Apr 29 2017

Ireland in the Merry Month of May

Ireland in the Merry Month of May

Some final notes before I ship off to Dublintown:

The tourist busy season begins in May and reaches its peak in July and August.

On the mythology of May, starting with Robert Graves:

Five (V) was the number sacred to the Roman Moon-goddess Minerva. The month extends from April 15th to May 12th, and May Day, famous for its orgiastic revels and its magic dew, falls in the middle. It is possible that the carrying of sallow-willow branches on Palm Sunday, a variable feast which usually falls early in April, is a custom that properly belongs to the beginning of the willow month….[1]

The hawthorn, then, is the tree of enforced chastity. The month begins on May 13th, when the may is first in flower, and ends on June 9th. The ascetic use of the thorn, which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Cardea must, however, be distinguished from its later orgiastic use which corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Flora, and which accounts for the English mediaeval habit of riding out on May Morning to pluck flowering hawthorn boughs and dance around the maypole. Hawthorn blossom has, for many men, a strong scent of female sexuality; which is why the Turks use a flowering branch as an erotic symbol. Mr. Cornish proves that this Flora cult was introduced into the British Isles in the late first-century B.C. by the second Belgic invaders; further, that the Glastonbury Thorn which flowered on Old Christmas Day (January 5th, New Style) and was cut down by the Puritans at the Revolution was a sport of the common hawthorn. The monks of Glastonbury perpetuated it and sanctified it with an improving tale about Joseph of Arimathea’s staff and the Crown of Thorns as a means of discouraging the orgiastic use of hawthorn blossom, which normally did not appear until May Day (Old Style)…. [2]

Christmas was merry in the middle ages, but May Day was still merrier. It was the time of beribboned Maypoles, of Collyridian cakes and ale, of wreaths and posies, of lovers’ gifts, of archery contests, of merritotters (see-saws) and merribowks (great vats of milk-punch). But particularly of mad-merry marriages ‘under the greenwood tree’, when the dancers from the Green went off, hand in hand, into the greenwood and built themselves little love-bowers and listened hopefully for the merry nightingale. ‘Mad Merry’ is another popular spelling of ‘Maid Marian’, and as an adjective became attached to the magician Merlin (the original ‘Old Moore’ of the popular almanacks) whose prophetic almanacks were hawked at fairs and merrimakes. Merlin was really Merddin, as Spenser explains in the Faerie Queene, but Robin Hood had taken his place as the May Bride’s lover, and he had become an old bearded prophet. The ‘merritotter’ is perhaps called after the scales (representing the Autumn equinox) in the hand of the Virgin in the Zodiac, who figured in the Mad Merry Merlin almanack: devoted readers naturally identified her with St. Mary Gipsy, for true-lovers’ fates tottered in her balance, see-sawing up and down….[3]

The main theme of poetry is, properly, the relations of man and woman, rather than those of man and man, as the Apollonian Classicists would have it. The true poet who goes to the tavern and pays the silver tribute to Blodeuwedd goes over the river to his death. As in the story of Llew Llaw: ‘All their discourse that night was concerning the affection and love that they felt one for the other and which in no longer space than one evening had arisen.’ This paradise lasts only from May Day to St. John’s Eve. Then the plot is hatched and the poisoned dart flies; and the poet knows that it must be so. For him there is no other woman but Cerridwen and he desires one thing above all else in the world: her love. As Blodeuwedd, she will gladly give him her love, but at only one price: his life. She will exact payment punctually and bloodily. Other women, other goddesses, are kinder-seeming. They sell their love at a reasonable rate—sometimes a man may even have it for the asking. But not Cerridwen: for with her love goes wisdom. And however bitterly and grossly the poet may rail against her in the hour of his humiliation—Catullus is the most familiar instance—he has been party to his own betrayal and has no just cause for complaint.[4]

From Frank O’Connor:

‘May Day’, so lovely that we have all tried our hand at translating it, exists only in one obscenely inaccurate transcript of which Kuno Meyer and Gerald Murphy have tried vainly to make linguistic sense. In spite of the fact that Meyer ascribed it to the ninth or early tenth century and Murphy to the eighth or ninth, I feel certain it was written by the author of the previous poem, scarcely earlier than the eleventh century, and that what Kenneth Jackson calls its ‘curious style’ is the deliberate archaism of an excellent scholar, who not only played with new metres, but omitted definite articles and the conjunction ocus.

Gairt cuí cruaid den
‘Is fochen sam saír!’
Suidid sine serb
I mbí cerb caill chraíb.

Cerbaid sam sruth snuad;
Saigid graig luath linn;
Lethaid fat fraích folt;
For-beir gort fann finn.

Fubair os scéith sciach;
Im-reith réid rian rith;
Cuirithir suan sál;
Tuigithir bláth bith.

Berait beich bec nert
Bert bonn bochtai bláth
Berid slabrai sliab,
Feraid seng sian sáith.

Seinm crot, caille ceol
Co ngrenn seol síd slán;
Sethair den do dinn;
Dethaid loch linn lád.

O’Connor’s translation:

The harsh, sturdy cuckoo calls, ‘Welcome, beautiful summer.’ The expanse of the heather’s hair spreads and the pale weak corn thrives.

The budding of the hawthorn threatens the deer; the sea tide runs smoothly; the sea goes to sleep and blossom covers the earth.

Bees of small strength carry a load of plucked blossom; the mountain sustains the cattle; the lean one sings a song of plenty.

The music of the wood is like harp-playing, a perfect peace of melody. The house is cleared of garbage, the flooded pool drops. [5]

From Jeffrey Gantz:

The first day of May, called Beltene, marked the beginning of summer; this feast has since given rise to May Eve[,] Walpurgisnacht and May Day. Beltene was a less important day, and consequently, less information about it has survived; the name seems to mean ‘fire of Bel’ (Bel presumably being the Irish descendant of the continental god Belenos) or ‘bright fire’, and there is a tradition that cattle were driven between two fires on this day so that the smoke would purify them. In any case, the rites of Beltene were probably directed towards ensuring the fertility of land and stock. The Welsh hero Pryderi is born on the first of May, and this fact coupled with the unusual circumstances of his birth (the concurrent birth of colts, the otherworld visitor) suggests that Beltene was also a day when the real and the fantastic merged.[6]

Owen Barfield on why the month of May is always “merry”:

Thus, when a Roman spoke of events as auspicious or sinister, or when some natural object was said in the Middle Ages to be baleful, or benign, or malign, a herb to possess such and such a virtue, an eye to be evil, or the bones of a saint to be holy, or even, probably, when Gower wrote:

The day was merry and fair enough,

it is true that these things were described from the human point of view, but the activity was felt to emanate from the object itself.[7]

Some May miscellany:

‘And now, Sally, I’m safe in bed. Stir the fire, my old darling.’ For although it was the first week in May, the night was frosty. ‘And tell me all about the Tiled House again, and frighten me out of my wits.’[8]

A shaven space of lawn one soft May evening. [9]

When I answered that I did not know, she said, “the month of May, because of the Virgin, and the lily of the valley, because it never sinned, but came pure out of the rocks,” and then she asked, “what is the cause of the three cold months of winter?”[10]

NOTES

[1] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 1948. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Second Edition. 1975. p. 174.

[2] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 175–76.

[3] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 398.

[4] Graves, White Goddess – A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 447–48.

[5] O’Connor, (A Short History of Irish Literature: a Backward Look. NY: Viking. 1967. pp. 77–78.

[6] Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. NY: Penguin. 1981. 1988. “Introduction” 13.

[7] Barfield, Owen. History in English Words. NY: George H. Doran Co. 1926. p. 159.

[8] Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. The House by the Churchyard. London: Tinsley, Brothers. 1863. Reprint. Dublin: James Duffey. 1904. “Chapter XI – Some talk about the haunted house—being, as I suppose, only old woman’s tales,” 54.

[9] Joyce, Ulysses. 1922. Random House: NY. 1946. XIV [“Oxen of the Sun”] 414.

[10] Yeats, The Celtic Twilight. 1893. “Happy and Unhappy Theologians.”


Sep 14 2016

11 Thoughts on Kaepernick & the Election

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

11 Thoughts on Kaepernick & the Election

  1. In the Marines, “you’re not allowed to say ‘I’ because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality….”[i] But for the rest of us outside the military, does this mean we ought to always rely on the herd, run with the rabble, riot with the mob, keep camouflaged within the crowd?
  1. When I played football, it was more sacrilegious to sit on your ass––or worse, your helmet––than to take a knee. Taking a knee used to be considered basic protocol.
  1. No one ever fought a war just to fly a flag and sing a song.
  1. Think of how many GIs got enemy kill shots in Iraq simply by kneeling?
  1. Rodney King did a lot of kneeling in 1991:

  1. What is this ritual of the national anthem but “nostalgia driven blindness?”[ii] Nostalgia blinds us from the bad old days, and lets us get away from them by thinking that they were good; but those days were so bad we purposely forgot all about them.
  1. Nostalgia allows citizens go through the motions to keep up appearances:

Most people act, not according to their meditations, and not according to their feelings, but as if hypnotized, based on some senseless repetition of patterns.[iii]

  1. If the regime were to mold voting booths into the shape of slot machines, might I have more enthusiasm about this election?
  1. The choice matters not; the tuna salad in the fridge will taste the same after Election Day as it did the day before.
  1. But when will Elation Day arrive? Shouldn’t we instead dread that mark on the calends?
  1. I see myself in the voting booth and know that I am not that voter:

Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I acknowledge him? Admit that it is me? Or should I pretend I’m someone else, someone strikingly resembling me, and look completely indifferent?” Golyadkin asked himself in indescribable anguish. “Yes, that’s it: I’m not me and that’s all there is to it,” he thought, his eyes fixed on Andrei Filipovich as he took off his hat to him….[iv]

 

NOTES

wood-h-small

[i] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Nation: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 163.

[ii] Levin, Yuval. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. NY: Basic Books. 2016. p. 103.

[iii] Tolstoy, Leo. A Calendar of Wisdom. Translated by Peter Sekirin. 1997. “September 28,” p. 284. Compare Milton, John. Paradise Lost, VIII, 79–84:

when they come to model Heaven
And calculate the stars, how they will wield
The mighty frame; how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances; how gird the sphere
With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er,
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb

See also Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. Second Edition. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP. 1988. pp. 62–64, 123–24.

[iv] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double. 1846. In Dostoyevsky Notes from the Underground. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Signet Classics 1961. pp. 151–52.


Sep 7 2016

When Monotheism Succeeds Too Much: Winning Versus Wincing

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

When Monotheism Succeeds Too Much: Winning Versus Wincing

A PERPLEXITY OF JUDAIC SUCCESS

For Maimonides, “The convert is blameless—but the natural-born Jew is suspect of ‘going through the motions’.” In this case monotheism is better adopted than inherited; new originals are better than old replicas:

The natural-born Jew’s faith is always suspect since one can never be certain whether adherence to the faith is not somehow motivated by national memory, shared history, and familial allegiances. The convert’s intentions, however, like those of his or her archetypical predecessor, Abraham, are not subject to challenge since the convert arrived at the essential truths of Judaism by reason….[1]

A PERPLEXITY OF CHRISTIAN SUCCESS

Life under Christendom often made for lazy Christians, because the dominance of Christianity unintentionally encouraged the laity to be lax:

The great change in the world means that there must be a great change in the attitudes and thoughts of the great mass of believing and practicing lay people. For centuries past, the laity could be passive, except for the rare individual and except for each one’s secret spiritual life. The reason was the existence of ‘Christendom’. Under Christendom, it no longer took special energy to be a Christian, as in the early centuries; in most places in Christian countries, people did not have to choose a form of life. There just was a basic form of life there: lay people—especially laywomen—either were its victims or, favoured by fortune, were happy in it. Goodness or badness of life was a specification within the basic form. Someone who wanted to lead a holy life would often, if the thought came to him in time, not marry but enter religion.[2]

A PERPLEXITY OF ISLAMIC SUCCESS

For Islam, too many conversions means not enough folks to pay high taxes; here, monotheism becomes a victim of its own success:

The Arabs, already subsidized by the decree of the Caliph Omar, lived apart at first, as a military aristocracy, holding aloof from trade, farming, or manual crafts. Far from pressing their faith on the Christians or Jews around them, they preferred to leave them outside the Muslim community so that they might get enough money from them, by way of tribute, to keep the state treasury well replenished and help to pay their own fixed stipends. The Muslims themselves had to pay certain taxes, but these were considerably lower than those required from non-Muslims. This fact, together with the prestige of belonging to the religion of the ruling caste, rather than any active proselytizing on the part of the Arabs, caused increasing numbers of Christians and Jews to embrace Islam. [3]

NOTES

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[1] Diamond, James A. Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon. Cambridge UP. 2014. p. 85. More from Diamond:

Considering that existence of God and His unity are his primary concerns, one could characterize the Guide, as well as the Mishneh Torah,* as a treatise on divine names whose understanding is essential to preserve the ideas of existence and unity.

*See the beginning of the MT and, for example, MT, Forbidden Intercourse 14:2, where Maimonides directs that the prospective convert be introduced to Judaism first and foremost with the principles of divine unity and prohibition against idolatry. Only these philosophical teachings are conveyed to him “at length.” Everything else, including familiarizing him with the details of the mitzvoth, are really the framework for inculcating and preserving these two beliefs. (Diamond 19–20)

A representation, taken as a literal presentation, an “ultimate,” is no longer a representation but an idol, i.e., mistaking the map for the territory it marks (Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. 1957. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan UP. 1988. pp. 62–64, 157–61).

[2] Anscombe, “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 83.

[3] Atiyah, Edward. The Arabs: the Origins, Present Conditions, and Prospects of the Arab World. Edinburgh: Penguin. 1958. pp. 38–39.


Feb 21 2010

The Limits of Logic within the Limits of Fiction

At D.G. Myers’ A Commonplace Blog, a post entitled “Fiction’s Job,” endorses American Fiction Notes‘ Mark Athitakis’ definition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction.”  For Myers, this proposition by Athitakis is not a true tautology.  Myers goes on to explain that the modified statement, “fiction’s job is to be fiction,” would be tautological.

Assuming, with Wittgenstein [01], that all words are either tautologies or contradictions, the question beckons: Cannot attentive readers, whenever trying to define literature, rely on contradictions to the same extent they do towards tautologies?

The question is proposed because Bookbread abides by Paul Valéry’s proverb that “even in the best head, contradiction is the rule, correct sequence the exception.” [02]

 

After endorsing Athitakis’ proposition, Myers writes: “The real question is what such a proposition denies and rejects.” So Bookbread must also ask: How limiting is Athitakis’ proposition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction?”

Can literature/good writing/good fiction be redefined as a sequence of words (that is, a text) that alleviates the reader’s apathy towards that sequence and the author of it? Yes, but only by further conceding to a contradiction which underlies this new definition: the contradiction that not-reading might also alleviate individuals from textual and/or authorial apathy. After all, there are plenty of fiction authors whom folks may claim to “like” and think “are good” even though they’ve yet to read them. People have no qualms against living fictitious lives, and novelists have never hesitated to write about them.

Continuing with “Fiction’s Job,” Myers supports his position on the limits of fiction via Chesterton, whose views on fairies and fiction, particularly the necessity of the believability of a story, can be supplemented by Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1939):

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. [03]

Like the limits of fiction, we arrive at the limits of logic: And whether or not we book bloggers limit our logic by agreeing on either a tautological or contradictory definition for fiction, we should learn to never completely rely on logic for support of our literary judgments—because as Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) reminds us:

It is quite true that logical speech is tautologous and cannot add to the sum of meaning or of knowledge. But the historical function of logical method has not been, to add to the sum of knowledge. It has been to engender subjectivity—self-consciousness. Once this has been achieved, as in the West it has very largely been achieved, today, there is no more that logic can do. Self-consciousness is indeed a sine qua non of undreaming knowledge, but it is not knowledge, it is more like its opposite; and once it has been achieved, logic, as far as the business of knowing is concerned, is functus officio. Or rather its surviving function is, to prevent a relapse. [04]

Notes:

[01] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus. 1921. See § 6.1, 6.11, 6.111, 6.12. See also: Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 16.

[02] Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” Translated by Jackson Matthews, from the Southern Review, Winter 1940, Vol. 5, No. 03. Extracted from The Creative Process. Ed. by Brewster Ghiselin. UC Press. Mentor Books Edition, Ninth Printing. 1952. pp. 92–106. pp. 100, ¶ 48.

[03] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1939. The Monsters and the Critics. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Harper Collins. 2006. pp. 132.

[04] Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 30.