. While Jules Verne definitely predated H. G. Wells with his marvellous A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) vs. The Time Machine (1895), he is nonetheless seen as the co-father of the genre.The Salvaging of Civilization (1921) is the first nonfiction work that I have read. It is available for free at Gutenberg.org.

It is a coincidence that much of what was written in this book echoes many of the ideas from More's Utopia, which I very recently reviewed. Also, I was teaching an essay class today which featured the topic and concept of 'groupthink.' Basically, the theory behind groupthink is that a strong leader or individual leads either a group of yes-men, or individuals who all share the same or a similar point-of-view. So these three things are going through my mind as I prepare for my review.


A brief, and perhaps unnecessary note, is that his essay was published not too long after the cessation of WWI. The terror and destructive power of which Europe, and perhaps the world, had never seen from man's wars up to that point. It wouldn't be long before his prophecy of there being much worse weapons brought about by technology coming to bear on civilization. He believed in a world government which would rule other lesser governments when these lesser governments came into conflict. "The true history of mankind and of the possibilities of this vision of a single world state that history opens out to us." And yet this contrasts stiffly with his declaration that men ought to judge whether a government is right enough to warrant following: "This is the plain duty of every honest man to-day, to judge his magistrate before he obeys him, and to render unto Caesar nothing that he owes to God and mankind." Are we to be individuals with individual states, or are we not?


A contention that More and Wells most certainly would have had would have been over the place of religion within a civilized society. Where Wells declares, "The most popular religions are those which hold out the widest hopes of damnation," More contended that permissive and tolerant religion would rule the perfect society, and that the atheist is the bane of a peaceful and law-abiding culture.

Wells talks deeply about the idea of a new type of Bible. He points out that in the distant past, the Bible as we know it today was a living document: the authors thereof would cut and paste segments of the book. I suspect that it wasn't until John's Revelations that the act of doing so was considered problematic.

Wells points out that many parts of the Bible were basically designed to educate its readers/listeners with history, offer suggestions of survival, but he does not dwell on the moral aspects therein.

Several sections he suggests would be cut would be found in Job (a great literary work, but unnecessary) and Leviticus. Of Leviticus he writes, "So far as redundancy goes, a great deal of the Book of Leviticus, for example, seems not vitally necessary for the ordinary citizen of to-day." Certainly the context of the Bible is not necessarily applicable to the vast populations of Christendom today. Survival in a desert is not necessarily the same as survival in a concrete and glass jungle today.

He would add historical events that have occurred since the last addendum to the Bible. Also, wisdom, and in particular, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; I think he would have also included Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream had he heard it.

A primary and secondary list of books he believed ought to exist in an apocryphal collection of compulsory literature to be read followed by a collection of non-compulsory literature which would also be highly regarded.


He also calls for extensive educational reform. He decries the inadequacy of education in his day, and promotes the idea of using technology to improve the delivery of the variety of school subjects: "Instead of the teacher having to pretend, as he usually pretends now, to a complete knowledge of the foreign language he can really only smatter, he would become the honest assistant of the real teaching instrument—the gramophone." Later he refers to a 'cinematograph' which I believe is either a television or a projector. The lack of talent in the live teacher would be made up for by the skill and genius of the teacher in some central hub who would produce and have manufactured the records to play the content.

Finally, he also mentions that education should be a life-long exercise. This is an echo of More's position which suggests that in Utopia, Everyman continues his studies past the completion of regular studies.


I do not support everything he has stated. A lot of it, in particular his suggestions for educational reform, have come about. I am referencing his suggested use of technology in the classroom. I cannot understate the usefulness of the Internet with such tools as YouTube, the image collection from Google, Google Earth, Google's translator, etc., to the effectiveness of my lessons. However, I feel that there is a great deal of room left for improvement.

While I appreciate there is a need for the elimination of war, I don't believe in homogenizing the world. While I believe in education becoming a universal right, I also find myself against the idea of universal education. Also, watching experiments on a TV cannot substitute for hands-on experimenting.
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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fanny Laviot - A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates

Chinese Junk Keying. 1848 engraving.Image via WikipediaFanny Laviot's "A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates" is a true story account of a woman who went abroad from France looking for an adventure who falls into the hands of Chinese pirates. It is written in first person, as it is an autobiographical account. The book can be downloaded freely from Gutenberg.org.

She and her friend at first tried to make a life in San Francisco. The descriptions of San Francisco are quite arresting. She describes how divided the city was (perhaps still is?) by ethnicity. In particular, how she described how black people were treated was startling. For what reason, in San Francisco, were blacks so pitifully treated? After some time and the misfortune of having her property burn down in a large fire, Fanny sets off for another voyage.

This voyage, however, would be more brutal than the last. After leaving Hong Kong, she along with the crew of the Caldera, get struck by a typhoon. The typhoon cripples the ship, which makes her an easy target for Chinese pirates. The pirates waste no time in finding the Caldera, boarding her, and looting everything; also, taking prisoner the captain, crew, and passengers.

Laviot suffers harsh conditions in captivity. The pirates threw her and her friend Than-Sing, a Chinese merchant. After suffering the hold of a junk (a type of boat) for several weeks, she and her friend survive confinement, abuse, great fear, and the threat of murder. When she was finally rescued, she was so unlike herself that she hardly recognized herself in a mirror. Thereafter, she became a bit of a celebrity.

The story is very well written and translated. The imagery wrought by her pen's vocabulary was skillful and descriptive without being pedantic.
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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Shunned House - H. P. Lovecraft

Grave of H. P. LovecraftImage via WikipediaThe very name of H. P. Lovecraft is so often uttered with the same breath as Edgar Allan Poe. Having been an admirer of Poe's for quite some time, Lovecraft has always been on my radar, but "The Shunned House" is the first of his stories that I have read. "The Shunned House" can be found, for free, at Gutenberg.org.

It's a tale about a haunted house. Every inhabitant to live in the house has been cursed, and had subsequently died in that house or had had their minds twisted such that they were then sent to an asylum.

The hero of the story is never named. Though, it is written in first person. Perhaps I am to assume that the hero is Lovecraft himself. Through an all night vigil, he and his uncle watch the basement of the 'shunned house' to see what might be seen. However, this is to exact the cost of his uncle who somehow mysteriously vanishes or putrefies. Thereafter, armed with a pick-axe and acid, the hero manages to banish the spectre of horror from the house.

The language is positively amusing in how heavily it depends on macabre vocabulary. It is also amusing to read about the use of bleeding edge technology in the era within which this tale was written. Of course, seeming primitive to the early twenty-first century, it also makes me think of all the technology used in modern ghost busters' arsenal.

I still believe that people who are afraid of ghosts are more susceptible to believing in them. Hearing or seeing one, to me, would be a great curiosity that would not induce fear. Surely, how could I not engage in an interview with a ghost? Since I shall surely become one in the not too distant future...
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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thomas More's "Utopia"

Cover of "Utopia (Penguin Classics)"Cover of Utopia (Penguin Classics)Thomas More's Utopia has been on my reading list for quite some time. Being particularly interested in dystopic fiction (Zamyatin's We, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Orwell's 1984 as examples), it was of course of interest to me to go to the original source of dystopia and go directly to the author and text known as Utopia. Utopia can be found at Gutenberg.org for free!

Utopia is said to be derived from Plato's Republic. It has been a long time since I read the Republic, so I'll have to take the general consensus for granted, as I won't be reading it again in the near future. It is basically a one sided conversation where someone relates a description of this Utopian civilization to More. I wouldn't be surprised if the reason for this is so that none of the religious nut-wings could burn him as a heretic for writing this.

The most interesting part of Utopia was the religious organization of the Utopians. They had temples, and at the temple every religious sect of the society would go to worship. The temples themselves lacked any sort of decoration, symbols, or other indications that would be pertinent to a particular belief. It is said that the worshippers of the planets were allowed to pray alongside those who worshipped Jesus. However, it can be said that More put down atheist leanings when he said that those who lacked faith had no sense of morality and would do all manner of bad things. Nonetheless, there is a fairly heavy push to suggest that the Utopians were very accepting and even enthusiastic about the adoption of Christianity.

However, for the most part, it sounded very dystopian to me. The fashion of the day is that everyone wears exactly the same clothing as the next. The value of gold is flipped around so that it becomes the substance which encumbers the slave class. Diamonds and other gems are the playthings of young children that are later forgotten as they mature.

A strong link could be made between the ideals of Communism and the ideals portrayed in Utopia. That is not to confused the communism of the former USSR or any other rendition of the ideal. For, the prince himself of Utopia wears the same clothing as every Utopian. His home is the same as any other. Every home is virtually the same. Every four years, there is a rotation where everyone moves into a different home. Of course, in the USSR, leaders lived quite well. Even eating is generally done socially. People eat in some kind of communal dining room. The food is prepared by women who are on rotating shifts, as well as they're responsible for the cleaning.

Basic labour is divided equally among almost all. Each member of the society must help with agriculture. Nearly everyone is required to work for two years on the farms which nourish the cities.

Negative aspects include that in order for one to travel between cities, one must first obtain permission from the prince. The few offences are often severely punished with slavery. Some offences would include adultery and travelling without papers. There also seems to be a lot for the feminist to be desired. Women have their place, and it's not on equal footing with men.

I would not want to live in this Utopian society. In fact, I would have to say that everyone's version of Utopia is likely another's dystopia.
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The Pirate City, an Algerian Tale; R. M. Ballantyne

Cover of "The Pirate City: An Algerine Ta...Cover via AmazonThis is a review of "The Pirate City" by R. M. Ballantyne. Publication is 1874. Ballantyne was a fairly prolific writer of a variety of youth adventure books.

There is just something that draws the baser elements of my character to the history and mythology of the pirate. Therefore, when I saw "The Pirate City, an Algerian Tale," on a list of recent releases from Gutenberg.org, I felt obliged to download it.

In the beginning, three characters are sent off to fates that none of them wants: Mariano, to be a clerk; Juliet, to be a nun; Lucien, to that of a priest.

As they sail off from Sicily to their unwanted fates, however, a pirate who will be well known throughout the tale as Sidi Hassan. He and his crew capture the ship and the three characters, alongside a Jew named Bacri who does everything in his power to help the three during the fight between the two ships and then even more as the three are brought into the Pirate City.

There is no known reason why Bacri decides to help these three. And for the way they treat him, it is hard to understand what his motivation is. In the end, though, without his help, they would have all died at the hands of the Turks who run the city.

Juliet is taken to a British consul's villa, Colonel Langley, to become the servant and slave to his wife, Agnes. Often the Langley couple are described as being superior to those around them in many ways.

Eventually, the king of city, referred to as the Dey, is disposed by a ruthless man. He, in turn, is disposed by one of his allies in the coup who is executed as soon as the coup is successful.

In the end, a small British fleet, under the command of Lord Exmouth, destroy the pirate city and liberate most of the slaves and effectively cripple the power of the pirate city which would never quite recover from the attack.


The problem I had with this book relates to the way Bacri is treated. Even at the end of the tale, we find that he is strangled. Bacri is essential to the survival of all the important characters in the story. Yet, the author has him strangled at the end.

It's also difficult to reconcile with the way Christians are promoted, and the way that the other religions are denigrated. Also, for parents of younger children, there might be some objectionable violence graphically depicted in the tale.

Nonetheless, it was a fun book to read.
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The Atheist's Mass by Honoré de Balzac

Honoré de Balzac, by NadarImage via WikipediaFor a long time I've been eyeing Balzac as someone with whom I should be well acquainted - to his literature at least. Though I would like to read it in French, I simply haven't got the patience for it. These days, I'm taxing myself enough with my Korean language lessons. In any case, "The Atheist's Mass" was the first story I've read on My Magic Book.

Balzac's "The Atheist's Mass" intrigued me because of the seeming conflict between the concepts of atheist and mass. An atheist wouldn't normally have a mass. So I wondered if it related to a cult of atheists, or if he was going to make devils out of atheists. However, this was not the case.

The story really read more like a character study than anything. It was somewhat dry. It was simply that a successful man, Desplein, had been befriended by another who was deeply religious. As his friend died, he'd sworn to hold a mass for him in his remembrance. True to his word, he purchased a mass from a church which was conducted four times every year.

I fully expected a lot of jabs about atheists and such throughout the story. For, atheists have been and still are maligned around the world. Right up until the end I was surprised to see none of this. However, near the end of the story, Desplein declares, "That, my dear fellow, is as much as a man who holds my opinions can allow himself. But God must be a good fellow; He cannot owe me any grudge. I swear to you, I would give my whole fortune if faith such as Bourgeat's could enter my brain." It definitely suggests that he sees greater value in the religious faith than all his temporal trappings. It should be noted that "The Atheist's Mass" is just one part of a much larger work The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine). For a much better study of the story, Michael Cummings has written a rather complete analysis of the tale at Cumming's Study Guides. The story itself can be found at Gutenberg.org.
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Starting a new Blog

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...Cover via AmazonA few weeks ago, thanks to Leon Sterling, got my Kindle ebook reader. Since then, I've been chewing and digesting a lot more than I have in ages.

The Amazon Kindle really is worth having. While I can read books on my laptop, it's not really very easy to tote around. It's fairly big. The second thing is that the LCD, while a vast improvement over the CRT it replaced, and imminently in danger from LED adoption, simply is not as easy to view for the eyes as e-ink.

Now, another thing worth mentioning is that I'm a lover of classical literature. Thanks to groups such as Gutenberg.org, I have access to more than 30,000 books which are all free, thanks to the expiration date of their copyright.

I have read more books in the last three or four weeks than I have in years. I've decided to start a blog review of the books I read on my Kindle, which I often refer to as my Magic Book for the simple reason that now I can carry a library around with me, wherever I go.

On the other hand, I'm also waiting patiently for the day when a colour version comes out for around $200. That would definitely be nice, since I also like reading magazines.
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