Archive for Poetry

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“Death is Nothing to Us”

Death is inevitable. What it entails is largely unknown. Some believe that it permanently ends an individual’s existence; others that it simply provides a transition to another form of life. Most people fear it, but some consider it with equanimity. Among the latter are the followers of Epicurus, who claimed

Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us.
(Epicurus, reported by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Inwood and Gerson, 1997, p 32; another translation is by Yonge, 1983, p. 474).

Epicurus proposed that human beings are made of complex compounds of atoms. At death these compounds dissolve, releasing the atoms to form other things. The body decays and the soul evaporates. Once we are dead, we are no more. We cannot feel what it is like to be dead. And the dead certainly cannot experience pain. Death should therefore not be feared.

Epicureanism was popular during the Roman period. A common Latin epitaph summarized the life of the Epicurean as a brief interlude between the nothingness preceding birth and the nothingness following death:

          Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo
          (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care).

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Music of the Viola

The viola is much under-rated. The instrument is difficult to play and its sound box is not optimal for its range of notes. Violists are the butt of numerous jokes maligning their tuning and their timing. Nevertheless, in the hands of a master, the viola has a wonderfully rich sound, melancholy in its low register and silvery in the high. Of all the strings it is perhaps most similar to the normal human voice.

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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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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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Baskets of Glass

Dale Chihuly, the American sculptor in glass, has long been interested in the native arts of the Pacific Northwest. Early in his career he became fascinated by their basketry (Lobb & Wolfe, 1990; Porter, 1990). Native Americans were adept at making basketware in all shapes and sizes for cooking, carrying, storing, clothing, drinking, protecting and preserving. Each basket has a form that derives from its function, and an ornamentation that transcends its ordinary usage. In his book on Indian Basketry, James (1901, pp 121-2) quotes from William Holmes:

[W]hile their shape still accords with their functional office, they exhibit attributes of form generally recognized as pleasing to the mind, which are expressed by the terms grace, elegance, symmetry, and the like. Such attributes are not separable from functional attributes, but originate and exist conjointly with them.

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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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Human Brain

Over the past two months I presented a course on the Human Brain to students in the LIFE (‘Learning is Forever’) Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto. The course was designed for the senior layperson. It introduced the basic anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, and described the various disorders that can affect the elderly human brain.

Human Brain Header

The course was given at a second-year university level. Some of the material may have been more than the students needed to know, but most were able to follow the main points of the talks, and some were fascinated by the details.

The presentations were supplemented with extensive teaching materials – slides, notes, movies, etc. Many of the illustrations were adapted or created specifically for the course. I am now making these generally available through the page entitled Human Brain on my website.

 

 

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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Progress

Loss of Paradise

The ancients did not believe in progress (Bury, 1932; Pollard, 1968; Meek Lange, 2011). They had two main ideas of how the world changes over time. One was that an initial state of peace and plenty – the Garden of Eden of Genesis, the Golden Age of Hesiod, or the Arcadia of Virgil – had degenerated over time to our present world of strife and suffering.

The decline from our golden beginnings to the present age of iron might have been simply caused by the passage of time, but more often than not it was attributed to human foolishness. The Jews told the story of original sin and the Greeks recounted the myth of Pandora’s box.

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