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Happy Bloomsday!  The entirety of James Joyce’s great magnum opus Ulysses takes place on one day, June 16th, 1904.  Thus June 16th is forever celebrated as sacred to Joyce enthusiasts (and to those who esteem the English language and the Irish people).

If you have ever tried to write about Ulysses, you will recognize that it is problematic to grapple with the great tome since it touches deeply on most aspects of Western history, art, science, culture, law, and letters (to say nothing of the fundamental social and existential dilemmas which lie at the heart of both the novel and human endeavors).  As in life, these themes are tangled together in such a way that pulling at any thread disgorges a mass of seemingly disconnected narrative and philosophical threads which are actually a single thread…which is everything. Good luck writing a pithy blog post about THAT.

Fortunately there is a miniature odyssey within the greater book which we can concentrate on.  It is even appropriate to this year of desperate washing…and the tiny story does indeed echo the novel’s great theme of pleasure (and human beings’ secret lifetime pursuit thereof…even as they desperately and performatively pretend to be engaged in loftier pursuits).

In Chapter 5 (“Lotus Eaters”) The book’s hero Bloom is killing time before a funeral.  He reads an amorous letter from a secret correspondent, ducks into a church to listen to a bit of Catholic mass, and stops at the chemist’s to order some lotion for his wife.  While at the shop he spontaneously purchases a bar of lemon soap while he thinks about drugs, baths, and flesh.

The clunky bar of lemon soap goes with Bloom the rest of the day (and it is some day!).  He wraps it in a newspaper. He sits on it uncomfortably at the funeral.  He moves it from his hip pocket to his handkerchief pocket as he escapes the underworld the cemetery.  At lunch he fumbles through his pocket and comes across it and moves it to another pocket. Later, at the tavern, it becomes wet (from sweat or potables?) and he is concerned that he smells like lemons.  At sunset, after his…episode… on the beach Bloom worries about his failure to go back and collect his wife’s lotion and pay the four pence he owes for the soap.

At the novel’s climax in the “Circe” chapter, the soap exploits the crazed magical transmogrifications of the bordello to temporarily gain the power of speech. It ascends to the apex of heaven as the sun (complete with the freckled visage of the pharmacist):

BLOOM: I was just going back for that lotion whitewax, orangeflower water. Shop closes early on Thursday. But the first thing in the morning. (He pats divers pockets.) This moving kidney. Ah!

(He points to the south, then to the east. A cake of new clean lemon soap arises, diffusing light and perfume.)

THE SOAP:

We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I.
He brightens the earth. I polish the sky.

(The freckled face of Sweny, the druggist, appears in the disc of the soapsun.)

The soap even gets opened and used for handwashing in Bloom’s elegiac penultimate chapter which explains everything with diagrammatic clinical precision (indeed we learn that this is ” a partially consumed tablet of Barrington’s lemonflavoured soap, to which paper still adhered, (bought thirteen hours previously for fourpence and still unpaid for).” Molly even thinks about soap in her own chapter (as a young woman, she had her own trademark Albion milk and sulphur soap which Bloom had used to wash ink off his hands as a courting pretext.

That’s some journey for a little bar of soap! But why am I writing about this? Why did Joyce write about this?  As you can imagine critics have come up with various answers.

Marxist literary critics even assigned a central role to the bar of soap. In their telling, capitalist society fetishizes commodities in such a way that  take on a meaning greater than human life.  They might be on to something: if you look this soap up on the internet, you will find many opportunities to buy a bar for yourself long before you find essays like this one which discuss what the soap’s journey means.

Yet in obsessing about the cruel goad which we have made for ourselves with labor, the Marxists miss the beguiling carrot which draws us onwards.  The soap is a little pleasure.  It was purchased because of its delightful smell, and even though it is always in the way, Bloom keeps it with him, moving it from pocket to pocket and worrying about it.

Bloom’s perspectives about his little bar of soap are always changing.  He worries about how it makes others perceive him. He worries about paying for it.  It is uncomfortable at points…and yet

…the soap has a use value.  It dissolves in order to make you clean. It speaks to the sacred and transformative pleasure of bathing (which is as central a theme in The Odyssey as it is in Ulysses). More to the point, the soap represents an idea of private & luxurious pleasure (Bloom fantasizes about the perfect bath as he buys it at the chemist’s shop).  Ulysses privileges us with a glimpse into peoples’ secret hidden minds, and although we find lofty questions of being and non-being there, we also find lots of little private side quests for self-gratification and secret fantasies which can, for a moment shine like the sun in the firmament before being moved to another pocket, or forgotten, or occasioning very slight social anxiety.  The quest for the truth of people’s hearts is slippery and convoluted!

 

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April is poetry month! It is also the birth-month of the bard, William Shakespeare, who was born 456 years ago.  Although the exact day of his entrance upon the scene is a bit unclear, Shakespeare enthusiasts have assigned today’s date, April 23rd, as the most likely day and thus it is celebrated! Happy Birthday to the Bard!  However, as you may have guessed, that is not why we are here.

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The other day, I wrote that poets don’t seem to write poems about plagues (although this could well be a misapprehension born out of writers’ fondness for disguising their actual subject by appearing to write about something completely different).  This is true of Shakespeare too, and yet he certainly had ample experience with pestilence since the Black Death struck London in 1592, 1603, and 1606.  In fact, three of his greatest tragedies, including King Lear, were (probably) written during quarantine.

Indeed, squinting anew at the language of these plays reveals a fascination with darkness, lesions, pathology, and contagion hiding behind the mask of purity which could be (and undoubtedly has been) the subject of many works of literary criticism and scholarship.

Yet to my ears, the most pure plague poem from Shakespeare is really a poem which is unabashedly about death and how it brings an end to all want, anxiety, political strife, pain and anxiety (even as it ends all pleasure, learning, longing, and love).  The poem was (probably) written a half decade after the 1606 outbreak in London [I apologize for all of these words like “seems” and “probably” but we don’t have a lot of certainties about Shakespeare’s human life].  It takes the form of a valedictory song in Cymbeline, that strange and impossible-to-characterize late work which dates from Shakespeare’s final years as a writer.  After reading Cymbeline, Lytton Strachey opined that it is “difficult to resist the conclusion that [Shakespeare] was getting bored himself. Bored with people, bored with real life, bored with drama, bored, in fact, with everything except poetry and poetical dreams.”

Perhaps there is truth in this analysis, for the song is very melancholy and yet also very beautifully poetic.  We are including it here as a tribute to poetry month, and a tribute to Shakespeare, and a tribute to all of the dead. Yet it is is imperative that you not let the lugubrious gloom get you down (not from the poem nor from the situation we are in).

But enough of my blather, from Cymbeline Act IV Scene 2 here is Shakespeare’s sad song.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

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April is poetry month! Since this is a downright peculiar April, I was hoping to reach back through history to 542 AD, 1350 AD, or 1666 AD in order feature some monumental poems about pandemics and how to get through these harrowing eras of fear….

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Yikes! I guess things could be going worse…

Uh, that effort is still ongoing…  Whereas visual artists address pestilence head-on by painting landscapes filled with grim reapers, corpse wagons, Catherine wheels, walking nightmares, undead armies, and whatnot, apparently famous poets address plague by writing about something else entirely.  I guess professional writers know that one of the secrets to living off of your art is to write about things people want to read about (speaking of which, this post should probably be about Miley Cyrus instead of worldwide plague (insomuch as there is a difference)).

Anyway, while we continue to comb the anthologies for the perfect poem from yesteryear, for today’s post, here is a poem from today.  As noted, poets shy away from this theme, so we had to bring in a visual artist, the indelible Yayoi Kusama, world renowned grand master of polka dot art, in order to get a Coronavirus poem.

Here is what she writes

Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow
Now that we find ourselves on the dark side of the world
The gods will be there to strengthen the hope we have spread throughout the universe
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Let’s go
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.
Revolutionist of the world by the Art
From Yayoi Kusama
Although from a pure literary perspective, this poem is perhaps a bit spotty (hehehe), what it lacks in allusion, symbolism, or meter is more than made for with earnest goodwill and sincerity.  Kusama also does not want for temerity, directly adjuring the virus to disappear from Earth (an idea which is about as lovely as any I have come upon recently).
Perhaps the poem’s greatest weakness is that it speaks so guilelessly for itself that there is little to say about it.  Thus to round off the post, here is one of Kusama’s lovely polka dot artworks.  I surmise that her choice of themes–vines, corals,  or mushrooms (which are the fruiting bodies of much larger hidden underground networks of mycelium)  is really about how nodes form much larger networks.  Maybe she will paint some rangeomorphs!
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Mushrooms (Yayoi Kusama, 2005) acrylic on canvas

It is worth further noting that, Kusama’s great lifetime retrospective at the New York Botanic Garden was interrupted by the pandemic. If/when this quarantine lifts we can look forward to seeing that show in person and writing more about networks and nodes.  For now though it is back to Facebook and Zoom.  We’ll talk more next week!

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Today is, uhhhh…World Health Day, which commemorates the founding of the World Health Organization.  This “day of observance” was designed “to draw the attention of the world to the health of global human populations and the diseases that may impact these populations.”  Since this is also Holy Week, I decided to bundle World Health Day together with the Biblical theme post I had already selected. Perhaps we can work together at the end of the post (and in the comments below) in order to reconcile the two themes!

OK, back to our Bibles!  Today’s chapter is Numbers 21 which describes another episode during the long Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt to conquest of Israel.  Although not necessarily well-versed at understanding natural phenomena, the writers of the Pentateuch were extremely keen students of human nature!   Whenever things turn difficult (spoiler: things are always difficult) or if Moses is not constantly micromanaging them, the Israelites hare off and start worshiping golden calves or sleeping with Moabite hussies or whining so very aggressively that it annoys God himself (as happens in this instance).  Here is how it is described in Numbers 21:

4 And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

5 And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

6 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

7 Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

8 And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

Wow! God instructs Moses to build what would, in any other circumstance, be an extremely idolatrous metal serpent to heal the bites of poisonous fire serpents?  What is going on in this passage?

For one thing, paleoethnographers who have studied the deepest history of Semitic tribes surmise that El, the sky shepherd god who, in time would become develop into Yweh and thence into God as we know him was perhaps not the original center of Jewish worship!  It seems like the wandering tribe might have adopted El from Canaanite/Syrian sources they encountered in the Sinai. The oldest religious objects archaeologists have associated with bronze age Canaanite sites like Megiddo,  Gezer,  Hazor, and Shechem seem to be snake cult objects!  It is intriguing to surmise that the chosen people were originally snake worshipers, and this shameful pre-literary heritage is preserved in the Bible in the form of Moses’ brass effigy (as well as one or two other critical moments of that text).

But the baffling interplay of religious syncretism in Asia-Minor, Mesopotamia, and the Levant five thousand years ago (which gave rise to monotheism) is a topic for a greater and more ponderous work of scholarship!  I just wanted to explain to you the origin of this brass serpent icon in the Bible.  The Jewish call such a thing a Nehushtan ((נחשתן and it kept making controversial appearances in ancient Israel.  Later on King Hezekiah would institute a reform banning the popular religious totem and rabbis still argue about it to this day.

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The Brazen Serpent (James Tissot The Brazen Serpent, ca.1896–1902) watercolor on paper

Here is a Nehushtan painted by a 19th/20th century Christian artist and it is pretty shocking! Not only does the Brazen Serpent resemble Christian iconography,  it is more or less identical to the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes (if you haven’t read about Asclepius, please do so, his story is profoundly thought-provoking).

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Wow! This is a lot to take in.  Before the Aztecs show up with Quetzalcoatl and this post melts completely, it is worth asking if there is a bigger point to all of this?  The answer is YES: today is World Health Day! I am honoring the world’s brave and compassionate (and hard-working) health care workers by talking about their ridiculously ancient symbol, a snake on a stick.  The fact that it comes not just from the GrecoRoman canon but from JudeoChristian mythology as well only highlights its importance (Frankly I didn’t expect to find intimations that Jews worshiped this thing before they worshiped their one God! Yet perhaps some of New York’s most eminent physicians would secretly smile). Modern people are apt to think of religion as an ancient political/ethical rubric which holds society together and regard medicine as a science.  Yet plagues and crises remind us what Moses knew.  There is more overlap in caring for the sick and providing stories which explain existence than we might initially suppose!  Thank you doctors and nurses for working so hard (and for holding up the world during this pandemic!  We appreciate what you are doing more than we can say (even if we can only express these feelings in the form of strange biblical blog posts).  You truly are the children of Apollo and we all love you no matter what happens (although would it kill you to drive the profane and wicked MBAs out of your profession and reclaim its sacred compassion for everyone?)

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Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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The definitive evil clown is the shape-shifting monster in Stephen King’s “It” (unless we are talking about John Wayne Gacy, and, frankly, I think the State of Illinois said all that needs to be said concerning that guy with a stiff dose of potassium chloride).  I hungrily read “It” when I was approximately the same age as the pre-teen protagonists (although the book alternates between their lives as kids in 1958 and successful early-middle aged adults in 1985).  It made an indelible impression on 12-year old me: I have been mulling over this magnum opus among penny dreadfuls for 33 years. Its hold on my imagination has outlasted much finer books. Since I have thought about it so long and since I am writing about killer clowns, I guess I should write about it…er “It” (the book I mean…the movies were terrible). [Also, beware: spoilers (and killer clowns) ahead.]

What is truly horrifying about Stephen King novels is never really the rubber monster who is ostensibly the villain.  Shape-shifting predatory clown spiders from outer space almost surely don’t exist (or if they do, we have neither evidence nor any possible chains of epistemological logic which could lead us to such an astonishing conclusion).  The monster is therefor a stand-in–a metaphor for our real fears.  Since the book is gigantic and contains many, many murderous attacks by the eponymous shape-shifting monster (and also, revealingly, violent episodes from other entities which we will address shortly), King has a clever way to touch on all sorts of different phobias like fear of blood, fear of the dark, fear of getting lost, fear of germs, fear of madness, fear of heights, fear of drowning, fear of guns, fear of being eaten etc…etc…

Yet it is not these episodes which give the book its uncanny terror.  As we bounce between the lives of the 11 year olds living in 1958 (who have discovered that a monstrous predator living in the sewer is murdering their peers) and the lives of 1985 yuppies who realize the monster has returned to kill again, there are interludes where the author’s proxy, the wise town librarian, tells us about previous cycles of murders going back every 27 years until before there were humans in Maine.  These are the best parts of the book–painted with bravura strokes of dark imagination from all of the eras of American history.  There was a trapping post which vanished without trace into the brooding northwoods,  a hideous industrial accident on Easter which killed all of the town’s children who were hunting Easter Eggs, and an extra-judicial killing of some 30s gangsters which got out of hand. Worst of all, there was arson at a mixed-race nightclub, when white supremacists burned a lot of unsuspecting people to death.

The reader comes to recognize that it is the social compact underlying Derry which is horrifying.  The librarian-narrator hints at what King never explicitly says:  Derry prospers because it successfully turns its back on these nightmarish outbursts and then sweeps them into the sewer.  Ghastly human sacrifice lies beneath the Victorian cottages, the Standpipe, the five-and-dime, the Paul Bunyan statue, and the war memorial; yet people get back to selling VCRs, cheap whiskey, car insurance, and forestry products to each other without even noticing.

I worked for a year at the Smithsonian–“the nation’s attic”–and the things which are not on display there are so much more powerful and revealing than the Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the first lady’s gowns, and Archy Bunker’s chair (although those things do tell a story, don’t they?).  The Smithsonian has room after room of evil machines which destroyed their operators, it has boxes of cowboy boots made with human skin, it has the triangle shirt-waist factory door with scratches in the charred metal.  It has the Enola Gay!  Looking at the collection behind the scenes in aggregate reveals how many of the stories of history we just sort of forget.  Such a survey also painfully contextualizes the tiny span of our lives within a vastly larger story (which is a horror born of absolute certainty which looms larger than any shapeshifting predatory clown).

Like Hop Frog’s murder within a prank, or Pagliacci’s murder within a play within an opera, there are layers of verisimilitude in King’s book. There are truths which only pre-adults can savvy.  The monster in the sewer beneath the town shows up in tales within tales within the larger canon of history (which is, of course all within a big novel).  The onion-like levels of false reality are disconcerting, but necessary to make us realize that the setting of this work is not Derry but America.

The real monster in the room in “It” is, of course, the good people of Derry. If you really peel off the clown mask you don’t find a space spider, you find Americans who believe they are absolutely right in giving their daughter a shiner when she comes home late, or cutting some corners to keep the factory open, or in doing what it takes to “protect” their town from gangsters and immoral night clubs.  Likewise all of the child abuse, molestation, and neglect is as real as rainwater (and similarly un-noteworthy).  You don’t have to buy a Steven King novel to find that sort of thing: you can read much more shocking examples in today’s news.

So the novel “It” gains some of its strength from evoking childhood fears and common phobias (like the fear of clowns or spiders) but it draws its real nightmare strength by holding up a dark mirror to America and revealing how our social structures are riddled with ominous failures and horribly unjust interludes…which we simply pretend don’t exist.

Clowns themselves are not real.  They are just people wearing makeup and costumes.  People though are too real and, in case you don’t follow the news, there is nothing scarier than us.  The small town folk of the novel are addicted to a meretricious idea of success.  They will ignore unspeakable things to uphold this self-image. The killer clown is like one of Shakespeare’s jesters trying to whisper this unpalatable truth in our ears as we grind through days at the retail shop, the dying factory, and the office.

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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Long ago there was an adorable little white parrot. His parrot parents raised him with great tenderness, and, in turn, the little parrot loved them with enormous devotion.  But the world is a cruel place for little birds and one day the parrot’s father fell victim to the predators of the jungle.  Then, after that tragedy, the white parrot’s mother became gravely sick.  With all of his strength and ability, he tended her and tried desperately to restore her health, but she kept sliding downwards.  In her delirium, the mother parrot cried out for sweet cherries of the sort grown in China and the little parrot set out to obtain some of the fruits, hoping they would help her get better.

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But when the parrot flew out to find cherries he found a world of traps, guile, and danger.  Cruel poachers captured the friendly bird and trussed him up.  Observing his sweet disposition and naivete, the hunters sold him to a miserly magistrate.  At first the parrot was mute with horror, but anxiety for his mother leant him eloquence, and he started to preach stories of compassion, kindness, and filial piety in hopes of swaying the judge’s cold heart.

Alas, the magistrate knew the value of sermons…right down to the candareen.  He charged admission to crowds to hear the parrot’s desperate pleas and moral adjurations and the petty judge laughed as he counted up the money he made from the parrot’s good heart.  But other people were listening to the cockatoo’s words with greater acuity.  The poachers came to the show boasting of how they were responsible for capturing the orator…but they left with troubled hearts and soon abandoned hunting and meat-eating.  Other listeners were also moved to improve their lives and act with greater righteousness, and the parrot begin to become famous.  Yet all the mean magistrate did was count money and laugh at people’s simplicity.  None of the parrot’s pleas ever moved him a bit.

One day a mysterious old begging monk with a medicine bottle listened to the parrot’s sermon.  “You have great strength as an orator, little brother,” the old monk told the parrot, “but words will never free you to return to your home.  Try this instead.” Then he whispered a ruse to the parrot.

The parrot was troubled, but he did as the monk suggested and he mimed a palsy and a brain storm and then he lay motionless.  Disgusted at the weakness of animals, the magistrate tossed the seemingly dead parrot into the mud and returned to other schemes.  When night came the parrot shook the dirt off and flew into a nearby orchard to obtain some cherries. Then he flew back to his mother as fast as he could.

Alas, when he returned to his ancestral nest he found his mother had already died and was a sad little mummified husk of feathers.  Inconsolable the little bird tossed the cherries aside and buried his mother with his fading strength. Then he fell to the ground in a heartbroken swoon of grief.  That is how the goddess Guanyin found him.

The immortal goddess of infinite compassion, opened her bottle of elixir and sprinkled the healing balm on the white parrot with a branch.  When he opened his eyes he beheld the universal savior of living beings standing above him.  Bathed in the heavenly light of the stars, Guanyin was radiant beyond words.  The parrot bowed down to her and begged her to accept him as an unworthy disciple.

Guanyin is the goddess of universal compassion.  The Bodhisattva has seen beyond the illusions and lies of this world and realizes a key truth of life: animals have souls. They are capable of happiness and sadness. Like you or me, their hearts know grief and love. They are real beings in a universe which is otherwise empty.

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And so Guanyin picked up the trembling bird and wiped the grime from his feathers and the tears from his gleaming orange eyes.  Great rulers and sages have sought Avalokiteśvara’s grace with costly presents, pleading, erudition, splendor or Buddhist orthodoxy, but the parrot’s unwavering filial piety and kindness are closer to her heart than such things. With a wave of her bough she arranged for the parrot’s parents to be reborn in a life of glory, happiness, and honor.  The little parrot though she kept as her most dear disciple.  He flies next to her as she goes everywhere.  In his beak he holds what seems like a precious jewel.  If you understand this story though you realize it is actually something more valuable–it is  understanding, care, concern, kindness, and solicitude.  It is love, of course.

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Guan Yin and her Disciples (Yuan Dynasty, ca. 14th century) ink and color on silk

Avalokiteśvara, known as Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and Infinite Love, has heard the agony of the whole world and felt the pain of all living beings as we suffer and strive.  She has seen beyond the glittering facade of lies–past all Māyā–to a realm like an abstract lotus where the only things are little blips of energy and the consciousness of all living beings in an infinite sea of nothingness.  Don’t be deceived! Guanyin is an illusion too. She is made up. So is this tale. I just wrote it the way I felt it should be (although it is based on 鸚鴿寶撰, “The Precious Scroll of the Parrot”)  But there IS truth here. Animals have souls, insomuch as anything does. To have a soul is to worry about others.  It is more important to Guanyin than money, prestige, cleverness, or empty worship. The truth of life is you will suffer and fail. You will die. But if your life has care for others, it has infinite meaning.  Grasp the truth of kindness and you too may fly beside the goddess for a shining moment and touch the trembling world with her divine light.  

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Rescue parrots in a Bird Sanctuary comfort each other

 

April is poetry month! Poetry allows us to say afresh things which need to be said (but which are not being heard properly because of popular conventions or dark political malfeasance).  Yet once these truths are framed in sacred beautiful language and hung up in the great library of human endeavor, they take on an enduring character which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the past can no longer suppress (and which the despots, brutes, and vulgarians of the present do not understand).

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Portrait of Swinburne (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861) Watercolor, chalk, pencil on paper

For example, here is a short poem by Alernon Charles Swinburne, a sort of half-forgotten poet who was so exceedingly popular during the Victorian era that his work was set aside during the subsequent anti-Victorian backlash (which seems like a pity, since his poetry is lyrical and beautiful…and has a haunting & desolate sadness beneath all of its rich, fulsome opulence).

Swinburne was fascinated by Christianity and by the great Christian art and literature of antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Yet a comprehensive reading of his poems makes it fairly clear that he himself was not devout.  He harbored particular reservations about the afterlife and his sophisticated contemporaries saw him as a sort of “poet laureate of atheism.”  Despite this (or…because of it?) Swinburne wrote a poem about Christian persecution as anathema to Jesus.  The poem was not about persecution of Christians, but persecution by Christians.  Here it is:

On the Russian Persecution of the Jews

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

O SON of man, by lying tongues adored,
By slaughterous hands of slaves with feet red-shod
in carnage deep as ever Christian trod
Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred
And incense from the trembling tyrant’s horde,
Brute worshipers or wielders of the rod,
Most murderous even that ever called thee Lord;
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine,
Run ravening as the Gadarene swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion, to foreknow
In death’s worst hour the works of Christian men?

Written in 1882, the poem is addressed to the “Son of Man,” which is Christ’s appellation in the gospels.  Swinburne describes the savagery of contemporary Christians and poignantly asks whether the cruelty of Jesus’ followers towards Jews, foreigners, and outsiders would hurt Christ more than the physical agony of the passion.  Since the apotheosis of compassion was the exact point of Christ’s ministry and his death, the answer is clearly a resounding yes. However, the poet (and, implicitly, his sophisticated reader) both recognize that contemporary Christians often overlook the meaning of Christ’s words and actions in their zeal to attain a piece of some imaginary paradise.

The poem is aimed directly at Russian Orthodox Christians, who were indeed guilty of terrible pogroms against the great Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement. Since Russia was the hated national adversary of late Victorian England, the message would be roundly appreciated by Swinburne’s readers. Yet the poet perhaps casts a wider net upon the lord’s flock than it initially seems. The poem’s title aside, these lying tongues, slaughterous hands, and profane precants could almost be found anywhere in Christendom.  Perhaps the eagerness of the reader to attribute such sins to other Christians is its own clue. Did not Christ ask his followers “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?”

And like all great poetry, the message is hardly trapped within its time.  A clear-sighted observer might be able to look at any Christian period or any puffed-up sanctimoniously “Christian” nation and find terrible cruelty to Jews and foreigners enacted by zealots incapable of grasping the fundamental message of the gospels.  Such acts could even be encouraged by self-interested czars who not-very-convincingly pretend to be Christian!  Great art lives in timeless modernity after all.

At any rate, I will leave you, dear reader, to contemplate Swinburne’s real meaning on your own (maybe after you peruse the news of the day).  Oh, also the Gadarene swine were the herd of pigs which Christ cast the demons into as recounted in Matthew 8:28-34. It is worth remembering that the Gadarenes begged Jesus to leave after the incident…as though they preferred money and security to the actual Son of God! Shocking!

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