Archive for Literature

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Metaphor and Meaning

At the close of the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio notices the arrival of the dawn

But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.
(Hamlet, I-1: 165-6)

No one is on the hill. Horatio is speaking metaphorically, describing the dawn as though it were a person. His words relax the tension of what has just happened. He and his colleagues have just seen the spirit of Hamlet’s father wandering in the real world where it should not be. Terror is in the air. At this moment, however, Horatio does not see a real person on the hill – this is how the dawn seems in his imagination. He takes comfort in metaphor.

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Antigone

Sophocles’ play Antigone tells the story of a young woman who defies the laws of the state in order to do what she believes is right. The issues considered in the play remain as important now as they were almost two and a half millennia ago. Should one follow one’s conscience or obey the law? Does justice transcend the law? How does one determine what is right?

In the words of Hegel, Antigone is

one of the most sublime and in every respect most excellent works of art of all time. Everything in this tragedy is logical; the public law of the state is set in conflict over against inner family love and duty to a brother; the woman, Antigone, has the family interest as her ‘pathos’, Creon, the man, has the welfare of the community as his. (Hegel, 1975, p 464).

The word pathos most commonly means the quality of something that evokes pity. However, Hegel uses the word to denote “an inherently justified power over the heart, an essential content of rationality and freedom of will” (p 232). Pathos is the emotional commitment that defines a person – his or her driving passion.  Sophocles’ play presents the conflict of these passions.

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Bruges-la-Morte

In 1892 Georges Rodenbach published a short novel entitled Bruges-la-Morte (“Bruges, Dead City”). Although the book deals more with internal emotions than external reality, Rodenbach included in his book 35 photographs of the city of Bruges (Flemish, Brugge). The city thus plays as much a part in the novel as its human characters. This was the first time that a work of fiction had been photographically illustrated.

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Vanity of Vanity

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1-2)

Thus begins Ecclesiastes, the most unusual book in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Unlike the rest of the Bible, this book claims that the nature of the world is neither revealed to us nor accessible to reason. The universe and its Creator pay us no particular regard. Man is not special. Heretical though these thoughts might be, Ecclesiastes contains some of the world’s most widely quoted verses of scripture. The words of the Preacher resonate through the seasons of our lives. This post comments on several selections from the book.

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Stonehenge

Over five thousand years ago the Neolithic people of Britain began to erect a monumental stone structure known as “Stonehenge” on the Salisbury Plain. The name likely means “hanging” or “suspended” stones. The structure underwent several changes over the years of its construction, reaching its final form around 2000 BCE.

The stones are of two kinds. The largest are the sarsens, which have their origin in the hills about 40 km north of Stonehenge. The word “sarsen,” first used at the time of the Crusades, comes from “Saracen” and essentially means “pagan.”

The smaller bluestones come from the Preseli Mountains in Southwest Wales 240 km away. Most archaeologists currently believe that these were transported across the Bristol Channel and then overland to Stonehenge. The bluestones may have been used in several ways during the different periods of construction. In the final form of the monument they are arranged within the outer circle of sarsens and within the inner horseshoe of larger sarsens.

The monument has long been a symbol of ancient Britain. Over the years, however, our understanding of it has changed radically. This posting considers how Stonehenge has interacted with the British imagination. Because of its striking appearance, images are given as much space as words.

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The Saddest Story

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” So begins Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. The narrator, John Dowell, and his wife Florence were rich Americans, living in Europe. They spent their summers at the spa town of Bad Nauheim, Germany, where Florence underwent therapy for her heart condition. In 1904, the Dowells had met an English couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, at the spa. In the following summers, the two couples continued to meet there:

We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy – or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them (p. 11).

The narrator immediately triggers our interest. He also alerts us that he may not completely understand the story he is about to tell us. Why is it the saddest story he has ever heard? Who told it to him? We shall quickly find out that he was one of the main characters in the story. He directly experienced most of its events, but was apparently quite unaware of their causes. His understanding was pieced together later from what others told him, and may not be correct. We may have to figure out what happened for ourselves.

This posting considers the story and its context. It describes the complex relationship between two couples in Europe in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I. It shows a way of life that was falling apart, and a world wherein one was no longer governed by any general morality, but simply sought what one desired.

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Hamlet’s Will

This posting considers Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play has become as fascinating and as meaningful as any scripture (Bloom, 2003, p. 3). The character of its hero admits to numerous interpretations, both on the stage and in the critical literature.

Hamlet was the first clear representation of how human beings choose to act according to their own lights. We are not completely determined. Most of our actions follow willy-nilly from our past. Sometimes, however, we act as conscious agents: we consider the consequences of our actions, and choose the right act rather than the reflex.

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Christmas

“On Earth Peace, Good Will toward Men” – the announcement of the angels to the shepherds – is the main message of Christmas.1 Its meaning persists even without the attendant theology.

Winter is a time for rest. Midwinter celebrations such as Christmas are marked by both conviviality and quietness. In the cold it is better to gather together than to fight each other. And nothing takes the mind away from the present more than starry night over snowy ground.

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Shostakovich: Music and Meaning

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the greatest of the Soviet composers. Unlike Prokofiev, who spent many years abroad, Shostakovich lived all of his adult life in the Soviet Union (1922-1991). His relations with the state were difficult. Artists do not work easily in a dictatorship.

Shostakovich talked very little about his music. His work evokes powerful emotions, but what Shostakovich means often remains unclear. Although much of his music appeared to glorify Soviet Communism, recent writers such as Volkov (1979) and MacDonald (1990) have suggested that many of his works carried subversive meanings. His life, like his music, has had many interpretations.

This posting considers some of the issues of interpretation. In a society wherein one is afraid to say what one thinks or feels, history becomes uncertain. And music is often ambiguous.

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Remembrance

The onset of World War I brought into question the very idea of European civilization. Mankind’s ongoing progress to a better world appeared no longer pre-ordained. Promises of future peace and plenty were forever broken. Henry James wrote in a letter to Howard Sturgis on August 5, the day after Britain declared war of Germany.

The plunge of civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton fiat of those two infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we had supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for my words. (James, 1920, p 398)

(The “autocrats” were Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Franz Josef I of Austria.) The complex sentence is typical of James, the master of convoluted qualification. Rudyard Kipling later said the same in fewer words in his Common Form for the Epitaphs of the War:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

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