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The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

Long May You Run

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

I bought a new car last week. This is a pretty big deal for me, because I tend to hold on to cars. In 30+ years of car-buying, this is my fifth. The numbers average out to a car about every eight years, but that average is skewed by the length of time I had my first car, which was only three years. Maybe a list will elucidate:

  • Car #1 — 1978 Ford Fiesta, purchased in 1988. It had no air conditioning, and its odometer didn’t work. It was permanently stuck at around 65,000 miles, to my memory. It did a great job for my years at the University of Arizona, but that no-air-conditioning-thing was a killer in the desert. Shortly after I graduated and landed my first full-time job, I traded in the Fiesta and bought:
  • Car #2 — 1991 Nissan Sentra, purchased new. The Silver Bullet. I loved that car. It moved with me from Arizona to California, and I drove it until its get-up-and-go was gone. By the time we parted ways in 2002, it had no resale value, so I donated it.
  • Car #3 — 1999 BMW 3-series convertible, purchased in 2002. I also loved that car, but it definitely falls under the aspirational, as opposed to practical, category. It moved with me from California back home to Louisiana, where the impracticality of a convertible in the rainy south soon became apparent. But, hands-down, the most fun to drive out of all of them.
  • Car #4 — 2011 Audi A4, purchased new. My first car with an automatic transmission, and my first car with four doors. Its engine was a bit wonky, and gave me some issues during our first few years together, but it was all covered under warranty, so it’s tough to complain.

The one thing these cars all have in common? Our farewell song. My final drive in all of them included Neil Young’s “Long May You Run” playing on some sort of device. I’ve never encountered another song more aptly suited to the occasion of saying goodbye to a long-time, trusted, automotive companion. Here’s just a snippet of the lyrics:

“Long may you run.
Long may you run.
Although these changes
Have come
With your chrome heart shining
In the sun
Long may you run.”

That phrase “chrome heart” is so evocative. In fact, I have a good friend (you know who you are) whose original title to his original feature film was Chrome Hearts. But that’s his story to tell.

Oh, and Car #5 is a 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid, just in case you’re curious. It was time for practicality (and economy) to reign in this area of my life.

The Canterbury Tales: 50%

So, I’m about halfway through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales on my Serial Reader app. And this time, Tim is reading along, not on Serial Reader, but via the tome featured in the picture above. Kind of a summer reading project for us both. A few observations thus far:

  • The hard copy book features both the original Middle English text and the translation to Modern English. The Middle English is pretty cool to look at, and it’s also pretty cool that The Canterbury Tales is considered one of the first works of prose to be composed in English. (Or maybe not prose, but poetry. In any event, I think Chaucer was among the first to take the type of stuff written in French and Latin at the time, and write it in English.)
  • The Canterbury Tales was unfinished when Chaucer died. (And, interesting fact, he died 40 years before the printing press was invented.) There’s no way to determine how he meant the finished work to appear. I’ve discovered that the order and inclusion of the individual tales varies, depending on the version you’re reading.
  • So far, I’m not loving the subject matter. Murderous in-laws cast a poor woman out to sea (“The Man of Law’s Tale”), there’s unthinkable spousal emotional abuse (“The Clerk’s Tale”), and, spoiler alert, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ends with a rapist living happily ever after. I realize times were different 600 years ago, but that doesn’t make the cruelty any more palatable. In fact, it offers some unsettling insight into our human history.
  • All this leads me to prefer to think of Chaucer more like Paul Bettany’s portrayal of him in the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale. It’s wildly anachronistic, but the character’s eloquence, motivations, and overall humanity are worthy of 21st century admiration.

Interpretations

This message was pretty clear.

So, I encounter messages all the time. At least hundreds, if not thousands, daily. Some of them are easy to quantify — like emails, text messages, social media messages, advertisements of all sorts. But the ones I’m concerned with here are the unexpected ones, out in the wild, or among the many rabbit holes of the internet. I saw the message featured at the top of this post for the first time this past weekend, in the Couturie Forest in New Orleans City Park.

These next two, below, are images I captured during a walk in City Park toward the end of April. The acid etch in the concrete is straightforward, no misunderstanding the intent there. But the figurine? No clue. Her missing arm is very disconcerting to me. It was a little after 6am, and I only saw her that one day, April 25. The best interpretation I could come up with was that she was part of some kind of treasure hunt, maybe a low-tech or no-tech geocache. Or maybe there was a tracker stashed up in that broken arm.

I’ll wrap this up with a quote I encountered for the first time this week, that I found really moving. I’ll leave the attribution blank, but that’s an interesting story of itself. At first glance, it appears to be from the Talmud, going by the memes that pop up around this quote. But digging a little deeper, it likely should be attributed to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, from his book, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot, which is out of print. I think he took some ancient text and shaped it to make it more accessible to a modern reader. At any rate, I’m glad he did, because it feels particularly salient now:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

In Fountain Court

Dawn on June 2, 2020. “The flickering green of leaves that keep / The light of June”

Last week, I mentioned that I would post about the poet William Blake. And here I am, following up!

I have to confess, I can’t hear William Blake’s name mentioned without thinking of one of my favorite scenes from Bull Durham. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) shows up at the home of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), dressed like she might be ready to attend a cotillion in some hot-weather place, and he calls her out on it. To which she replies, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. William Blake.” And then they just start shouting the name William Blake at each other, and there’s so much more going on between them than just a discussion of a 19th century English poet and artist.

My love of this scene didn’t seem to fit with the sober tone of my last post. But anyway, here are some things I learned after looking into the “fearful symmetry” from Blake’s poem “The Tyger:”

  • According to Wikipedia, William Blake spent his last days at Fountain Court in London.
  • Unless I read something wrong, Fountain Court is part of the Temple area of London. I have a vivid depiction of the Temple in my head from reading Dickens’s Great Expectations last year.
  • The poet Arthur Symons, who wrote the poem “In Fountain Court,” shared a flat in Fountain Court with W.B. Yeats.(!)

There’s a reason the mention of Blake living at Fountain Court had me dig a little deeper. It’s because I immediately recognized the title of Arthur Symons’s poem, since it’s one of my favorites. And I always think of it when June rolls around, because it just so happens to feature the month of June. (I wrote about all this 3 years ago: June in New Orleans.)

I guess all of this has given me a better idea of the setting of “In Fountain Court.” And maybe evened deepened my impression of the anticipation and hope that wend their way through the lines of the poem. In the last line — “Soon, love, come soon” — I choose to believe that real change, a true transformation, just might be possible.

 

Fearful Symmetry

Photo by Marc Ignacio on Unsplash

Last Thursday, I was compelled to open up my copy of Watchmen to find one of my favorite panels in all of comicdom. And, no, I haven’t seen the HBO series, so that wasn’t what compelled me. It just called to me from my bookshelf.

It’s the symmetry of this particular panel that stays with me. I assume it was a magical combination of the talents of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that produced it. (Photo down at the end of this post. Warning: it depicts a significant amount of violence.)

After I found it, I started to dig deeper, and found myself down a pretty deep rabbit hole. Turns out, this panel is from Chapter 5: Fearful Symmetry. The symmetry of the use of symmetry led me to William Blake.

That term, “fearful symmetry,” is from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger.” Here’s the opening stanza:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Yes, I probably should have known the origin without having to look it up, but I’m glad I did, in any event. I found out a bunch of stuff about William Blake that I didn’t know before. And I plan to use that for next week’s post.

But this week, I’m sticking with the theme of fearful symmetry. So here are two fearfully symmetrical things that have occurred to me:

1) I watched the successful launch of the manned SpaceX Dragon capsule on television, while protests calling for justice for George Floyd and support of Black Lives Matter were occurring throughout the nation and beyond. I couldn’t help but draw comparison to the moonshot efforts of the 1960s, and the concurrent struggles of the Civil Rights movement. That’s the symmetrical part. As for the fear: has so little changed in 50 years?

2) Just about a year ago, I read “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases” by Ida B. Wells. For the symmetry here, I discovered Ida B. Wells was no stranger to epidemics. When she was 16, she tragically lost both her parents and a sibling to yellow fever. The fear is in the content of “Southern Horrors” — I am still struck by her clear-eyed account of lynchings as a barbaric means of repressing the economic progress of Black Americans. Ida B. Wells wrote this in the 1890s. Has so little changed in 130 years?

 

The Very Next Day

Thursday, May 21, 6:03 am.

I witnessed a pretty remarkable sunrise in City Park the morning after I published that last post. I captured some photos over the course of roughly thirty minutes, and was very pleasantly surprised when I scrolled through those photos later.

The way the light and sky changed depending on where I pointed my iPhone, and the varied focal points — it all made me feel like I had covered far greater ground over a much longer time. I look at the photos now and still feel a certain sense of accomplishment, however unwarranted it might be. Hey, I’ll take it where I can get it!

This is my first time sharing these photos, and it’s also all I have for this post. I figure it’s the equivalent of 5,000 words…

Thursday, May 21, 6:04 am. Never mind the pond (rebel) scum.
Thursday, May 21, 6:11 am. I almost captured the full orb of the sun without tweaking the camera.
Thursday, May 21, 6:30 am.
Thursday, May 21, 6:34 am.

Within a Week

Saturday, May 16, 5:56 am. View of City Park’s Peristyle from across Bayou Metairie.

I considered titling this post “A Slice of Stay at Home,” but since only one of the pictures is from inside my home, I figured that might be misleading.

Maybe “A Slice of My New Normal” would be more appropriate. I was coming up empty on topics for this week — I haven’t read anything of note since Macbeth, and I’m taking a little break before diving into a new (for me) classic. It will most likely be The Canterbury Tales.

But I digress. In lieu of anything else, I figured I would share some photos from my iphone, captured over the course of a week. Most of them are from New Orleans City Park. I live a block away from City Park, and I’m very grateful for that!

Even pre-pandemic, I was in the park for exercise, maybe three times a week. Now, with no morning commute to contend with, and with the sun rising earlier as we move toward summer, I’m usually able to get out for a sunrise walk most days of the week. A bonus for heading outside that early: it’s very easy to maintain social distance.

I put my favorite photo of the bunch at the top of the post. The rest are in chronological order.

Monday, May 11, 1:50 pm. An uninvited visitor found his way to my home office.
Tuesday, May 12, 6:09 am. Sunrise over Bayou St. John.
Tuesday, May 12, 6:13 am. Still sunrise, still Bayou St. John, looking toward St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
Tuesday, May 12, 6:22 am. Left the sunrise behind and headed home.
Monday, May 18, 7:27 am. Had to head to a different part of town for an early morning appointment. Got a view of the Mississippi River.

Macbeth: 100%

So, Macbeth had been on my TBR list for awhile. After plowing through Serial Reader’s 235 issues of War and Peace, I thought 10 issues of Macbeth would be a walk in the park. It was, mostly, thanks to a generous helping of internet assistance with the Elizabethan English. (The “litcharts” website was particularly helpful!)

I always enjoy discovering the context of famous quotes. For example, there’s the line that begins “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day…” and ends “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (I can easily picture and hear my Mom reciting this, especially the first part, even though she’s been gone over 5 years.) Well, this is Macbeth’s speech when he finds out his wife is dead. He pretty much says, “she was going to die sooner or later,” and then launches into that speech.

Kinda harsh. But this also comes in the last act of the play, when both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were pretty far down the road to hell, anyway.

But one of the most interesting connections I made from reading Macbeth was one I wasn’t expecting. Very early on, in Scene 2 of Act 1, I encountered this quote:

“The multiplying villanies of nature / Do swarm upon him”

I immediately recognized it as something V says when he saves Evey in the beginning of V for Vendetta.

For the uninitiated, V for Vendetta (one of my favorite movies) is about a vigilante named “V” in a not-too-distant-future England, who dons a Guy Fawkes mask. Guy Fawkes is the best-remembered member of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Catholic separatists attempted to assassinate King James and blow up Parliament. V in the movie, like a post-modern Guy Fawkes, attempts to overthrow the seriously oppressive government of this not-too-distant-future England.

So here’s what I wasn’t expecting: there’s possibly a much stronger connection between Macbeth and V for Vendetta than just the use of some quotes.

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606, and some believe he wrote it to remove any suspicion of connection between himself and the people behind the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare’s mother was Catholic, and his father might have been a covert Catholic. His father was also friends with the father of one of the main conspirators, Robert Catesby. And, Shakespeare frequented the Mermaid Tavern, where the plotters met (to plot, apparently).

There’s a lot of stuff in Macbeth that would have appealed to King James. Take the noble character Banquo, whom the witches say will never be king, but will beget kings. Banquo is supposed to represent King James’s ancestor Banquho, Thane of Lochquhaber. And then the witches themselves — King James wrote a book about witchcraft, so he was obviously pretty interested in the subject.

Now, just how much “c.y.a.” was involved in Shakespeare’s motivation for writing Macbeth, we’ll never know. But it’s got me examining my own motives for writing a little more closely.

War and Peace: 100%

I really wanted to add an exclamation point to the title of this post. But with the percent sign, it may look like I’m cursing (War and Peace: 100%! — though it probably needs a hashtag and an at symbol, too, to really look like I’m cursing…War and Peace: 100%@#!)

Anyway, I don’t want to curse, I just want to shout from the rooftops: I’ve finished War and Peace!!!

It was definitely a challenge, probably the most challenging thing I’ve read via Serial Reader. (Moby Dick was tough, too, but only about 1/3 as long. Rousseau’s The Social Contract was no picnic, either, but it was mercifully short — I was done within two weeks.)

War and Peace was challenging, but ultimately worth it. It wasn’t so much the language or story that was challenging; it was processing all the human experience that is packed into that book.

When I started out, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. In my first post about War and Peace (War and Peace: 19%), I complained about not liking the characters and not caring about the translation.

Fast forward to now. I wound up buying a hard copy, (pictured at the top of this post), mainly because I wanted to be able to reference chapters I’d already read more handily than the Serial Reader interface allows. But it’s also a more recent translation (by Anthony Briggs), and when Tolstoy gets into really deep and heavy stuff, I found this version helpful.

And speaking of deep and heavy stuff, I can no longer say that I don’t like the characters. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily like them now, either. What I can say is that I feel like I know the characters, inside and out, especially Pierre, Andrey, and Natasha. I’m having a hard time thinking of another book I’ve read where the interior life of multiple characters was so expertly portrayed.

On balance, it feels like the past four months was a very good time for me to read War and Peace. Even though the story takes place at a time 200 years in the past, it was so immersive, so much still rings true, and there’s so much that’s transcendent; that it offered a welcome, alternative, perspective on the current state of things. An escape, if you will.

I’ve leave you with a recent photo I took that makes me think of the character Andrey. He has several epiphanies in the story — one occurs while he’s laying wounded on the battlefield at Austerlitz, gazing at the sky. And a separate epiphany occurs as he passes an oak tree in a carriage. For an oak tree and sky — things I see and pass, literally, every day — to make me think of a character in a story…it feels notable, certainly. And maybe even a bit transcendent.