Monday, February 26, 2007

cognitive confusion from an unprophetable servant

Listening to NPR today, I was fairly confused when they spoke about a new book which accuses the newspaper industry of being 'too focused on prophets.'

What makes a song good? (Opening Remarks)

I've been formulating a response to the question 'What makes a song good?' and thought I'd vet some ideas here before I respond. I thought I'd start with another question: what makes a sentence good?

The key quotes for me are:

1. T. S. Eliot in The Little Gidding:

...And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together).
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning...

2. Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.

3. I once formulated a General Theorem of Poetry:

(Sound > Sight > Trope > Metaphor > Subject)
(Sound = Sight = Trope = Metaphor = Subject)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sad but true

Tonight's quote is from the inimitable P. G. Wodehouse:
If girls realized their responsibilities they would be so careful when they smiled that they would probably abandon the practice altogether. There are moments in a man's life when a girl's smile can have as important results as an explosion of dynamite.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

More on forgiveness from Dostoevsky

For those who own The Brothers Karamazov but haven't read it yet, perhaps one more quote will convince you:
Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.
He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. "Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears...," rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and "he was not ashamed of this ecstasy." It was as if the threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, "touching other worlds." He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, "as others are asking for me," rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind--now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. [1]

[1] Pevear and Volokhonsky again...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Forgiveness and Freedom

Yesterday was Forgiveness Sunday and last evening the beginning of Great Lent. One of my favorite images of forgiveness is from Dostoevsky's Brother's Karamozov, the section "From the Life of the Elder Zosima." As a child Elder Zosima's brother became very sick and near the end of his life he repented.
"Dear mother, heart of my heart," he said (he had then begun saying such unexpected, endearing words), "heart of my heart, my joyful one, you must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me. And how could we have lived before, getting angry, and not knowing anything?" Thus he awoke every day with more and more tenderness, rejoicing and all atremble with love... The windows of his room looked onto the garden, and our garden was very shady, with old trees, the spring buds were already swelling on the branches, the early birds arrived, chattering, singing through his windows. And suddenly, looking at them and admiring them, he began to ask their forgiveness, too: "Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you." None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy: "Yes," he said, "there was so much of God's glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all." "You take too many sins upon yourself," mother would weep. "Dear mother, my joy, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them. Let me be sinful before everyone, but so that everyone will forgive me, and that is paradise. Am I not in paradise now?[1]

And, so today the Great Fast begins and for the first time in weeks the sun is out here in Pittsburgh!
Thy grace has shone forth, O Lord, it has shone forth and given light to our souls. Behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the season of repentance. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, that having sailed across the great sea of the Fast, we may reach the third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls.[2]

Peace to everyone as the Lenten Spring begins.

[1] translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[2] Sunday of Forgiveness Vespers from The Lenten Triodion translated by Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, published by St. Tihkon's Seminary Press.

The Torments of Spring

Last month I accidentally started rereading War and Peace[1]. I picked it up looking for a quote--I don't remember which--and, reminded of how good it was, started reading again from the beginning. Now I am captivated by Tostoy novels the way more normal readers are captivated by murder mysteries, thrillers, and tv show novelizations. Because of this, after finishing the second book (about halfway through the novel), I am setting it aside for Lent, because late night reading about the trials of 18th century high society is probably not the best way for me to spend my time this spring [2].

Some thoughts on rereading the novel:

1. I was reminded again of the similarities between Tolstoy's writing style, especially in the first book, with Homer's (especially the Iliad and I believe someone famous compared the two books before me so this is nothing new, I guess), in his use of long and complex similes which one rarely sees in fiction these days and his use of epithets in describing the characters, so much so that I wonder if he did this intentionally. Perhaps the epithets (which seem to drop off as the novel progresses) are there because he recognized that even the most alert readers, even readers familiar and comfortable with Russian names, will have trouble keeping track of the seemingly endless cast of characters. So, the good author helps us out: Elena Kuragina is always "the beautiful Ellen," and Lisa Bolonskaya is always "the little princess." The intention, I suppose, of both the similes and the epithets was for simplicity and clarity of expression as well as an eagerness to help the reader as much as possible [3]. The result is also a certain lightness and charm, which is refreshing in a book unapologetically dedicated to lofty subjects like death, life, honor, love, and the mechanisms and telos of history. The ancient Greeks had their "swift-footed Achilles" but a part of me prefers "the clumsy Pierre" of Russia.

2. It is interesting also that his use of more poetic language (metaphor and the like) are usually confined to when he is describing a character's subjective feelings. This strikes me as the right way to go about writing novels. Often contemporary novels, especially 'literary' ones, indulge in one of two extremes: on the one hand they are overly poetic, using a sort of insipid lyric realism, a plodding crypto-poem; on the other hand they often have a sort of journalistic, even voyeuristic, style, with the author going out of their way to 'tell it as it is' or to shock. The upshot of all this is that I rarely read contemporary novels [4]. But Tolstoy uses his techniques to suit the requirements of the narrative. The epic battle and the marriage ceremony are described in a detached 3rd person, with realistic detail and intellectual commentary; the feelings of a soldier in the midst of a battle, however, or the sudden confusion and lofty hopes and despair of a young man who has fallen in love are written in a subjective, personal, and poetic style.

3. My copy (the Signet Classic version, translated by Ann Dunnigan) is well written, but the fact that it uses "Mass" rather than "Divine Liturgy" makes it suspect. Alas, I wish I knew Russian! [5]

4. It was a bit unsettling, but certain parts of the novel, especially near the end of the second book, resonated with my own struggles and situation, resonated more than I would prefer in petty entertainments like novel reading. For instance (I will leave out the most poignant and painful resonances), there is a beautiful passage where Prince Andrei is riding down a road during the early spring and notices an old oak, older than all the other trees in the forest, an oak that has not yet begun to bud, which seemed to be mocking the rest of the forest by its barrenness, by its unwillingness to participate in the hopes of spring:
"Yes, that oak is right, a thousand times right," mused Prince Andrei. "Let others, the young, be snared anew by that delusion, but we know life--our life is over!"
A whole new sequence of thoughts, hopeless but ruefully satisfying, rose in Prince Andrei's soul in connection with that oak tree. He considered his life afresh as it were and arrived at the same hopeless but soothing conclusion as before, that it was not for him to begin anything anew, but that he must live out his life harming no one, disturbed by nothing, desiring nothing.

The fact that the Prince finds renewed hope soon after these musings, and then later loses it again, only adds to the sad, whimsical beauty of the passage. But what a temptation! and the beauty of it, the fact that it is so close to truth, only adds to the lure of that temptation. I have to admit I feel this way more often then I should, indulging in a sort of self-righteous and arrogant, and therefore false, sense of martyrdom; certainly there is nothing particularly special or redeeming in my own personal failures. But there is a thin line between humility and self-pity, between fleeing the fallen world and hating the created world, between true self-sacrifice and empty vanity. These are matters that with myself I too much discuss.

Anyway, I will pick up my reading of War and Peace later this spring with book three which, I regret to report, ma chère, begins in the year 1812.

[1] I have tried my best in the past to promote the reading of this great novel.

[2] Especially by an author who would be excommunicated, but we shall let that pass for now...

[3] And, I suppose, a reader reading 1500 page novel needs all the help he or she can get.

[4] So for all I know my criticism of them is unjust.

[5] Or at the very least I wish Pevear and Volokhonsky would get to work on a translation!

Prolegomena, and Declaration of Principals

Chesterton, I believe, wrote that every writer should justify the existence of each book they write. I feel this should be the case with blogs as well, and particularly blogs authored by myself, because I have started a number of blogs (somewhere between 2 and 4) with mixed results. Those friends who know me best are likely to greet each new idea and project I undertake with--a more than justified--look of doubt and pity, an ironic smile, a good natured eye roll. These friends have on their side all the advantage of inductive reasoning. So it goes. But still I can't help starting new projects and spinning off new ideas, and here we go again. But, further, I must justify this blog because in the past I stopped blogging not only out of fickleness and laziness, but also because of some things I've written on blogs that I have regretted. Further, I am of two minds about blogging (and the Internet in general, actually): at times I am completely annoyed by blogs and at other times I profit by them and feel like writing them myself. In the same way, I am sometimes turned off to poetry when I pick up a copy of the New Yorker, but then I eventually open a volume by T. S. Eliot, or Denise Levertov, and I suddenly love poetry again.

My only justification for writing this blog is that I have failed as a diarist but I need to write, that my writing has slipped since I stopped writing, although to be honest I have never been much of a prose stylist. My intention here is to blog within the following boundaries:

1. I will confine myself to topics like literature and poetry, and in particular Russian literature (as a simple non-academic, only a few steps above philistine), the spiritual life from the point of view of an Orthodox Christian laymen (avoiding as much as possible theological polemics and debates, which I no longer have the stomach for and am unqualified for anyway), thoughts on the books I am reading, on the art I go look at, the music I hear, and perhaps the films I view. Perhaps I will throw in an occasional thought or joke, story or poem, or idea.

2. I will try not to write about politics (unless Israel or the US starts a new war, and then I might not be able to restrain myself!) or indulge in self-revelations: no one wants to hear about my personal life, and I am not so mean as to force it on anyone.

3. I will try to keep shameless self-promotion to a minimum.

4. I will try to only write when I write, and not wander about like a spy looking for things to write about, moments to steal.

5. I tend to use more commas then I ought. I apologize in advance.

So begins a new blog. Good morning.