what to do when the to do list gets too long?
write down a few words, of course. RT
i should have been smarter. not
that the moment was easy. i was
avoiding her, as i usually do, or at
least the possibility of happiness.
which isn’t always so pretty.
not to mention the guilt,
which pursues me like a poem…
but this was about her, wasn’t it?
insipid, some might say, but
the beginning keeps repeating itself,
longing to distend into a middle.
distill itself still? that can’t be
right… Milton, million? weathercocked or not,
it’s up and striding among the billions. horse marine.
copyright © 2015, The Rag Tree
Drawing: The Mermaid (1887). Frederick Stuart Church, WikiCmns; Public Domain.
the muse of culinary arts recently whispered a few words in RT’s ear as he was perusing the offerings at Walmart, and, late that evening, RT was able to take advantage of her kind suggestions. here is the meal he produced in ten or so minutes:
Salmon and Artichoke Heart Salad w/ Blueberries
1 can pink Alaska salmon (red salmon might be better)
1 jar Reese’s sliced artichoke hearts
1 can Reese’s sliced water chestnuts
1 large box blueberries
garlic salt and curry powder
head of romaine lettuce
In a soup bowl combine three or four forkfuls of the salmon, five or six chestnut slices, and three or four artichoke heart slices. (You’ll notice that Chef RT is not into precise measurements.) Microwave for 30 seconds. Remove bowl from microwave and add two or three leaves of romaine lettuce. Add virgin olive oil, curry powder, and garlic powder to taste. Cover with a couple of spoonfuls of blueberries. Serves one.
well, the romaine lettuce is green, so RT will wish everyone, Happy St. Pat’s Day!
Photo: Processing salmon fish meat; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT remembers his first encounter with Rendezvous with Rama; he was 13, living in Costa Rica and attending boarding school in Arizona. He had become a devotee of Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, through reading Clarke’s stories published in Analog (if RT’s memory serves him correctly). But Rama was something else again. RT was swept away by the power of Clarke’s vision of an enormous (50-km-long), cylindrical alien space ship, dubbed Rama by us awe-struck humans, racing through the solar system. An intrepid band of human explorers gains entry to Rama, and the story concerns what happens thereafter.
But RT’s life was racing along, too, and he soon moved on to more adolescent preoccupations.
Recently, however, the book has been haunting RT, and so this week he bit the bullet, checked out a copy at his local library, and reread it in a couple of days.
Early Sci-Fi takes a lot of flak from literary critics: its authors were scientists first and foremost, and their authorial skills, whether concerned with fiction technique or the realities of social relationships, are therefore supposed to be stunted. In proof, the usual suspects are marched out: elementary plotting and scene construction, limited and repetitive diction, cardboard characters, women who are men with breasts, and the like. RT cannot speak for Sci-Fi in the period from 1930 to say 1960, but by the time he started reading the genre in the early 1970s, things, at least among the most famous Sci-Fi authors, had begun to change; and the encounters he has had with more recent Sci-Fi suggest that the field has reached literary maturity and, indeed, an impressive sophistication.
That isn’t to say that Rendezvous with Rama doesn’t show some signs of the literary neighborhood that produced it: in particular, Clarke’s diction is repetitive at times and the plotting is very straightforward. But none of that affects the novel’s strengths: its sense of wonder and a certain atmosphere that RT will discuss in a moment. More troubling to RT are the Simps (that is, super-chimpanzees) that serve on the Endeavor, the human ship that has gotten the story’s characters to the eponymous rendezvous. The simps provide all domestic services on board. Equipped with an IQ of 60, they are pictured as ideal servants, capable of cleaning things up but not understanding what menial service means or experiencing what it feels like. Well, maybe it would work, but the idea that the ship’s captain will never have to soil his hands with laundry and that the simps will never experience a sense of being at the bottom of the totem-pole, is problematic. Isn’t hierarchy an invention of the higher mammals? Wouldn’t a topsy-turvy day when the captain washes the dishes be good for all concerned?
But RT’s caveats and quibbles aside, RwR presents a world that is truly alien, in which the ship’s alien inhabitants, or at least some of them, lack mouths, have eyes located in odd places, and appear to be organo-metallic: nope, there’s no common ancestor with terrestrial zoology here. More tellingly, though it’s evident that the Ramans possess a very high degree of intelligence, the human explorers find no written script. Do the Ramans possess writing? Can they speak? We’ll have to go to the book’s sequel, Rama II, in hopes of finding out.
But that’s what makes RwR so great: the continuous sense of discovery, of entering a genuinely new world. The appeal here is not to our assumptions; in the book they are often shown to be wrong. But that doesn’t mean that Rama is utterly alien: the spaceship possesses an oxygen atmosphere and, at its most hospitable, semi-tropical temperatures. Could all life, produced by whatever combinations of evolution, manufacture, and command, still have some common defining characteristics?
And so we reach the composite image, the total vision, that Clarke presents of Rama. The ship’s interior, while certainly strange and occasionally threatening, tends towards the wonderful, and most of all in the demands for growth that it offers to its human explorers. Do we want to be more like the Ramans, possess their accomplishments? The answer is, yes. We want to grow towards the unknown, at least sometimes. That is the source of book’s optimism, its underlying sweetness.
Utopias are odd. (And whatever else Rama is, it is a completely planned world.) They are meant no so much to be perfect as to be challenging. We would not wish our planet to become Rama, but if it could help us work towards a happier existence, we can only humbly thank its creators.
Image: Rama in Forest (date: 1920s; author: Raja Ravi Press). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Manners: 3 a. The socially correct way of acting; etiquette. b. The prevailing customs, social conduct, and norms of a specific society…
Moral: 1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character: 2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior…
So, this post is going to be a little complicated: RT is warning folks that there’s a lot of territory to cover. On the plus side, we’re going to be looking at how poetry arrived in western Europe and how poetry is connected to other, important aspects of behavior, such as 1) deciding on the right course of action and 2) minding our manners.
A. Europe in its Cradle
Dark ages are never fun. One civilization collapses and over a period of centuries another rises up from the ruins. Along with the usual payback, rapine, and despair, the conquerors mimic or forget the finer accomplishments of the former time. Something new is struggling to be born, and like any act of creation, it is attended by the most basic considerations: survival and the preservation of what has already been achieved. Nobody has time for poetry.
In the case of Europe, after the final collapse of the Roman Empire in 476, the single most important change was the incorporation of northern Europe into the cultural world established by Rome; the center of Europe was no longer Rome, but the Rhine River. But northern Europe immediately began exerting its cultural differences from the south, perhaps most importantly, in the struggle between the Arian aristocracy of the new Germanic kingdoms and the Catholic Church centered in Rome. By the 8th century, this conflict had been resolved in favor of Rome. And with the defeat of Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours in 732, Europe as a cultural entity was confirmed. Still, on the northern frontier, the Vikings began their long series of raids and invasions, engaging part of the new culture’s military strength until the 12th century.
Great poetry, RT notes, did in fact continue to be written in vernacular languages: Beowulf, the Ulster Cycle and the Mabinogion, and the mythology of the Vikings. But these works were all the product of the dying pagan societies of pre-Christian Europe. So far, no great works written in Latin or its descendant languages had yet been created. No one had found a voice for Europe’s new feudal society, which began to emerge in the 9th century. In fact, the modern languages of Europe were still evolving out of Latin.
B. Reversal of Fortunes
Until the 11th century, Europe was tightly constrained by its powerful neighbors: the Vikings in the north, the Abbasid Caliphate in the south, and the Byzantine Empire in the east; indeed, few would argue that Constantinople and its magnificent cathedral, Hagia Sophia, constituted the center of Christian culture in those years.
But power rarely lingers in one place for long: the conversion of the Sweden to Christianity by the 12th century, the collapse of the unified Caliphate of Cordoba in 1031, and the destruction of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert (1071), started a process of cultural migration and absorption that prepared the ground in Europe for the Renaissance. And perhaps no clearer sign of the quickening of Europe could have been given than the Crusades.
C. The Crusades
Persecution strengthens community. As long as a clear threat exists, any community will huddle together and work to make the danger pass. When the problem goes away, people start to argue with each other. Then they need diplomatic skills to heal the wounds.
But the clock is ticking away, and RT has a busy day tomorrow. The story of how Europe fell into disunion even as it acquired its poetic sensibilities will have to wait till later…
Photo, top: Queen, Spanish Chess Piece; 12th century, Walter Art Museum. WikiCmns; Public Domain. Brooch: Anglo-Saxon openwork silver disk brooch, from the Pentney Hoard. Author: Johnbod. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported. Illustration: The Seljuk Turk Alp Arslan Humbling Romanus IV. 2nd quarter of the 15th century; Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscrit Français 232, folio 323. Author: Boccace, De Casibus. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
RT never could resist a puzzle. But life is life, and during, say, the last 15 years, he hasn’t had much time for puzzling things out, so he has confined himself to just a few puzzles, among them putting Gilgamesh to verse and figuring out what a world government might look like. For better or worse, if it’s smaller than a world, it doesn’t interest him.
Take, for instance, President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. Devoted readers will remember that RT thinks that Obama is about the best thing that’s happened to American politics since, well, it’s hard to say. FDR’s election, maybe? The censure of Joseph McCarthy? Something like that. And RT will say that he thought that last night’s SOU was yet another example of Obama’s gift for public speaking. As for content, as far as RT is concerned, if all Obama does in his last years of office is get America trundling along the road to immigration reform, he will have done more good in office than all but a handful of the Oval Office’s best occupants.
And now, thanks to European ingenuity and harsh historical memories stretching back 100 years, America has a control population to check its political progress against: the European Union.
Ah, fellow Americans loyally picking apples on family farms, just what might this creature, the EU, be? The short answer is: a new political structure struggling to be born. As such, its institutions lack the simplicity and grandeur of those specified in the American constitution, but they do reveal the guts of a bureaucracy and legislative process in a most helpful, if somewhat complicated, way. Consider the following chart:
What the heck is that? you’ll be wondering. What does it mean for constitutional law, not to mention history and the well-being of the EU’s 508 million citizens and 28 member states? The beauty of the answer is that no one knows yet. But RT is willing to wager that the EU is good news for Europe, and even for America’s purple mountains’ majesty (RIP, Pete Seeger, though actually Katherine Lee Bates wrote the poem that the unofficial American national anthem, “America the Beautiful,” is based on.).
Let’s look at the EU’s structure in terms of the familiar American political system. The EU has:
1) a bicameral legislature, composed of the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. Note these differences from the American system: while the EP is directly elected by EU citizens every five years, the CEU consists of one minister from each member state, with the council’s presidency rotating among states every six months (and the actual ministers switch depending on which subject (e.g., agriculture) is being discussed).
2) a collective presidency, the European Council, consisting of the heads of state from all the member nations. The EC is charged with determining the EU’s priorities and overall direction. Without formal powers, it nonetheless exercises considerable influence over the EU’s political agenda.
3) a judiciary, the Court of Justice of the European Union, charged with ensuring that the treaties that underlie the EU are observed.
4) a bill of rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (adopted 2009).
6) a graduated division of powers between the EU and its member states. The EU treaties create a spectrum of authority, with the EU responsible for items such as financial and commercial policy, enjoying priority of responsibility in others (e.g., the internal market), sharing responsibility in still others (e.g., technological development and humanitarian aid), and playing a support role in areas such as industry and disaster prevention.
This is just a quick overview of what seems to be an evolving and in some ways difficult political reality–the EU at this point is no longer an economic union but not yet a political federation. If RT could single out a specific feature of the EU system for praise, it would be the detailed, graduated sharing of power between the union and its member states. When one considers the either/or situation created by the American constitution, where the federal government has de facto priority over the 50 states, leaving individual states to champion important improvements (e.g., the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage). Of course, in this situation, the federal government can be the one on the right side of an issue (as during, most famously, the civil war). But then, come to think of it, there’s the mediating power of the judiciary to consider…
And it’s also worth noting that a trend seems to developing in the EU’s division of powers: the EU is taking responsibility for the more scientific and economic powers, leaving the members states with more individual matters such as culture and language (and dare RT say it, poetry!) To be sure, the division is hardly exact, and reflects a developing thread in RT’s thought, the genius of place.
The EU drama is not played out, RT surmises, and the ongoing story of the struggle to create a peaceful and just Europe will continue to fascinate us on the other side of the pond. RT
Map Projection: The European Union (2014). Author: S. Solberg J. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Unported. EU Chart: Political System of the European Union. Author: 111Alleskönner. WikiCmns; CC 3.0 Share Alike Germany.
RT is no stranger to the Winter Blues; he’s dealt with them off and on since he was a teenager. For whatever reason, this year the arrival of winter has struck him a little more deeply than most changes of the season. But not to worry: RT has been taking steps to deal with blah feelings and is doing better.
But this particular episode has reminded RT that our lives ride on profound currents of energy and mood. Women are traditionally supposed to be the moodier gender, but the tides of emotion that run through men are all the more powerful for being hidden under still waters.
And the currents that everyone deals with do not necessarily dissipate in a few months or even years. These are the great rhythms, which flow through us for decades and must be regarded with the utmost respect. Swimming down into their pull and struggling to change and understand them is a part of every health life. Feelings have to be processed, and in a busy life these can accumulate until they overwhelm us. We need time to assimilate, to explore, and to grow more skillful. RT
Photo: Picture of the moon dark. Arjun. WikiCmns. Public Domain.