Friday, April 15, 2016

Life of Pi

When Canadian writer Yann Martel brought Life of Pi to potential publishers, no one was quite sure what to make of it. Some saw enormous value in this philosophically-inclined tale, while others hesitated over how to categorize it: was it a novel? A fable? A book about religion? Martel himself hesitated, unsure who he could trust to bring the book out without such categorical labels. Finally, UK publisher Jamie Byng wrote to Martel with such an impassioned letter that the author was persuaded to sell him the rights; the book went on to win the Man Booker Prize, the UK's most prestigious, and to sell millions of copies worldwide; in 2012, director Ang Lee's film version won numerous accolades, including a Best Director Oscar® for Lee, as well as for cinematography, visual effects, and score.

And now, long after the champagne corks have been swept off the floors of that year's post-award parties, the book continues to puzzle. Is it an allegory? A fantasy? A true story? A veiled memoir of Mr. Martel? More than 150 years ago, in 1838, another great writer similarly baffled his readers with a claim that he had come upon a great story, an unlikely tale of stowing away, being being lost at sea, and arriving at an unfamiliar shore -- and by chance, it too had a narrator whose name was a monosyllable beginning with "P." This was of course The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (whose name also, come to think of it, has one syllable and starts with "P"). Poe, having written himself into a bit of a corner when his narrator reached Antarctica, ended his book precipitously, explaining to his readers that Mr. Pym had, most inconveniently, died. Martel, happily, does not frustrate his readers in that way, though he finds many others: It is claimed, in its introduction, to be a tale that will make one "believe in God" -- but which one? Pi seems to have a conversion experience every time he visits another holy man, and it doesn't seem to occur to him that most gods are jealous, and will have no other gods before them; he even thanks the Hundu god Rama for leading him to Jesus!

There's more to come -- much much more -- but already, we seem to be at sea!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Hearts of Darkness

Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, was originally published as "The Heart of Darkness" beginning in February of 1899 in Blackwood's Magazine. It appeared in book form in 1902, minus the "The" in the title. Numerous critics have hailed it as the essential book of the twentieth century; T.S. Eliot quoted one of its key lines in "The Hollow Men," and it was famously adapted for film by Frances Ford Coppola in 1979 as Apocalypse Now. It has become a grim epitome for a grim era, but is also one of the most economically and beautifully crafted novellas in English.

Which is no mean feat, considering that its author, Joseph Conrad, was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland, and that English was his third language (after Polish and French). Writing was also his second career, after a lengthy one as a seaman, rising from ordinary seaman to mate to Master from 1878 to 1886. In the process, he taught himself English, changed his name, and embarked on a long-sought career as a writer.

In one of his last essays, "Geography and Some Explorers," Conrad looked back on his boyhood romance of the sea, and of story. He credited the birth of both to his reading of a book by Frances Leopold McClinctok, The Voyage of the Fox in Arctic Seas, which described the final trials of the ill-fated Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, who vanished -- along with his ships the Erebus and Terror and 128 men -- in the frozen wilderness, with no man returning alive and some considerable evidence that his men turned to cannibalism in their last despair. Conrad cites this book in the essay, declaring that
"The great spirit of the realities of the story sent me off on the romantic explorations of my inner self; to the discovery of the taste for poring over land and sea maps; revealed to me the existence of a latent devotion to geography."
And the first of Conrad's journeys inspired by this devotion was the (then undiscovered) "heart" of Africa, which was as yet a blank upon the map. By the time he reached adulthood and was able to reach that spot, it was no longer "dark" in the sense of being unknown, but "dark" in that it lay in the midst of the Belgian Congo, a late African colony established by the King of Belgium as his private preserve, and one of the most corrupt, brutal, and ill-managed colonies in the history of European expansion. Like his character Marlow, he piloted a "tramp" steamer up the Congo, and witnessed firsthand man's inhumanity to man.

Today, the whole world has been "explored," and there are no blanks upon our maps -- no place you can't zoom in on in Google Earth. And yet, that strange human hunger for the unknown persists, whether it is in the pursuit of space exploration, the renewed efforts to chart and understand the depths of the world's oceans, or the scientific question to learn the causes and consequences of global warming at the earth's poles. As much as Jekyll carried Hyde within him, we carry within ourselves the anonymous ghosts of the brutality of Empires past, the anger and uncertainty of an unstable present world, and the hopes and aspirations of those old explorers who, as Conrad says at the conclusion of his essay, bore within them "a spark of that sacred fire."

So again, one must ask: is civilization, as the poet Ezra Pound once wrote, a "botched" job, an "old hag gone in the teeth"? Or is it our only hope for the better future? Coppola expolores this question in his film Apocalypse Now, looking back only a decade or so from 1979 to 1969 and the brutality of the Vietnam war. What of today? With all the conflicts in the world, and American forces once again in harm's way in wars, such as Afghanistan, which have lasted longer than any other war ever fought by the United States, what the answer is today matters deeply, and still we find Conrad's vision is remarkably prophetic. What do you think?

Sunday, March 6, 2016


James Joyce's Dubliners -- a collection of short stories originally completed around 1905, but not published until nine years later -- is widely regarded as one of the finest works of its kind. As with all of Joyce's works, it seeks after the essence of "dear old dirty Dublin," the city in and near which Joyce had grown up, and the city -- though he left Ireland never to return -- in which he still dwelt in his imagination, and was the essential core of every one of his later works.

Dublin in 1904 was a bustling city, with all kinds of shops and commerce which brought the goods of the world to its doors. And yet, at the same time, it was home to some of the darkest and dingiest slums of its day, corridors of hopelessness from which many never fully emerged. Joyce himself had travelled through at least two of its social classes, thanks to the wavering fortunes of his father; he'd enjoyed both a middle-class home and a semi-private education at Clongowes Wood Academy, and far poorer quarters along with the cold water and thrashings at the O'Connell School operated by the Christian Brothers. The Jesuits were intellectual in bent, and Joyce much preferred them; the loss of his place there and return to dismal life in Dublin were hard on him.

But the change did Joyce a favor; having been dislocated from his class and his comrades, he experienced a crisis of faith with his religion, and was thus better prepared than most to see Ireland in a multi-dimensional way, and to be drawn into the European modernist movement. Unlike other writers of his generation, he never gravitated to the nationalism of the Young Ireland movement and its successors, and had nothing but disdain for the attempt at the revival of Irish Gaelic literature and culture (at one point in "The Dead," the main character pointedly objects to the notion that Irish is "his" language). One can readily imagine Joyce, his eyesight poor and always growing poorer, peering through thick-lensed spectacles at the plight of the people about him, whose lives were strictly circumscribed by poverty, strict Catholic morality, and the consciousness that Ireland was a subjugated nation, claimed by the English and with her harps on its flag.

There is nothing supernatural in these stories -- only the extreme inner consciousness of loss, of the fragility of beauty, of the fleeting nature of life's few pleasures.  In Araby, we follow a desperately shy and isolated young man through his day, and into the night on a trolley in a doomed attempt to find a fitting gift for the girl he loves but can barely speak with. In Clay, we play a little game -- a game about destiny, family, and (yes) death. And in The Dead, we come full circle, looking within and without the walls of polite Dublin society, and witness the emergence of a newly urgent sense of identity that, though certainly Irish, rejects the cultural conventions of "Irishness."

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

This week, we move to consider Amos Tutuola's weird yet groundbreaking novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard and his Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town. When it first appeared in 1952, the reviews were a mixture of astonishment and admiration; Dylan Thomas famously proclaimed it a "brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching story," and other reviews were also quite positive; others called it a "strange, eerie, poetic novel" and praised it as the embodiment of an African perspective of Africa. And yet, today, modern African writers such as Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o have tended to disparage Tutuola, accusing him of being too eager -- even if unconsciously -- ready to write just the sort of exotic, juju-filled story that Western readers expected from the "dark continent."

Forty years after its publication, in 1992, I was fortunate to have a brief correspondence with Mr. Tutuola, and to receive a contribution from him for a book I had proposed at the time: Without Any Rules: The Politics and Poetics of the Vernacular. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the book proposal never found a home, and when Mr. Tutuola passed on in 1997, I found myself with his contribution still unpublished. And so, it occurred to me that I might share it with the class here on the website. I had asked contributors to reflect on what they considered their "vernacular" mode of writing, and what follows is the opening section of Mr. Tutuola's reply -- it has never been published before now:
By vernacular, I suppose, one means the language into which a child is born and is brought up. A language he picks up almost spontaneously as a matter of course when growing up. By this definition, my own ‘vernacular’ or ’mother tongue’ is Yoruba – a language spoken by a subgroup in West Africa, particularly in the Western and Eastern parts of Nigeria and the Benin Republic. Their root is of course in Nigeria. The people in these areas would now be about 20 million. The sub-group is also called Yoruba people. 
I was born at a time the meeting of our own culture and that of Europe had taken place – indeed at a time British colonialists still held the political and economic leverages of my country and that of some other African countries. This is to say I grew up at a time I had no choice but to be exposed to another language. The language of our colonies. The language in which the official business of my country is conducted, to wit, English. 
But I was not to confront this language until I started schooling. And as fate would have it, I could not get far in formal schooling due to lack of finance (as I lost my father at a tender age). Thus, I had what can be referred to as a tolerable exposure to Yoruba, my mother tongue. 
Years after, when I wanted to write, English, the official language of my country, was the one I wrote in. Ordinarily, this would be a little surprising, given my barely indepth knowledge of the language on the one hand, and my appreciable grounding in Yoruba, my mother tongue, on the other. But that was what I found myself doing.
Although I wrote (and still do)in English, my writings, looking back now, are still in Yoruba, my mother tongue. In here is deliberately put in italics. The medium in which my ideas are expressed is English, but when I write, the ideas I express, the atmosphere I create, and as reviewers of my works (perhaps rightly) maintain, the gestures readers encounter on the pages of the books I write are YorubaishThus I think it can be said that beyond being a Yoruba writing in English, my works are African in conception.
I think that Mr. Tutuola's comments here give us a remarkable account of the unexpected combinations, conflicts, and sometimes fortuitous collisions of language and consciousness that are a powerful feature of postcolonial writings. Should a writer seeking to resist colonization be obliged to write in the colonizer's tongue? And if she or he chooses it despite its histories, can it be shaped, as Tutuola suggests, back into a "native" language?

Two years after The Palm-Wine Drinkard, he published My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was later the inspiration for an electronic album by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, which is widely regarded as one of the most powerful, pioneering recordings of its kind. I urge everyone to read -- and listen to -- all of these remarkable works.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was a man between cultures -- quite a few of them, in fact. His father was Irish, but his mother was a Greek noblewoman. The one thing they had in common, apparently, was a fanatical devotion to Roman Catholicism; the one thing their son felt most strongly was an aversion to it. After an acrimonious separation, Lafcadio was packed off to Ireland to live with a series of relatives, each of whom abandoned his care to another; eventually he was sent off to a Catholic boarding school and later to a seminary, both of which only hardened his feelings. Hearn, as soon as he could, left for America, where he supported himself as a journalist, first in Cincinnati, then in New Orleans. From there, he went as a foreign correspondent, initially in the French West Indies and then in Japan. He was 40 years old when he arrived, and would only live to be 54, and yet it was in Japan that he made an international name for himself; he obtained a teaching job, married the daughter of a local samurai, and learned Japanese, which he came to speak fluently. His collections of Japanese stories, among which Kwaidan is the best known, have remained in print ever since; in 1965, three stories from this book were adapted by Masaki Kobayashi in his film Kwaidan. His life was also the basis for a play, "The Dream of a Summer Day," which toured Ireland in 2005.

Western audiences have always enjoyed tales of ghosts and, as Hearn calls them, "strange things." The Japanese settings of Hearn's tales have led some to accuse him of exoticizing Japanese culture, but these same stories have gained and retained popularity in Hearn's adopted homeland. The best of them have elements which appeal across cultures, and among them, the tales in Kwaidan rank among the finest tales of terror this side of Edgar Alan Poe.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Chaucer's Pilgrims

We only have time to get to know a few of them -- and Chaucer himself never completed his plans for every pilgrim's tale -- but there are plenty of reasons me might already feel a sense of familiarity with these pilgrims from the past.

The Knight has been a controversial figure; though long assumed to be simply a goodly knight and man, his reputation was challenged in (Monty Python alum) Terry Jones's book Chaucer's Knight. Jones pointed out that many of the campaigns the Knight listed on his resumé were actually disasters -- the siege of Alexandria, for instance, where "crusader" knights looted and pillaged the city, then abandoned it to return home with their booty -- and his adventures in Lithuania and Russia, where mercenary knights similarly came, and went, just long enough to collect their fees and bolster their reputations. Chaucer uses the word "worthy" many times, with the subtle implication that the Knight was more a hired hand than a noble ideal. With the Crusades suddenly in the news again, it's worth noting that, from the very first Crusade to the last, they were, despite their purportedly high ideals, often marked by looting, pillaging, and mass killings of civilians.

The Wife of Bath may be Chaucer's most beloved character -- and she was, in the Tales themselves, the only pilgrim interrupted -- twice -- by admirers praising her "preaching." Of course it was illegal for women to actually preach at the time, and with the Bible in English not yet readily available, it's not clear where the Wife has acquired her extensive knowledge of Scripture. We may assume that it's mostly from her husbands, but if so she was far from a passive recipient of learning; she was eager to interpret the text, and take her place in opposition to men who "gloss up and down" and use the Bible to justify their misogyny. As with the Knight, we may find support for our admiration of her wit, but also -- if we shift our reading just slightly -- a condemnation of her for reading every text to suit her own ends. She remains, in either case, a lively, lovely, sensual, sexual being, one whose frankness still has the power to startle after all these centuries.

The Nun's Priest gets one of Chaucer's best tales, one with its own barnyard brand of sexual politics, as Chauntecleer and his wife Dame Pertelote enact their own domestic disputes. We see the role that Latin plays as a boundary discourse, open to men but closed to women, as Chauntecleer  mistranslates Mulier est hominis confusio ("Woman is the confusion of man") as "Woman is man's joy and all his bliss." There's even a glimpse of contemporary politics, as the noise in the barnyard when the fox enters is compared to that made by "Jack Straw and his many men" during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. It's a noise Chaucer would have heard firsthand, as his apartments were in Aldgate, the very gateway through which the peasants entered London.

We haven't time to read all the tales -- and some, to be frank, have stood the test of time less well than others. Some of the "best" pilgrims, such as the Parson, get the "worst" tales -- in his case, a long and tedious sermon. Just for fun, Chaucer gives himself a sing-song ballad, the "Tale of Sir Thopas" -- which is so bad that eventually the Knight commands him to stop, declaring that his "drafty rhyming" is "not worth a turd." It's the contestatory nature of the Tales as a whole, the way they jostle against one another as the pilgrims vie for each other's attention, that in the end endears them to us. We've been there, and done that -- whether in person, on a blog, or Facebook -- so keep those cute cat videos coming.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Canterbury Tales

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

Yet although it is now more than 600 years old, Chaucer's poetry is strikingly modern, some might even say postmodern. Chaucer plays around with unreliable narrators -- one might say that CT has 29 of these -- and even inserts himself into the narrative (Chaucer's offering, the sing-songy "Tale of Sir Thopas," is rejected by the Knight, who swears that his "drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord" ('your filthy rhyming isn't worth a shit'). Part of the fun in reading Chacuer, of course, is discovering that bathroom humor, pathos, pride, and human stupidity are all at least 600 years old!

It should also be noted that, work of genius though it is, the Canterbury Tales are also incomplete. Chaucer's plan called for two tales from each pilgrim on the road to and back from Canterbury, whereas in the version that he left us, we never actually arrive at Canterbury, and not all of the pilgrims even get one tale, let alone two. Early readers often filled the gaps with tales of their own, including one version -- the "Tale of Beryn" -- in which they actually do reach Canterbury. The exact order of the tales is also unclear, although they are generally organized into seven Fragments, within which the order of tales and characters is at least somewhat consistent from manuscript to manuscript.

We'll start with what's now known widely as the "General Prologue" -- a preface to the Tales as a whole which Chaucer probably composed after some, but far from all, of the tales we know now were completed.  It offers a description of the visage (face), character, and "array" (clothing and equipment) that every pilgrim presented, and as a snapshot of late Medieval England, it's without peer.  Few of the pilgrims get off easy; aside from the Knight (and there's some debate about him), only the Parson and the Plowman -- and perhaps the Clerk -- get off without some harsh words and ironic comments on how they each fall short of the ideal for their class.  You'll notice, too, that by far the largest single block of pilgrims are "clericus" -- that is, religious : the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress (with a second nun and a priest), the Sumnour, the Pardoner, and the Clerk -- such that nearly 1/3 of a group of pilgrims, or any random group on the street, would be in religious orders or jobs!  Today, when the worldwide number of what the Vatican calls "members of the consecrated life" is only about 950,000 -- barely one hundredth of one percent of the present world population of seven billion -- times have certainly changed, and dramatically.  Of all the various clerical occupations, only that of the "Clerk" -- a graduate student at Oxford -- represents a common class today; there are 20.3 million college and university students in the United States today, about 6% of our current population.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Bottom of Hell

In theology classes, the question "Does Hell have a ceiling?" is a familiar, unanswerable chestnut -- like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, 'the world may never know.' It definitely has a floor, though. It comes as a surprise to many that in Dante's vision, the bottommost layer is a lake not of fire, but ice -- symbolizing the immobility, the stasis, the incapacity for change that, for him, were the ultimate marks of evil.

"It is no easy undertaking to describe the bottom of the Universe," as Dante himself admits in Canto XXXII, but describe it he must. And, as he so often does, Dante suggests this vastness with little things, as he unknowingly stubs his toe on the twinned heads of Alessandro and Napoleone, brothers and Counts of Mangona -- famous for having killed one another. Nearby is Mordred, the treacherous nephew of King Arthur, for he, too, is guilty of killing kindred. Most of the other inhabitants of this final, dread circle are unknown to us today, but in its center stands Satan, three-headed in mockery of the Trinity, with a different traitor in each mouth -- and their names are are familiar: Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ. That men who killed a pagan emperor are grouped with a man who betrayed God himself may seem strange, but Virgil assures Dante that Judas is  "the soul that suffers most," since he is both burned by Satan's "fiery chin" and mangled in his maw.

Worse is yet to come, as the only exit is for the two Poets to climb down Satan's hairy backside, with all that that implies (thankfully, Dante spares us a description, but suggests the disgust by having Virgil turn his eyes away and stare at his own feet). The next stop for them is the Purgatorio, where those who suffer only from venial sins have them 'burnt and purged away' -- but we emerge, perhaps more jovially, into the world of Chaucer.

So has this journey been worth it? Have the vivid crimes and punishments contained within this diabolical funnel amused us or frightened us, reassured us of justice or caused us to doubt it? Pick an inner circle, and someone within it, whose sad fate stirred you the most, and say why: