Saturday, February 09, 2008

Christopher Robin

My boys, taking a break from the world of Pokemon, have discovered the simple pleasures of the old Disney "Winnie the Pooh" adventures. Perhaps I can entice them with some of the original stories? In the meantime, this piece, written by Czelaw Milosz, I offer with love for them.

I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continue to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment.

Owl says that immediately beyond our garden Time begins, and that it is an awfully deep well. If you fall in it, you go down and down, very quickly, and no one knows what happens to you next. I was a bit worried about Christopher Robin falling in, but he came back and then I asked him about the well. "Old bear," he answered. "I was in it and I was falling and I was changing as I fell. My legs became long, I was a big person, I grew old, hunched, and I walked with a cane, and then I died. It was probably just a dream, it was quite unreal. The only real thing was you, old bear, and our shared fun. Now I won't go anywhere, even if I'm called in for an afternoon snack."

Awaking with Blood in the Mouth

A pseudo-romantic satire on the "Arabian Nights", Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare is a fun and engaging read. Intricate plot devices mirror the famous 1001 Nights and The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, challenging perceptions of reality through the adventures of a young Englishman in late 15th century Cairo.

The subject is reality and its manipulation through suggestion and dreams. As a medievalist, Irwin knows his setting, and the David Roberts etchings of Mamluk Cairo are a nice touch. The plot gains convolutions page by page, and I confess that I may not have puzzled out all its intricacies - is the narrator the talking ape on Yoll's shoulder, or the ventriloquist? If the later, what is his relation to the rest of the narrative? The title refers to a dream/disease causing excruciating but unremembered pain in the afflicted - could this be anything but life itself?

A delightful and rich reading experience, and deserving of a place on that exclusive list of books to be read again.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A Decadent Jewel

William Beckford's Vathek is a decadent jewel and a masterpiece of faux Orientalism. The Caliph Vathek seeks ultimate knowledge, using violence and sensory indulgence (precursor of Rimbaud!). He finds this knowledge, and eternal damnation, in the subterranean kingdom of Iblis, the Islamic Satan.

The archaic 18th century prose drips of a heady perfume, a reflection of the baroque pleasures of Vathek. There are dim echoes of Dante's Hell, and of the sorcery of the Pharsalia, as the Caliph's mother raises the dead for necromantic purposes. The halls of perdition reflect Piranesi's labyrinthine prisons, and the palaces of the five senses are a libertine's paradise, with fantastic abundance of sensual pleasures for a man with a truly gargantuan appetite.

Borges wrote an essay on the novel, noting that Vathek's reward and his punishment are one and the same. Lured by a mysterious sword with ever-changing characters, Vathek's odyssey is an inversion of the spiritual quest, as he descends from his station as a beloved, if arrogant, defender of the faith, through cruelty and blasphemy to find himself in possession of all the riches and knowledge he desires, at the price of eternal damnation and torment. A rich and brilliant fantasy, the Arabian Nights as seen through the lens of a decadent 18th century British aristocrat.

French Whine: The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Considered an early example of "warts and all" autobiography and long considered a classic of the western canon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions is a bizarre book.

The first portion, covering the philosopher's life up until 1741, is pleasant enough - a picaresque study of a wandering eccentric youth told, at times, with an alarming frankness.

The second part, chronicling his life as a writer with growing influence, gets stranger as the narrative progresses. Put simply, Rousseau had a full-blown persecution complex, and he relates in excruciating detail his perceptions of a growing cabal of opponents who have apparently (from his perspective, at least) committed themselves to making his life a veritable hell on earth. Prominent among Rousseau's tormentors are the encyclopediests Diderot and d'Alembert, as well as various members of the French aristocracy. The reasons for this persecution are never really explained by Rousseau, but the Confessions turns into one long protracted whine.

To himself, Rousseau was a noble, pure-hearted soul with never a mean or false word against anyone, unfairly attacked and hounded by those whose motives he claims never to have understood. Reading this, I longed for a good, objective biography of the writer - one that could explain just what the hell was really going on. Years ago, I read and enjoyed Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker, a series of writings which attempt to justify the author's character, with reference to his past indignities. The Confessions, which I believe predate that more melancholy work, doesn't clarify anything, other than Rousseau's paranoia and misanthropy. He protests that he is aloof from humanity, seeking nothing more than solitude and a life devoted to the contemplation of nature, while at the same time revealing his own penchant for gossip and intrigue. The Confessions strikes me as the writing of an entirely self-absorbed, deluded man.