Check out the animated show Bat out of Hell on Kickstarter!

Hard Questions

ada2

In the comments to the previous post, Duffer asks some hard questions of writers and maybe a few readers of Korrektiv.

Can we please get over Walker Percy? How many Walker Percy conferences must one attend in a lifetime?

As for myself, I can only say to the first, “Not yet, I guess”, and to the second, “Well, three anyway. Three and a half, if we count the opening of the WPC back in 2010 (or thereabouts).

Not that I haven’t tried. There was that decade reading the classics of Greek and Latin literature, not to mention a number of extended trips to such exotic locales as Zembla and McLean Hospital (in search of the ghosts of Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Lowell, respectively). But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I always find myself back with other dissenters from the dissent, in the scrambled geography of Feliciana Parish.

For instance, I’ve just started reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography and a former editor at Time. Isaacson himself explains the Percy connection here, and I suppose that’s one of the things that sparked my interest in the book. It’s pretty great so far, beginning with a chapter on Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and something of prophet of modern computers. A prophet and, as she herself would have it, a poet.

Her reengagement with math, she told her mother, spurred her creativity and led to an “immense development of imagination, so much so that I feel no doubt if I continue my studies I shall in due time be a Poet.” The whole concept of imagination, especially as it was applied to technology, intrigued her. “What is imagination?” she asked in an 1841 essay. “It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations….It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.” The Innovators, p18

This sounded awfully familiar to me. Where had I read this before? Oh, yes, of course … Percy wrote something similar to this in his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome.

Little things can be important. Even more important is the ability——call it knack, hunch, providence, good luck, whatever——to know what you are looking for and put two and two together. A great scientist once said that genius consists not in making great discoveries but in seeing the connection between small discoveries. The Thanatos Syndrome, p3

Could that “great scientist” have been Ada Lovelace? Probably not, but the connection here is intriguing (to me, anyway). Ada Lovelace has an insight into the relationship between imagination and science in the early 19th century. Percy makes a comment based on a similar idea in a novel in 1987, by which time we might suppose Lovelace’s insight to be more commonplace——possibly picked up on by other mathematicians and scientists, some of whom Percy might have read.

But maybe an actual connection isn’t all that intriguing. Maybe it’s just true, or even a capital T Truth, but a Truth so general that anyone could make it, at almost any time. Causality and contingency be damned, maybe connections just are——between some things and other things, between people, between ideas, between propositions, between people and ideas and propositions … between anything and everything, so much so that I suppose there’s a possibility that in the end, none of it is much more than mildly interesting. Maybe it isn’t interesting at all.

But connections can take on a seemingly divine importance, as I was trying to get at in that poem last week, or as Catholics might more readily understand as the basis of the laying on of hands——we think, or at least hope that the Holy Spirit is guiding our way through these connections. Those we recognize, and probably many more that we don’t. Dash that “seemingly”!

Anyway, that’s one reason I can’t get over Walker Percy.

from The Mandelbaum Gate, by Muriel Spark

I recently finished The Mandelbaum Gate, an excellent novel by Muriel Spark. But then all the novels of Spark that I’ve read are excellent. And as in the others, she grafts quite a bit of her own life onto her characters—perhaps not unlike Rufus’ Roxanne, below. Here is an excerpt featuring the main character, Barbara, who has recently arrived in Israel to tour the Holy Land, and hopefully meet her fiancee, an archaeologist excavating sites around the Dead Sea.

She had hired a car early that morning and driven northward through the Judean hills to Gallilee. The scene with Freddy Hamilton resembled an alcoholic hangover. On the way, she began to feel a sense of her own identity, and realized that this in fact was what she had began to lose amongst the answers she had been obliged to devise to the questions of the Israelis since her arrival in the country. She recalled that day she had been driven by a guide along the road to Caesarea … It was eleven in the morning:

‘A half-Jew?’

‘Yes’

‘Which half?’

‘Through my mother.’

‘Then you are a whole Jew. The Jew inherits through the mother by Jewish law.’

‘I know that. But one says half-Jew to say that to mean that one of the parents is a Gentile and the other—-‘

‘But the Jew inherits through the mother. You are then a full Jew by the law.’

‘Yes, but not according to the Gentile parent’s law.’

‘What was your father’s Law?’

That was a question indeed.

‘I’m afraid he was a Law himself,’ Barbara had said to the questioner, a large blond Pole. He laughed at that.

She told him of her father and  the wild upsurge of his middle age and downfall. ‘He broke his neck while fox hunting. The horse threw him. He landed in a ditch and died instantly.’

‘My father also died in a ditch. Shot by the S.S. Why have you made yourself a Catholic to deny your Jewish blood?’

‘I don’t deny it. I’ve just been telling you about it.’

‘You are brought up as a Gentile or a Jew?’

‘Neither. No religion.’

‘And your mother’s relatives and your father’s relatives, what religion?’

Barbara had felt displaced, she had felt her personal identity beginning to escape like smoke from among her bones. ‘What a lot of questions,’ she said. So they drove along the road to Caesarea through the fertile plain of Sharon, cultivated to the verge of the road on each side. They had found the car to be cooler with the window shut than open to the hot breeze. But not much cooler. ‘A lot of questions,’ she had said, with the dying-fall of a victim deprived of fresh air and civil rights.

‘I ask her a question, she makes a big thing of it that I am Gestapo,’ said the guide to some invisible witness.

Barbara said, ‘Well, it’s hot.’

He said, ‘I asked you, because you say you are half-Jew, you say you are a Catholic, and I ask you only what is the religion of your mother’s relations and the religion of your father’s relations. It is a natural discussion, if you would say to me, who are you, who is your mother, who is your father and how do you come to be an Israeli guide, and I would answer those questions. Then I should ask who are you, what is the family, your brothers and your sisters—–‘

Barbara thought, ‘Who am I?’ She felt she had known who she was till this moment: she said, ‘I am who I am.’ The guide spoke some short Hebrew phrase which, although she did not know the language, quite plainly signified that this didn’t get them any further in the discussion.

Shakespeare on Ice*

puck on ice 1

“Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.”

*Taken at the Kohl Center at the opening game of Wisconsin Badger’s basketball season. They played Northern Kentucky University, whose coach happens to be the husband of a good family friend. At any rate, the NKU “Norsemen” lost to the Badgers, 31-62.

Rain and Fog and Straw and Man

Morning Fog

Like hushed antiquities ensconced in crates,
Excelsior, and mummy’s cotton gauze,
This roadside farmland holds no common cause
With time or place. A breeze investigates
The dialogue of rain and fog, yet yields
No evidence of crows nor their scarecrow,
But only emptiness in open fields
That proves a second harvest – stubbled straw.

So modern man, a target on the move,
Will enter such a landscape in his mind.
His feet will neither sound nor mark. The mist
Envelopes them, and rain is quick to drive
The point – the past erased or redefined,
Mere straw to scare the crowing nihilist.

Photosource(no relation)

I don’t often drink sazeracs….

sazerac

But when I do*, I make sure my Ticonderoga is good and sharp.

*21st Amendment, French Quarter, New Orleans, October 2013

“I have no talent.”

greene

It’s the birthday of novelist Graham Greene (books by this author), born in Berkhamsted, England (1904). He described the citizens of his hometown as “slitty eyed and devious,” and he had an unhappy childhood. He came from a prominent local family, and his father was the headmaster of his school, where Greene was bullied and attempted suicide several times. At the age of 16, he tried running away. His parents sent him to London to be treated by a psychoanalyst, an experience he thoroughly enjoyed. He decided that his biggest problem was boredom, and he began playing Russian roulette.

He went on to Oxford, where he published his first book, a book of poetry called Babbling April (1925). It was a flop. He got a job as a copywriter for The Times of London and spent years working as a journalist. He said, “A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction.”

Greene was an obsessive traveler. At Oxford, he offered his services to the German government as a propagandist if they would pay his expenses to travel in France. During World War II, he joined MI6, the British Intelligence Service, and was posted to Sierra Leone. He visited Prague during the Communist takeover, Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising, Haiti under the reign of brutal dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and covered the Vietnam War and the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. He wrote 24 novels, many of them set in the places he had visited. He said: “I travel because I have to see the scene. I can’t imagine it.”

His first big success was Stamboul Train (1932), published as Orient Express in America. It is set onboard the Orient Express headed to Istanbul, and follows the fate of the passengers, including a Jewish businessman, an exiled Socialist doctor, a lesbian journalist, a chorus girl, and a murderer. Greene said: “In Stamboul Train for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film. The devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims.”

Greene wrote The Heart of the Matter (1948) about an English colonial policeman stationed in Sierra Leone. He is passed over for a promotion, his marriage is failing, his love affair makes him feel guilty for betraying his Catholicism, and a local diamond smuggler constantly manipulates him. Greene described his main character, Scobie, as “a weak man with good intentions doomed by his big sense of pity.”

The Comedians (1966) was set in Haiti under Papa Doc’s rule, narrated by a hotel owner named Brown. The novel upset Papa Doc so much that he published a pamphlet accusing Greene of being “a liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon … unbalanced, sadistic, perverted … a perfect ignoramus … lying to his heart’s content … the shame of proud and noble England.”

A Burnt-Out Case (1960) was the story of a depressed architect who traveled to a Congolese leper colony.

Greene said, “I have no talent; it’s just a question of working, of being willing to put in the time.”

From The Writer’s Almanac

It’s also the birthday of Wallace Stevens.

Oath and Abundance

visitationFor Elizabeth, on her birthday

Elisheba, young Aaron’s wife, saw
The scorching sun and torrid sand
On Israel’s treck avow no shadow
Nor soothe the azure sky – such land
Where all the colors drained from Eden
And drowns a rainbow’s hope for heaven…
The voided desert shades refuse,
In justice, spectrum’s seven hues.

Elizabeth, though, aging wife to
Old Zachariah, sits and rests
And waits to see her promised guests
Descend the everlasting hills now
From heaven’s blue – her mantled earth,
An advocate for mercy’s birth.

No. Really.

photo

The Land of Hurricanes and Happiness

Gerasene Selfie

image