Category Archives: Literature

Mother Water

Regarding poorly-named Pacific Ocean:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John.

And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian Ocean and Atlantic being but its arms.

The same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagos, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth.Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851.

The sea. Once again the sea. Always again the sea. We always return to the sea. Our mother. Mother water.

 

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A Lost Shakespeare Play You Never Heard of

Here.

The title is Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers, or Double Falsehood, or The Distressed Lovers in modern English.

The play was written by Lewis Theobald, supposedly based on three copies of what he said was a lost Shakespearean play. He never produced the three copies that he had access to, and their whereabouts are presently unknown. The play appears to be based on The History of Cardenio (often referred to as Cardenio), by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Cardenio is a famous lost Shakespeare play based on a chapter in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

There has been much controversy about whether or not Double Falsehood is really based on Cardenio, but the consensus now is that Double Falsehood is based on a play written by Fletcher and an unknown author. A recent essay claimed that that unknown author is Shakespeare.

The Arden Shakespeare Series of books recently added this play to the Shakespeare canon, causing quite a bit of controversy.

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The Stupidity of Conservatism

The essence of conservatism: It was always better yesterday than today.

Against the malign domination of the present by the past Mr. Sinclair directs his principal assault. In the arts he sees the dead hand holding the classics on their thrones and thrusting back new masterpieces as they appear; in religion he sees it clothing the visions of ancient poets in steel creeds and rituals and denying that such visions can ever come to later spirits; in human society he sees it welding the manacles of caste and hardening this or that temporary pattern of life to a perpetual order.

– Carl Van Doren, Contemporary American Novelists (1900-1920), 1922, on Upton Sinclair, American revolutionary author and socialist.

How foolish. Clocks go forwards, not backwards, you silly people.

That quote is from a very famous book by the way. Van Doren was a great critic who lived around the turn of the century. That book is famous because it resurrected Moby Dick and Herman Melville. When Moby Dick first came out, it was met with bafflement. Nobody quite new what to make of this doorstop. His other books met much of the same uncomprehending annoyance.

So there they sat, the greatest American books of their time, for over a half century. A full 70 years had passed since Van Doren rose Moby Dick from the grave in the stacks and second hand stores. The book set off a Melville Revival which has not abated yet. There is a Melville Society and even an entire journal dedicated to Melville.

If you have never read anything by Melville, now is the time to start. If you can handle him, that is. He is not an easy writer, and if anything’s beyond highbrow, it’s that one great whale of a tale for which is remembered.

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The Doctor Diagnoses the Bard

Dr. Samuel Johnson weighs in his verdict on Shakespeare’s flaws. Now to be fair I should note that in this same essay, Johnson also praises him to the skies, and I believe he says he is the greatest of all writers. But any criticism of Shakespeare is interesting. There is one point we need to note. How many people have written essays or books extolling the greatness of Shakespeare in one way or another? Can we even count them. The cynic might say that if you write a piece praising Shakespeare, nobody is going to read it as it’s old hat. But criticizing Shakespeare? That’s not something that’s often done! So many some of these critics were just trying to get eye mileage out of novelty.

Anyway, this is a gorgeous piece of writing from England before the American Revolution by one of the finest writers of our time.

I changed some of the archaic English, but I left in most of the British spelling.

Shakespeare with his excellencies has likewise faults, and faults sufficient to obscure and overwhelm any other merit. I shall show them in the proportion in which they appear to me, without envious malignity or superstitious veneration. No question can be more innocently discussed than a dead poet’s pretensions to renown; and little regard is due to that bigotry which sets candour higher than truth.

His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.

From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent on time or place.

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight
consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end of his work, and, in view of his reward, he shortened the labour to snatch the profit. He therefore remits his efforts where he should most vigorously exert them, and his catastrophe is improbably produced or imperfectly represented.

He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at the expense not only of likelihood, but of possibility. These faults  Pope has endeavoured, with more zeal than judgment, to transfer to his imagined interpolators. We need not wonder to find Hector quoting Aristotle, when we see the loves of  Theseus and  Hippolyta combined with the Gothic mythology of fairies.

Shakespeare, indeed, was not the only violator of chronology, for in the same age Sidney, who wanted not the advantages of learning, has, in his Arcadia, confounded the pastoral with the feudal times, the days of innocence, quiet and security, with those of turbulence, violence, and adventure.

In his comic scenes he is seldom very successful, when he engages his characters in reciprocations of smartness and contests of sarcasm; their jests are commonly gross, and their pleasantry licentious; neither his gentlemen nor his ladies have much delicacy, nor are sufficiently distinguished from his clowns by any appearance of refined manners.

Whether he represented the real conversation of his time is not easy to determine; the reign of Elizabeth is commonly supposed to have been a time of stateliness, formality and reserve; yet perhaps the relaxations of that severity were not very elegant. There must, however, have been always some modes of gayety preferable to others, and a writer ought to choose the best.

In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetic; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumor, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.

In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction, and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatic poetry is naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour.

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragic writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.

Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.

But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetic without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terror and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished.

A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

It will be thought strange, that, in enumerating the defects of this writer, I have not yet mentioned his neglect of the unities: his violation of those laws which have been instituted and established by the joint authority of poets and critics.

For his other deviations from the art of writing I resign him to critical justice, without making any other demand in his favour, than that which must be indulged to all human excellence: that his virtues be rated with his failings: But, from the censure which this irregularity may bring upon him, I shall, with due reverence to that learning which I must oppose, adventure to try how I can defend him.

His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies are not subject to any of their laws; nothing more is necessary to all the praise which they expect, than that the changes of action be so prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters consistent, natural, and distinct. No other unity is intended, and therefore none is to be sought.

In his other works he has well enough preserved the unity of action. He has not, indeed, an intrigue regularly perplexed and regularly unraveled: he does not endeavour to hide his design only to discover it, for this is seldom the order of real events, and Shakespeare is the poet of nature: But his plan has commonly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; one event is concatenated with another, and the conclusion follows by easy consequence.

There are perhaps some incidents that might be spared, as in other poets there is much talk that only fills up time upon the stage; but the general system makes gradual advances, and the end of the play is the end of expectation.

– Samuel Johnson, Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1765.

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What Makes a Classic?

Dr. Johnson asks this question in his preface to Shakespeare (1765):

That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honours due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox; or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time.

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity.

The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can he applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared; and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour.

As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep, or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains, and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective ability of man, as it is discovered in a long succession of endeavours.

Of the first building that was raised, it might be with certainty determined that it was round or square; but whether it was spacious or lofty must have been referred to time. The Pythagorean scale of numbers was at once discovered to be perfect; but the poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence, but by remarking, that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new-name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost; and every topic of merriment, or motive of sorrow, which the modes of artificial life afforded him, now only obscure the scenes which they once illuminated.

The effects of favour and competition are at an end; the tradition of his friendships and his enemies has perished; his works support no opinion with arguments, nor supply any faction with invectives; they can neither indulge vanity nor gratify malignity; but are read without any other reason than the desire of pleasure, and are therefore praised only as pleasure is obtained; yet, thus unassisted by interest or passion, they have past through variations of taste and changes of manners, and, as they devolved from one generation to another, have received new honours at every transmission.

But because human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible; and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion; it is proper to inquire, by what peculiarities of excellence  Shakespeare has gained and kept the favour of his countrymen.

The answer, of course, is time, the test of time, but I have never heard anyone put it quite so nicely.

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Shakespeare’s Haters

From an appendix to Tolstoy’s A Critical Essay on Shakespeare. I have not read this essay yet, but apparently Tolstoy slams the Bard good and hard. This shocked me because I thought Shakespeare was beloved by all great literary figures all over the world and down through time, as he ought to be. Apparently this is not so at all. The criticism here is not directed at his art or his talent as a writer but apparently more at his role as a thinker and philosopher, in which some find him most wanting.

Another essay appears in the appendix of this volume, Shakespeare’s Attitude towards the Working Classes, by Ernest Crosby, who seems to be some sort of a socialist or leftwinger. This had never occurred to me before, but from the opening lines of his essay, Crosby sets about pounding the life out of Shakespeare for his reactionary, ruling class, near feudal mindset and his utter contempt for the masses, peasants and working classes.

This all makes sense when we learn what a tightwad and miser Shakespeare was that he even shafted his own family in his will, pinched pennies everywhere, filed endless lawsuits against acquaintances trying to recover petty amounts of cash, and perhaps worst or all but exemplary of his feudal mindset, hoarded food during a famine. During famines, food hoarding is considered a near-capital offense. If you are found to be hoarding food, a mob will raid your food, take all of it, beat you up in the process and quite possibly kill you. The law in famines is share or die.

So it seems that as with so many great artists and thinkers, Shakespeare was a nasty little bug of a man, while at the same time, I believe he was one of the greatest writers in English or perhaps any language of all time. A lot of artists were great artists but terrible humans. Sort of goes with the territory, sad to say. It’s well known that Dostoevsky was a miserable fellow, but he was also such a bastard some of his greatest contemporaries refused to attend his funeral.

I find it fascinating the Nicholas Rowe and especially Dr. Johnson pounded the Bard a few new ones.

Lord Byron and William Morris took Shakespeare to town? Wow. Morris makes sense as he was a socialist, but Byron?

And Voltaire, who earlier in life was a Shakespeare fanatic, grew to hate him more and more as he aged and presumably wised up? Unbelievable.

I am sorry to say that I am not familiar with the gist of these Bard slams is all about, but the fact that they exist at all is amazing. Perhaps there is more to Man from Avon than meets the eye, and it’s not all good. I am actually shocked. It’s hard to see a lifelong hero crumble right in front your eyes. Downright painful.

Letter from George Bernard Shaw to Leo Tolstoy (Extracts)

As you know, I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him…

The preface to my Three Plays for Puritans contains a section headed Better than Shakespeare? which is, I think, the only utterance of mine on the subject to be found in a book…

There is at present in the press a new preface to an old novel of mine called The Irrational Knot. In that preface I define the first order in Literature as consisting of those works in which the author, instead of accepting the current morality and religion ready-made without any question as to their validity, writes from an original moral standpoint of his own, thereby making his book an original contribution to morals, religion, and sociology, as well as to belles letters.

I place Shakespeare with Dickens, Scott, Dumas père, etc., in the second order, because, though they are enormously entertaining, their morality is ready-made; and I point out that the one play, Hamlet, in which Shakespeare made an attempt to give as a hero one who was dissatisfied with the ready-made morality, is the one which has given the highest impression of his genius, although Hamlet’s revolt is unskillfully and inconclusively suggested and not worked out with any philosophic competence.

May I suggest that you should be careful not to imply that Tolstoy’s great Shakespearean heresy has no other support than mine. The preface of Nicholas Rowe to his edition of Shakespeare, and the various prefaces of Dr. Johnson contain, on Rowe’s part, an apology for him as a writer with obvious and admitted shortcomings (very ridiculously ascribed by Rowe to his working by “a mere light of nature”), and, on Johnson’s, a good deal of downright hard-hitting criticism.

You should also look up the history of the Ireland forgeries, unless, as is very probable, Tolstoy has anticipated you in this.

Among nineteenth-century poets, Byron and William Morris saw clearly that Shakespeare was enormously overrated intellectually.

A French book, which has been translated into English, has appeared within the last ten years, giving Napoleon’s opinions on drama. His insistence on the superiority of Corneille to Shakespeare on the ground of Corneille’s power of grasping a political situation, and of seeing men in their relation to the state, is interesting.

Of course you know about Voltaire’s criticisms, which are the more noteworthy because Voltaire began with an extravagant admiration for Shakespeare, and got more and more bitter against him as he grew older and less disposed to accept artistic merit as a cover for philosophic deficiencies.

Finally, I, for one, shall value Tolstoy’s criticism all the more because it is criticism of a foreigner who can not possibly be enchanted by the mere word-music which makes Shakespeare so irresistible in England. In Tolstoy’s estimation, Shakespeare must fall or stand as a thinker, in which capacity I do not think he will stand a moment’s examination from so tremendously keen a critic and religious realist.

Unfortunately, the English worship their great artists quite indiscriminately and abjectly; so that is quite impossible to make them understand that Shakespeare’s extraordinary literary power, his fun, his mimicry, and the endearing qualities that earned him the title of “the gentle Shakespeare” – all of which, whatever Tolstoy may say, are quite unquestionable facts – do not stand or fall with his absurd reputation as a thinker.

Tolstoy will certainly treat that side of his reputation with the severity it deserves; and you will find that the English press will instantly announce that Tolstoy considers his own works greater than Shakespeare’s (which in some respects they most certainly are, by the way), and that he has attempted to stigmatize our greatest poet as a liar, thief, forger, murderer, incendiary, drunkard, libertine, fool, madman, coward, vagabond, and even a man of questionable gentility.

You must not be surprised or indignant at this: it is what is called “dramatic criticism” in England and America. Only a few of the best of our journalist-critics will say anything worth reading on the subject.

Yours faithfully,

G. Bernard Shaw

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The Roots of Nazism

Amazing. That is straight out of Mein Kampf. The road from 1855 to 1940 is short indeed. As you can see, the Nazi project had roots going back quite some ways in German history. The destruction of the Jews and subjugation of Poles and other Slavs had been seen as the historical mission of the German people for nearly a century before Hitler embarked on his rampages. So you see that historical actors seldom act alone but instead they are merely the latest players in long-running cultural productions which often started long before their time.

In that sense, Nazism was not alien to German culture at all; instead it was integral to it, and Hitler was simply fulfilling the destiny of the German people.

From Wikipedia:

Gustav Freytag’s literary fame was made universal by the publication in 1855 of his novel, Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit), which was translated into almost all European languages. It was translated into English by Georgiana Harcourt in 1857.

It was hailed as one of the best German novels and praised for its sturdy but unexaggerated realism. Its main purpose is the championing of the German middle class as the soundest element in the nation, but it also has a more directly patriotic intent in the contrast it draws between the supposedly homely virtues of the Germans, while presenting Poles and Jews in a negative light.

In the novel a Jewish merchant is presented as a villain and a threat to Germany. German colonists are presented as “superior” to “wild”, “inferior” and “uncivilized” Poles who are also sometimes depicted sometimes in racist terms.

The novel affirmed the claim of German “masters” to seize the land of the “weaker race” and justified this seizure by supposedly “superior” German culture. The novel applied blatant racism to Slavs while focusing on Poles; the author stated that Poles have “no culture” and are unable to create civilization. Freytag also claimed that Poles will only become proper human beings through German rule and colonization and giving up their language and culture.

Soll und Haben set an example for a body of colonial literature about “eastern marches” and also started a public reinterpretation of the Ostsiedlung, which was now presented as the historical mission of the Germans (Kulturtrager), legitimizing continued the occupation of Polish areas and suppression of the Polish population.

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Original Language Titles and Translated Titles in Literary Criticism

Let us look at the novels of great French novelist Emile Zola.

The first series is the list of novels with their original French titles. The second series is the list of novels with the names of their most popular English translations. Novels which did not have an English translation were not included.

Questions:

1. When an English speaker is referring to Zola’s novels in an article on the Internet, which would be the best way to name any given book, with its French title or with its English title? Everyone reading the article would be an English speaker, but a number of them would be second language speakers from other countries, mostly in Europe.

Justify your choice.

2. Which would be the best way to describe any given book for a piece in a English language magazine in the US where most all readers would be English first language speakers, with its English title or with its French title?

Justify your choice.

As an added question, which types of titles of books in foreign languages would translate most easily into English? That is, which types book titles would be most likely to translate into English best without changing the name of the book.

Justify your choice.

List of Zola’s novels in French

La Confession de Claude
Les Mystères de Marseille
Thérèse Raquin
Madeleine Férat
Nouveaux Contes à Ninon
Jacques Damour
Les Rougon-Macquart

La Fortune des Rougon
La Curée
Le Ventre de Paris
La Conquête de Plassans
La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon
L’Assommoir
Une Page d’amour
Nana
Pot-Bouille
Au Bonheur des Dames
La Joie de Vivre
Germinal
L’Œuvre
La Terre
Le Rêve
La Bête Humaine
L’Argent
La Débâcle
Le Docteur Pascal

Les Trois Villes

Lourdes
Rome
Paris

Les Quatre Évangiles

Fécondité
Travail
Vérité
Justice

List of Zola’s novels in English.

The Confession of Claude
The Mysteries of Marseille
Therese Raquin
Madeleine Férat
New Tales for Ninon
Jacques Damour

The Rougon-Macquart series

The Fortune of the Rougons
The Quarry
The Belly of Paris
The Conquest of Plassans
The Sins of Father Mouret
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon
The Dram Shop
A Page of Love
Nana
Pot Luck
The Ladies’ Paradise
The Joy of Life
Germinal
His Masterpiece
Earth
The Dream
The Human Beast
Money
The Downfall
Dr. Pascal

The Three Cities

Lourdes
Rome
Paris

The Four Gospels

Fertility
Work
Truth
Justice

By the way, if have not read any of Zola, the best books are considered to be Nana, Germinal, Father Moure’s Sin, Therese Raquin and The Human Beast, but anything in the Rougon-Marquart series and in the two final series, The Three Cities and The Four Gospels, is worth your time.

Zola wrote in the late 1800’s, mostly set his books in Paris, and was the founder of a literary movement called Naturalism.

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Greatest Comic Series Ever?

This city is afraid of me…I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”

They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father or President Truman. Decent men who believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn’t realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late. Don’t tell me they didn’t have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody Hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers… and all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say.

Walter Joseph Kovacs/Rorschach

While we are at it with the superlatives, how about greatest graphic novel ever too?

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“The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts,” by Dota

New essay from Dota. Very nice!

The Taoist Influence on Japanese Martial Arts

By Dota

The Japanese Samurai Miyamoto Musashi acknowledged a number of influences on Japanese thought, chief among which were Confucianism and Buddhism. Yet not once does he directly mention the Old Master whose philosophy is so entrenched in the martial arts that the Samurai once pursued with inexhaustible zeal. Yet despite this seeming negligence, Mushashi’s epic martial arts treatise, “A Book of 5 Rings“, is laden with Taoist ideas and analogies. Indeed the very nature of the Japanese martial arts has been shaped and molded by Taoist thinking.

In the interest of brevity one can sum up Taoist thought as being primarily concerned with conforming to nature by finding “the way.” According to the very first verse of the Tao te Ching (the poem attributed to Lao Tzu): “The Tao (way) that can be described is not the real Tao.” Indeed, Lao Tzu devoted considerable energy into conveying the indescribable nature of the way. One could not describe the way, one merely walked it or one didn’t. Could one verbally instruct another on how to ride a bicycle? One either knew how to or didn’t.

Philosopher Arthur Danto astutely observed that the Taoists had a deep mistrust of prepositional knowledge, or what one would refer to as the discursive intellect. Taoism isn’t concerned with the knowledge of the scholar, but rather, with what we would refer to as “intuitive knowledge.” Those that knew the way were able to execute the perfect brush stroke or carve a pumpkin with exceptional ability.

To further illustrate this point, Chuang Tzu narrates the story of the old wheel maker. The latter approached a King and told him that reading his book was a waste of time. He explained to the King that true knowledge couldn’t be expressed in words but could only be grasped. He illustrated this point by describing his own trade as thus:

The other secret of my trade has to do with the roundness of the wheel. If I chisel away at the wheel too quickly, I may be able to complete the work in a short time, but the wheel won’t be perfectly round. Even though it may look quite acceptable upon casual inspection, in actual usage it will cause excessive shaking of the carriage…In order to create the best wheels possible in a timely manner, I must chisel at just the right speed – not too fast and not too slow. This speed is also guided by a feeling, which again can only be acquired through many years of experience.

He then concluded his lesson with the following observation:

Your Majesty, the ancient sages possessed the feelings that were at the heart of their mastery. Using words, they could set down the mechanics of their mastery in the form of books, but just as it is impossible for me to pass on my experience to anyone else, it is equally impossible for them to transmit their essence of wisdom to you. Their feelings died when they passed away. The only things they left behind were their words. This is why I said Your Majesty was reading the leftovers of a dead man.

Karate is taught via instruction and perfected through rigorous practice. Form, movement, and balance can be learned by executing a sequence of gestures and movements known as Kata. The master guides the student to the way but the student is tasked with walking on it and not deviating from it. In the first Karate Kid film Mr Miyagi scoffs at Daniel Larusso’s attempt to “learn Karate from book.” Musashi similarly stated in his treatise that “Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively,” (Water Book).

But what is the difference between those men that follow the way and those that don’t? Those that follow the way properly are able to execute actions with minimal effort. But while effort is minimized the outcome of their actions is maximized.

This is known as the principle of WuWei (literally non doing). WuWei is also often understood as carefully calibrated action. Consider for example, a perfectly executed Karate shoulder throw. By using a lunging opponents force against him, one can disable an opponent with a shoulder throw; a move that would ordinarily require considerable effort to execute. Actions become effortless for those that know the way.

Musashi’s duels typically lasted only a few seconds. Consider his duel with Kojiro for example. He charged at his opponent and provoked Kojiro into making the first attack. Musashi effortlessly dodged the attack and decisively struck his opponent on the head killing him in a single blow. Musashi almost echoes Lao Tzu when he urges martial artists to be like water which is gentle yet destructive. It is the principle of WuWei that gives the Japanese martial arts their characteristic finesse that many have come to admire. The ancient masters would be repulsed by the drawn out UFC slug fests and would dismiss these fighters as not truly knowing the way.

The Japanese word for way is michi, which literally refers to a path through the Cosmos. The Way has no destination, and simply finding the way is an end in itself. Since Taoism is primarily concerned with each pursuing his own way, it stands to reason that every one of us is (potentially) a wanderer. The wanderer is also a common motif in Taoist art – he who walks a path without apparent destination.

I must point out that many of Japan’s cherished heroes were wanderers too, such as Musashi and Yagyu Jubei. Both of these individuals refused to hang up their swords and become artisans during the largely peaceful Tokugawa Period of Japanese history. They wandered the countryside (the Samurai had no restrictions on travel) and dueled several opponents that crossed their paths.

Musashi is said to have won 80 duels during his lifetime. So entrenched is the image of the wandering martial artist that it has left its imprint on contemporary Japanese pop culture as well. The characters Ryu and Akuma of the Street Fighter franchise are wanderers pursuing the way of the martial artist. In a statement saturated with Taoist overtones Akuma proclaims: “For some, it is the path, not the goal,” (Street Fighter Alpha 1).

Ultimately, while the spirit of the Japanese martial arts is obviously Japanese, their character is clearly Chinese.

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