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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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Imagine a colony of little shrimp frolicking on the bottom of the ocean when suddenly the earth opens up its mouth and swallows one of the shrimp: the sandy substrate was actually a lurking flatfish hunting for dinner.  In the shadowy depths even bigger predators are in turn hunting the flounder.  Glistening hooks with sparkling bait descend from unknown realms above.

The Great Flounder of Babylon (Wayne Ferrebee, 2016) Ink on Paper

The Great Flounder is a symbolic avatar of the worldwide ecosystem–a seemingly adversarial realm of constant cutthroat competition.  Yet closer study of ecology reveals that living things are far more dependent on each other than the predator/prey relationship makes it seem.  If a flounder eats a shrimp, the world moves on.  If all of the shrimp vanish, or if all of the flounder are fished out of the ocean, other dominoes begin to fall and the whole web of life starts to dwindle and fold inwards.

This brings us to humankind, a worldwide collective of cunning primate colonies which are in ferocious violent competition with each other.

Fluke Baby (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Mixed Media

If there were ever an aymmetrical animal, t’is surely us.  Our history and our science have given us a unique place in the world ecosphere–but we are not dealing well with our new prominence. This piscine artwork reflects our past and our present.  In the flounder’s tragicomic eyes we can perhaps glimpse our future of glory, grandeur, and doom.

Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib’d, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleas’d to the last, he crops the flow’ry food,
And licks the hand just rais’d to shed his blood.
Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv’n,
That each may fill the circle mark’d by Heav’n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

An Essay on Man: Epistle I, Alexander Pope

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Happy Year of the Earth Pig!  Today (February 5th 2019) marks the beginning of Lunar Year 4716 in the Chinese calendar.  I really meant to write more dog-theme posts last year during the year of the dog: how did it run off so quickly? But no matter…we can always write more about man’s best friend. Today belongs to the pig and, despite a somewhat grubby nomen, the earth pig has a great deal to recommend it!

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In the Chinese zodiac, pigs are water sign animals. The easygoing and affable earth pig thus betokens a year of friendship, camaraderie, and social success.  Pigs love having fun together, so, in addition to social delights, the year will feature plenty of luxuries, treats and opulent spectacles.   Friendship and social bonding are one thing, but romance is quite another, so, although the year may be marked by new friendship and bonhomie, it is not likely to be especially happy one in terms of love and intimacy (which is fully in line with broad international trends).

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Financially speaking, the Earth Pig moves slowly yet inexorably towards abundance.  The ground is the root of all wealth and this pig has all four feet squarely upon the earth. The online oracle which I consulted states “This zodiac sign has a solid work ethic and is willing to put in the hours to get ahead. Patience and willpower are the name of the game for anyone wishing to get ahead in 2019. And don’t forget the power of building friendly alliances with colleagues.”  I suppose that sounds pretty good, but I have been to farmyards and seen how things work out for pigs.  I would probably paraphrase this: your financial year will combine a great deal of hard work with some foolish lapses due to inattention, greed, and other people’s guile.  Be careful! The rewards of your labor could be enjoyed by someone else…

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Sadly, all pig years come with an admonition not to overdo it with sweets, rich foods, and alcohol, but I hardly see how gluttony could be a problem here in [checks notes] oh…um…yeah, I guess we will also have to keep a careful eye on what we are eating.

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Speaking of gluttony, no conversation about pigs would be complete without a mention of China’s literary superstar pig, Zhu Bajie, one of the three animal heroes of “The Journey to the West” (well, actually there are four, but the horse is usually just a horse and only jumps into the game in moments of true duress).  Zhu Bajie is an immortal pig monster with enormous strength and bravery…but he is also cursed with constant hunger, laziness, and a desire for other joys of the flesh.  Zhu’s earthy passions cause substantial trouble to both him and his sharper companions (although, ironically, the monkey, who represents intellect, will, and arrogance, usually gets in even more trouble by leaping out ahead of everyone).   This is of course o remind everyone that we need the intellect in the upcoming year, but we also need the tolerance, soft-heartedness, and the optimism of the pig.  Humans are monkeys after all.  Like Sun Wukong, the monkey god, we tend to be rather cruel to pigs.  Let the Year of the Earth Pig remind you to be more gentle and compassionate to our big-bellied curly toed friends…or even to yourself if love of luxury or your hungry belly leads you astray.  The great lesson of the Chinese zodiac is that we are all animals, but animals have a celestial magic! Be wary but embrace your inner pig and have a wonderful year 4716.

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America loves Marie Kondo, a self-help author and lifestyle guru who has exploited people’s insecurities (and our culture’s dark codependent relationship with disposable consumer goods) in order to become enormously rich.  If you have somehow missed the fuss about Kondo, she wrote a book called “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”, which is typical cultish self-help waffle about how you should throw all of your things away, paint your walls white, and fold your few remaining textiles with chilling robotic precision.  Kondo has leveraged her success into a “brand” and now appears on Netflix, going through people’s lives and discarding everything that does not “spark joy.” In one recent episode, she caused great anxiety to intellectuals and bibliophiles when she applied her methodology to book collections. In her worldview, unread books should be discarded, as should books which you wish to read again, but are not presently reading. Kondo said that her ideal library was, at most, thirty books.  If there are parts of a book you love, you should cut out the relevant pages and throw away the rest (although it seems this may have been an experimental Kondo methodology which didn’t work out even for her).

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As you can imagine, these ridiculous & harmful ideas have caused book-lovers (and idea-lovers) to become apoplectic.  The history of people who destroy books or encourage their elimination is not very splendid or happy. It is hard not to elide Kondo’s claptrap with some of these sad episodes. Fortunately for Kondo, there are few intellectuals and booklovers in contemporary society, but there are legions of people who are angry in one way or another about identity politics. To the eyes of these Kondo apologists, the scholars and bibliophiles spluttering indignantly about the importance of books or whatever are racists who are lashing out at a successful Asian-American woman because of her wealth and influence.  As with everything in America in 2019, the entire episode has made everyone furious and left all parties looking bad.

In Kondo’s defense, I can sympathize with how difficult it is to create new material every day.  If you are forced to continuously churn stuff out, sometimes your material is not always terribly good. It is all too easy to say or do stupid things.  That is one of the reasons we throw things away. Indeed, I haven’t watched the offending episode, but have only read about it.  Maybe she was tossing out shelves of Dilbert cartoon books, Ayn Rand novels, or 1850s books about the glories of colonialism and slavery.  Since the show is about people appealing to her for help, she might have been throwing away hundreds of tendentious self-help books!

Also to her credit, Kondo identifies the information inside the book as the important part, and admonishes us not to idolatrously love unread books for their own sake or use them as props.

But, and this is the critical part: it is unclear how one would ever extract this knowledge if they discarded the book before reading it.  The things that “spark joy” in my life right now are different from the ones that will spark joy in my life a year from now.  When I was growing up, my parents had mysterious and compelling shelves of books from their college days.  Every day I walked past the diseased eye on the cover of Camus’ “The Plague” and wondered what was going on in that book.  Looking at the troubling dissection on “Gray’s Anatomy”, the dandy on “Vanity Fair”, the strange Van der Weyden portrait on “Masterpieces of the National Gallery” and the magnificent sperm whale on “Moby Dick” made me curious about the contents of those books too.  Sometimes I would pick them up and try to understand them.  Eventually I picked them up and read them.  If my parents had thrown those books away, maybe I would have found them later and read them on my own, or maybe not.  Maybe I never would have become as interested in reading to begin with.

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Also, books are our cultural heritage.  “Moby Dick” was universally unloved when it first came out in 1851.  It took 70 years before it found success.  What if 1890s Marie Kondo (I am sure there was an analogous busybody) had come along and thrown away the copy that caused a critic to love it and rescue it from obscurity.  Books are not knick-knacks or ill-used toiletries, they are bigger and have bigger meanings which are not immediately evident. Kondo seemingly fails to understand or acknowledge this.  Also I love books! Imagine if some third party went into Marie Kondo’s life and started throwing away the things she cares about most (dollars & followers) until she only had thirty of each left: I bet she would be pretty dissatisfied.

Beyond these obvious and cursory points about the nature of writing and thinking, Kondo’s insistence on shoveling this tripe into our face right now so she can become richer and more important speaks to the nature of now (when every business is busy making shortsighted decisions in order to maximize profits and our leaders are clinging to power even if it causes the republic to founder.).  Her unwise advice also increases our country’s dangerous love affair with anti-intellectualism, a perennial scourge, which, in the Trump era, is becoming a threat to the continued existence of the nation.

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I have been meaning to write about Kondo as part of a larger polemic against minimalism (an undying aesthetic movement from the 21st century which is not just ugly, but which is morally injuring us).  However, the fact that Marie Kondo is apparently openly attacking knowledge itself, temporarily derailed my anti-minimalist essay.  We need to defend literature and the accumulated knowledge of humankind against the ridiculous menace of the gentle Japanese art of throwing everything away (or whatever this crap is called).  Don’t worry though, I haven’t forgotten my original point and we will get to minimalism and oversimplification tomorrow some time next week. Events on the ground complicated my plans (because the world is complicated and not simple).

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Today I was riding home on the subway after a loooong day of Monday office work.  I was drawing in my little book when a friendly stranger asked me about the drawing I was working on (which was the surreal cartoon about modern dystopia which is pictured  above).  Uncharacteristically we started talking about dystopean fiction…and then the other people in the train joined in the conversation about favorite works of epic heroic fantasy, and Jungian archetypes, and science fiction as it relates to day-to-day society.  It was quite amazing and restored my faith in the world.  As ever, I was particularly impressed by Millennial-age people (by which I mean the cohort of younger American adults–not 1000-year-old-humans) who are much-maligned in turgid journals, but who strike me as polite, eager-to-learn, funny, and kind.  Anyway, the cartoon is about the unfortunate direction which society is going in at present (and it pokes fun at the inane yet somehow compelling Kevin Costner science-fiction movie),  however my unexpected book talk with strangers on a train makes me think the world might be headed in a much better direction!

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I am still thinking about Lady Xia’s pet gibbon, the first and last known representative of its kind, and the subject of yesterday’s post.  After I wrote about the interwoven fates of rice and trees and men and apes, I spent a long time looking through Ferrebeekeeper archives for the beautiful gibbon poem which I alluded to in the essay, but I came to realize that I never did write about it, so today’s post is another post about pet gibbons in ancient China. Bear with me, for the poem is an exquisite piece of history, and a remarkably soulful examination of pets…and of the winsome sadness of life itself.

The poem was written by Wen Tong (1019–1079AD), a scholar-artist of the Northern Song Dynasty who was famous for his bamboo paintings. Allegedly he could simultaneously paint different stalks of bamboo with both hands, and lovely examples of his work are still extant a thousand years after he painted them…as is poetry about his favorite pet (As an aside, medieval China featured a class of learned polymaths who were masters of writing, erudition, gardening, and “painting without financial reward”: there is no clear career analogy in the modern western world although the painting without financial reward part sounds rather familiar).

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Wen Tong wrote about his love and admiration for his pet, and the poem quietly reveals a great deal about the household mores and emotional norms of well-to-do life in the Northern Song dynasty (note how the painter has so many retainers that he just passingly assigns one to look after the gibbon).  It is a lovely and heartfelt window into a vanished world which is well worth examining line by line. As a poetic device, the back-and-forth switches from first person to second person keeps readers attentively off balance and yet draws them closer to both Wen Tong and his gibbon.  Although, the writer’s privilege and possessiveness shine through, so does his kindness, playfulness and curiosity (perhaps there is a reason he got on so well with his remarkable pet that we are still thinking about it all of these centuries later). However, the final stanzas transcend the writer’s time and place.  The poem speaks to the uneasy and fraught relationship we have with our fellow life-forms.  For animals have their own lives and hearts and spirits, no matter how much we want to love and possess them. Wen Tong also delves into the realm of the existential, questioning the apparently painful randomness of fate, which mocks notions of ownership and control.

Don’t let my clumsy words put you off reading the actual poem (coincidentally I have taken the whole translated work from “Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World’s Most Intriguing Animals” By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson).  It really moved me greatly and I hope you will also find it to be equally enchanting and sad.

it really is extraordinary and I think it will move you

Last year a Buddhist Monk of Hua-p’ing, in the Min mountains,

Obtained a gibbon for me and had it delivered from afar.

On arrival he was already tame and accustomed to captivity,

And his swift and nimble movements were a delight to watch.

He would come and go as told, as if he understood my speech

And seemed to have lost all desire to return to his mountains.

Put on a leash he was not interesting to watch,

So I set him free and let him romp about as much as he liked.

On a moonlit night, he would sing, swinging from a branch,

On hot days he would sit by the flowers and doze facing the sun.

When my children were around or my guests showed their interest,

He would hang upside down or jump about showing his tricks.

I had told a man to look after all his needs,

So that he never even once lacked his seasonal food and drink.

Yet the other day his keeper suddenly told me the gibbon was ill.

He stood on my steps, the gibbon in his arms, and I went to look,

Offered him persimmons and chestnuts, but he didn’t glance at them.

Legs drawn up, head between his knees, hunched up with folded arms,

His fur ruffled and dull, all at once his body seemed to have shrunk,

And I realized that this time he was really in great distress.

Formerly you were also subject to occasional slight indispositions,

But then after I had fed you a few spiders as a remedy,

After having swallowed them you would recover at once.

Why did the medicine fail now, though given several times?

This morning when a frosty wind was chilling me to the bone,

Very early I sent someone to inquire, and he reported you had died.

Although in this world it is hard to avoid grief and sadness,

I was tormented by repentance and bitter self-reproach.

You could be happy only when near your towering mountains.

You had been yearning for far plains and dense forests.

You must have suffered deeply being on a leash or chain,

And that was why your allotted span of life was short.

I had his body wrapped up well and buried deep in a secluded corner,

So that at least the insects would leave his remains in peace.

Mr. Tzu-p’ing, my western neighbor, a man of very wide interests,

When he heard about this, slapped his thigh sighing without end.

He came to inquire several times, in deep sorrow over my loss,

Then, back home, he wrote a long poem of over a hundred words.

Reading those lines my lonely heart was filled with sadness.

Well had he expressed the grief caused by my gibbon’s death!

He also tried to console me by referring to life’s natural course, “That

Meetings result in partings, subject to the whims of fate.”

I took his poem out into the garden, read and reread it

Then, looking up at the bare branches, I burst out in tears.

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April is poetry month!  Just thinking about it makes me recall wilder, grander (younger) times when I spent my life carousing with poets, drinking infinite goblets of wine and talking all night about the great unfathomable mysteries of life and love.  Those days are gone, those friends have all vanished to wherever poets go, and the great mysteries remain unsolved (of course).  Yet, anon, it is spring once again.  There is a cold breeze blowing clouds across the white moon.  The garden is empty and dead, but the buds are starting to form on the cherry tree.

To celebrate these wistful memories and to celebrate the eternal art of poetry here is a very short poem by the original drunk master, Li Po, a roving carouser famous for descriptions of the natural world combined with intimations of otherworldly knowledge.  This poem is a good example–and a good spring poem.  The Chinese original is probably filled with cunning homonyms and allusions of which I am ignorant (at this point, everyone might be ignorant of some of them…Li Po lived in the Tang Dynasty from 701 AD to 762 AD).  But it seems like Jasper Mountain is an allusion to the court intrigues of the capital.  It also helps to know that peach blossoms are associated with celestial/fairy folk not unlike the Ae Sidhe.  Enough prose, here is Arthur Copper’s translation of Li Po’s succinct masterpiece:

IN THE MOUNTAINS: A REPLY TO THE VULGAR

They ask me where’s the sense

on Jasper Mountain?

I laugh and don’t reply,

in heart’s own quiet:

 

Peach petals float their streams

away in secret

To other skies and earths

than those of mortals.

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