Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

"The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us."

I read this book for the Classics Club Spin #11.  Was it my spin book?  No, it was Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses, and Prejudices spin book but I decided to read along with her.  Why?  Well, her book was much shorter than my Spin book, and I couldn't imagine getting through God in the Dock in the allotted time frame.  Yes, I'm breaking the rules, but it's on my Classics Club list, AND at least I read something!

The unidentified Time Traveller has built a machine that he believes will transport him through time.  After he explains to his dinner guests the concept of his invention, he puts it into practice, returning the next week to regal them with the fantastic details of his adventure.

Having sent himself to 802,701 A.D., he encounters a race called the Eloi, a diminutive race that behaves in the manner of small, wide-eyed children, even though they are of adult growth.  They live an uncomplicated life of leisure, simply eating and resting, and having no initiative or curiosity to speak of. Expecting some sort of greatly evolved being living in the future, the Time Traveller experiences disappointment and puzzlement at their almost backward evolution, wondering how their lackadaisical way of life is supported. But the Traveller's perplexity turns to dread as his machine mysteriously disappears.  Pursing the theft using reason and action, he eventually discovers another race, living in the depths of the earth; the Morlocks, hideous, pale, savage, troglodyte-like creatures who are in possession of his time machine. Unlike the Eloi land dwellers, these cavernous people exhibit an industry and an ability to reason, but in a primitive way that is only based on their survival. The Traveller discovers that they are providing the means for the Eloi's rather vacuous paradisical existence using underground tools and machinery, yet they are also the predators of their parasitical neighbours, catching them for food during the night.  Eventually, he concocts a plan to retrieve his machine, his only link with human society, his only means of returning to a civilized world.

Source Wikipedia

Trained as a biologist, Wells developed an interest in Darwinism, and the significance of evolution is apparent in this work.  The Eloi and the Morlocks, descendents of the human race, are presented as two species that have evolved on completely different tracks, separated by social oppression and elitism.  The Traveller observes:

"Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people ---- due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor ---- is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land ........  And this same widening gulf --- which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich ---- will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along line of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour ...."

The Traveller had expected unprecedented progress, but instead found a degeneration on each side, of intelligence, empathy, mercy, discipline, respect, etc., in fact most qualities which make us human.

Wells, a commited socialist, was extrapolating some of the problems faced in his own time, such as the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and hatred or disdain along the same class lines.  But instead of the poor simply being oppressed by the rich, Wells takes it a step further; the rich, in their mindless indulgence, become the prey.  Wells intended to communicate not only these innate problems in society but the lack of success of the solutions that communism and utopian socialism offered for the betterment of society. It's a very bleak picture of the future.

C.S. Lewis loved Wells' fiction as a boy, but as he matured and his tastes became more discerning, he began to see cracks in their veneer.  While he praised Wells for his original thought, and his desire to tackle the bigger questions, he found the works "thin" and "lacking the roughness and density of life."  I'm by no means a Wells expert, but so far I'd agree with that assessment.  The book's plot is entertaining but rather simple, lacking any subtleties or true character development.  His characters often work on an elementary level, to illustrate the questions, but without being imbued with a life of their own.  The questions themselves, while compelling, are treated quite swiftly, with the narrator often chronicling the issues instead of the reader becoming intimate with the characters and absorbing dilemma through their actions.  While the pace might be useful for a movie, it doesn't really give the reader time to process, so the ideas thump around in our heads a little but there is no true contemplating of them that leads to a greater understanding, or development that leads to possible solutions.

Ruth from A Great Book Study was also reading The Time Machine at the same time as Cirtnecce and I, so I'm including both of their insightful reviews below.

Further Reading:

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Metamorphoses - Book IV

Book IV

The Daughters of Minyas / Pyramus & Thisbe / Mars, Venus, Vulcan, the Sun / Leucothoe & Clytie / Salmacis & Hermaphroditus / The Daughters of Minyas / Athamas & Ino / Cadmus & Harmonia / Acrisius / Perseus & Atlas Perseus & Andromeda / Perseus & Medusa

Minyas' daughter Alcithoe and her sisters disdain Bacchus' revelries and deride the god. The daughters of Minyas sit at home during the festivities, and as they weave their cloth, they also weave stories as they work, carefully choosing their tales.

Thisbe (1909)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikipedia
Handsome Pyramus lives next door to Thisbe, a girl as charming as she is lovely. Forbidden to marry by their parents, they can only converse through a crack in the wall between their two abodes.  One day, they devise a plan to meet outside the city beside Ninus' tomb, beneath the mulberry tree.  Thisbe reaches the rendezvous first, but is startled by a prowling lioness who has just finished feeding.  Terrified, she flees but drops her shawl, and the lioness, finding it, worries it in her jaws.  When Pyramus arrives and finds the bloodstained garment, he is engulfed in despair.  Wishing to join his love, he thrusts his dagger into his abdomen, and the blood seeping from him is drawn by the roots of the mulberry tree, turning its white berries a dark red.  When Thisbe returns to find Pyramus fading into death, she too stabs herself, claiming that the berries of the mulberry will be a sign of this tragic conclusion.  The gods grant her wish.

Clytie (1687)
Charles de la Fosse
source Wikimedia Commons
Sister Leuconoe begins another story in which the Sun is a witness to the adulterous liaison between Venus and Mars.  When the husband of Venus, Vulcan is informed, he fashions chains of very thin bronze into a net, and snares the lovers during their next meeting.  Yet now Venus is hungry for revenge on the Sun and causes him to fall in love with Leucothoe.  Disguising himself as Eurynome, he gains entrance to her room and she submits, but her sister, Clytie, is jealous and informs their father.  Incensed and deaf to Leucothoe's pleas of rape, he has her buried alive, but the Sun in his grief, leaves a sweet nectar around her body, turning it into a shrub of sweet incense.  Clytie is shunned by the sun and as she sits day by day in the same spot without food or drink, she transforms into a pale, yet also reddish plant (heliotrope).

Alcithoe takes over the storytelling, revealing that in the caves of Ida, a boy was raised called Hermaphroditus.  One day, he is passing by a pool and the nymph Salmacis, a lazy nymph who never joined Diana's active company, spots him and decides that she must have him.  Engaging him in conversation, her words become more suggestive, and Hermaphroditus warns her to cease or he'll leave.  Instead, she relinquishes the spot, disappearing into the bushes, but watches him as he decides to bath in the pool's clear waters.  At last she has him, plunging into the pool and wrapping around him like a serpent, in spite of his struggles to spurn her.  Finally they become one, emerging as both and neither a man or woman.  Distraught, Hermaphroditus prays that the pool will have the same effect on anyone who enters it.  I'm not certain why, as the experience seemed most unpleasant!

Suddenly a roar is heard and Bacchus and his merrymakers arrive.  Suddenly their weaving mutates into twining grapevines, and while the daughters of Minyas rush to seek refuge, they shrink and transform into squeaking, shrieking bats, often called Vesperites.

Athamas taken by the Furies (1801)
Arcangelo Migliarini
source Wikimedia Commons
The reputation of Bacchus grows, and his aunt Ino sings his praises.  She is very proud of her husband, Athamas, and of her lovely children, but envy is brewing in the breast of Juno who travels to Hades as part of her plotting. Curiously, we find the daughters of Danaus here, who had apparently married their fifty "Egyptus" cousins, then murdered them and, in Hades, are endlessly filling cracked jars for their crime.  (In Aeschylus' The Suppliant Maidens, they had evaded their cousins and were under the protection of King Pelasgus of Argos).  In any case, Juno summons the Furies, Ixion, Sisyphus and Tisiphone, to do her bidding.  Tisiphone arrives in Thebes with Sorrow, Terror, Dread and Madness at her side, terrifying Athamas and Ino with her serpent locks and, infusing them with a venomous potion, leaves them to go insane. Athamas, seeing his wife as a lioness, attacks her and the children.  Grabbing his son, Learchus, he whirls him around, dashing his head against the rocks. Ino is distraught and, clutching her son, Melicerta, she climbs a promontory near the sea, calling on Bacchus for help.  In her madness, she leaps from the top with her son, and Venus in her pity, begs Neptune to transform them into sea deities, Leucothoe and Palaemon.  He grants her wish.  The Theban women, friends of Ino, mourn her fate and Juno transfigures them into rocks and birds.

Unbeknownst to Cadmus that his daughter and grandson are now sea deities, he and Harmonia leave Thebes in sadness and suffering until they reach the region of Illyria.  He requests that if the snake whose teeth he had scattered on the ground had been sacred, that he too assume such a shape.  As he begins to change, Harmonia cries out, asking to join her husband and both of them become serpents, but ones who remember who they were.  Ironically Cadmus becomes what he used to start his kingdom.

Acrisius, from the line of Belus instead of Agenor, defies Bacchus and also, in his stubborn resolve, denies that Perseus was born of Jove in a shower of gold.  But soon the king reverses these claims.  Perseus, at this time, is flying over the deserts of Libya, carrying the Gorgon's head, which is dripping rivulets of blood, and as each drop hits the sand it metamorphoses into a snake.  This is why Libya is infested with snakes.

Atlas and the Hesperides (1925)
John Singer Sargent
source Wikimedia Commons
From Libya, Perseus comes to Hesperia, the land of Altas, who raises sheep and cultivates a golden orchard.  Perseus, asking if he might rest from his travels, is blatantly refused hospitality by Atlas.  A prophecy has reached his ears, of a despoiling of his golden orchard by a son of Jove.  Perseus is annoyed with the refusal and struggles with the giant, but knowing that eventually his strength with be of no match, holds up the head of Medusa. Immediately Atlas is changed into an enormous, rugged mountain.

Perseus & Andromeda (1867-69)
Gustave Moreau
source Wikiart
Perseus continues his journey, intending to pass over Ethiopia until he spies a woman, Andromeda, tied to a rock.  Descending, he inquires of the maiden's plight, discovering her punishment is for her mother's boast of her own loveliness. Suddenly, a sea monster, Ammon, rises from the ocean, and her parents, Cepheus and Cassiope, plead for assistance, which Perseus promises in exchange for their daughter's hand in marriage.  High up in the sky, Perseus rushes, then downward, plunging his sword into the monster again and again.  Victorious, he places the head of Medusa onto a bed of seaweed, which soaks up the power of the Gorgon, and transforms to coral.

The wedding celebrations now begin, yet one of Cepheus' lords requests Perseus to recount the story of the Gorgon's head.  Perseus describes how he travelled beneath Atlas, took the one eye of the Graeae sisters, and advanced until he found Medusa and her sister, Gorgons.  Using the Graeae eye in one hand for sight, he turned his own gaze away and lopped off Medusa's head.  When asked why, of the two sisters, only Medusa had snakes for hair, he relates that she once had been a beauty renowned for her gorgeous hair, yet the Ruler of the Sea raped her in Minerva's sanctuary, and the goddess made Medusa pay for her crime by turning her lovely hair into serpents.

Perseus and the Graiae
Edward Burne-Jones
source Wikiart

The Geneaology of the Argives


Boys  ❥  mute fishes
Naiad  ❥  fish
Mulberry = white berries  ❥  dark berries
Leucothoe  ❥  shrub of sweet incense
Clytie  ❥ part pale, part reddish plant (Heliotrope)
Hermanphroditus + Salmacis  ❥  hermaphrodite
Weaving  ❥  grapevines
Sisters  ❥  bats
Ino & son  ❥  Palaemon & Leucothoe (sea dieties)
Theban women  ❥  rocks & birds
Cadmus & Harmonia  ❥  serpents
Drops of blood  ❥  snakes
Altas  ❥  mountain
Seaweed  ❥  coral
Men & animals  ❥  stone
Medusa's hair  ❥  snakes

Links to my other posts:

Metamorphoses:  Book I / Book II / Book III

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

On Reading 'The Faerie Queene' by C.S. Lewis

"Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one's first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large --- and, preferably, illustrated --- edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen; and if, even at that age, certain of the names aroused unidentified memories of some still earlier, some almost prehistoric, commerce with a selection of 'Stories from Spenser', heard before we could read, so much the better."

A number of us are going to be reading The Fairie Queene beginning sometime in April and, considering the difficulty of the poem, I decided to do some pre-reading investigation.

Although C.S. Lewis is known for his books on theology, his actual expertise was in Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He has a number of essays relating to The Fairie Queene, and when I stumbled on this one, I thought it a perfect beginning.

Lewis writes that the optimal experience with The Faire Queene is created if one reads it between the ages of 10 and 16, with a large illustrated edition and then grow with the work, starting with mere wonder at the story and advancing to a critical appreciation of it, cultivating a relationship with the work that will remain and flourish throughout life.  But while advocating this process, Lewis realizes many may come to The Faerie Queene later in life, and he is writing to give guidance to the mature reader with his first experience of this great work.

Una and the Lion (c. 1860)
William Bell Scott
source Wikimedia Commons

Lewis instructions begin very simply; as the child does, one must begin with The Faerie Queene.  Next, even if one does not have a large illustrated edition, one should imagine the book they do have to be a heavy volume that should be read at a table, "a massy, antique story with a blackletter flavour about it --- a book for devout, prolonged, and leisurely perusal."  The illustrations would be not only fantastic and beautiful, but also wicked and ugly.  While the book is new, it is also old, ancient yet original.

"All this new growth sprouts out of an old, gnarled wood, and, as in very early spring, mists it over in places without concealing it .............  And it is best to begin with a taste for homespun, accepting the cloth of gold when it comes, but by no means depending on it for your pleasure, or you will be disappointed ...."

Lewis reveals that Spenser's friends wanted him to conform to the Puritan perspective of the time, being only a "servile classicist", yet his poetry appeared to naturally break out of this mould.  After being cautioned by a his friend on touching too closely on papist and medieval themes by his references to "Ladies of the Lake" and "friendly fairies" in his poetry, Spenser remained true to the natural appreciation he harboured for the Middle Ages, and taking "all his renaissance accomplishments with him", produced The Faerie Queene.  In blending the two ages, Spenser in effect "became something between the last of the medieval poets and the first of the romantic medievalists."

As a child one may have a uncomfortable feeling that one has met many of The Faerie Queene's characters before, but as a mature reader one has the apprehension to discover the moral allegory within the work.  While critics aren't in agreement as to how much emphasis should be placed on it, it is not necessary to analyze the poet's exact meaning.  Instead we should simply have an impression of regions within the poem that are not always what they seem.

Lewis ends with William Butler Yeat's quote on Spenser's House of Busirane, saying that Spenser's characters are "so visionary, so full of ghostly midnight animation, that one is persuaded tht they had some strange purpose and did truly appear in just that way."

And so I can now step into Spenser's world with a little more imagination and expectation.  I've already been exposed to the world of King Arthur and so I'm looking forward to some more fantastical adventures.  And honestly, a few fairies would be very welcome.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare

From off a hill whose concave womb re-worded
A plaintful story from a sistering vale,
My spirits t'attend this double voice accorded,
And down laid to list the sad-tuned tale;
Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale,
Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain,
Storming her world with sorrow's wind and rain

This "fickle maid" relates her story, a story of love unrequited, but as she describes her inner conflict, we receive a vision of the maid, no longer young:

"Whereupon the thought might think sometime it saw
The carcass of a beauty spent and done;
Time had not scythed all that youth begun,
Nor youth all quit; but, spite of heaven's fell rage,
Some beauty peept through lattice of sear'd age."

Crying despondently and wiping her eyes with a handkerchief, the maid tells a respectable man, who is grazing his cattle nearby, of her troubles.  

"Not age, but sorrow, over me hath power;
I might as yet have been a spreading flower, 
Fresh to myself, if I had self-applied
Love to myself, and to no love beside."

She fell in love with a young man with a silken tongue and enchanting brown curls, who stole her heart in spite of other more questionable qualities.  

"His qualities were beauteous as his form,
For maiden-tongued he was, and thereof free;
Yet, if men moved him, was he such a storm
As oft twixt May and April to see,
When winds breathe sweet, unruly though they be.
His rudeness so with his authorized youth
Did livery falseness in a pride of truth."

She "gave him all my flower," without being demanding of him like others.  She claimed that "mine honour shielded" but she became an "amorous spoil." Even though she knew of his other women, of his "foul beguiling" and of his illegitimate children, still she is taken in by his false charm.  Yet, in spite of this sorrow that is a burden to her heart, she claims that she would be captivated by him all over again.

O, that infected moisture of his eyes,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow'd,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy  lungs bestow'd,
O, all that borrow'd motion seeming ow'd,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray'd,
And new pervert a reconciled maid.

Young Woman in a Straw Hat (1901)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
source Wikiart

Popular in medieval and renaissance times, this "complaint poem" is written in rhyme royal (ababbcc), with seven lines per stanza in iambic pentameter, which I just encountered while recently reading The Brubury Tales (in The Feet's Prologue), a take on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  Because this style was unusual for Shakespeare, some critics question his authorship, yet there are parts of the poem that certainly echo of Shakespeare, and coincidentially the first stanza is very close to the first stanza of The Rape of Lucrece.

As for figures of speech, the following are included in the poem:  alliteration, anaphora, hyperbole, metaphor, paradox, personification and simile.  Could I identify them all on the first read?  No, but that means that I'll have to read it again!

Deal Me In Challenge #4 

Friday, 22 January 2016

The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus

"Zeus Protector, protect us with care,
From the subtle sand of the Nile delta
Our ship set sail ......."

Originally thought to be the earliest extant Greek tragedy, having been produced in 490 B.C., more recent evidence places it with a trilogy produced in 470 B.C., making it one of Aeschylus' later plays. More primitive in style than The Persians, and using the archaic practice of having the protagonist as the chorus, it's possible that Aeschylus kept it unseen for 20 years, but his motivation for this concealment would certainly be inexplicable.

The play begins with the chorus of the fifty daughters of Danaus, having recently landed in Argos after fleeing Egypt, pleading with Zeus for his favour.   In Homer's, The Odyssey (Book IX), Zeus is referred to as the protector of suppliants, and in the maidens' case, their Egyptian cousins have proposed marriage and, rather than submit, they chose to escape to the land of their ancestors.

"I sing suffering, shrieking,
Shrill and sad am weeping,
My life is dirges
And rich in lamentations,
Mine honour weeping ....."

As the maidens hold white olive branches over an altar, their father, Danaus, gives them instructions as to which gods to invoke for help for their protection. He muses that unwilling wives could not possibly be considered pure, and instructs his daughters to allow their behaviour to be guided by modesty.

Pelasgus, King of Argos, arrives with a contingent, and questions the strangers, remarking on their barbaric appearance.  Seeing the altar, his puzzlement is apparent as to their knowledge of Argive ways. The maidens reveal that they are of Argive ancestry, descendents of Io who had been seduced by Zeus, transformed into a cow to hide her from his wife Hera who sent a gadfly to torment her, and so she wandered into Egypt. (see Ovid's Metamorphosis Book I)  In spite of the importance of kinship, Pelasgus hesitates, finally deciding to take this crucial question to the people (ah, a democracy!) in spite of the maidens' pleas for his decision as king.

"You are not suppliants at my own hearth.
If the city stains the commonweal,
In common let the people work a cure.
But I would make no promises until
I share with all the citizens."

Auguste Rodin
source Wikiart

However, the question of the fate of these maidens is not so simple.  While they have no legal recourse to claim protection from the Argives, as suppliants they are invoking the protection of Zeus, and Pelasgus sympathizes with their plight.  But if he grants them shelter, Egypt is likely to declare war and can he justify the blood of his people shed for strangers?  His anxiety flows from his speeches.

"Alas! everywhere I'm gripped in strangle holds,
And like a swollen river evils flood;
Embarked on a sea of doom, uncrossed, abysmal,
Nowhere is anchorage.  If I leave
This debt unpaid, you've warned of pollution
That shall strike unerringly, but if
I stand before these walls, and bring the battle
To the very end against Egyptus'
Sons, wouldn't that become a bitter waste ---- "

Pelasgus returns to the city with Danaus to discover the people's will, but soon Danaus returns with happy tidings:  the city has voted to protect the maidens with their lives, if necessary.  The suppliants offer prayers in favour of their honoured protectors until ships are spotted in the sea, and an herald of Egypt arrives on shore to bring them home.  If they resist, they risk their own blood and decapitation.  Thus begins an exchange between the herald and maidens that is a sparring of might and justice.  The maidens are not only struggling physically with their captors, but intellectually as well.

King Pelasgus finally arrives to offer support to the women in their resistance, accusing the stranger of insolence and irreverence, yet making it very clear that it is the maidens' choice and if they don't wish to go with their Egyptus cousins, he will protect them with all his resources.  The play ends with the exit of the Herald, and Pelasgus inviting the maidens into the city, but a threat of war still hangs like a shroud over the Argives.  However, the women are satisfied:

"Lord Zeus may he deprive us
Of an ill marriage
And a bad husband,
As Io was released from ill,
Protected by a healing hand,
Kind might did cure her. ---

And strength may he assign us.
I am content if ill,
Is one-third my lot,
And justly, with my prayers,
Beside the saving arts of god,
To follow justice."

To the maidens, prayers and justice are paramount when considering their freedom.

The Danaides (1903)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikipedia

While this play certainly appears more archaic than The Persians, on the other hand, it is more intricate due to the moral and political questions that are brought to the surface and wrestled with quite effectively by King Pelasgus.  It reminded me a little of Sophocles' play, Antigone (which I haven't reviewed yet, but will eventually) where there is a question of mortal or divine right over political or societal right.  Does Pelasgus risk war in his kingdom and possibly watch his own people die, all for fifty foreigners with a tenuous connection to the land?  Or is there a bigger question: is freedom and human dignity more important than life itself?  Are preserving the importance of these ideas something that go beyond our human existence?  It's a powerful question and Aeschylus deals with it quite compellingly.

I quite like the presentation of King Pelagus, not as a powerful, dictatorial king, but as a leader who is truly concerned with what is best for his people.  His mental struggle is defined by his desire to make a just decision, not simply a lawful one.  Yet he doesn't freely throw law out the window, and his impassioned agony of choice is very compelling as he resolves to defer to the will of the people.  Yet when the Egyptians land, he is strong in his stand for what has been legally decreed, and zealously defends the maidens' personal decision.  His behaviour is parallel with King Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus where he is faced with a problem, struggles with it, yet despite possible negative ramifications, is determined to act in a just manner.

This play was somewhat difficult because of the translation, which in this case is not the translator's fault, as it is simply in a form that does not translate well into English.  Whatever its perceived problems, this play held my rapt attention and has become one of my favourites in my growing list of Greek drama.

translated by S.G. Benardete

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Metamorphoses - Book III

Book III

Cadmus / Actaeon / Semele / Tiresias / Narcissus & Echo / Pentheus

Cadmus and Minerva (17th century)
Jacob Jordaens
source Wikimedia Commons

Agenor commands Cadmus to find his sister, Europa, yet while he wanders near and far, success eludes him, until the oracle of Apollo tells him to find a heifer who has never worn a yoke and there in Boeotia, he is to build his city, Thebes.  Cadmus kills a serpent and under Minerva's orders, plants its teeth from which spring men, but warriors that, in their battle frenzy, kill each other until there are only five left: Echion and four others.  Together they build the walls of Thebes.

Cadmus' first sorrow lay in his grandson, Actaeon, who when out hunting with his friends, came across Diana bathing in a pool, and for having viewed the sacred virgin, Actaeon is transformed into a stag by the goddess.  Yet the goddess is not satisfied with such a benign punishment, he is hunted by his own hunting dogs until,

"Upon all side, his hounds have hemmed him in;
they sink their muzzles into every limb ---
the flesh of their own master in false guise
as stag.  Diana was not satisfied
until, so mangled, young Actaeon died ..."

Thus, Juno's rage against Europa, and all her blood, stemming from the house of Agenor, is assuaged.

Jove and Semele (1695)
Sebastiano Ricci
source Wikipedia
Juno learns that Cadmus' daughter, Semele, is pregnant by Jove and, seeking revenge, she disguises herself as the girl's nurse and counsels her to ask Jove to see him in all his powers. Unsuspecting, Semele makes this request of her lover and, unable to refuse her, she is killed by his bolts of light and turned to ash.  However, her unborn son, Bacchus, is rescued, sewen into the thigh of Jove and then given to Nysan nymphs upon his birth.

To settle an argument over whether men or women get more pleasure in love, Jove and Juno defer to Tiresias, who knew love as both genders (having been transformed by mating serpents to a woman and back again).  Furious at Tiresias siding with Jove, Juno steals away his sight, and Jove gives him the gift of prophecy for recompense.

Narcissus (1594-96)
source Wikipedia
Asked by the river nymph, Liriope, if her son, Narcissus, would live to see a long life, Tiresias' answer "Yes, if he never knows himself," was a cryptic puzzle.  Yet the boy, loved by youths and girls alike, has a disdain for them all, including a nymph, named Echo, whom he spurns, and she wastes away until only her voice remains.  Finally, a youth prays to the gods that Narcissus receive the same treatment as they, and one day, as he sees his reflection in a pool, he immediately falls in love.

" ... he is the seeker and 
the sought, the longed-for and the one who longs;
he is the arsonist --- and is the scorched."

He pines away, as had Echo, and eventually dies, but instead of a body, only a white-petalled flower with a yellow centre remains.

Bacchus (1596-97)
source Wikipedia
Tiresias' reputation grows but, Pentheus, Echion's son, mocks Tiresias and his blindness, as he also scorns all the gods, especially refusing the rites of Bacchus.  The old man prophesies that Bacchus will soon come and if Pentheus does not accept him, he will be torn to pieces.

" ......................... and then
you will complain that, in my blindness, I
saw far too well."

Bacchus arrives and Pentheus is in a fury not even his grandfather, Cadmon, can assuage.  He captures a priest of Bacchus, Acoetes, who tells of his encounter with a young Bacchus on a ship, and of his god-like appearance.  When all the crew but Acoetes refused to take Bacchus to his destination, they were all turned into sea-monsters.  Enraged by the story, Pentheus finds the revellers on Mount Cithaeron, but tragically his mother is the first to see him.  Claiming that he is a boar, she incites her sisters to tear him to pieces, ripping off his head with her own hands.

Note:  Tiresias also dispenses his prophecies in Sophocles, Antigone, Oedipus the King, and in The Odyssey Book XI.

I'm noticing quite a bit of irony in this book: Cadmus' warrior's instead of killing an enemy, kill each other; Actaeon, the hunter, becomes the hunted; Semele is killed by the power/love of her lover, and in fact, unknowingly requests her own death; Narcissus rejects all, yet in the end also rejects himself; Tiresias' knowledge causes his blindness; Pentheus, through rejecting sacred rites, becomes a sacrifice himself, and Pentheus' mother kills her own son.  Ovid's world is very bleak, and he ensures that we experience it to the fullest.

The Boy Bacchus (1615)
Guido Reni
source Wikiart


Viper's Teeth ❥  New men
Actaeon  ❥  Stag
Semele  ❥  Ash
Echo = nymph w/voice ❥ nymph w/echo  ❥  echo
Narcissus alive  ❥  Narcissus dead  ❥ flower
Ship's crew  ❥  Sea monsters

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

"I address these lines --- written in India --- to my relatives in England."

The Moonstone ........ a yellow diamond, sacred to the Indian people, guarded over by an ancient curse and three Brahmins devoted to its preservation. Yet the revered diamond is stolen.  Time passes, and the Moonstone ends up in the hands of Colonel Hearncastle who returns to England with the ill-fated gem. Angry at the relatives who shun his advances, he leaves the Moonstone in his will to his niece, Rachel Verinder.  Did the Colonel leave the stone as a profitable legacy, or was it intended to wreak destruction on those who had earlier rejected his gruff overtures?

Rachel's cousin, Franklin Blake, arrives with the diamond, which is to be bestowed on her during her eighteenth birthday party at her mother's Yorkshire estate. However, there are already disturbing echoes of disruption within the family home.  A housemaid, Rosanna Spearman, a reformed thief, appears both agitated and love-stricken, exhibiting suspicious behaviour, and three Indian jugglers are spotted in town.  The culmination of these oddities result in the diamond disappearing the night it is given to Rachel.  Who perpetrated the theft?  Why is Rachel behaving with a reckless and stubborn agitation? Rosanna's death further complicates the situation and finally Sergeant Cuff, a respected policemen from London is called in to solve the mystery.

source Wikipedia

Considered one of the first detective novels, The Moonstone was bathed in a shower of critical acclaim.  T.S. Eliot claimed that it was "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Wilkie Collins and not by Poe."  Dorothy Sayers, writer of the Peter Wimsey mysteries, hailed it as "probably the very finest detective novel ever written," and G.K. Chesterton, creator of the detective Father Brown, declared it "the best detective tale in the world."  Collins himself was attempting an inversion of his earlier novel of suspense, The Woman In White, where he designed the circumstances to affect the characters of the novel.  With The Moonstone, Collins chose to turn that premise on its head and investigate how different characters influence their circumstances.  The characters are sometimes wrong and at other times right in their perceptions, but nevertheless each works to shape the outcome of a situation.  This psychological experiment was a brilliant invention of Collins, adding more mystery and suspense to a story already ripe with uncertainty.

Luckily, I chose to read this one on vacation over the Christmas holidays and was able to fly through it in 2 days with it glued to my hands.  I could hardly put it down, a tribute to Collins' powerful and cryptic narrative.  The story is a wee bit sensational but being a detective novel, I don't think it affected the story in a negative way.  The characters are all well delineated (except one is rather overdone; I'll leave you to guess which one) and the method of presenting the novel in an epistolary style is again, an unusual but effective technique. Collins' The Moonstone was a great way to start off a year of reading!

Friday, 15 January 2016

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

"I was born in San Francisco, California."

Gertrude Stein was a Jewish-American writer who lived in France for over 40 years, becoming an intrinsic part of the Parisian art world in the early 1900s. Part of an avant garde artistic movement that thumbed its nose at past artistic structure, she was intimate with artists, both painters and writers, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, George Braque, Guillaume Appolonaire, Henri Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway, Mildred Aldrich  and many others, who were frequent visitors to her 27 rue de Fleurus location.  She attempted her own literary movement, writing many works that were deemed "incomprehensible", but received a small following.  Her autobiography is perhaps a more gentle exposure to her "art".

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart
Although Stein presents this biography as being about her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, in fact it is Stein, speaking with the voice of Toklas about her own life and experiences.  She briefly chronicles her early life, then moves directly to France, going into great detail about her life there, yet revealing little about herself.  Her style is mostly observation and there is little depth to her words.  It is a matter of, "this happened, and that happened, and this happened," without there being much of an internal interaction with occurrences, or an outward reaction to them.  The book was all about Stein, but on the other hand it wasn't, and I never felt that I came to know much about the woman at all.  Of course, I now know about all the important people she knew and all about her writings, but it's more like skating on top of a lake instead of diving right into it; you see a reflection that has echoes of reality, but somehow reality itself escapes you.

Nevertheless the book had some interesting information on the artists living in Paris during Stein's residence there:

"The Matisses had had a hard time.  Matisse had come to Paris as a young man to study pharmacy.  His people were small grain merchants in the north of France.  He had become interested in painting, had begun copying the Poussins at the Louvre and become a painter fairly without the consent of his people who however continued to allow him the very small monthly sum he had had as a student ....."

And interesting things to say about different nationalities:

Americans and Spaniards

"Americans, so Gertrude Stein says, are like spaniards, they are abstract and cruel.  They are not brutal, they are cruel.  They have no close contact with the earth such as most europeans have.  Their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction. And so cubism is spanish ....."


"Gertrude Stein used to get furious when the english all talked about german organization.  She used to insist that the germans had no organisation, they had method but no organisation.  Don't you understand the difference, she used to say angrily, any two americans, any twenty americans, any millions of americans can organise themselves to do something but germans cannot organise themselves to do anything, they can formulate a method and this method can be put upon them but that isn't organisation.  The germans, she used to insist, are not modern, they are a backward people who have had a method of what we conceive as organisation, can't you see.  They cannot therefore possibly win this war because they are not modern."


"The french are so accustomed to revolutions, they have had so many, that when anything happens they immediately think and say, revolution.  Indeed Gertrude Stein once said rather impatiently to some french soldiers when they said something about a revolution, you are silly, you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seem to me foolish to be always thinking of repeating yourselves.  They looked very sheepish and said, bien sur mademoiselle, in other words, sure you're right...."

There is always an underlying humour touched with a seriousness in her narrative; although life is somber business, one must not take it too seriously.

Stein with Ernest Hemingway's son, Jack (1924)
source Wikipedia

Stein definitely has both fans and critics.  One enthusiast, Mabel Dodge, an American art patron, wrote, "In Gertrude Stein's writing every word lives, apart from concept, it is so rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music."

However, Stein's brother, who apparently had the eye of an art connoisseur and amassed an impressive collection of paintings, called the biography "a farrago of lies," Hemingway declared it, "a damned pitiful book," and critic F.W. Dupree denounced "Steinese" as being "gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated ...... a scandal and a delight, lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation."  

Perhaps the truth lies in the battlefield between the two factions, and American writer Sherwood Anderson, found the median between the two, saying, "As for Stein, I do not think her too important.  I do think she had an important thing to do, not for the public, but for the artist who happens to work with words for his material."

Stein's signature

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Metamorphoses - Book II

Book II

Phaeton / The Heliades / Cycnus / Phoebus / Callisto / Arcas The Raven / Coronis, the Raven, the Crow, Nyctimene / Ocyrohoe / Battus / Mercury, Herse, Aglauros / Europa & Jove

The Fall of Phaeton (c. 1604-05)
Peter Paul Ruebens
source Wikimedia Commons
Phaethon reaches the gorgeous palace of Phoebus, where his father confirms his birthright.  Arrogantly, Phaeton requests to drive his chariot, and sadly Phoebus concedes, giving instructions to his son for his safe journey. Thetis unbars the way for her grandson and the horses leap high in the air, but it's as if they have no rider and control is lost.  Phaethon regrets his decision, yet is paralyzed and the chariot finally plunges down to earth destroying large swaths of it with fire.  The earth cries out and "the Almighty Father" (Jove) hurls a thunderbolt, unseating Phaeton, yet combatting fire with fire.  Phaeton, consumed by the fire, is buried by the river Po by the Naiads, while his father in grief buries his face and shuts out the sun for a day.  Clymene laments with her daughters, the Heliades, at her son's grave, but her daughters metamorphosize into trees in spite of her attempts to save them.

Cycnus, a king of Liguria and a relative of Phaeton's, goes to pay his respects and is transformed into a swan, a bird who does not trust to seek the sky because of Jove's lightning bolts.

Jove then inspects the heavens and earth for damage from the fire, but spots a nymph, Callisto and, disguising himself as the goddess Diana before reappearing in his normal form, rapes her in spite of her frantic struggles. Diana discovers her shame and sends her away, and when Juno learns of Jove's crime and of the son born to Callisto, Arcas, she transforms Callisto into a bear.  Later, Arcas encounters his mother and nearly kills her, but Jove intervenes, grabbing both and placing them in the sky as Ursa Major and Minor.

Plate 101 Raven
John James Audubon
source Wikiart
As Juno is enraged at the compliment given to Callisto, she travels to heaven in her chariot which is drawn by the peacocks who have recently changed hue.  We hear of another bird, Phoebus' sacred bird, the Raven, who also gets his colour changed from white to black, as punishment for his talkative chatter. He refuses to listen to the Crow's warning, whose feathers were transformed as he informed on the three daughters of the bi-form Cecrops, Pandrosos, Herse and Aglauros, when they looked into a basket and discovered a baby that had been formed by the seed of Vulcan, after he attempt to rape Minerva.  Minerva, however, turns him black for his snitching, and the poor crow relates that before this incident, he had been a princess, but was transformed into a crow while escaping from the sea-god who attempted to ravish her.  Yet now he is supplanted in the affections of Minerva by Nyctimene, the owl, oh woe is he!  The Raven, however, declines to heed the crow's wise wisdom, and instead reveals to Apollo (Phoebus) that his love, Coronis had lain beside a Thessalian youth. Inflamed with hot fury, Apollo kills Coronis yet before she is burned, he snatches their unborn son, Aesculapius, from her womb and gives him to the centaur, Chiron, to raise.  The Raven, however, receives his due and is banished.  We learned of this same story in Chaucer's The Manciple's Tale.

The daughter of Chiron, Ocyrhoe, prophesies over Aesculapius, saying that he will become a great healer and god.  Her father's immortality will also change to mortality, but as she speaks she is transfigured into the form of a horse with a new name, Hippe.

Landscape with Mercury and Battus (1618)
Jacob Pynas
source Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, bereft with grief, Phoebus is roaming the hills in the guise of a shepherd, but in his mourning over the fate of Coronis, his cows wander off and are hidden by Mercury.  Yet an old man named Battus witnesses the theft, but Mercury buys off his silence with a choice cow from the herd.  Battus promises a stone would give more information than he.  To test the old man's resolve, Mercury disguises himself and returns asking for "his cows" and offering Battus a cow from the herd for information on the theft.  Battus reveals all and Mercury changes him into a stone (now called a touchstone or tellstone) in payment for his betrayal.

Mercury spots Herse, daughter of Cecrops, and is determined to possess her. He enlists the help of her sister, Aglauros, but Envy, spurred by Minerva, poisons Aglauros.  Infected with resentment of her sister's happiness, she attempts to prevent Mercury from entering her bedroom, and he turns Aglauros into a statue.

Returning to heaven, Mercury is directed by Jove to drive the king Agenor's cattle down to the shore, yet unbeknownst to him, Jove is planning the capture of the daughter of the king, Europa.  He disguises himself as a perfect white bull, entices the girl, and then rides away into the ocean with her on his back.

The Abductiion of Europa (1715)
Jean-François de Troy
source Wikipedia


The daughters of Clymene  ❥  Trees
Cycnus  ❥  Swan
Jove  ❥  Diana  ❥  Jove
Callisto  ❥  Bear  ❥  Ursa Major
Arcas  ❥  Ursa Minor
Raven:  White feathers  ❥  Black feathers
Princess  ❥  Crow: White feathers  ❥  Black feathers
Ocyrhoe's Prophecy:  
Aesculapius  ❥   god  ❥  corpse  ❥  god
Immortal Chiron  ❥  Mortal Chiron
Phoebus  ❥  Shepherd
Battus  ❥ Stone
Aglauros  ❥ Statue
Jove  ❥  White Bull

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell

"In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people --- the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me."

Orwell tells of his stint in Burma as a police officer under British colonial rule.  He was despised by the people as an agent of the perceived oppressors, but in spite of his job, his sympathies lay with the natives and he felt constant guilt because of his duties.

One day he received word that an elephant had stampeded a Burmese Indian to death and was rampaging through the local bazaar.  It was a tame elephant that had been chained when it had gone "must," (a periodic cycle experienced by a bull elephant when its hormones are elevated), but it had broken the chains and escaped.  Orwell took his rifle and a small gun, not at all sure what he could do to stop the invader.  Initially he had no intention of shooting the animal, but when he arrived at the scene, the locals were in high emotion with the anticipation of the killing of the elephant, and Orwell felt he had no other choice.

"And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East.  Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd ---- seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys ...."

Approaching the elephant, who was now calmly munching grass, he shot it a number of times, however, it merely groaned and sagged to its knees.  While Orwell knew that he'd fired the fatal shot, the animal took what seemed like forever to expire, and he finally left the scene, hearing later that it died a half an hour after his departure.  Relief flooded him that the elephant had killed a "coolie" because it gave him a pretext for the execution, and he was able to avoid admitting the real reason for his actions ...... that he didn't want to look like a fool.

African Bush Elephant
source Wikipedia

Orwell begins his essay by describing his feeling of helplessness at being part of the British imperialist movement, but ends up inverting it by describing the impotence he feels against the masses, the very people for which he harbours sympathy.  He is trapped between not only a political sytem, but a social one as well, and his powerlessness is very effective.  Once part of a collective, to a certain degree "self" must disappear.  Yet one must retain enough self to act as a human, instead of merely a machine taking orders or acting from impulse, without taking into account reason or morality.  In this case, Orwell is paralyzed and chooses to conform.

Deal Me In Challenge #2