Berlin, Thebes, and the Reemergence of the Muse

July 2, 2014 2 comments

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RT, as it turns out, has some German ancestry; his father was half German. Well, over the last little while, he has been revisiting an interest in Berlin the city, that is its architecture and street plan. Partly, RT thinks, his interest is due to the fact that one of his maternal ancestors was a builder in California, some of whose buildings still stand, partly to the role the city has played in European history, and partly to having recently seen the movie The Reader. But most of all, RT is intrigued by the way that Berlin has been rebuilding itself since the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited. So RT over the last two days has given himself a virtual tour of Berlin, mostly via–what else?–Wikipedia. He has learned lots about the city.

The question that emerged as RT made his Wiki tour had to do with appropriateness. How can architecture and city planning be used to reclaim Germany’s capital as a great city, in view of the terrible events of the Nazi era and the city’s long post-war division into eastern and western zones? How can ghostly memories be accommodated even as the city continues forward as an important part of the human community?

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One thing to bear in mind, of course, is that any human city has had terrible things happen within its boundaries. Though cities are rebuilt time and again as one generation after another inherits them, surviving architecture reminds us of the great (and sometimes awful) events that have taken place there (just think of Rome). To judge by the number of tourists that pass through, for instance, the Pantheon, the experience of being in a particular, ancient building is important to our sense of connection with the past: this place is still here, these things really happened. This sense of connection seems to be vital to maintaining a balanced sense of  life’s possibilities.

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Planning isn’t about outcomes; it’s about possibilities. It’s not a mandate or an edict, it’s the permission that a parent gives a child. When Cadmus , that slayer of dragons, founded Thebes, he followed a cow and marked out the city where the animal lay down. Other founders have suckled the milk of wolves or planted a tamarisk tree; these acts are resonant.

Foundations are multiple. They build on each other, and the city invites them. Cadmus never did find his sister, Europe, the original reason for his departure from Tyre. Then Plato exiled the poets from his Republic.

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What can we do but hold onto the things worth saving? Berlin has done a good job of that, it seems. RT will point out only the city’s compromise decision to reconstruct three facades of the old imperial palace and behind them build a modernist museum to contain art from Africa and other foreign cultures. Something new and brilliant has blown in on the winds of change.

As for the rest, RT will confine himself to remarking that there is something unmonumental about the reemerging Berlin. He will even go a step further, and say he detects a note of humor in some of the city’s recent architecture, as witness the new Chancellery. As we and the city learn to forgive, we will see more of this, a long-delayed, much needed healing. The poet with his horn, the muse with her flirtatious smile, may be seen once again outside the walls of a museum.   RT

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Photo: The Federal Chancellery, Berlin. Uploaded by Madden. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 BY-SA.

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the poems of summer

June 25, 2014 4 comments

The Muse has been fickle of lateRT is continuing onward with his writing/reworking of his mother’s childhood memoir, A Daughter’s Song and Dance, which has been making surprisingly good progress of late, subject to the odd bad signal or two on his emotional railway. But then, a couple of days ago, one of RT’s friends demanded to know how Gilgamesh is coming. Then someone else asked the same thing a little while later. Well, RT doesn’t receive too many requests for status reports on his years-long project to turn the ancient story into English verse, so he allowed as how he was honored by the questions. But the report itself was rather brief: no progress in the last several months, mainly as a result of the memoir showing signs of falling together into a coherent story. 

Where does the strength come from to finish the race? This quote, from Chariots of Fire, RT believes, has haunted him over the years of his struggle with absent-mindedness, and now he has to admit that he has been feeling nostalgia for the decades of his 20s and 30s. The past is with us always, but we can never return to it. Songs that were once brand new on the radio are now being covered as classics by emerging artists, all of them born after RT’s graduation from college, in hopes of attracting more attention to the current hip generation.

I could talk about the unbearable lightness of being, but that would only make matters worse. And seriously considering why RT never became a mega-phenom like, say, Don Henley, is only going to poison his pen. In the midst of this bluesy moment, maybe better help is available from another old classic, the novel Dune. RT has borne with him these unmentionably numerous decades the image of holding back your hand, waiting for the right moment to reach out and grasp the long-desired object. Mastering this art, the art of using time wisely, is one of the chief signs of adulthood. Life isn’t about success; it’s about getting what you need.

Some things are leaving; some are waiting patiently. Knowing where they are and when to engage them is a part of what makes a person greathearted. We’re still in the game.   RT

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Photo: Don Henley. Author: Steve Alexander. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 attribution/share alike.

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On Turning 54 (or Notes Toward a Supreme Potato Chip)

June 10, 2014 4 comments

A couple of days ago, RT found himself in the local Books-a-Million. Now, RT has to admire anyone who sells books via a storefront; what with the competition from Amazon and company, the surge in self-publishing, and the efforts of the blogging community, margins are probably tighter than ever. And a quick inspection of the large shopping space revealed that BaM had an entirely respectable copy of Moby Dick on offer for under $20, Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures and Lost Christianities tucked away on the far side of the store’s considerable selection of Bibles, and even a passable, though small, selection of poetry (heavy on Homer and The Inferno).

Wallace Stevens (and his essay, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction) didn’t make the cut. Much might be made of the absence, perhaps even the failure of American literature (and poetry, above all) to produce the story-epic-novel that will unite us all in its glorious vision of the world. Where is the American Dante?

But RT is reluctant to announce the death of American society just yet. He will gladly admit that while he is beginning to make progress on viewing the movie Cloud Atlas, he has now watched two of the Twilight Saga movies, thereby garnering an image of Kristin Stewart to accompany him as he continues his journey into the problematic heart of his fifties. Middle-aged men will be middle-aged men.

Or will we? Somewhere, hidden deep in his unconscious, RT still harbors a writer’s ambition. Fifty-fourth birthday be damned! This writer will continue his slow, plodding progress toward finishing Gilgamesh, toward publishing his mother’s memoirs, and toward whatever writing projects his reading might lead him. What’s on the bedside stand these days? The Gardens of Light, a novel about the life of the prophet Mani (definitely worth the read). RT will continue to write until he is found dead at his keyboard (or at least in the loving arms of Kristin Stewart). If a supreme fiction doesn’t exist, then we need to act as if there is one. Through the work of thousands and thousands of authors, we are making our way home.

In the meantime, a supreme potato chip will have to sustain us. There are worse fates.    RT

PhotographA Pile of The Real McCoy’s Potato Chips; author: Paul Hurst. WikiCmns; CC-By-SA-2.5, 2.0.

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Bobby Kennedy and America’s Struggle

There are a lot of what ifs about the 1960s: what if Richard Nixon had been elected in 1960? What if LBJ had held out for one more term? What if that terrible series of assassinations–of John Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, Jr.–had never taken place?

No single person, however important at a particular moment in time, carries forward the hopes of a nation all by him or herself. If one of these leaders is lost, the forces for reform pick up the pieces, reorganize themselves, and strive onward towards the goal.

Many of the most radical movements of the 1960s–just look at gay rights–have assumed a place in America’s mainstream. A black man is President. Hippies are organizing festivals and gatherings on a scale that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.

Sure, we face new problems, income inequality prominent among them. But the trumpets have been sounded–the great work of realizing the blueprint that the Constitution gives us goes on. There are bitter and heartbreaking moments of defeat and loss; but there are moments of shining triumph as well.

On this day in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. No assassin’s bullet can destroy America’s aspirations.

PhotographAttorney General Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd of African Americans and whites (1963); photographer, Warren K. Leffler working for U.S. News & World Report. Image donated to the Library of Congress. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Ah, Madrid!!!

RT never managed to visit Spain while his family was posted in France; the deal was that he got to go to Russia, and his younger brother visited Spain the following year. RT has always been satisfied with the trade-off.

But this marvelous early-modern view of Madrid makes him wonder. The seat of the Spanish government pretty much continuously since 1561, Madrid boasts an impressive inventory of architecture, museums, and Bohemian venues. And then there is the rest of Spain; RT at the moment wouldn’t mind spending a few days in Toledo, Spain’s “City of Three Cultures.”

RT has heard that an intense, spiritual beauty is to be found throughout the Iberian peninsula, in part the gift of a long, complex, and passionate history.

DrawingView of Madrid from the west, facing the Puerta de la Vega (1562). Artist: Anton van den Wyngaerde (called in Spain Antonio de las Viñas). WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Karnak, Thebes, and the Hedjet

File:Karnakfrieze1.jpg

As May draws to a close, RT offers this photograph of a magnificent frieze at Karnak, the temple district of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Karnak is the largest ancient religious site in the world, and RT is beginning to suspect that Thebes played a primary role in the evolution of ancient Mediterranean religion.

In part, RT’s interest in Thebes is based on its frequent appearance in Greek myth, in part on the fact that the ancient crown of Upper Egypt, the Hedjet, looks remarkably like the crown worn by Baal, the chief god of ancient Phoenicia. Though Thebes was not the capital of pre-dynastic Upper Egypt, it was the administrative center of Upper Egypt under the Pharaohs (and is located not far from Nekhen, which was the capital of p-d Upper Egypt.) How did the epochal unification of Egypt (c. 3000 BC) under Narmer (or Menes), king of UE, affect developing religious beliefs?

Unfortunately, RT can say little at the moment about the significance of the scene recorded in the frieze, other than that it is located in the precinct of Amun-Re. A date and translation of the inscription would help greatly; there’s more research ahead for RT.

Photograph: Panorama of a frieze at Karnak. Author/Source: Bialonde. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Quick as Thought: Jamming on Achilles

May 29, 2014 2 comments

 

File:Beginning Iliad.svg

Many, many years ago, RT read the Iliad (the Lattimore translation, for the record) in college. Something must have occurred during the process that RT was unaware of: he had been bitten by the translation bug. And so, Gilgamesh.

But Homer is another story, and a much more difficult one. The sheer length of the Iliad and the Odyssey, 30,000 lines apiece, would give any translator pause before diving in. There is also the challenging verse the epics are written in: ancient Greek, in 7-beat, dactylic lines. No, we are not talking blank verse here. And finally, there is the Homer translation industry, in business in English since the 16th century. Many a great mind has worked to make these words available to the English speaker.

But even in the finest, most faithful translation, Homer is not for light reading. The plot is complex, the characters legion, the setting unfamiliar. On top of everything else, the topic is difficult. The Iliad deals in rage, battle, death, and the inhuman will of the gods. This is a story about power, and it pulls few punches.

What can a poet do to assist the reader as he or she ventures out onto the plains stretching between the Dardanelles and the fabled city of Troy? RT has ventured to offer a quick, off-the-cuff, translation of the opening verse to give some idea of what might help. A short line, plain diction, and generous use of white space he hopes will invite the reader to essay in full this fruit of bitter knowledge.

Grant me your voice, Goddess,

that I may find strength to sing

the Rage that overwhelmed Achilles,

that cast down the myriads of men,

mighty souls, into the prison of dust,

and left their bodies exposed, rotting

and ripped by dog and carrion bird—

and so fostered the design of Zeus.

Translation: Copyright © 2014, The Rag Tree.

Greek Text: The Beginning of the IliadUser:Bibi Saint-Pol. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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