Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What Do You Think of These Four Dante English Translations?

It's customary to comment on parallel translations. Instead I will invite you to read and judge for yourself which is superior. I will say just that the great translations here seem to me a foregone conclusion.

Dante and Virgil are in the middle of the circle of the lustful, and Dante has just seen the damned and is describing them, so it's Canto V of Inferno, lines 40 to 51.

James Finn Cotter

And as the starlings are lifted on their wings
In icy weather to wide and serried flocks,
So does the gale lift up the wicked spirits,

Flinging them here and there and down and up:
No hope whatever can ever comfort them,
Neither of rest nor of less punishment.

And as the cranes fly over, chanting lays,
Forming one long line across the sky,
So I saw come, uttering their cries,

Shades wafted onward by these winds of strife,
To make me ask him, "Master, who are those
People whom the blackened air so punishes?"



And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;

It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.

And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,

Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.
Whereupon said I: Master, who are those
People, whom the black air so castigates?



...As in large troops
And multitudinous, when winter reigns,
The starlings on their wings are borne abroad;

So bears the tyrannous gust those evil souls.
On this side and on that, above, below,
It drives them: hope of rest to solace them

Is none, nor e'en of milder pang. As cranes,
Chanting their dol'rous notes, traverse the sky,
Stretch'd out in long array: so I beheld

Spirits, who came loud wailing, hurried on
By their dire doom. Then I: Instructor! who
Are these, by the black air so scourg'd?



And as, in the cold season, starlings' wings
bear them along in broad and crowded ranks
so does that blast bear on the guilty spirits:

now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them.
There is no hope that ever comforts them
no hope for rest and none for lesser pain.

And just as cranes in flight will chant their lays,
arraying their long file across the air,
so did the shades I saw approaching, borne

by that assailing wind, lament and moan;
so that I asked him: Master, who are those
who suffer punishment in this dark air?


What do you think?

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

On Othello I: On the Character of Rodrigo.

The mystery of Iago's darkness is compounded by his headless and heartless nature. As the gnostics have an absent and uncaring god, so Shakespeare has an absent human nature in Iago.

Iago says he would rather be a baboon (without reason) than drown for love like Rodrigo wants to. The heart for him is a blank space that erotic will pierces and destroys ("A lust of the blood and a permission of the will").

His seduction of Rodrigo is frightening like few horror stories. Iago makes sure that Rodrigo might make money and forget his own soul - lose the good of the human, in Dante's terms. For this one speech in Act One of Iago to Rodrigo has embedded in it a truly fiendish hypnotic double bind:

- the soul is trash.
- money will win you your soul back
- I will win your soul back for you with money.

These are the terms of the devil's bargain embedded in Rodrigo getting Iago to win Desdemona for him. But here is the double bind:

- I (Iago) am evil, therefore giving me money to win your soul is ill spent, therefore your soul is evil too.

With a single speech of less than a single page, Iago damns Rodrigo's soul.

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On 'Othello' I - The Character of Othello

Othello reminds me of Caesar; the same daystar persona inspires conspiracy and hate. Othello and Caesar's nobility and courage seem to draw vindictive hatred to them like iron filings to a magnet.

As for Desdemona, for having no trance of a shadow side in her, she is no help to Othello; their romance is a pipe dream untested against their unconscious defects. Shakespeare (I nearly said Freud) Shakespeare shows light of consciousness without shadow in Othello and Desdemona. I want to shake them both and shout "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is!"

Iago is a speaking darkness. Iago is no fallen angel; he is rather the abyss into which angels fall.

Watching A Eugene O'Niell Documentary

Proust teaches us that some life events are so big that they overflow into the past and present. O'Niell's plays and life show how the pervasive impact of tragic events can be transcended by great art.

"Stammering is the nature of eloquence for us fog people," his character Edmund in 'Long Day's Journey...' says.

Likewise, by confessing our defects we begin to transcend them. We learn from 'Long Day's Journey...' that by lovingly struggling with our birth family it becomes possible to embrace the human family in a universal way.

When I read it as a teenager I wasn't adequate to O'Niell's tragedy. Even Othello was just lovely verse to me back then.

The documentary presents these and other fascinating insights.

Every time - when it works - every time we go on stage, we break time. We become able to dream only when we confess our shallow theatricality. We are washed up from eternity on the beach of time; have we got the will to be shipwrecked again and again for a dream? Like Gulliver, we risk bitter disillusionment for our ideals when we sail our of harbour. Like Ishmael, we seek by pilgrimage out at sea an inner visitation with our own oceanic majesty and pomp.

O'Niell's great tragedies are such pilgrimages. Above all, it's time I reread Shakespeare's tragedies; I've been away from them long enough.

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'Mind Your Own Business' - How We Are All Living In a J.S. Mill World

John Stuart Mill wrote in 'On Liberty': "All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the action of other people." This striking quote is a good entry point to Mill's consideration of freedom as a choice of what kind of coercion we submit to.

In Mill's life, I see that there are two forms of opinion:

1. Reasoned Judgments with evidence supporting,


2. Love and passion backed with experience, true motive and practice.

JS Mill has both forms. But here is a man who lived a virtual world, feeling false passions, loving what he was always taught to love, and praciting his father's will until he fell in love. That he didn't abandon intellectual life altogether is a pretty grand drama to me.

The question which Mill seems to have lived is: what does theory look like in practice? What role does idea play in forming motive passions that infuse powerful opinions? From these questions arises the theory of representation and his (in my opinion) extreme views on liberty.

Mill's first principle: the only good motive for coercion is self-protection.

This is flat out useless as a practical standard of political power. The 'self' that is protected of a gang of thieves is not the same 'self' that is protected within a cloister of monks. 'Self' is a moving target, dependent on context for validity. So this rational ideal of coercion is only valid for rational agents. And, to be honest, rational agency is a little thin on the ground in human history so far.

Mill qualifies this standard by limiting it to those who can be convinced or pursuaded, but again... this is a hopelessly idealistic burden for reason to carry alone. Mill quite overrates the power of reason to effect pursuasion in my opinion - but this comes back to my enquiry on theory and practice, reason and passion.

Freedom that matters, for Mill: the right to go chasing your own unharming good in your own unharming way. This is the liberal enlightenment view of freedom without an end (telos), or freedom as an end in itself.

What is the latest application of freethinking liberal philosophy for Mill? I can sum it in four words: MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.

From all this, I conclude that we are living in a John Stuart Mill kind of world. When I walk down the street and nobody says hello to me, that's because they are free not to. Courtesy and community are secondary or irrelevant. The key consideration of a liberal society is that you mind your own business.

This also accounts both for the intense sense of alienation in the West, on the one hand, and the strong sense of purpose and rational passion in Western liberal movements. All three of these qualities - the alienation, the passion, and the MYOB - are all essential traits of JS Mill's personality.

When I walk past a sloppy drunk, a glossy hiphopper, a neat businesswoman, a greasy mechanic, and more ethicities than i can name, with a perfect equanimity and complete indistraction from my own affairs - when I walk this way I see I live in the world of John Stuart Mill's imagining, from almost two centuries ago.

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Contra Niall Ferguson and Moral Relativism

I watched Niall Ferguson's propoganda piece on the end of World War Two thisafternoon on SBS Australian TV. Ferguson takes the view of Primo Levi that the war was a "tainted victory".

This is a specious claim and a truism, not a wise judgment. ALL wars are tainted, victorious or otherwise, morally and emotionally, for both sides. War is tainted - so what?

Ferguson props his view up with poor Primo Levi's authority. Because Levi was a sophisticated intellectual with scientific training (he was a chemist), we impute the authority of good judgment to his views. But Levi's judgment is that of a suicide overcome with horror and despair - not of a survivor. Levi's view of the war is not just not good for life - it's anti-life. He willfully rejects facts that may make meaning of the event. You only have to compare Levi with Viktor Frankl's 'Man's Search For Meaning' to see that Levi left historical documents while Frankl left great literature as a result of the same experience of interment.

So Niall Ferguson is culpable of propagandizing this despairing view in his documentary. Let's look at his claims:

First: Bombing of civilians occured out of a desire for vengeance.

FALSE. Allied bombing arose from the practical need to break the will of the enemy. The Nazi bombing of civic populations was motivated by vindictive hate; the Allie motive was to end war.

Second: The Allied colluded with the evil reign of the Soviets at the end of the war.

FALSE: the Allies spent 40 years to defeat the Soviets after the war. (That was called the Cold War - remember?) In addition, starting a war against Russia immediately after defeating the Germans was not feasible; the Soviets were not an immediate threat, and we had no responsibility to save the Russians from their poor choices of governance.

The most evil aspect of Niall Ferguson's documentary is implied, because if it were clearly stated we would see its falsity immediately:

Ferguson implies that the Allies were morally no better than the Axis powers, that the atomic bombings were not preceded by the most painful and delicate moral deliberations; worst of all, Ferguson implies that human nature is inexplicably evil and without a reliable source of absolute goodness and truth in the world. It is this last implication that reveals Ferguson for the bleeding moral relativist, and really sinks his propaganda piece.

Because we are still here and alive, and for the most part happy and free, Niall Ferguson and his relativist crew are proven wrong.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Liberty and Revolt Against Heaven: Why Read Greek Tragedies?

I've been reading Greek tragedies. Since I read them last, at 17 years of age, they have improved.

In fact, they speak across the ages now, man to man, from lips that have been dust for twenty five centuries into this ear that still sings a beat of human blood. And what is the bridge over 25 centuries except our common suffering, imposed and accepted, and our common liberties, upheld or revolted against?

But to connect these Greek tragedians - Aeschylus' Agammemnon, Sophocles' Antigone, Euripides' Bacchae - to the great ideas of liberty, imagination, pain and pleasure, is to add more meaning to them than they need. After all, all the pleasure of reading these men comes from the pristine clarity of song and reason.

The whole reason for the remaining fame of the Greek tragedies is that they are delightfully and joyfully fulfilling experiences. That is all the reason they need.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Literary Tonglen: Reading the Gateway to the Great Books of the Western World

I spent a few hours last night integrating what I had learnt from grade one of the Gateway to the Great Books. Seeking and making connections between stories, images, themes, feelings. Sensing forwards and backwards into experience for meaning.

The key to it leapt at me from the ABC's monthly magazine, Limelight, to unlock the first grade of readings in the Gateway to the Great Books. Limelight notes brain studies that reveal that, while people are reading books, the brain lights up as if it is actually engaged in what the reading describes. In other words, reading is not escaping reality but practicing it!

Now in that light, consider what grade one's stated purpose is:

The introduction states that the first grade is for readers either limited in life experience or about the age of 11 and 12 years old. The readings are adventure stories, stories of sea and nature, stories of heroism and teamwork, and stories that give rare entree into exclusive social millieux of the great and living dead.

We imagine the adventures at sea and land of working men. We see the ordinary challenges of daily life in a new light. We read adventures that draw out our inner resources. The great adventure stories, far from being idle daydreams, imperceptibly infuse new courage into undertaking daily difficulties. Havings stretched ourselves to live the extraordinary adventures in books makes common challenges more doable.

Not only that, but many of the readings introduce us to great men - Caesar, Lincoln, Xenophon, Socrates, Jesus, Solomon, Napoleon, Aristotle - and introduces us also to their great ends. So imperceptibly the first grade provides a critique for our own ends, means and motives. How do we compare to the greatest of the past? By contact with them we are enlarged.

On the deeper philosophical level of greatness, the first grade first introductes us into the Platonic Form of the Good. It does this through the obvious Platonic reading of the allegory of the cave in 'Republic', but also through fine literary criticism pieces of a general nature.

Why, we ask ourselves, do we need literary criticism? The introduction to the Gateway answers: literary critics direct us to the best, which is another way of saying they show us the most good quality beauty, in books. Not only that, they draw out the precise nature of the good through definition, demonstration, and comparison. So the beauty of a work is augmented by the good judgement of the critic, and refined by the true discernment of the critic. The critic reveals the complete Platonic form of the Good by describing the truth and goodness inherent in the beautiful work of imagination. Best of all, good criticism challenges our own judgment to improve in the light of their judging. The good, true and beautiful make up the Form of the Good, and literary criticism demonstrates this and whets our desire to become better acquainted with It.

Thematically many of the grade one readings pit social morality or natural justice against individual choices. Inevitably individual choice fails, but in doing so it shows us our natural limits as human beings.

I could imagine no more useful and freeing tragedy than one which shows precisely and overwhelmingly the exact nature of the limits by which human nature is circumscribed, and shows no more than that.

The overall impression of the first grade of the Gateway to the Great Books is that they provide a gradual course in what I call "literary tonglen". Tonglen is the Buddhist practice of giving the ease and joy you have away and taking the pain and suffering of others into yourself. So literary tonglen is the process of educating the heart to consider and align and share with the sufferings and joys of others. Literary tonglen is the process of becoming a full human being, for better and worse, richer or poorer, til death parts us from the brute world.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Unspeakable Nature in Wordsworth's Prelude: A Poetry Recital

Tonight I read Crashaw's 'The Flaming Heart'. I recited poorly but the poem didn't bear repeating. Crashaw's 'Flaming Heart' is a fiery rush of sexual-religious rhetoric.

The poem is inspired by (a better word would be 'ejeculated from') Crashaw's reading of the life of Saint Teresa: the resulting gush of verbiage represents his unmediated transposition of female orgasm into Crashaw's intellectual process. That is to say, Crashaw's sustained passion for Teresa's piety, the images of fire and melting, the forceful accumulation of ornate figures that when read aloud are so isomorphic to a desperate squirming of the body - all this and more makes Crashaw's poem 'The Flaming Heart' just NSFW.

Crashaw's poem is an example of that obscure subgenre, Catholic erotica, at its finest.

Then I turned to Wordsworth's 'Two Part Prelude (1799)'; altogether a different order of poem. Really for the first time I got the shamanic darkness of the poem. As I read I heard a roaring in the inner ears and felt, as if from a shadowy second body which stood right behind me, mine and yet not me but the body of a dream, shadowing the physical body.

I'm not ashamed to say it frightened me a bit, this darkness and motion and words that name things which I knew no names for. I stopped reciting and turned on the TV.

But it was no use: the entire field of awareness went on vibrating inexplicably with the impact of Wordsworth's greatest poem.

The unutterableness of Wordsworth's poem, neither pre- or trans-verbal, has that quality of Nature Herself which also storms uneasily beneath the verse of William Shakespeare.

Perhaps it was the recital of Crashaw that evoked it; the darkness of Wordsworth was drawn by the fire of Crashaw. I don't know.

It made me uneasy all the next day.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

This is just to say

A lil homage to William Carlos Williams: click the title for the original WCW poem.

This is just to say
I have read
Gateway to Great Books,
Grade One.

I am sorry -
Educated so finely, I am
Becoming a human being
At last, at last -

I could not resist.
Virtue is so delicious,
Desire for freedom
So sweet.

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