Mundus Vult Decipi

I finished Figures of Earth over the weekend. I have to say that I find Cabell’s view of women less perceptive than it might have been, to put it mildly. And the episodic story is maybe one or two episodes longer than it needs to be. I suspect I’d be happier with the structure if the four main women in Manuel’s life — Alianora, Freydis, Niafer, and Suskind — were somehow trimmed to three, though I don’t know which of them Cabell could have eliminated. Still, in spite of some faults, it’s a great book, and with a real kick in the last few paragraphs.

A favorite passage of mine, in which Manuel asks about the words on the coat of arms of the land he has just been given:

Mundus decipit, Count,” they told him, “is the old pious motto of Poictesme: it signifies that the affairs of this world are a vain fleeting show, and that terrestrial appearances are nowhere of any particular importance.”

“Then your motto is green inexperience,” said Manuel, “and for me to bear it would be black ingratitude.”

So the writing had been changed in accordance with his instructions, and it now read Mundus vult decipi.


It seems to me to be a general principle that if somebody appears as a great religious leader, and says to us that we should do such-and-such in order to tear apart society as it is and remake it in a better way, then after this leader has died a great religion will spring up, bearing his name and claiming to carry on his teachings, and it will solemnly instruct us that it is a sacred obligation on all of us to preserve society exactly as it is and has always been, and that in particular doing such-and-such is one of the greatest of sins.

Meteor Spotting

Dave and I forgot to go out and look for meteors last night, which was predicted to be the peak night for the Perseids. But now it looks like tonight may be even more active than last night. People in parts of the earth that are dark right now are seeing a much higher rate of meteors than anyone saw last night, so we’re hoping that that will still be true by sunset tonight. We’re going to rent a car from City CarShare and drive up into the Berkeley Hills and look at the sky for an hour or so. Moonrise is around 10:30, so early evening should be good.

Later:I reserved a car from City CarShare for two hours, and so after a nice dinner at May Flower (one of our favorite restaurants in downtown Berkeley), Dave and I walked over to pick up the car and go look for meteors.

We reached Inspiration Point about 9:30. Great spot, pretty dark, lots of benches. There was quite a gathering already there, as we expected, but we found a bench to share with another couple. But then the cops came by around 20 minutes later to warn us that Tilden Park closes at ten and people who didn’t leave by then could be cited. Spoilsports.

We tried a few other spots, including the parking lot of the science museum, without success. Then Dave suggested the Berkeley Rose Garden.

When we got there we found several other meteor seekers there. The Rose Garden is fenced and locked up at night (as much to keep out deer as unscrupulous florists) but we found an empty bench outside and we sat and looked up. At first it seemed like there was too much ambient light, and we talked about giving up and heading back a little early. But then we saw three meteors in about a minute and a half. So we stayed there another 15 minutes or so and saw a few more. Then it was time to return the car and head home to bed.

Anyway, We’re Talking about Jerry Brown Here. And Charisma? In the Same Sentence?

Headline of a front-page article in the Contra Costa Times this morning:

Charming — but effective?
Allure, star power can sway votes, but results mixed on ability to govern

Fifth paragraph:

When voters elect a successor to Schwarzenegger next year, will they mark their ballots for a charismatic figure such as Gavin Newsom or fellow Democrat Jerry Brown? Or, will they opt for one of the accomplished but bland Silicon Valley-ites vying for the GOP nomination: Tom Campbell, Steve Poizner or Meg Whitman?

What is a piece of obvious pro-Republican spin like this doing on the front for crying out loud page? Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown are not familiar faces because they are charismatic, they are well known because they are governing, and right now. Have been for some time, too.

But a long and successful career of public service like Brown’s is just “charm” and “star power”, and it’s the GOP candidates who haven’t achieved anything like that who are “accomplished”. Sheesh.

Ariadne auf Naxos

I listened to the Sinopoli recording of Ariadne auf Naxos again over the weekend. It’s a wonderful performance of one of my all-time favorite operas, a brilliant, ironic, profound, silly, rich, just about perfect match of story and song, words and music. The section from Ariadne’s “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a land”) to Zerbinetta’s “Grossmächtiger Princessin” (literally, “Greatly powerful princess”, but meaning something more like, “Your Excellency”) is one of the most satisfying twelve minutes or so of opera that I know. I could listen to it over and over again.

Comfort Reading

Rereading Cabell’s Figures of Earth on the way home today. A favorite book of mine, and I noticed it was available on Project Gutenberg, so I downloaded it to my iPhone. I own two beautiful editions, one part of the 19-volume Storisende edition — signed and numbered and very handsome in green cloth with gold stamping — and the other the edition with the brilliant PapĂ© illustrations. But I’d be nervous about carrying either one around in my backpack — I don’t own many books in such nice or scarce editions that I’d feel bad if they got scuffed up in my pack, but both of those I would, and I don’t even want to think about the possibility of losing a volume from the numbered set.

Figures of Earth is sort of a serious parody of a medieval French romance, about the made-up legendary hero Dom Manuel, who rises from obscurity as a poor and none too bright swineherd to eventually become the powerful and reputedly brave and wise lord of a vast estate. His power comes in part through a blessing that was also a curse: He is given the power to obtain anything he wants, but at a terrible price, for on obtaining it he then perceives its true worth.

All Thinking That Goes Beyond This Only Makes the Heart Sore

There’s a chance now that we’re going to be forced to move soon. I’m feeling devastated and hopeless; the move here just a year and a half ago exhausted me severely, much worse than I was expecting, physically and financially and spiritually, and the thought of going through all that again so soon fills me with dread. Since learning about this two days ago, I have been agitated and sick to my stomach pretty much constantly, and only getting any sleep at night due to pills.

This morning I threw the coins for the Yijing, as I often do when I’m troubled or trying to work something out in my head. I threw this (using the Wilhelm/Baynes translation and commentary):

Fire on the mountain:
The image of THE WANDERER.
Thus the superior man
Is clear-minded and cautious
In imposing penalties,
And protracts no lawsuits.

When grass on a mountain takes fire, there is bright light. However, the fire does not linger in one place, but travels on to new fuel. It is a phenomenon of short duration. This is what penalties and lawsuits should be like. They should be a quickly passing matter, and must not be dragged out indefinitely. Prisons ought to be places where people are lodged only temporarily, as guests are. They must not become dwelling places.

Fuck. Not what I want you to tell me.

Fourth line moving:

Nine in the fourth place means:
The wanderer rests in a shelter.
He obtains his property and an ax.
My heart is not glad.

This describes a wanderer who knows how to limit his desires outwardly, though he is inwardly strong and aspiring. Therefore he finds at least a place of shelter in which he can stay. He also succeeds in acquiring property, but even with this he is not secure. He must be always on guard, ready to defend himself with arms. Hence he is not at ease. He is persistently conscious of being a stranger in a strange land.

No, no, no, this is way more truth than I am prepared to cope with this morning.

The moving line changes the hexagram to mountain over mountain:

Mountains standing close together:
The image of KEEPING STILL.
Thus the superior man
Does not permit his thoughts
To go beyond his situation.

The heart thinks constantly. This cannot be changed, but the movements of the heart — that is, a man’s thoughts — should restrict themselves to the immediate situation. All thinking that goes beyond this only makes the heart sore.

No, Not That Kind of Chinese Radical

There are a whole bunch of good Chinese-English dictionaries for the iPhone, but as far as I know we don’t have one with a decent way of looking for a character by its radical. (A radical is a component of the character.) I can look up a character on any of my iPhone Chinese dictionaries by its English meaning, or by its pinyin transliteration, or I can draw it. But if I see an unfamiliar character on a sign, say, then I don’t know what it means or how to say it, and when I draw it I’m such a beginner that it can take me several tries to get the right stroke order, and that’s crucial to the recognition software.

So it would be great if I could look it up on the iPhone by radical and number of strokes, as I can in most of the dictionaries I have at home.

But so far the only iPhone Chinese dictionary that has that feature is the Oxford Beginner’s, and that one is very poorly implemented and has a limited number of characters anyway, being meant for beginners.