Quote of the Afternoon

We have to free ourselves of childish expectations; we must not pray like children whining to our parents. We must also reject any latent feudalism in our hearts: we still call our gods “lords” and act like serfs begging for consideration. Neither infantile wailing nor medieval supplication is the prayer we need.

— Deng Ming-Dao, The Lunar Tao

The Lunar Tao (and Quote of the Morning)

On Monday, I came across a copy of a book that I didn’t know about by a favorite author of mine, Deng Ming-Dao. The book, The Lunar Tao, is a couple of years old, but this last two or three years has been very rough for us and I haven’t been keeping up with new books much.

Some years back, Mr. Deng wrote a terrific book called 365 Tao, which is a series of daily meditations on living in harmony with the Tao. Each of the short essays is connected with a day of the year, and many of them are tied in some way to the seasons in various ways. (A nice touch is that the essays are not dated but are numbered 1 to 365, with a table in the back where you look up which number corresponds to a particular date; different sets of correspondences are given for the northern and southern hemispheres.)

This book, The Lunar Tao, is also a series of daily meditations, but tied to the days of the lunar calendar. Appropriately enough, Monday was the first day of the year by the Chinese lunar calendar, so I’ve been able to start right from the beginning. Each page also contains a sidebar about the significance of the day in the Chinese calendar or some other aspect of Chinese culture or writings that is relevant to the day’s meditation, and the meditations are interspersed with information about festivals, short poems, historical information, and traditional physical exercises. I’m looking forward to getting deeper into it.

Anyway, today’s meditation, on the parable of the Kitchen God and the virtue of humility, contains a line that I like a lot:

Those who are truly lucky suffer mildly from their mistakes and learn early.

Oh, yeah, ain’t that the truth. The meditation ends with a line worth jotting down, too:

We claim the center by being humble.

The Hobbit

Dave and our friend Trenton and I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Saturday night.

We all liked it a lot. The acting is terrific and the adaptation from the novel strikes me as absolutely brilliant. OK, if you go in wanting to see the novel literally and faithfully brought to the screen, you’re likely to be disappointed. That seems to be what is going on with a lot of the reviewers who have panned it: From their reviews, a lot of them seem to have gone in already having decided what an adaptation of The Hobbit has to be, namely a fairly short movie aimed at children, as the novel is. They came into the theater having made up their minds that the novel is too slight to support a trilogy of movies and that this was therefore obviously going to be an overblown movie disaster, and they wanted to write that review so badly that they didn’t notice that what was on the screen was the sort of movie they’d already decided could not possibly work, and it was working.

On the other hand, if, like me, you’ve always found The Hobbit to be an odd and somewhat unsatisfying prologue to The Lord of the Rings, a much slighter book and too twee by half, very Beowulf-meets-Winnie-the-Pooh, then you might be predisposed to be blown away. The novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may be set in the same world and be by the same writer, but they don’t really go together, don’t feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. And yet — at least judging from this first part — these two movie trilogies are going to end up feeling like two halves of one whole.

The filmmakers have found a way to retell the story of The Hobbit not as a children’s tale but in the style of the movie LOTR. The scenes they’ve added give the story and characters more weight and depth, make connections between what’s happening here and what will happen in LOTR, fill in linking pieces of the history, and so on.

They’ve changed some incidents so that they make use of the same visual language as LOTR, in a few cases even repeating an image to stress a point. For example, the first time Bilbo accidentally puts on the Ring, it happens when he stumbles and falls in a visual echo of the scene in LOTR in which Frodo falls in the Prancing Pony, and it seemed to me to be a wonderful stroke, pointing up the connection between the two events and making the point that here, too, the Ring is actually trying somehow to slip onto the finger of whoever it wants to be its next bearer. This is the sort of ominous point that is never made in the novel of The Hobbit — logically enough, as Tolkien didn’t know yet where he was going with the fantasy world he was creating. In the movie, though, the connections are made, and we can see how the things that happen in The Hobbit and the decisions that are made are eventually going to lead to the story of LOTR. Many of these connections are things that you’d only understand if you’d studied the two novels pretty carefully and/or read the various appendices and ancillary books. I think it’s a good thing to incorporate them into the movies.

The score has plenty of new music, along with new leitmotifs for Thorin and Erebor and Radagast and so on, so I have no idea what some of the reviewers are talking about saying that it’s all just recycled music from LOTR. The score does use themes that are familiar from LOTR for the Ring and the Shire and so on, but even then, they’re often varied in new ways.

We saw the movie in 3-D at 24 frames per second. I didn’t think the 3-D seemed to be adding anything. From what I’ve heard, I’m just as happy not seeing the movie at 48 fps.

The one way in which the movie felt overmuch to me was the number and length of the battles. (This was true for me of the movie of Return of the King, too. For that matter, it’s true for me of the book of Return of the King. In a technical way, I appreciate how skillfully Tolkien’s prose takes on more and more of the noble manner and form of Old English poetry à la Beowulf in the battle scenes in ROTK; but in practice, I find that it makes for some especially draggy reading to place so near the end of a very long book).

But still — the battle with the goblins underground is brilliantly and intricately planned and executed, like a huge comic set piece out of a Jackie Chan martial arts movie (only with probably twenty times the budget). And the battle at the end does make for a very strong finish to the movie. The filmmakers make it more important than it is in the novel, and move a crucial incident from later in the novel to this point, so that the movie ends with some emotional weight, some significant development in a couple of the central characters. It totally worked for me as a strong ending to the movie.

So even though my overall feeling at the end of the movie was that my appetite for battle scenes had been more than sated, I’m not sure exactly what I’d want to trim away, either.

(My experience as a writer has been that when there’s too much of one element like this, the natural reaction is to want to start cutting at the point where the audience begins to tire of it. However, this is — in my experience, anyway — usually where you shouldn’t cut much. Instead, you want to be trimming things away much earlier, even though this is the section of your story where that element is still working well, so that if you lose any dramatic weight as a result, you lose it in your early scenes and keep it in your late scenes. So maybe there’s some battling early on that could have been shortened. It would probably take several viewings of the movie, though, to begin to have a worthwhile opinion about what exactly to trim.)

Later: I appreciate the new visitors to this site, but please note that this website is a personal online journal, and that neither this entry nor any other you find here is a review. If you can’t deal with the fact that I’m writing here pretty much off the top of my head and that I ramble whenever I feel like it and often don’t take the time to shape my entries into cogent formal arguments, then you’re probably looking for some other website, not this one.

Also, you may like to know that I have seen The Hobbit a few more times and no longer feel that there are too many battle scenes or that they go on too long. I can see why it felt that way on my first viewing, because the movie is complicated and has many layers, and I didn’t catch a lot of the subtler stuff the first time through. So a lot of the richness of the story didn’t fully register with me, the simpler elements like the battles made a stronger effect, and I wasn’t seeing the movie’s proportions very well. On more viewings, however, I have come to understand more of the many threads that are woven into the movie, and I find that the battles now feel right to me.

I hope that the extended version will use the extra screen time to point up some of the subtler elements more. If those things had been spelled out better, I think the movie would not have felt a little battle-heavy to me the first time through.

Koopman at Davies

Dave and I spent the whole day together on Saturday, a rare and sweet occurrence for us, given our incompatible work schedules. First was lunch with a few friends at the Bagdad Cafe. Then to the Old Mint to spend an hour or so at the San Francisco History Expo, then to the Concourse for the Antiquarian Book Fair. We didn’t end up buying anything — we saw a few things that would be wonderful to have, but they were all out of our budget. Some, of course, more out of our budget than others. I would have loved to come home with a first edition of an important book by Jean-François Champollion, the man who worked out the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the 1820s using the Rosetta Stone and a hero of mine since childhood, but at $22,000 that was obviously just not going to happen. On the other hand, I was very tempted for a while by a copy of Gordon Craig’s biography of Henry Irving, numbered and signed by Craig and with an autograph letter by Irving (or so it was claimed; the handwriting was just about illegible, though if you looked carefully you could just figure out how to make “Irving” out of the signature) thrown into the package; it was probably a pretty good deal at $400, actually, but times are hard and money’s tight and that was more than twice what I had figured I could reasonably afford to spend if I came across something I really, really wanted and was willing to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch for two weeks in order to have it. So I put it back on the shelf, and we went home empty-handed.

Still, there’s a thrill at being able to see so many incredible old books. Going to the book fair is like visiting a museum of books. First editions of important scientific works by Newton and Pascal and Gödel, manuscript scores by Schumann and Stravinsky, signed copies of books by J. R. R. Tolkien and Willa Cather and John Steinbeck, autograph letters by Hart Crane and J. D. Salinger and Abraham Lincoln and Richard Wagner and on and on.

In the evening we went to a surprisingly tepid concert at Davies, Ton Koopman conducting. On the program were J. S. Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto, a C. P. E. Bach symphony in G, and Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Other than the C. P. E. Bach, there wasn’t much fire in any of it; Koopman’s tempi and dynamics were very restrained and moderate throughout, without much variety. Everything was beautifully played, even sumptuously so, but without ever creating much feeling of structure or forward movement.

More Housman

I’ve been reading more of the selected prose in the back of my Penguin A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Among the selections are an amazing number of wittily savage takedowns of rival scholars, and after I stop laughing, I can’t help thinking that if I’d actually known the guy I would have found him to be a horribly pissy old queen.

On an edition of Aeschylus:

When Mr Tucker’s conjectures are not palaeographically improbable they are apt to be causeless and even detrimental. Among the axioms assumed in the preface are the following: ‘”the reading in the text must hold its place until such cause to the contrary can be shewn as will satisfy a rigidly impartial tribunal. The onus probandi lies entirely with the impugner of the text.” “The conditions of dispossession are these. It must either be proved that the reading is an impossibility, or else that in point of grammar it is so abnormal, or in point of relevance so manifestly inappropriate, as to produce a thorough conviction that the MS is in error.” I for my part should call this much too strict; but these are Mr Tucker’s principles. His practice is something quite different: in practice no word, however good, is safe if Mr Tucker can think of a similar word which is not much worse.

On somebody’s introduction to an edition of a play by Euripides (nowhere in the excerpt quoted does it say which play, but the following refers to the play’s deus ex machina ending, which might be enough to narrow it down if only remembered my Euripides better, though more probably it wouldn’t):

And when Mr Flagg says that “the modern reader cannot adequately reproduce the feelings stirred by this final scene in the Athenian spectator’s breast,” this is to arraign Euripides, not to defend him. It means that he wrote for an age and not for all time: he defaced his drama that he might gladden the eyes of the vulgar with the resplendent stage-properties of their beloved goddess: a trap to catch applause which does not differ in kind from the traditional sentiment, always welcome to the gallery of our own theatres, that the man who lays his hand upon a woman, save in the way of kindness, is unworthy of the name of a British sailor.

Nice job, Mr. Housman, reaching out from your ivory tower to slap down Mr Flagg and Euripides with the same swat. And no matter if your own words here are not written for all time, either, but merely for an age, and not even your own age but that of Euripides, who alas did not live quite long enough to revise and improve his plays in line with your counsel, to the great loss of posterity. No one, no one, writes for all time; writing well for one’s own age is the best one can do, and that is plenty difficult enough as it is.

On a disputed line in Aeschylus:

But to say that a thing is not yet begun but is still going on is such nonsense as not one of us can conceive himself uttering in the loosest negligence of conversation; only when centuries of transcription by barbarians have imputed it to an incomparable poet, then we accept it as a matter of course.

This one is a truly beautiful line, though:

His opinions, not being his own, were not permanently held, but picked up and dropped again, and he lived from hand to mouth on the borrowed beliefs of the moment.

Comfort Reading

Since my brain surgery eleven and a half years ago, I’ve suffered from excruciating headaches, though fortunately over time they’ve become less and less frequent, and I now only get them maybe three or four times a year. Usually when I get one I lie down in a hot bath — I’m not sure how much this actually helps the headache, but it’s soothing and it gives me something to do while I wait for the pain medication to kick in.

In theory, it seems like lying there in the tub with my eyes closed ought to be the best thing, but in fact that often just focuses my attention on the pain and makes it seem worse. So I often take a book with me to distract me.

But it’s impossible for me to concentrate on anything when I’ve got a bad headache, so the book has to be what I think of as “comfort reading”, usually something I’ve read many times already and like a lot and can follow and enjoy (or at least enjoy the illusion of following) even if I just let the words wash over me as I read.

Also, it has to be an inexpensive and replaceable paperback, in case I get a little water on it or heaven forbid drop it. There are several books that in theory would be great for this function but I only own them in editions too nice and/or too hard to replace to take the risk.

A couple of weeks ago it was a paperback copy of Anita Loos’s two short novels Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. The former is a comic masterpiece; the latter is just an OK sequel, but enjoyable enough.

Dave and I watched the movie of GPB last night, too. It’s a lot of fun, and Marilyn Monroe is terrific, but the movie is softer and more conventional than the book and only occasionally gives us glimpses of the untamed Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw as they are in the novels.


I’ve had the urge to reread some Salinger lately. What I really wanted to reread was Franny and Zooey, but the only Salinger book I seem to have in the house is the other collection of two long stories, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction. The rest of the books are, I assume, still in God only knows which box in the garage.

Franny and Zooey was the first Salinger I ever read, back in high school. I don’t remember why I read it, other than that I read a huge amount when I was young. It wasn’t assigned reading — they would never have assigned such a book at my high school. I can’t remember whether I bought it or got it from the library or came across it on my parents’ bookshelves; can’t remember what caused me to be curious about it. But I read it. I liked the Franny part all right, but the ending of Zooey just floored me. I’ve reread it several times since and I still consider it one of my all-time favorite books.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is a terrific story. Seymour: an Introduction, on the other hand, is a rambling mess, and yet as I read it, it all came back to me how important some of the passages were to me and how their meaning had stuck with me even though I’d forgotten the source.

I read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters in a hot bath (appropriately enough, given the ending of Zooey) several days ago after waking up at 3:00 a.m. with a headache and not being able to get back to sleep. Then yesterday, after working an excruciating number of hours the last week and a half (including both Saturday and Sunday) to get a very thick book ready for the printer on schedule, and with the book done and with another headache starting, I took the afternoon off and went home and sat in another hot bath and read most of Seymour: an Introduction. I stopped about 20 pages from the end because I found my concentration flagging — I was getting sleepy, and like I said that story wanders terribly. It’s also too precious by half, which I know a lot of people say is true of Salinger in general; I don’t agree in general, but I do about that story. There are long passages in that story that give me enormous pleasure and joy to read, but it meanders terribly and self-consciously in a way that Raise High doesn’t. I plan to finish it on the train home tonight.

So Dave and I were chatting about Salinger, and about one story I’ve never read, “Hapworth 16, 1924”, that was published in the New Yorker but hasn’t been collected or republished anywhere else; and Dave pointed out that I must have it on my set of the complete New Yorker on DVDs, which I bought four or five years ago and never got around to looking at. So I put the installation DVD in my Mac and got it started (the software is amazingly clunky and slow), and found the article. I’ve saved it, page by page (and it spreads out over fifty pages! fifty!) in PDF form to read on my laptop later. It looks if anything even more meandering than Seymour.

The fact that I have the New Yorker set also means I also have Franny and Zooey and the other stories at hand after all.

Constantine’s Bible

After five chapters, I took a break from Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God — terrific but dense with information and ideas, and not a book to try to absorb quickly, I think — and picked up David L. Dungan’s Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. I found it both interesting and disappointing. Interesting because it clarified a lot for me about the political situation in the Roman Empire in the first few centuries, especially as to why the early Christians were so hostile toward the Jews who didn’t follow Jesus, and why the Christians wanted so strongly to distance themselves from them.

Disappointed because after four terrific chapters about the history leading up to the canonization of the New Testament, including the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christian thought, when we finally get to chapters five and six, about Eusebius and Constantine, Mr. Dungan suddenly reveals his agenda and becomes an apologist and cheerleader for the perfect scholarly correctness of Eusebius’s judgments about which books were worthy of inclusion and which were not. A whole lot of church politics, then, is being glossed over. For that matter, even by Mr. Dungan’s own account, Eusebius took the books that he knew were of dubious authorship at best, and he divided them into two groups, the ones that his branch of Christianity approved of and used (which made it into the New Testament), and the ones that only other branches of Christianity approved of and used (which didn’t). This is presented as being good scholarship rather than politics, and give me a break.

So after a long buildup, full of interesting political information, when we finally get to the actual making of the New Testament, there really isn’t much about the politics involved in it, despite the book’s subtitle.

Plato’s Cave Allegory

I’m into chapter three of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, which is about the classical Greek philosophers. It’s a somewhat different take on them than I got from my college courses in philosophy, so very interesting.

So she brings up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which I haven’t thought much about since college, which was 25 years ago. I didn’t really know what to make of it back then and haven’t thought much about it since. To refresh all our memories, here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

Plato imagines a group of people who have lived chained in a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Plato, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to seeing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not constitutive of reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

So far, so good. What most of us think we see is not reality, I can get behind Plato on this part of it. It’s the next part I now find, in my current middle-aged state, that I don’t buy so much.

The Allegory is related to Plato’s Theory of Forms, wherein Plato asserts that “Forms” (or “Ideas”), and not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Only knowledge of the Forms constitutes real knowledge.

If I understand Plato right here, he’s saying that you’ve got this oak and that oak and that other oak, and all these oaks are not real, they are only “shadows” of what is real, which is the Ideal Form of an Oak. I can sort of see that point of view. There are all these things in the world, but running through them all are patterns that we can try to discover, by means of observation, scientific experiments, intuition, and so on. Understanding those patterns is what enables us to understand and manipulate our world.

But my immediate reaction to reading about Plato’s Cave the other day was, No, that’s backward. It isn’t the case that most people see the individual oaks and not the Ideal of the Oak. It’s the other way around: Most people look at the individual oaks and they see only the idea of “oaks”. Or more likely just the idea of “trees”. Our minds interpret everything immediately in terms of categories, but in reality the categories don’t exist. There’s no such thing as the Ideal of the Oak, that’s something our minds projected onto the world around us so that we could analyze things and talk about them and manipulate them. There are only really these temporary concentrations of matter, constantly changing into something else, that we’ve drawn circles around and named. And the human condition is that nearly all of us spend nearly all our time in this invented world in our heads. We look at the oak and we think “That’s an oak” and that’s pretty much the extent of our interaction with it.

But in the reality that exists outside our heads, things don’t have names or categories. They just are. Or rather, it just is, because the division of the universe into things is just as much an invention of our minds.

Which is why my reaction to thinking again about the Cave Allegory was that Plato had it backward. He thought the patterns and forms and ideals were what was real and the shapes we actually see are only shadows of those forms projected onto the world around us. I think the great indivisible whatzit of the universe is what’s real, and the patterns and forms and ideals we think we see are shadows that our minds project onto the world around us.