Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Preface to Ancient Chinese Poetry by Arthur Waley

… And now a word about the subjects with which the poems deal. The most conspicuous feature of European poetry is its pre-occupation with love. This is apparent not only in actual “love-poems”, but in all poetry where the personality of the writer is in any way obtruded. The poet tends to exhibit himself in a romantic light; in fact, to recommend himself as a lover.

The Chinese poet has a tendency different but analogous. He recommends himself not as a lover, but as a friend. He poses as a person of infinite leisure (which we should most like our friends to possess) and free from worldly ambitions (which constitute the greatest bars to friendship). He would have us think of him as a boon companion, a great drinker of wine, who will not disgrace a social gathering by quitting it sober.

To the European poet the relation between man and woman is a thing of supreme importance and mystery. To the average Chinese poet it is something commonplace, obvious – a need of the body, not a satisfaction of the emotions. These he reserves entirely for friendship. I have been criticized for saying something like this; but the vast mass of classical Chinese poetry amply confirms my view. Accordingly we find that while our poets tend to lay stress on physical courage and other qualities normally admired by women, Po Chu-i is not ashamed to write such a poems as “Alarm at entering the Gorges.” Our classical poets imagine themselves very much as Art has portrayed them – bare-headed and wild-eyed, with shirts unbuttoned at the neck as though they feared that a seizure of emotion might at any minute suffocate them. The Chinese poet tends to introduce himself as a timid recluse, “Reading the Book of Changes at the Northern Window,” playing chess with a Taoist priest, or practicing calligraphy with an occasional visitor.

I do not mean to say that the gentle and reflective attitude traditional in Chinese poetry in any way gives us a key to the whole of Chinese life. Martial vigour, administrative ability, romantic love, all played their part; but in the whole bulk of classical poetry, say from the seventh to the fourteenth century, how minute a proportion for a moment touches any of these themes!

Alarm At Entering the Yang-Tze Gorges by Po Chu-i

Above, a mountain ten thousand feet high:
Below, a river a thousand fathoms deep.
A strip of green, walled by cliffs of stone:
Wide enough for the passage of a single reed.
At Chu-t’ang a straight cleft yawns:
At Yen-yu islands block the stream.
Long before night the walls are black with dusk;
Without wind white waves rise.
The big rocks are like a flat sword:
The little rocks resemble ivory tusks.

We are stuck fast and cannot move a step
How much the less, three hundred miles?
Frail and slender, the twisted-bamboo rope:
Weak, the dangerous hold on towers’ feet.
A single slip- the whole convoy lost:
And my life hangs of this thread!

I have heard a saying "He that has an upright heart
Shall walk scathless through the lands of Man and Mo.”
How can I believe that since the world began
In every shipwreck none have drowned but rogues?
And how can I, born in evil days
And fresh from failure, ask a kindness of Fate?
Often I fear that these un-talented limbs
Will be laid at last in an un-named grave!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Goat by Elias Canetti

That evening the talk was not of his beliefs and principles. He had set them out in many well-written and highly readable books. There would have been no point in expressing his convictions about free love at Mrs. Phillimore’s dinner table. In that respect, she had all the Victorian prejudices, and she was determined not to countenance any of his “amoral” views. He was cheerful, and spoke of literary subjects. Every word came out of his mouth sonorous and well formed, it was clearly articulated, there was none of the lazy mumbling that is so prevalent among educated Englishmen. People said he had taken classes in rhetoric; well, if he had, they were worth it. He was presently working on a collection of stories that later came out under the ironic, provocative title, Satan in the Suburbs.

In his mouth, English sounded as serene and immaculate as one might expect it from the great writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [Ben Johnson, John Donne, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, John Aubrey, Bunyan, George Fox, Hobbes – on his own a titanic figure]. But he ended his speech with a goat-like laugh that was so wild and dangerous as to be shocking. He refused to end it, drew it out, one could sense how hard it was for him to part with his laughter. Even Mrs. Phillimore, who must have known him well, was shocked by it. All the animalism in his nature was expressed in this laugh, a very small, but energetic and indefatigable satyr. This laugh made a curious trinity with the piercing malice of Mrs. Phillimore’s eyes and the helpless stammer of Aymer…

I met Bertrand Russell once more, but this time in a large group, among many people. The magazine Nineteenth Century, which was trying to re-launch itself by the simple expedient of calling itself Twentieth Century, was throwing a large party in a house in Mayfair, that had been hired for the occasion. People were invited to meet Mr. Pannikar, the Indian Ambassador to China, who enjoyed a ringside view of events during the years following the revolution, and was now retiring from his post. A trained historian, Mr Pannikar was in the process of writing a book about his experiences. There was an opportunity to meet him, and ask questions. He was a civil and polite gentleman, prepared to speak on anything we had to put to him.

Bertrand Russell, who had published his own book on China a quarter of a century before, was there, and I stood near him as he spoke to Pannikar. It was the most exhaustive interrogation I have ever witnessed.

The dialogue came thick and fast. Pannikar was no less quick on his feet than his interlocutor. In the space of twenty minutes, provided you paid attention, and did not allow yourself to be distracted, you learned more than you could have done reading a thick tome. The questions overlapped and, in the most extraordinary way, light was shed on matters that were not explicitly talked about. These things were so illuminated by what was said before and afterwards, that you could swear you had heard them talked about. There was something about the flighty spirit of Bertrand Russell that allowed the Indian to appear distinguished. He was certainly no one to be despised, I read his book later, but this questioning was really something else. It turned a clever, methodical and experienced man into a profound thinker. It lifted him, so to speak, from the obligations of ordinary logical connections. What was lost in terms of order was gained in spontaneity.

One had the impression that Pannikar was driven to think for the first time about the things he was talking about. That could not in fact have been the case. But thanks to Russell’s zigzag leaps and bounds, it had to appear that way. Trivial and everyday things, things that a newspaper reader might have known, didn’t even crop up. An “innocent” listener, who merely read a decent newspaper – and there was always such in England – would have no idea what was going on. Some others had noticed what was going on, and clustered round the two men, listening intently. The cream of the intellectual and political society of London was there. I think all those listening held their breath, they were as rapt as I was. My own response was only more apparent than theirs, because- not being English- I made no effort to dissemble it.

But I had not immediately plunged into the heart of this evening. Before that, I wandered round various rooms, perhaps to scout out who was there. But possibly I was a little on the lookout for Bertrand Russell, because I had read his book about China, which had taught me much, many years before. Suddenly I heard the cackle of a goat, so loud that I took fright, it could only be him. I went in the direction of the cackle, and found him just as he was beginning his dialogue with Pannikar. I did not know what had caused him to whinny so loud and long, because now he got his teeth into the conversation, which took his full concentration for certainly twenty minutes.

As it came to an end, it unbent a little, I could tell from the way that only now did I begin to scrutinize the people who formed a tight circle around the two talkers. I didn’t get very far in my research, because quite close to Bertrand Russell, diagonally behind him, stood a strikingly beautiful young woman, whom I had first noticed on my first wandering round the rooms, a while before the familiar cackling made itself audible. There were quite a few beautiful woman at this gathering. (The beauty of the upper-class Englishwomen is something that had already struck Dostoevsky, more than a century ago, when he paid a short visit to Alexander Herzen in London.) Every generation was represented, they belonged to powerful and famous men, who had every reason to show themselves with these women on their arms, but this one, who was standing so close to Bertrand Russell that she almost touched him, a little over twenty, was by far the most beautiful.

It would be tempting to describe her, but she vanished too quickly. No sooner had Russell put his last question than he sensed her behind him, and quickly turned around. One could tell from his expression that he had never seen her before, he immediately burst out into the goatish laughter, so loud that Pannikar’s answer was quite engulfed by it, and no-one heard what it was. Then, as if they had had an assignation, they promptly left together, the eighty-year-old and the twenty-year-old. As he left, he continued to laugh, while she became more beautiful with every stride.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Astrology by Stendhal

Some minutes since Frabrizio had taken the road again; he passed the hill that forms the peninsula of Durini, and at length there met his gaze that campanile of the village of Grianta in which he had so often made observations of the stars with Priore Blanes. “What bounds were there to my ignorance in those days? I could not understand,” he reminded himself, even the ridiculous Latin of those treatises on astrology which my master used to pore over, and I think I respected them chiefly because, understanding only a few words here and there, my imagination stepped in to give them meaning, and the most romantic sense possible.”

Gradually his thoughts entered another channel. “may not there be something genuine about this science? Why should it be different from the rest? A certain number of imbeciles and quick-witted persons agree among themselves that they know (shall we say) Mexican; they impose themselves with this qualification upon society which respects them and governments pay them. Favors are showered upon them precisely because they have no real intelligence, and authority need not fear their raising the populace and creating an atmosphere of rant by aid of generous sentiments! For instance, Father Bari, to whom Ernesto IV has just awarded a pension of 4,000 francs and the Cross of his Order for having restored nineteen lines of a Greek dithyramb!

“But, Great God, have I indeed the right to find such things ridiculous? Is it for me to complain,” he asked himself, suddenly, stopping short in the road, “has not that same Cross just been given to my governor in Naples?” Fabrizio was conscious of a feeling of intense disgust; the fine enthusiasm for virtue which had just been making his heart beat high changed into the vile pleasure of having a good share in the spoils of a robbery. “After all,” he said to himself at length, with the lusterless eyes of a man who is dissatisfied with himself, “since my birth gives me the right to profit by these abuses, it would be a signal piece of folly on my part not to take my share, but I must never let myself denounce them in public.” This reasoning was by no means unsound; but Fabrizio had fallen a long way from that elevation of sublime happiness to which he had found himself transported an hour earlier. The thought of privilege had withered that plant, always so delicate, which we name happiness.

“If we are not to believe in astrology,” he went on, seeking to calm himself; “If this science is, like three quarters of the sciences which are not mathematical, a collection of enthusiastic simpletons and adroit hypocrites paid by the masters they serve, how does it come about that I think so often and with emotion of this fatal circumstance: I did make my escape from the prison at B--, but in the uniform and with the marching orders of a soldier who had been flung into prison with good cause?”

Fabrizio’s reasoning could never succeed in penetrating farther; he went a hundred ways round the difficulty without managing to surmount it. He was too young still; in his moments of leisure, his mind devoted itself with rapture to enjoying the sensations produced by the romantic circumstances with which his imagination was always ready to supply him. He was far from employing his time in studying with patience the actual details of things in order to discover their causes. Reality still seemed to him flat and muddy; I can understand a person’s not caring to look at it, but then he ought not to argue about it. Above all, he ought not to fashion objections out of the scattered fragments of his ignorance.

Thus it was, though not lacking in brains, Frabrizio could not manage to see that his half-belief in omens was for him a religion, a profound impression received at his entering upon life. To think of this belief was to feel, it was a happiness. And he set himself resolutely to discover how this could be proved a real science, in the same category as geometry, for example. He searched his memory strenuously for all the instances in which the omens observed by him had not been followed by the auspicious or inauspicious events which they seemed to herald. But all this time, while he believed himself to be following a line of reasoning and marching towards the truth, his attention kept coming joyfully to rest on the memory of the occasions on which the foreboding had been amply followed by the happy or unhappy accident which it had seemed to him to predict, and his heart was filled with respect and melted; and he would have felt an invincible repugnance for the person who denied the value of omens, especially if in doing so he had had recourse to irony.

Fabrizio walked on without noticing the distance he was covering, and had reached this point in his vain reasonings when, raising his head, he saw the wall of his father’s garden…

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cemeteries by Elias Canetti

Also in the chapter The Survivor in Crowds and Power

The attraction of cemeteries and graveyards is so strong that people visit them even if no-one belonging to them is buried there. In foreign cities they make a pilgrimage to the cemetery and walk about there as though it were an amenity specially provided for them. It is not always veneration for some famous man which draws them there. Even where this is the original motive, the visit always turns into something more. A cemetery very soon induces a special state of mind. We have a pious habit of deceiving ourselves about this mood. In fact, the awe we feel, and still more the awe we exhibit, covers a secret satisfaction.

What does someone who finds himself in a graveyard actually do? How does he move and what occupies his thoughts? He wanders slowly up and down between the graves, looking at this stone and that, reading the names on them and feeling drawn to some of them. Then he begins to notice what is engraved beneath the names. He finds a couple who lived together for a long time and now lie together for always; as they should; or a child who died quite young; or a girl who just reached her eighteenth birthday. More and more it is periods of time which fascinate the visitor. Increasingly they stand out from the touching inscriptions on the headstones and become simply periods of time as such.

Here is a man who lived to be thirty two; another, over there, died at forty-five. The visitor is older than either of them yet they are already out of the race. He finds many who did not get as far as he has, but, unless they died particularly young, he feels no sadness for them. But there are also many who surpassed his present age, living for seventy or, now and again, for over eighty years, as he can still do himself. These arouse in him a desire to emulate them. For him everything is still open; his life span is not yet fixed, and in this lies his superiority; with effort he may even surpass them. He has, anyway, a good chance of equaling them, for the advantage is his in any case: their goal is reached; they are no longer alive. They are there for him to compete with, but all the strength is on his side; they have no strength, but only a stated goal; and even those who lived the longest are dead now. They cannot look him in the eyes as man to man and he draws from them the strength to become, and to remain for ever, more than they are. The eighty-nine-year-old who lies there acts on him like a spur. What is to prevent him from living to ninety?

But this is not the only kind of calculation which occupies the man who stands between the rows of graves . He begins to notice how long it is that some of the buried have lain there. The time that separates him from their death is somehow reassuring and exhilarating: he has known the world for that much longer. In graveyards which have old memorials going back to the 17th and 18th centuries the visitor stands patiently before the half-effaced inscriptions, not moving until he has deciphered them. Chronology, which is normally only used for practical purposes, suddenly acquires a vivid and meaningful life for him. All the centuries he knows of are his. The man in the grave knows nothing of the man who stands beside it, reflected on the span of the completed life. For him time ended with the year of his death; for the other it has continued right up to the present. What would he, long dead, not give still to be able to stand by the side of the visitor! 200 years have passed since he died; the other is, as it were, 200 years older than him. Many of the things which happened during those years are known to him; he has read about them, heard people talk and experienced some of them himself. He is in a position where it would be difficult not to feel some superiority, and the natural man does feel it.

But he feels more than this. As he walks among the graves he feels that he is alone. Side by side at his feet lie the unknown dead, and they are many. How many is not known, but the number is very great and there will be more and more of them. They cannot move, but must remain there, crowded together. He alone comes and goes as he wishes; he alone stands upright.

Immortality by Elias Canetti

From the chapter entitled Survivor in Crowds and Power; translated from German by Carol Stewart, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1960

Consideration of literary or any other private immortality can best start with a man like Stendhal. It would be hard to find a man less sympathetic to religion and more completely unaffected by its promises and obligations. His thoughts and feelings were directed wholly to this life and he experienced it with exactness and depth. He gave himself up to it, enjoying what could give him pleasure; but he did not become shallow or stale in doing so, because he allowed everything that was separate to remain separate, instead of trying to construct spurious unities. He thought much but his thoughts were never old. He was suspicious of everything that did not move him. All that he recorded and all that he shaped remained close to the fiery moment of genesis. He loved many things and believed in some, but all of them remained miraculously concrete for him. They were all there in him and he could find them at once without resort to specious tricks of arrangement.

This man, who took nothing for granted, who wanted to discover everything for himself; who, as far as life is feeling and spirit, was life itself; who was in the heart of every situation and therefore had a right to look at it from the outside; with whom word and substance were so intuitively one that it was as though he had taken it upon himself to purify language single-handed – this rare and truly free man had, none the less, one article of faith, which he spoke of as simply and naturally as of a mistress.

Without pitying himself, he was content to write for a few, but he was certain that in a hundred years he would be read by many. Nowhere in modern times is a belief in literary immortality to be found in a clearer, purer and less pretentious form. What does a man mean who holds this belief? He means that he will still be here when everyone else who lived at the same time is no longer here. It is not that he feels any animosity towards the living as such; he does not try to get rid of them, nor harm them in any way. He does not even see them as opponents. He despises those who acquire false fame and would despise himself too if he fought them with their own weapons. He bears then no malice, for he knows how completely mistaken they are, but he chooses the company of those to whom he himself will one day belong, men of earlier times whose work still lives, who speak to him and feed him. The gratitude he feels to them is gratitude for life itself.

Killing in order to survive is meaningless for such a man, for it is not now that he wants to survive. It is only in a hundred years that he will enter the lists, when he is no longer alive and thus cannot kill. Then it will be a question of work contending against work, with nothing that he himself can do. The true rivalry, the one that matters, begins when the rivals are no longer there. Thus he cannot even watch the fight. But the work must be there and, if it is to be there, it must contain the greatest and purest measure of life. Not only does he abjure killing, but he takes with him into immortality all who were alive with him here, and it is then that all these, the least as well as the greatest, are most truly alive.

He is the exact opposite of those rulers whose whole entourage must die when they die, so that they may find among the dead all they have been used to on earth. In nothing is their ultimate powerlessness more terribly revealed. They kill in death as they have killed in life; a retinue of the slain accompanies them from one world to the other.

But whoever opens Stendhal will find him and also everything which surrounds him; and find it here, in this life. Thus the dead offer themselves as food to the living; their immortality profits them. It is the reversal of sacrifice to the dead, which profits both dead and living. There is no more rancor between them and the sting has been taken from survival.