Monday, September 10, 2012

The Shipwrecked Men by Cabeza de Vaca

A volume in Penguin's "Great Journeys" series, this is an abridgment of the Chronicle of the Navarez Expedition, which relates Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's nine year ordeal (beginning in 1530) among the natives of the Northern Coast of the Gulf of Mexico and what would become the American Southwest and Gulf of California.  Of the six hundred men setting out on the expedition in five ships, only three others were accompanying de Vaca when, sun baked and emaciated, he finally made contact with fellow Spaniards in Mexico.

In addition to being an anthropological document, there are also glimpses into the conquistador mindset, motivated by a brutal greed (it is a lust for rumored gold that leads the expedition astray in the first place).  He doesn't spare the details of the misery of the survivors, stalked by native archers and beaten mercilessly while on the verge of death, although the episodes of cannibalism brought on by the maddening pangs of starvation are passed over somewhat quickly.

While the narrative of travel is frustratingly vague regarding de Vaca's route, it is filled with details and observations regarding the native Americans he encountered, and must count as the earliest description of these people and their harsh lifestyle.  The Spanish suffered many depredations along the journey: de Vaca survived due to his adaptability and no small amount of luck.  He found a useful function as a trader among the various tribes, and eventually he and his companions acquired reputations as great healers. His sense of compassion - rare among soldiers of fortune- must also have served him well in his darker moments.

Along the journey, de Vaca formed a sympathetic respect for the natives he encountered, and, in addition to the more horrifying aspects of native life, he recorded their tenderness as well.  By the end of the journey, we see him surrounded by great flocks of followers, like some first century eastern Mediterranean wonder worker.  When he finally encounters his countrymen, he is shocked by their brutality and duplicity. Assured  by his rescuers that his followers will be better treated, they are enslaved and assaulted as soon as he is out of view.  He ultimately gains a victory of sorts when imploring that the King would be better served by the conversion, rather than the destruction of the natives.  It is a tender mercy that, in some instances at least, the cross triumphed over the lance.

Cabeza de Vaca's narrative is a testament of human endurance and adaptability under extreme circumstances.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner

Stranger Magic is a long and erudite meditation on the meaning and influence of The Thousand and One Nights in the West. Two significant touchstones for this work are Borges’ essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights” (in which Borges notes that “one of the chief events in the history of the West was the discovery of the East”), and Edward Said’s “cult bible” (Warner’s words) Orientalism, a critique of the false romanticism of the East by the West.

In tracing the influence of the Nights from its first Occidental appearance in Antoine Galland’s French translation (1704-1717) and through the iterations of Edward Lane and Richard Burton, among others, Warner harvests fertile ground. Within five separate sections, she explores significant themes interspersed with retellings of fifteen stories from the Nights. As the title of Warner’s book reminds us, The Thousand and One Nights is a book of magic, although for us in the Occident, much of its magic may come from the interpretive powers of its translators (the eroticism of Burton springs most immediately to mind, although we must bear in mind that much of the spice in his retelling is contained in the voluminous footnotes). Still, as a collection of tales, it is impressive, deriving from Persian, Turkish, Chinese, Arabic, Egyptian, Indian, and God knows what other sources, and with the influence of some of the tales reaching as far as Chaucer’s England. But what is at least as impressive as the tales is the ingenious frame story: it hardly needs repeating how Sharazad saves herself from beheading by the Sultan Shariyar by entertaining her sister (and, silently, the Sultan) with stories within stories, extending through the night, through days of silence, to be resumed the next night. The doom that hovers over Sharazad is due to womanly treachery suffered by the Sultan and his brother, treachery for which all women must pay as each night the Sultan takes a virgin bride only to have her beheaded with the morning light. It is Sharazad’s accomplishment not only to save herself, but to also bend the Sultan’s distrust of women. Surely, the early stories contain their share of female treachery, but over time, Sharazad subtly introduces the theme of the pure and noble woman, capable of great love and sacrifice, and in this manner softens the Sultan’s heart (the Sultan also discovers, at the end of his thousand and one nights, that Sharazad has borne him two children!).

(As a sidenote, I must relate the curious fact that two of the most popular tales of the Nights, those of Aladdin and of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, do not actually appear in the original texts of the Nights, but were added by Galland, based upon oral tales related by an informant, a Christian Arab from Aleppo, after his original translations proved so successful that a series of sequels was warranted.)

It would be exhausting to relate the themes that Warner examines in 436 pages (not counting another hundred or so pages of glossary, notes, bibliography, and index). She touches on the medieval legend of Solomon the Wise King, a large figure in the mythology of three religions, and inspiration for countless tales of magians and alchemists; flying carpets and other enchanted objects; the description and use of talismans; the supernatural djinn; Voltaire’s Orientalist tales; Goethe’s East-West Divan; Beckford’s sublime and underknown gothic novel Vathek; flying machines; Lotte Reiniger’s silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed; Aladdin as holiday pantomime; and the Persian carpet which adorned Freud’s couch, and upon which his patients explored their own subconscious as the tales of the Nights awaken our own.

Stranger Magic is an intense book, and one demanding of attention. Obviously, some of the themes Warner flits off after will hold more fascination than others, but the possibilities of the Nights seem endless, and one can’t fault the author for taking her thoughts wherever they lead. Keep this one on the shelf next to Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion, and Penguin’s superb and exhaustive recent three volume edition of The Arabian Nights in the Malcolm C. Lyons translation.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck

The vampire in this 1907 novel is of the psychic variety, a successful and remarkably arrogant author named Reginald Clarke, who steals the best thoughts from the most talented souls around him by a kind of mind invasion technique. He makes women blush and men swoon, especially young Ernest Fielding, his current victim. Poor Ernest finds that this man whom he worships has somehow extracted from his very soul a masterpiece of literature, which he passes as his own. While the narrator asserts that "all genuine art is autobiography", this doesn't stop this psychic leech from exploiting the talents of those around him, leaving them empty, wasted shells. Ernest joins with his new lover, Ethel Brandenbourg, in a brave attempt to rescue what is rightly his from Clarke, but he will have to contend with Clarke's almost superhuman force of personality and well-developed sense of contempt for lesser mortals. Despite the turn of the century philosophizing on the nature of creativity, and a genuinely chilling denoument, I'd have to rank this entertaining novel as only a touch above middling.

Available free for Kindle for Amazon Prime members.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison

John Soane House, London
I have picked at this book for years, finally deciding to read it straight through back in 2010. I keep my edition with my architecture books, but it is just as much a work of aesthetics and literary analysis. Harbison's themes are imagination and artifice in the human environment. He begins - as does man's mythic history - in the garden, where man seeks paradoxically to replicate and control the wildness of nature. He moves through various literary environments, such as Holmes' Baker Street sanctum (and what it says about the peculiar English concept of home, and the British comfort of living ensconced in a "pre-Freudian past"), the architectural oddities of Walpole's Strawberry Hill and the John Soane house, the Italian scene from ancient Rome down through Ruskin's Venice, Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Corvo's grotesque Don Renato and Radcliffe's gothic Mysteries of Udolpho. There is a masterful extended summary of Colonna's bizarre Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Harbison looks at the deliberate alienness of Flaubert’s Salammbo and the strange inertia of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, which makes reference to one of Pater’s tweedy descendants:

It is a book of not doing and not being various things most people do and are, and is set in a remote time as a way of saying I cannot hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you. The book shows nothing as pronounced as renunciation, but makes a drama of abstention, the things one has not done are more memorable, life lies in deliberately unused possibility which is a preserved youth. Pater resembles in this his descendant C.S. Lewis, another cloistered child-scholar, who creates even more emphatically than Marius a life based on a dreamed recollection of generalized childhood.

The concluding essays address the world in miniature, our attempts to circumscribe, and, in a sense, immobilize the human landscape and artifacts through maps, museums, and catalogues.

Plan of William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey
Harbison’s book is, in part, a thoughtful commentary on semi-obscure literature such as Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, Huysman’s La Cathedrale (“Like all converts, Huysmans supposes he does the faith a favor by becoming interested in it…”), and the aforementioned works of Colonna and Corvo. He also works in the obvious candidates, such as Kafka, Joyce and James. I have largely neglected to mention his no less impressive commentary on art and architecture, particularly that of Renaissance and 16th century Italy. Although Harbison’s arguments can induce some brow-wrinkling as one attempts to puzzle out his perspectives, as a whole, Eccentric Spaces is a remarkably engaging intellectual experience.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Many of the world’s anti-semites live in blissful disregard of the false paternity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document which purports to record a secret conclave of Jewish elders as they lay out their insidious plan for world domination by undermining the financial and moral foundations of the West.  Many years ago, in Texas, a co-worker loaned me his copy of the pamphlet, which he in turn had received as a premium from a small-town service station owner who, like Henry Ford before him, felt that this vile fabrication was deserving of a wider audience.

Arriving at the turn of the 20th century, and discredited as fabrication cobbled together from fragments of fiction and fantasy soon after, the Protocols were inessential for the Jew-hater, but they held, and in some quarter still hold, a place of honor as proof positive that the slanders of centuries were true, that the Jews, the rats inhabiting the cellar of humanity, were laying humbly in wait for the moment to strike at the bosom of the Christian West. Every move of the Jew was, almost by definition, deceptive and manipulative: they suffered (or, some might say, exploited) the degradations of the ghetto and the periodic pogroms as they bided their time. They secretly encouraged godlessness and the freedoms of the so-called “Enlightenment” in order to weaken the power of the Church and the princes of the West, and to encourage a moral laxity that would rot civilization from the inside.

We love a conspiracy, because we love the feeling that we are in possession of a great truth, the feeling that we have stolen a look behind the veil and have seen the world as it really is, not as the false reality that the foolish take at face value. And we love a scapegoat - a people on whom we can blame the ills of society. Any scapegoat will do, but few have had the pedigree of the Jews, who reached a climax of vulgarity when they murdered the Savior of the World, and duly suffered for it while paradoxically nurturing a secret network, digging labyrinthine tunnels beneath the bulwarks of order because they had a master plan (conspiracy is meaningless without a master plan) to enslave humanity and avenge the ills visited upon them for their deicide. For those willing to believe, the West has been in a race for centuries against this threat, which those in power have been content to ignore, for their wealth and power come from their being in cahoots, being willing to sell out their own for their own gain. There were occasional “cleansings” -slaughters and burnings - but a final solution was elusive, the Jews being protected by those they had manipulated into thinking they had something to gain by shielding them from all but minor harassments.

Such is the fantasy, such is the slander which led to the great conflagration of the last century, a pyre which the Protocols played their part in igniting. One must commend Umberto Eco, a 20th/21st century European, for being willing to scratch at the scab of anti-semitism and show us the proximate roots of that Holocaust. Ingeniously, and with his customary erudition, he weaves a novel of the strands of 19th century violence and social upheaval, of the various spectres haunting Europe. As he has made clear in interviews, all the characters save one (the central one) are actual, historical figures. Eco’s skill is to - as he did with his masterwork of occult conspiracy, Foucault’s Pendulum - construct a credible narrative of disparate elements which moves towards an inevitable and preordained (by subsequent history) conclusion. The fact that he can sustain this narrative for almost 450 pages under the narration of one of the most noxious characters in recent fiction, the repulsive forger Simone Simonini is, in itself, a commendable feat.

The plot itself defies easy summary. Needless to say (and again as with Foucault’s Pendulum) the attentive reader will have fun noting in the margins the dizzying references to a plethora of literary and historical figures, and if one is so inclined, reading the novel with Wikipedia close at hand might be fruitful as well, if one is unacquainted with, for instance, the works of the once popular and now forgotten novelist Eugene Sue (author of The Mysteries of Paris and The Wandering Jew) and a couple dozen other historical figures besides. One would have to be remarkably well-versed in European history to not need a crib sheet on, for instance, the Risorgimento or the Dreyfus Affair, as a means of deciphering Eco’s multi-layered narrative. Still, for those willing to spend some time and effort in unfamiliar territory as a means of gaining new insight into the origins of one of the most contemptible horrors of the 20th century, the exercise will be enlightening and - if it’s not inappropriate to say - entertaining.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Homo Sapiens: A Novel in Three Parts by Stanislaw Przybyszewski

*Spoilers Ahead*

Published in the years 1895-96, Przybyszewski’s Homo Sapiens is a trilogy of novellas comprised of Overboard, Under Way, and In the Maelstrom, detailing the rise and moral unraveling of a young Polish author in 1890’s Berlin and, according to George Schoolfield in his A Baedeker of Decadence, contains more than a modicum of autobiographical reference. Erik Falk is an aspiring superman and nascent anarchist who, in these episodes, leaves a trail of suicide and broken spirits in his wake. The first novella describes his seduction of Isa, the girlfriend of an original and promising artist (modeled after Edvard Munch). Self-satisfied, he escapes with his prize even as the artist kills himself in despair. In the second installment, Falk, now with a wife and child at home, goes on an extended trip to his home town, and there becomes obsessed with the seduction in mind and body of a pious young girl. With his mission accomplished, he again takes his leave. Abandoned, and learning that Falk has a wife and son back in Berlin, the girl drowns herself in the river.

In the Maelstrom continues Falk’s downward spiral. Already an alcoholic, and with yet another mistress and child hidden discreetly away, he becomes obsessed with threats by an acquaintance, a former political ally with whom he has fallen out, to reveal his secret life to Isa. Falk brings others into a web of deception, and, when deepening despair brings him to thoughts of suicide, he finds himself lacking the courage, and so goads another anarchic socialist acquaintance, who maintains some curiously bourgeois sensibilities, into challenging him to a duel of honor in the hope that the man will kill him. But fate has other plans, and, now abandoned by his wife, Falk gets out with nary a scratch. Buoyed by a sense of egotistical invincibility and cleansed, through monomania and psychic degradation, of all the binds of family and social obligation, he coolly picks himself up, finds another woman, and strides off to begin again.

Homo Sapiens was published in English translation by Knopf in 1915, with a laudatory introduction praising Przybyszewski as Poland’s greatest living author. However, as Schoolfield notes, the “obscenity” of the subject matter, combined with the author’s pro-German sympathies during the First World War effectively marginalized him from the English-speaking world. Some of his works, including the 1915 edition of Homo Sapiens, can be found on Internet Archive, albeit in a somewhat overwrought translations which would likely benefit by some updating. The political concerns of the time, which result in a couple of long digressions in the book, hold no special interest for most readers anymore, but Schoolfield’s essay gives a good overview of the presence of the anarchic terrorist in a surprisingly wide range of works of the time from Conrad to Bely, and from Conan Doyle to Chesterton. The theme of the Nietzschean anti-hero who abandons the strictures of conventional morality was becoming a convention of philosophical literature at the time this trilogy was written, and would continue through to Brecht’s Baal and beyond. If you can deal with the issues inherent in a translation almost a century old, I’d recommend fellow devotees of decadent literature to seek this one out.

Friday, February 03, 2012

From The Meadows of Gold by Mas'udi

Translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, and issued in 2007 in Penguin’s “Great Journeys” series, this volume is a small selection from Mas’udi’s massive historical encyclopedia Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, of which the only other English translation appears to have been the volume published in 1841 by Aloys Sprenger under the auspices of the Oriental Translation Fund of Great Britain. A complete translation of the five volumes would be a daunting task. It appears that the Penguin selection functioned as a preview of a larger work envisioned for publication as a Penguin Classic, however, I have found no indication that this project is advancing.*

Written in the tenth century in Baghdad, Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems is an encyclopedic universal history, based not only upon Mas’udi’s researches, but on his extensive travels as well. He gives descriptions of the lands and customs of Islamic Spain, the Mediterranean, Frankish Europe, the Norsemen, the Slavs, and the various tribes of the Caucasus and beyond. He also ventures descriptions of Egypt and Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago. This volume, being such a radical abridgement, gives but a taste of the larger work, to which Mas’udi brings a remarkably cosmopolitan eye.

In the Sprenger edition, Mas’udi notes that he has given his work a rich name “in order to excite a desire and curiosity after its contents, and to make the mind eager to become acquainted with history.” Having perused the Sprenger, I would have to say that it is a real treat, a fountain of lore beginning with the creation of the world, tracing, in the Arabic iteration, the story of the Old Testament and the life of Jesus, moving on to the history and religion of the Indian subcontinent, then to a general discussion of geography and astronomy, seas and rivers, oceanography, the Chinese Empire, island peoples, Spain, perfumes, the Caucasus tribes (with special attention to the Khazars, who adopted Judaism after conference with representatives of the three Abrahamic religions), Russia, the Byzantine Empire, and an entertaining diversion regarding the distribution and astonishing habits of monkeys.

The present translation, though laudable, doesn’t hold a candle to the 1841 edition, which one can easily access through Internet Archive. The Penguin is, for me, too disjointed, breaking the narrative into mostly short paragraphs on diverse subjects (the histories of chess and backgammon, electric catfish), which are, by turns, informative and fantastic. Still, in any version, Masu’udi is an entertaining guide, deserving of his reputation as an Arabic Herodotus, a prodigious traveler, historian, and naturalist. Sadly, only two of his known thirty-six works have survived. Despite lapses into pedantry, they are deserving of a larger audience.

*Apparently a selection focusing exclusively on Mas'udi's account of the Abbasid Dynasty has been published.