Category: literature

The Same Man – A Brief Review

Sometimes one encounters a book whose subject matter gives the author no excuse for boring his audience. David Lebedoff has had the fortune of finding just such a topic for The Same Man, which was released earlier this year (er, last year). Most of the work is a short biography of George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. Now, these two at first glance may seem like an odd pair to write about in the same volume, since their personal lives and political and religious views so widely differed, and they only met each other once.

However, this is not just some random pairing, but rather a great insight on Lebedoff’s part, because the theme of the book is just how similar the two men were in their views of modernity. For all their differences, both valued the concept of objective reality while rejecting moral relativism, which have become major underlying problems of the modern world. When discussing my religion with others, I often hear the phrase “All that really matters is what you believe.” Impressing upon those people that there can only be one truth has proven surprisingly difficult, and that attitude seems to have been one that both Orwell and Waugh disapproved of.

One of the most startling parts of the book is Lebedoff’s discussion of Orwell’s statement that “One must choose between this life and the next.” Both men agreed with that, but Orwell, an atheist, chose to focus on this life and improve it. Waugh, a Catholic, felt that this world could not really be improved and thus chose to focus on the next.

Though Lebedoff’s biography and analysis of the two men’s ideas is one of the most enlightening works I’ve read lately, it does have a few minor problems. First, he too often uses the phrase “must have,” which should never appear in a work of history or biography. There are times when a biographer can only speculate about the details of an event, and sometimes he can offer a guess that seems almost certain to be accurate. It’s still a guess, though, and should be presented as such – “probably” or some other such term would be more accurate. Also, so much of the book is straight biography that there is less room for real analysis than I would like. The biography is, of course, necessary to understand the thesis behind the work, and Lebedoff is convincing in his analysis, but at 218 pages most readers could probably stand the addition of some more space to for the author to expand on his central idea.…

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Memorizing Poetry

As promised, Serious Business.

In order to improve my memory, impress chicks, and maybe even learn something, I’ve begun memorizing poetry. During the summer, I committed the entirety of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” to memory, in addition to several other poems over the past seven months or so. Namely, Edgar Allen Poe’s “El Dorado,” Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” Ezra Pound’s “A Pact” and “In a Station of the Metro,” and Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” Right now I’m working on Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

The process is surprisingly easy. Just going a couple lines at a time, memorizing even a longer poem like “The Hollow Men” isn’t too difficult, so long as one is willing to invest some time in the process and repeats the learned material with some regularity. Shorter poems, especially highly metrical ones like “El Dorado,” take very little effort at all.

To what end this endeavour? On a practical level, it’s a workout for one’s memory, and helps me remember portions of works that I have not even tried to commit to memory. Having a ready body of works memorized also allows one to take advantage of any opportunities for a (perhaps overly) clever reference in the course of conversation.

Of course, spending so much time with a poem also aids understanding. I feel that I understand “The Hollow Men” better now than I did when I first began memorizing it, simply because I have dealt with it so much. The structure of these poems also becomes much clearer.

In short, it’s an engaging, beneficial exercise, and a big hit at parties

Nerdy parties, anyway.…

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On Reading the Cantos

Ezra Pound is one of those poets who tends to intimidate people, and as I finish up reading A Draft of XXX Cantos I can certainly see why. I imagine he would have been okay with that, though. Judging from his ABC of Reading, he was what you might call a “poet’s poet.” He didn’t seem to have much patience for the lazy student of poetry, though in both the ABC and the Cantos he does help the student – the truly interested student – where he can, at least in his own way.

For example, on first opening the Cantos, one notices how there seems to be little connection between different passages. Worse, these passages tend to make use of many historical and literary figures, some well-known and some obscure, and though the primary language of the poem is English, he even throws in an assortment of other languages.

So, what the hell’s going on? First of all, don’t panic. Just read. In the ABC of Reading, Pound places more stress on what he calls “melopoeia,” the sound of the language, than on “phanopoeia,” the meaning of the language. If the reader can at least appreciate the sound of Pound’s work, then he already understands a great part of the Cantos.

As for the meaning, it helps to be widely read. The Odyssey and the Divine Commedy are referenced often. Reading Pound’s ABC of Reading is also a great primer for the Cantos, since he introduces the reader to his own philosophy of writing and reading poetry, and also gives examples of works he considers especially worthwhile in the Western literary tradition.
Luckily, all of Pound’s references can be traced to specific people and characters from history and literature, as opposed to, say, Symbolist poets who sometimes give few hints for what they’re talking about. Furthermore, whenever an idea is especially important, Pound will expound on it for a while before moving on, which at least helps hint what parts of the Cantos the reader ought to focus on, and also gives some additional material to work with.

Also of importance is what Pound refers to in ABC as the “ideogrammic method.” In short, this involves juxtaposing two or more images or ideas to convey another idea. He draws this from his study of Chinese ideograms, where more complex characters are formed by combining simpler characters.
So, in the first section of the first Canto, Pound presents a translation of the Odyssey. Why? The Odyssey is by Homer, the oldest epic poet in the Western tradition, and the section he translates was, at the time, thought to be the oldest part of the Odyssey. The ideogrammic method comes in because he translates it into Anglo-Saxon verse form, the oldest form of poetry in the English language. What’s the ideogram? That he intends to make use of the Western literary tradition in this poem, and will be going back to the oldest parts of this tradition.

See? That’s not so hard, is it?

Okay, yeah it’s still pretty tough, but that’s what annotated editions are for……

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‘Tis Better to be Brief

One thing that I’ve learned in the last year is the power of brevity.

Now, I’ve known this, to some extent, ever since I read The Elements of Style back when I first got interested in writing in middle school, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized just how condensed a written work can be. I refer you to Ezra Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro.”

Here’s a poem that consists only of two lines and a title. Not only that, but the two lines aren’t even a proper sentence – there’s no predicate. One can say, literally, that nothing happens in this poem. Personally, I was somewhat puzzled by this poem when I first encountered it, and remained so until last year when I had to write an essay on a work of my choice, and chose this poem.

That nothing happens is almost certainly intentional. This is an example of imagist poetry, which, as one might guess, emphasizes the importance of imagery in a poem over high-sounding, elaborate language and flowery description. “Metro” is an extreme example, but that Pound is able to convey any idea at all in a single image is remarkable.

So, what is that idea? My guess is that the poem is an ironic statement on the hectic environment of a metro station. Go to a big-city subway, and see how many people come and go. Quite frenetic, right? Yet, not only does this poem not really describe the action, but as stated above literally nothing happens. There is also a contrast between the people in the crowd and the man-made setting against the natural images used to describe them. The irony is great, and the poem ends up much more powerful and memorable than if Pound had taken the more traditional route and described the metro in longer, more elaborate verse.…

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A Somewhat True Story

Today, something a little different…


A couple days ago, in the evening, I got into a little accident driving home. Nothing much, just a little tap on the bumper when the girl in front of me started braking right after I merged behind her into her lane. I blame the wet roads and heavy traffic.

After pulling over to the shoulder, we both got out and, after glancing at our vehicles I said, “Oh, this doesn’t look too bad. Just a little scuff mark.” I looked over to the girl I’d run into, a few inches shorter than I and probably my own age. She was studying me very intently.
“You don’t look too bad,” she said, as though this were just the natural sort of thing to say in this situation.
Always quick on my feet mentally, I said, “Uh, what?”
She then looked past me into my car. “Is that your little sister in the passenger seat?”
I looked back and confirmed that the person in the passenger seat was, in fact, my sister.
“I see.” She looked into my eyes. “I went to see a fortune teller today.”
“Oh, really?” I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, and my voice shook just a touch.
“Yes. She said I would meet my future husband today. That he’d be with his younger sister, and would run into me with his car.”
There was silence, except for the light rain and a passing car.
“Well,” I began, “uh, you’re looking pretty nice yourself, then.” I really had no clue how to handle this situation, so I figured I’d just run with it for a while.
“Thank you, but…” she trailed off, and her eyes wandered to her left.
“She said that he would hit me, not my car.”
“Most people, when they’re hit, though, just say ‘He hit me,’ not ‘He hit my car.’ She could still be right.” Defending the fortune teller’s prediction may seem like a strange thing to do, but this girl was really cute.
“Yes, that’s true.” She paused a moment, made eye contact again, then continued. “So, now what do we do?” Apparently she was as new to all this as I was.
“First, let me get an umbrella. It’s starting to rain a bit.” It was drizzling rain, but mostly I wanted to buy some time to consider my next course of action.

As I walked away, though, my Intended got hit by a young man driving another car with his sister. Last I heard, they’re going to have the ceremony as soon as she recovers from her broken leg.…

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Authors and Writers

What’s an author? Someone who writes a book, right?

Well, according to Michel Foucault, it’s not quite that simple. While one could define an author as “someone who writes,” as I understand Foucault’s argument an author is also a person created, in a sense, by his work rather than the other way around. “Shakespeare,” for example, is both a proper name indicating a specific person, but also has a meaning intimately connected with his work. The meaning of “Shakespeare” would change significantly for society if, say, we learned that it was actually Bacon who wrote the plays traditionally attributed to the Bard.

The argument is interesting, but unfortunately I can’t really speak of it except in general terms.…

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Fleurs du Riens

For a long time, I’ve considered it a point of pride that I’m relatively lo-tech. Part of that is only seldom using Wikipedia, and certainly never bothering to edit a page (well, besides once adding two words to the French version of the Beatles page). So it was with a sense of adventure that I set out this evening to find a Wikipedia page for the express purpose of making a substantial edit to it.

Now, consider this task for a moment. On one hand, Wikipedia has over 2 million articles, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find one that could use some tidying up. Indeed, I found several that suffered from spelling or grammatical errors, and fixed a couple of them. However, also consider that Wikipedia has about as many users as my last Computer Science project had syntax errors. With so many others working on this undertaking, finding an article in need of substantial editing – and one that I’m able to substantially edit – is nearly impossible. Ultimately, I settled on the entry for Les Fleurs du Mal. Not that I was able to add a whole lot, but I did specify exactly which of the work’s poems were banned.

Truly, I can only stand in awe of my amazing ability to be mildly usefull.…

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But Am I Amusing?

You probably won’t read past this sentence if said sentence does not amuse you.

Maybe that’s too presumptuous, but it’s a thought I had while reading about Dickens World, one of the more surprising attempts at making education entertaining I’ve seen in a while. The place is just what it sounds like – a theme park based on the life and stories of Charles Dickens. While there is nothing wrong with making literature more interesting, a full theme park is too much.

If this all seems trivial, consider this. First, if Dickens cannot stand on his own, then there’s no reason for him to stand at all. When a piece of literature becomes so dull and irrelevant that it requires a theme park to maintain interest, then the theme park is too late. The work does not matter anymore. While the general public is far from discerning in its tastes (the fact that The DaVinci Code sold any copies at all is proof enough of this) Dickens appears to have done well on his own without such gimmicks, both in popular and academic circles, and such an attraction only cheapens his work to just another object to amuse us, like a monkey with a squeeze box.

Second, on a larger scale, I see this as another symptom of the scourge of entertainment value. If something is not entertaining, it does not register in the popular mind. How many news sources reported on Paris Hilton going to jail? Why does anyone oustide the Hilton family even care? I think this attitude is well summed up in this post from the Literature Compass Blog:

Yet the museum comes across confidently, its intention of ‘art for entertainment’s sake’ appearing in a quote from Hard Times that encircles the four walls of the entrance: “People must be amused, squire, somehow. They can’t be always a-working, nor yet they can’t be always a-learning.”

Dickens World has clearly been planned with the emphasis on amusement combined with a smattering of learning.

Art does not need to be entertaining. As with any form of communication, it sometimes is far from amusing. By emphasizing “amusement” with just a “smattering of learning,” one teaches that the former is the more important of the two.…

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