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?

 

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.

The Universe in Verse

This past Saturday, I watched a livestream. Perhaps my first ever. The event was The Universe in Verse, billed as “a charitable celebration of science and nature through poetry.” (Here’s a link with more info from Pioneer Works, the Brooklyn-based cultural center that puts on the show: The Universe in Verse.)

There were two names on the program that got me to tune in: Janna Levin and Rebecca Solnit. I saw Janna Levin speak at Tulane University several years ago, and picked up a copy of her book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space. And Rebecca Solnit is a writer whom I greatly admire.

Oh, and these other names helped sell me on the prospect of spending Saturday afternoon in front of my laptop: Kip Thorne, Brian Greene, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, and Jad Abumrad.

At over three hours, I was glad I was watching a livestream versus an in-person event. I could carry my laptop around with me as I did stuff around the house. And by the end, I was happy to have experienced it. It helped get my head in a better place.

Some highlights for me: watching Rebecca Solnit read a lovely poem (I don’t remember which one) in front of an oak tree, somewhere out in California, I think. I’d never seen her before, I’ve only read her, and she had a very compelling presence. And Janna Levin, who opened the event (she’s on the Board of Directors for Pioneer Works) got me thinking back to an inspiration I had, when I saw her here 4 years ago. She told a story about something that happened during the construction of LIGO (the two observatories that detected gravitational waves — one of them just happens to be here in Louisiana). I’ve only just started getting that inspiration out of my head and onto the page, and this event reminded me that I’ve got to make the time for it.

I’ll leave you with one of the poems that stood out to me — it’s a short one. It was read by Krista Tippett of the radio program “On Being.”

The Peace of Wild Things
by
Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Alternate Timelines

Souvenir from the Wookieeverse

The concept of alternate timelines, or alternate realities, has always been somewhat second nature for me. Or, alternate nature, perhaps.

When I first learned about the multiverse, the hypothesis that there is not only one universe, but an infinite number of universes, my first reaction was, “Of course! Why wouldn’t there be?”

I think I’m just wired that way. Space and time — time especially — has always felt like a construct to me. Something like scaffolding.

Why am I going on about alternate realities? They’ve been on my mind these past few days. In another timeline, I would have been in Disney World with nieces Nicole and Cece this past weekend. Running the Star Wars half-marathon. But that just may be a delayed timeline, since we’re planning to run this race next year, instead. And we still got medals for running a “virtual” half-marathon.

And if I had been in Florida this past weekend, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go through a long-neglected box of stuff. Where I found piles of evidence of my own alternate realities. (In reality: past realities.) Day planners, wall calendars — things I had no business hanging onto for as long as I had.

I disposed of most of them, but couldn’t bring myself to part with some of the very earliest ones. The most ancient artifact from that timeline is pictured below.

A couple of friends came immediately to mind as I found that 1981 Hallmark date book. Not friends I had back in that day, but friends I have now. One of whom would have been a wee bairn in April 1981, and the other who would not make her debut until October of that year. (I mean being born, not making her society debut.) I was 11 for most of 1981, and from my perspective, it was a good year to be 11. I’m glad to have memories of that year.

Even though they might just be a fabrication. 😉

Interesting how I marked the track meet. It would be years before I found my stride as a distance runner.

206 Years Ago

Sunrise, April 13, 2020.

On April 11, 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne of the French empire, and was sent off to exile. The first time he was exiled, it was to the relatively accessible island of Elba in the Mediterranean. (Those seeking to be done with him would not repeat the mistake — the second and final time he was exiled, it was to the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. This place is exceedingly remote, even by today’s standards.)

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time with Napoleon in the past year. I read The Count of Monte Cristo in the middle of 2019, and that book is set in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s reign. And Napoleon’s all over War and Peace. I’m 89% of the way through Tolstoy’s epic, and currently in the story, it’s October 1812 and Napoleon is hightailing it out of Russia.

Napoleon’s doings seemed to be the cause of a lot of uncertainty back in the day. I’d never really thought of it that way before, I think because I tend to look back at history as a concrete thing. “This happened, and then this happened because of it, and these were the effects.” But reading War and Peace has put me right back in that time, as only good fiction can. I felt the uncertainty of the characters as Napoleon’s army came into Moscow, and I feel it as the French abandon a burnt-out city and country.

It’s hard not to draw parallels with our current level of uncertainty.

So on Saturday, when I read that it was the 206th anniversary of Napoleon’s abdication, it had a little more impact than if I had not spent the better part of this past 12 months in Napoleon’s world. It was like a reminder of the fact that the French really did leave Russia, and Napoleon was forced from public life, eventually. And, oh yeah, he’s been dead for almost 200 years.

The live oak pictured at the top of this post could have been around 200 years ago. It’s not far from some oaks that are believed to be between 750 and 900 years old. While it may not be too long before we can all say, “this is what happened as a result of our 21st century pandemic, and these were the effects,” that’s little consolation for our immediate anxiety. Thinking of what that tree may have been around for, and seeing it still standing strong, makes it feel like a beacon of hope.