Friday, July 21, 2017

Poetry of Lisel Mueller

On Monday evening we take up four poems by the modern American poet Lisel Mueller: "Joy," "The Power of Music to Disturb," "Immortality," and "Into Space."

She was born Lisel Neumann in 1924 in Hamburg, Germany, and emigrated with her family to the United States in 1939.  In a PBS interview, Mueller stated, "By the time I started writing, English was almost like a first language for me.  I never wrote in German.  This gave me an advantage .... it made me more conscious."  

Mueller won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for her volume of new and collected poems, Alive Together.  Read the interview she gave the NewsHour after the announcement of the prize here.

Join us on Monday evening!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"

Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" elicited many responses from readers when it was first published in the New Yorker in June of 1948. Jackson received about 150 letters that summer alone, and many more in the years to come. The majority of these letters were neither positive nor negative in tone.  They were instead expressions of bafflement concerning the message Jackson was trying to convey.

According to an excellent new biography of Jackson, Shirley Jackson: a Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin (Liveright Publishing, 2016), a New Yorker staffer named Kipp Orr was charged with replying to these readers. Franklin's book has the following excerpt from the standard letter Orr sent to readers:

"It seems to us that Miss Jackson's story can be interpreted in a half dozen different ways. It's just a fable ... she has chosen a nameless little village to show in microcosm, how the forces of belligerence, persecution, and vindictiveness are in mankind, endless and traditional, and that their targets are chosen without reason."

I love both Orr's use of the New Yorker editorial voice, ("it seems to us") and his assertion of "a half dozen" different interpretations. No more and no less?!?  I'm looking forward to hearing how many we can come up with this Monday evening, at the Huntington Public Library.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Coping in Hard Times

19th-c rendering of Noh drama.
Our May 22nd meeting was devoted to Kawabata’s short story “First Snow on Fuji,” in which two former lovers, Jiro and Utako, reunite to take an overnight journey to Hakone, located in an area famous for its mineral baths.

Their relationship years earlier during the Second World War had resulted in the birth of a child, who was put up for adoption and then died.  When Jiro and Utako talk about the child on their journey to Hakone, Utako, the mother of the child, appears to have repressed the memory altogether.  Jiro, on the other hand, is ridden with guilt.  At one point in the conversation he blurts out, “We killed that child,” and immediately afterwards regrets having said it.

One of our participants pointed out a moving passage later in the story. During the war, Jiro fled Tokyo and rented a room in the nearby countryside, in Musashino. A teacher of Noh chanting had also relocated to Musashino, and gave lessons to the priest of the local temple. Noh is an ancient Japanese performance art that combines singing, instrumentation, dance, and drama.  Jiro enjoyed watching their rehearsals. 

He tells Utako, “It struck me as peculiar and also as pretty amazing that they would go on hitting drums and playing flutes even as we were losing the war, you know?  I mean – there probably wasn’t anything else they could do, but still … you and I didn’t even have enough willpower left to think like that – to realize that there was nothing left for us to do but play our flutes.” 

Utako replies, “…you and I should have been playing our flutes together. Things ended up like this because we weren’t.” (Michael Emmerich translation)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Yasunari Kawabata

I once heard the great Long Island author Nelson Demille speak at the BookExpo in New York City.  He fielded some questions, and one audience member asked a question about the work habits Demille employed to bring his latest book to light.

“Ah,” Demille answered, “a question about the writing process!”

Monday evening’s discussion will be on the story “First Snow on Mount Fuji,” by Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972).  Above is a photograph of Kawabata at work.  Need I say any more about Kawabata’s “writing process”?

Let the photo serve as a clue to the beauty, hidden or otherwise, in this story.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Chekhov's "The Darling"

You are sitting next to a stranger on an airplane. What, according to the self-help experts, is a surefire way to engage such individuals in conversation?  By guiding them along to talk about themselves and what they do!

Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Darling” is a character sketch of Olenka (“Olenka” is an alternate form of the name “Olga”).  She has successive romantic relationships with Kukin the theatrical producer, Pustovalov, the timber agent, and  Smirnin the verterinarian.  Chekhov writes, “she wanted a love that would absorb her whole being, her whole soul and reason, that would give her ideas an object in life and would warm her old blood.”

Olenka becomes so absorbed with her lovers, however, that she appears to have no self of her own.  For example, after her first husband Kukin dies and she marries Pustovalov, she has no time for the frivolity of the theater, because she has become so immersed in the timber business.  She even dreams about 2 by 4’s!

At our April 27th discussion of this story, one participant wondered if Olenka is classifiable with a particular psychological syndrome.  Another compared her to Woody Allen’s character Zelig, a person who took on the characteristics of every person with whom he became familiar.  A third opined that Chekhov might be questioning whether it's right for us to esteem original thinkers more than those influenced by the ideas of others.  Olenka has empathy for others, and Chekhov's story shows empathy for Olenka.

By the way, if you're interested, check out this Soviet-era dramatization of "The Darling." (It's all in Russian, but if you know the story, it's easy to follow along.) Enjoy!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Shaw's "Major Barbara"

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), playwright and man of letters
We had a good, and as usual, opinionated, group for our March 27th meeting on George Bernard Shaw's three-act play "Major Barbara." Many thanks to the participants who play-acted two scenes from the play. One of them, from Act II, contained the following words spoken by Andrew Undershaft, a munitions manufacturer, to Adolphus Cusins, his daughter Barbara's minion in the Salvation Army, who is a scholar of ancient Greek:

Pooh, Professor! Let us call things by their proper names.  I am a millionaire; you are a poet; Barbara is a savior of souls. What have we three to do with the common mob of idolators?

Barbara becomes disillusioned with the Salvation Army when she learns that Mrs. Baines, the Army's commissioner, will accept sizable donations from Bodger, a whiskey distiller (thus by definition a corrupter of those whom the Army seeks to save), and from her own father, who considers his business and Bodger's to be in a mutually beneficial relationship.

What these three in the end have to do with "the common mob of idolators" is very simple: give them jobs!  At the end of the play, Barbara is betrothed to Cusins, to whom Undershaft intends to hand over the family business. The final act takes place in Undershaft's idyllic company town of Perivale St. Andrew. It's last line is spoken by Undershaft.  He tells Cusins, "Six o'clock tomorrow morning, Euripides." He calls him "Euripides" because Cusins had earlier declaimed lines from a translation of Euripides's "Bacchae". We all of us, poets and playwrights not excepted, have to get to work.

P.S. The real Euripides will be our author later in the year!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

William James and Pragmatism

American philosopher 
William James (1842-1910)
We had a very high turnout (25!) for last week's meeting on James's Pragmatism.  The book is a collection of lectures James delivered in the winter of 1906-07 in Boston and New York.  We looked at two of these lectures, "What Pragmatism Means," and "Pragmatism's Conception of Truth."

Think of how the words "pragmatic" and "pragmatism" are used in the English language.  We say of a certain politician, for example, that he is "pragmatic."  In other words, he favors getting results over strict adherence to an ideology. James's concern is with a more philosophical pragmatism. Such a pragmatism, he writes, is "first, a method; and second, a genetic theory of what is meant by truth."  The method is one of radical empiricism (i.e., a strong reliance on observation and experience in establishing our knowledge), the "genetic theory," one that most values truths that make a practical difference in our lives.

My wife's well-worn copy of "Pragmatism"
 (list price $1.50: cheap!)
Our discussion brought up the current debate on climate change. By applying James's criteria of philosophical pragmatism to this idea, we can move beyond difficulties in defining both "climate" and "change" and start to think about how observable factors in the atmosphere, oceans, etc. might really be affecting us.  We can then say "yeah" or "nay" to efforts to address this current situation.

In a Jamesian formulation, "climate change" becomes not a "solving name," but "a program for more work."  Or, as James put it most famously: "We must bring out of each word its cash value."