December 8, 2013
Just a few musings about a wonderful season and its traditions
Some things go so very much without saying that we can’t even think they haven’t always been that way.
Of course we have always celebrated Christmas, haven’t we?
You all know the answer –in fact we have not.
And I don’t have to go back so far as the time before Jesus – whose birth we remember at Christmas – was actually born, which would, as most theologians agree about, have happened between 4 and 6 BC (Not long ago, pope emeritus Benedict XIV. caused an outcry because he stated exactly that. Read about it here.)
But for a long time nobody cared about it anyway. There was no interest whatsoever in Jesus’ Birth. The important events were his crucifixion and his resurection. These were the days that were celebrated. The first time we know of that Christmas was celebrated was in the 4th century in Rome. Howstuffworks.com provides a wonderful overview regarding that topic.
No, Christmas has definitely not been there forever.
But since then, we certainly always have had a christmas tree, right?
In fact, it should take more than thousand years untill Christmas was celebrated with a tree. It is said that first decorated trees were set up in Latvia in 1510, and it is widely known that Martin Luther, the great reformer, decorated a tree with candles for his children. But it should take quite a bit of time till decorated trees at Christmas were common. Germans brought the first trees to the US, to Pennsylvania in the early 19th century, and as for Britain, christmas trees came into fashion through Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert. You can read it for yourself in an interesting longreads.
Oh, of course. But all the time, since Christmas was invented, we’ve been going around, singing carols, yes?
Now, this is interesting. Going around and singing for neighbours seems to be a really old habit – only not for christmas. It was called “wassailing” and dates back to the middle ages, where people visited each other and wished each other a good fortune. The habit to do this at christmas time however only reaches back to Victorian times. Read about this interesting subject in a wonderfully informative TIME article and enjoy a little collection of traditional German christmas songs played on the organ by my talented friend Matthias Rascher:
But then surely we’ve written to each other all the time, haven’t we?
We have sent tidings of comfort and joy to our fellow christians and our families over all those centuries, for certain!
Yeah well – not exactly. Sending christmas cards is a British invention. In 1843, John Callcott Horsley, a painter and illustrator, designed the first card for his friend Sir Henly Cole, who, being involved in many events like the Great World Fair and the founding of the Victoria and Albert museum, just didn’t feel like writing dozens of personal letters to friends and family. This is the birthday of the commercial christmas card. But very soon it became a hit – people started to ask for and send away hundreds and thousands of neatly designed cards to their loved ones. The guys over at Mental Floss tell you all about it.
Christmas hasn’t been here forever. And still it is the one and only time in the year almost nobody can resist. We think about each other, we sing songs, we cherish our families and friends and share many much loved traditions, even if they don’t date back to ancient times. I love this time. I hope you do to. Come on. Let’s do Christmas!
A wonderful, inspiring Christmas time and Merry Christmas to all of you.
Enjoy a little gift I’ve prepared for your pleasure and watch a slideshow featuring beautiful historical Christmas cards:
And, at last, listen to the universal Christmas wish, courtesy of Matthias Rascher:
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Many thanks to my dear friend Matthias Rascher for allowing me to use his uploads on YouTube. Please visit his YouTube Channel for more wonderful organ music and have a look at his fantastically curated Twitter Stream.
January 4, 2013
Plato is my friend – Aristotle is my friend – but my greatest friend is truth!
(Sir Isaac Newton)
Apples are good for your health. Everybody knows that. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away!” was the very first task I had to learn by heart in my early English lessons. But when it comes to Sir Isaac Newton, the apple isn’t simply a nutritive, vitamine-rich fruit. It is the fruit of knowledge.
Of course all of you know the wonderful anecdote about the apple that hurt Newton’s head (famously celebrated by Google with a sweet doodle in 2010) and brought him to the development of the Universal law of gravity (read more about it here). But there is much more about him.
Newton was a man with a broad knowledge and almost limitless interests. His achievements were not only on the field of science, as in mathematics, theoretical physics, mechanics and optics. He was also very interested in philosophy, alchemy and even religion and theology, and wrote about it. For 3oo years his religious and alchemistic works weren’t accessible to the public, all the more I was happy when I got to know that they are now digitized and open for everybody through the wonderful Newton Project (You MUST check out this fantastic website!) It is awesome to see him from a totally different site. His writings are both fascinating and touching, as this list of his sins from 1662 shows.
Today is the 370th birthday of this brilliant mind and true renaissance character, and I invite you to celebrate it with a real treat: A few photos from a 1st edition of Newton’s “Geographia generalis”, published in 1672. I can’t thank my very dear friend @thesonofstig on Twitter enough for sharing this with me and allowing me to use the pictures he sent me for this post.
Read about Newton’s mathematical work on the calculus here.
Don’t remember the three laws of motion? Here you are! Let a dog show you how they work;-)
Get to know about Newton’s optics works, his prism experiment and the telescope he built in the article “Newton and the colour of light“.
Learn about the Newton Project in an article from the NYT.
Besides the Newton Project website, the Cambridge Digital Library holds a lot of resources about Newton as well.
Here’s also a review of my favourite biography of Newton.
And, last but not least, a wonderfully written article about newer developments in the research on gravity, “What is gravity, really?“
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
(Sir Isaac Newton)
December 16, 2012
I am a theologian. I don’t do political blogposts. But sometimes it is time to just do what you know is right. Well. This is. Since I got to know about Newtown, Connecticut, I wanted to do this. I wanted to do it, when I saw the first pictures. I wanted to do it when I heard about how many people have died – and how many children. And I wanted to do it, when I had to explain it to my 11-year-old son, when he stared at me and simply asked me “Why could this happen?” and I didn’t know what to say. Like most of you I am furious, cold furious, and confused. Like most of you I have tried to find a way to express my feelings about it.
Actually there is nothing anyone can say about what happened there. It is just abject horror. There are no words that can cover the terrible news, the terror people must have felt and the grief of those who are involved there. All of them. Perhaps the only possibility to cover it in an appropriate way was how the NYT did it: With a black page only showing the names of the innocent victims. The most touching thing I have seen so far.
I am also a teacher. But there is nothing I can teach you about this. I just can give you a piece of my mind. Sometimes things are not that complicated. Most certainly they are not in this case. If we look around there is a very easy way to prevent human catastrophes like this from happening. And I think it is about time for America, that big and wonderful country, to get it right. Just look at these two examples:
Firstly: Australia. After a mass shooting in 1996 Australia decided for a new gun control law. A study looking at the situation in Australia between 1979 and 2003 showed this: 13 mass shootings in the 18 years before the new gun law, none in the years after it. None. Zero. (Thanks to Aniina Jokinen on Twitter for sending that study my way.)
Secondly: Japan. Japan has the most rigorous gun control law I’ve heard of so far. You are not allowed to own most firearms. You are not allowed to own ammunition. And most certainly you are not allowed to fire. Result: In 2008 for example, Japan hat 11 homicides connected with firearms. Want to know about the US? Add three zeros. And one thousand extra. That makes more than 12,000. (Read about that in an insightful article brought to my attention by my friend Matthias Rascher on Twitter.)
If that doesn’t convince you, nothing ever will. But if it does, act. Don’t wait for your government to do so. Tell them you want a change. Now. Owning a gun – that is my deepest conviction – has nothing to do with freedom. A man’s (or woman’s) value has nothing to do with the fact that they carry a gun. But it has everything to do with knowing that whatever can help prevent events like the one at Newtown is a good thing. There is no reason whatsoever why a normal person should need a firearm.
Show your government and the gun lobby that you want things to be different. Put your arms down. Destroy them. Bring them to your next police station to take care of them. Do it for yourself, for your children, for your country and for us all.
Opting for laws to control guns is not an American question alone. It is a question of humanity. Yesterday I read this in a very personal and touching blogpost: “The right to not get shot is a bigger right than the right to own a piece of metal.” And I second this wholeheartedly.
You Americans have given us so much in the last hundred years. We are grateful for it, here in Europe, and especially here in Germany. We admire you for your willingness to step in when things get rough. So now – step in again. Show us what your great nation is able to do. Let us be proud to be your friends.
It is about time.
Lay down your arms!(Bertha von Suttner, 1889)
February 27, 2012
The Tigress: Pictures of an arresting encounter that made me think
You cannot miss him. Whenever he appears, be it in a movie or a documentary, the music changes. It becomes compelling, a bit mysterious but mighty all the same. Perhaps there is a drum solo and then – silence. Only the sound of the wind and some moving leaves are left. Everything else makes room. The stage is set. Then he comes. The king. The king of the jungle. The great tiger.
Of all big cats, the tiger is the most fascinating. Neither the lion nor the leopard or any of the others combines strength, menace, beauty and grace in such perfection. It is not very astonishing that in Asian literature and history the tiger takes the place that the lion has in our western culture. He is the animal royal. But of all big cats, the tiger is also the most endangered. Or perhaps it is not “but”, perhaps it is “because”. Perhaps it is because the tiger is so impressive, so extraordinary that people make him subject to their hunt, not only in history, but still today.
What we see today is only a poor rest of the variety and amount of tigers we once knew. Only 7 % of what once roamed most of Asia is left. Of the 9 subspecies of tigers three are already extinct, three are very close, and all are severely endangered.
If our attitude does not change soon, for our grandchildren tigers will be mentioned in the same breath as the mammoth and the dinosaur – only a relic of distant dreams.
On the other hand, there are signs of hope. People are becoming more aware of the treasures of our planet – and of what it means if we lose them. So, when some years ago in a broad survey “Animal Planet” asked about 50,000 people in many countries about their favorite animal, it was neither the intelligent and helpful dolphin nor the faithful dog that came on top. It was the tiger. No doubt, this animal – so far above us in terms of strength and dangerousness, but then so vulnerable as well – has now become subject to our admiration and affection.
Some time ago I went on a field day with one of my classes. Like most children, my 5th graders are fascinated by animals and so we decided to visit a zoo nearby. I had taken my camera with me, and strolling through the zoo I encountered one of those impressive animals, an awesome tigress. She was majestic but also really amiable. Believe it or not: When I whispered “Can’t you please turn a bit so that I can get a better picture of you?” – she really did! Actually she acted quite like a model. So I was able to take some really nice shots which show her beauty and casual strength. You are invited to share them with me. Enjoy!
“Few problems are less recognized, but more important than the accelerating disappearance of the earth’s biological resources. In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it is perched.”
Bonus: Read a comprehensive article on tigers on Wikipedia and savor a video featuring breathtaking pictures of camera-trapped tigers (H/T to my friend Matthias Rascher, who dug that up). Here is also a list of important fictional tigers and, if you want to visit the most famous of all, Shere Khan of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, read it online or download it for free here. And at last William Blake’s superb poem “The Tyger”, from which I have taken my headline for this post, and with which I will close, written and illustrated by his own hand.
February 12, 2012
On Don DeLillo’s “The Angel Esmeralda”
Everybody can write a novel. No, really. Probably not everybody can write a good novel. But telling a long story – that is not that difficult, is it? The real art, so it appears to me, is to write a short story. Distilling a whole story, places, characters and thoughts, emotion and evolution, down to a few pages and still painting a vivid and sweeping picture, that is a real challenge.
“The Angel Esmeralda” has been my first encounter with Don DeLillo. It is a collection of nine short stories, written between 1979 and 2011, and not a single one can be compared to another. They show a whole universe of ideas, situated in strange and familiar places, from a Carribean island to a museum, from space to Greece, inhabited with strangers and movie addicts, students and teachers, prisoners and tourists. The only thing that stays the same: Every single one will leave you gasping for air.
DeLillo divided his book into three parts – each part introduced by a picture, a visual prelude of what will follow.
The first story, “Creation”, will give you a deep insight into the way men’s minds (and emotions) work. Or do not work. At all. It will be up to you to decide that.
“Human moments in world war III” provides you with a very special look at a strange, disturbing and still beautiful earth. It also deals with the question if musing too much is a nuisance. Here ends the first part of the book.
Whilst “The Runner” takes you to a very unusual crime scene, you will have to endure both figurative and literal earthquakes in “The Ivory Acrobat” (which was my favourite story), and also learn about the beauty and power of Ancient Cretan art.
“The Angel Esmeralda” is a particularly touching story, where symbolism meets a cruel reality, and, entwining, both lead towards new hope.
Part three of the book, comprising four stories, takes you on a rollercoaster trip starting with a visit at a museum and a far too close look at German terrorists in “Baader-Meinhof”, then moving on to a painful mix of imagination and reality in “Midnight in Dostoevsky” and a very special approach to the Greek economic crisis in “Hammer and Sickle”, and finally comes to a furious finale in the strange behaviour and twisted dreams of a movie addict in “The Starveling”.
The two main motifs that occur again and again are, in my opinion, obsession and loss of reality. DeLillo displays these in many different nuances, in every imaginable way, from the ordinary daily trials to flee everyday pain, grief and sorrow to the complete loss of the last thread that keeps a person from madness.
The most enchanting part while reading the book, however, is the language DeLillo uses. Down to earth, clear and sharp, and still poetic. I like to call this particular style “farmer’s poetry”. A fascinating world to explore – often it takes a while till you notice, but suddenly you become aware with amazement how his language, how words and sentences form intricate patterns of utter beauty.
Reading DeLillo’s short stories in “The Angel Esmeralda” is like going on a walk with him. He talks to you tenderly, and, as it were, lays his arms around your shoulders. You feel absolutely comfortable and at ease. For five lines, half a page, or even two pages. And then you suddenly realize that he has taken you to a high cliff. And while you are still trying to figure out what has happened – he pushes you over the edge. And you fall. And fall. And fall. Till the story is over and you hit the ground. And sometimes you do not hit it at all. And do you know what is the worst part? Next time he asks you for a walk – you happily join him again, blind to the consequences. Truly a read for the brave. Will you dare? Try it, you won’t regret it.
“It is for that combination of terror and comedy and sheer song that everyone wants to give Don DeLillo an award.”
Bonus: If you want to know more about Don DeLillo, read his biography on Wikipedia and in his own words, a profound review on “The Angel Esmeralda” from the “New York Review of Books” (H/T to my friend Matthias Rascher), a great “Paris Review” interview and finally enjoy watching Nathan Englander’s wonderful laudatio to Don presenting him with the 2010 Pen/Saul Bellow Award as well as his court but poignant answer in the video below.
January 22, 2012
On William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”
I have read this piece several times by now, once during my school time, and then recently. After finishing it I sat down to write a review. But discussing it with a friend I recognized that this is not a piece to just read and review. So I read it again. And again. It got a real hold on me and I tried to get deeply into the stormy world of this play, allowed it to shake my mind all around and finally wrote down some impressions about it, a collection of rather random thoughts.
I am a captive fan of Shakespeare, that is for sure, but this is not at all my favourite piece. I found it – despite recognizing the artful composition, it is Shakespeare after all – quite hard to get comfortable with and even more difficult to gain sympathy for the characters, especially for Prospero, the one everyone seems to like and admire quite much.
It is a play about nature versus nurture. But I do not think that that is the only important issue. It is also about morality, power (from the beginning to the end, you will find this motif in skillful variations), justice and the mingling (i.e. “marriage”) of different, contrasting sides.
Power is the one big issue in this play, I think. It is introduced in the very first scene, and woven through the whole play. It is shown in all its disgusting facets. And the play makes clear at some point that people who claim authority where they do not have natural or professional authority, support the evil and the danger (just look at that storm scene again. The courtiers are only obstacles in the way of the boatsmen!)
But of course there are many more scenes where it becomes prominent – every single scene with Prospero breathes the foul breath of power, manipulative and harsh. I would judge otherwise if it was a kind of natural authority. But Prospero has no such authority at all. It is magic that gives him his strength, not a power that lies within his soul.
And then the power over the beast, the power of “nurture” that makes that poor beast bow and wince, shown by the two men, Stephano and Trinculo, with their rotten minds. Disgusting.
I think that nature versus nurture is worked out in almost every possible variation – and not each one of them is a good one.
There is, on the one hand, of course, Caliban. He is described in a very negative way, we get to know that there was no posibility to get proper nurture into him (I would really like to know what kind of nurture Prospero tried to give him – and why!) and even what he finally takes (language) he uses for bad, to curse. But – is he really bad? Is he really a wild beast? I doubt it. Probably in spite of it all – think about it – he is a victim. So much longing for company and love. Not knowing how to get it. Poor beast. Yes, yes, I know that Miranda story. Caliban is no “good guy”, no “noble wild man”. But who has ever shown him how being the good guy works? Not Prospero, his master, I am afraid. He wants to have Miranda, the beautiful one, the one who is exactly what he is not. I think he hurtfully sees that and that is what he longs for. He wants to have a family with her. Here the motive of “marriage” – of mingling two ends, the beauty and the beast, her softness and his crudity in possible children – comes in. The natural urge of a male, as well, I suppose. Can you judge him for that, or for the fact that he has never learned an appropriate way of love, that in his twisted existence even his expression of love is a deformed one? I will always try to understand the “Calibans”. Not to excuse what they do. Not to whitewash them, of course not! But to understand. I cannot fight the urge to do so, to dive down into sick and evil minds and souls to look out for that last little spark of humanity that is left there. I just cannot believe that anybody can be a monster and nothing else, even if everybody calls them that.
On the other hand there is Prospero. I have never liked him. This character has always aroused harsh and strong feelings in me. Of course life has played a cruel game with him and probably there was a time when he was indeed an innocent, a wise man, totally lost in his thoughts and studies (and even then he did not look for insight and wisdom, but for magic!). But that was long ago. When we meet him in “The Tempest”, he has learned his lesson. He is arrogant. He is an abuser. He abuses and exploits everybody. No, he is not good. He abuses Caliban, who has longed for company so much, who offered him all his knowledge about the Island for just a little bit of sympathy. Did you notice how his behaviour against Caliban mirrors his own fate? He isn’t better than his brother – Antonio took away his home, his state, and he does the same to Caliban! He abuses Ariel, the friendly spirit of the air. Is he so much better than Sycorax? She imprisoned Ariel in a tree, Prospero chains him to his will, to do cruel acts that contradict his kind soul, liberty always so near to him, and then again he is forced to do more and more awful things. Does Prospero not only free him so that he can serve again? What kind of freedom is it that he offers to Ariel? How “good” is Prospero’s deed of liberation really? And how much better than Sycorax is he when he threatens Ariel to condemn him to the same fate of being imprisoned in a tree only for complaining? He also abuses the other spirits and goddesses, Ferdinand, and even Miranda, his own daughter. He has set his goals – and probably he has a right to plan on them. But the way he does it is cruel. And he does not even do it with his own knowledge, power or experiences, but with magic.
He really is disgusting in the way he treats everyone around. He decides on everything. Everything and everyone has to be subject to his will. There is no heart in him, only arrogance, arrogance…
I wondered about his own description of his life before being set in that little boat. Is it not partly his own responsibility that it came to this turn? It was he who neglected his duties for the sake of magic. And why is magic so important to him? Is it the pure innocent search for enlightenment? Or rather the wish to gain control, to manipulate? At least that is how he uses the powers he gains. It was his brother who had to do all the work for him! And then he wonders why Antonio also wants to earn the fruits. Of course Antonio is no good character either, we learn that from his own words, and from him tempting Sebastian to treat his brother like he treated his own. But after all, how can he be astonished that he “grew a stranger” to his state? He made himself a stranger! Was the usurpation of his state probably a just punishment for the fact that he betrayed his people long before, when he set magic skill and his books (“volumes that I prize above me dukedom!”) higher than his own people, his duty?
I got sick and furious about Prospero stating that he did “no harm” to the people on the boat! Of course, no one was killed, injured. But what about the fear, the desperation? Is this no harm? What a raw, feelingless statement! Or how he acted against that poor, grief-shaken Ferdinand. Of course he did it on purpose, he wanted him to marry Miranda, but that doesn’t make it right to throw heartlessness against somebody who needs and deserves comfort.
Then there are also the other so-called “educated men” – selfish, dumb, corrupt, mean, even criminal. Where is the value of nurture if it is only used for power, greed and evil, for reaching their own goals, without any respect, responsibility and compassion?
So. What is it that Shakespeare prefers? Nature or nurture? I think neither of them. I rather think he wants to show that both of them are harsh and beastly if they don’t entwine. Nature alone is furious and raw, nurture alone is cynical, cruel and abusive. All in all I’d say that nurture in this play too often goes at the expense of feelings and compassion. No, nurture alone is obviously not good.
Only combined, nature tamed by nurture, nurture enchanted, filled with feelings by nature, do they work out well and build real humanity. They need each other desperately. If they stay alone, they become monstrous.
I like Ferdinand. I like Miranda. These two show how things really work. They are willing to make sacrifices. Of course they are the “good ones”. Too good, actually. But they are willing to serve. They show compassion, love, dedication and a big deal of humility (though at some points Miranda seemed so much influenced by her father that she acted quite like him! A daddy’s girl indeed!).
And I like that unimportant, but in so many ways brave little Gonzalo. He is my favourite among all of the characters in that play. I like his way to combine heart and brain. His gentleness and thoughtfulness. He is just wonderful. How he thinks of those beloved books. How he tries to comfort. To remind us of human values. He is just great. So warm are my feelings for him. The others try to make a fool out of him – but they never will be able to, because he is absolutely pure.
The theme of marriage seemed also important to me, and it was stressed a lot. Beginning with the wedding of Ferdinand’s sister – a marriage between Europe and Africa, as it were, very cool. And ending with the wedding of Ferdinand and Miranda that led to the great solution, the end of tensity, and made a “happy ending” possible. And so many scenes in between, where different ends want to meet. Mingling, combining, becoming one out of two for the sake of being better, being more perfect. This was an idea I could embrace and I liked that very much.
And then of course there is the colonization theme. I wondered if it was intended by Shakespeare to bring it up. Probably what seems so obvious to us so that “The Tempest” is even banned from some libraries in the US is a rather “modern” interpretation. I am not aware that it was a big issue in Shakespearean times, though Gonzalo’s speech in Act 2 may suggest this.
Anyway, I was impressed by the power of words, of course…and I was thrilled by the deep ambiguity of many sentences. I was also enchanted with the mythological variations in the play, especially with the links of characters to the Elements, with Ariel representing both Air and Fire, Caliban the Earth, and, IMHO, the compassionate Miranda the Water (the three “children” of the magician representing the whole magic realm, as it were. I liked that. VERY COOL:-) I really found it a text to think about, and it is undoubtingly a great play. I do not have to like it, do I? I am allowed to dislike it and still admire Shakespeare’s work.
“Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will him about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 3.2
Bonus: Read the whole play and a profound introduction to it or listen to a (shortened) audio rendition. Here is also an overview of which books and films reference to “The Tempest”. At last watch a glimpse of the 2010 movie “The Tempest” featuring a brilliant Helen Mirren as “Prospera”:
January 20, 2012
Or Why one book at a time is not enough for me…
Imagine yourself living in a gorgeous house. Many rooms can be found there, and each of them is different. A kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, a living room, a dining room, several salons, all in different colours and styles. Tell me – which of you would use only one room a day, looking around until you have seen each and every detail in the room? Nobody would, certainly. Of course you would start your day getting up in your bedroom, then take a refreshing shower in the bathroom. You would go down to the kitchen for breakfast. Presumably if you had the time you would perhaps spend an hour in one of the salons, maybe the red one, snuggled up into that comfortable big leather armchair, reading a book, before going on to your den to write some letters. Around noon there would be a quick lunch – there is that nice little green salon on the first floor, perfectly fitting for this purpose. In the afternoon, you could sit down in the library, and maybe there would be a bit of time to spend in the music salon playing the piano before meeting up with a dear friend for dinner, which would of course be taken in the festive atmosphere of the dining room. Afterwards you would go over to the big living room to share some quality time talking there. And when he/she had finally gone, it would probably be time to go to bed in your bedroom again. Now, how does that sound to you?
I do not know exactly how many books I own. Must be about 10.000 volumes. I am a bookaholic, I confess. (Friends call me even “addicted to books”, and I am afraid they might be right. It has never been a good idea to let me go into a bookstore – I do not think I have ever come out without buying anything;-)
For me, my library is like the most beautiful house and my books are the rooms in it. There are many, many rooms to explore and I feel comfortable in all of them. But I do not feel comfortable spending my whole time reading only one at a time. I want to open all the doors. I want to inhale all the smells. See all the colours. Hear all the voices. So my nightstand, the desk in my den, even the sofa in the living room are always covered with books. And I can tell you –my family and friends often tell me off because of that! But then, some time ago, I listened to a brilliant interview on NPR dealing with exactly that question, and I thought – YES! Finally somebody seemed to understand me! Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune cultural critic, talked about her approach to books, and how she reads several books at one time. I agree with her on literally everything. It is not a question of being easily bored as you could assume, neither of not being able to concentrate on a single one. It is a question of wanting more. One book is just not enough. I want to keep my thoughts open and my horizons wide. Certainly none of you is occupied with only one issue, one thought, for days and days? So, why should I force my brain to do exactly that the moment I take up a book?
But what is a house, even the most beautiful one, if you are alone in it? Of course you can admire the architecture and enjoy the interior. Still the rooms will not come alive until you share them with others. For me it is the same with books. I have experienced that all the more since I have started reading a lot of English books and found a friend to share with. Certainly I enjoy reading on my own, savouring the beauty of words, structure and thoughts. But it is so much more fun to talk and think, to be questioned and re-think, to digest your thoughts into words – you get so much more challenged and everything gets brighter and deeper.
Ever since I started this blog, I wanted to share my thoughts about literature with you. 2012 seems the year to begin with. So stay tuned and get to know my books – the ones I love, the ones that touched me, the ones that challenged me.
But beware: I will not write classical reviews. You can find them by the dozen on amazon.com or goodreads.com. What I really want to share with you are my thoughts and feelings about what I have read. The things that impressed me, irritated me, upset me. And I would love you to share with me as well!
“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.”
October 25, 2011
A swansong to an opossum, or: The psychology of compassion
When I was a little girl, there was a very popular series for children on German TV. It was called “Daktari” and dealt with a single-parent veterinary surgeon and his daughter in East Africa. Together they lived through many adventures. I loved the funny father-daughter banter, the exotic flair of the place and the scurrility of many characters. But the real star in that series was not human. It was Clarence – a lion. A lion with a little weakness though. Clarence was cross-eyed. And I found him downright adorable. Just to make it clear: we are not talking about a cute little lion cub. Clarence was a big, grown up, male lion, very impressive, looking dangerous and intimidating. And yet, whenever the camera focused on his face and showed his eyes I could hardly hold back the wish to cuddle him.
Not long ago, Heidi made headlines. An opossum, yes. When she had to be put to sleep because she was old and ill, a wave of sympathy shook my Twitter timeline. I’ve never heard of any other opossum that was mourned so much. What was the reason for this broad interest in a – let’s face the truth – little old rat? You can easily guess… Heidi squinted. (Read more about “Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum” on the website of Leipzig Zoo.)
People with strabismus are usually not very happy with it. It causes them a lot of problems. Especially the lack of stereopsis severely affects their quality of life. It is hard to move in our 3-dimensional world lacking a perception of depth. And usually we do not tend to find squinting persons cute or sweet. Rather people laugh about them, often making cruel jokes, because they match strabismus with minor intelligence. So we do everything to find a cure for it, often by surgical intervention.
So, what’s behind our strange fascination with cross-eyed animals? Is there a psychological explanation for it? A question that I could not get out of my head…
I scoured the web for it, but unfortunately nobody seemed to have been interested in this question before (if you find out more, please let me know!). So I am now depending on my own musings.
Actually, strabismus is not unknown in animals. Most animals that have their eyes at the side of the head, e.g. horses, gazelles and deer, squint. Evolution has given this as a gift to them. They can overlook a wide area, and are thus more aware of enemies. Alas, this gift has a serious side effect – these animals haven’t got a very good perception of depth. Like squinting humans, they lack stereopsis.
But obviously this kind of strabismus is not what moves us so much. At least I don’t notice people running around telling me, “Oh! Look at that sweet cross-eyed horse!”:-) Frankly, most people don’t even seem to notice.
What makes Heidi and Clarence so special then? Of course the key word is compassion.
Compassion is one of the noblest feelings human beings are capable of. It is the foundation of being human, as it were. It is compassion that makes our society function. Compassion is the reason that makes us care for people in need: the very old, the very young, the sick, the poor, the weak. Without compassion there would be 7 billion highly intelligent, skillful and at times even brilliant, but also cruel and greedy animals out there. It is this feeling and its derivates, like tenderness, mercy and and the urge to take responsibility for others, which shape humankind. Obviously we feel compassion not only for our human sisters and brothers, but we also extend it on other beings, especially animals. But why does this feeling apply to a squinting lion and a cross-eyed opossum, yet not to thousands and thousands of squinting horses, gazelles and deer?
Perhaps it is because the squinting of Clarence and Heidi is more prominent. It’s more prominent because lions and opossums have, in contrast to horses, deer and gazelles, a face that reminds us of ourselves, because the eyes are in the middle of the face, and not at the side of the head. So they appear to us more humanlike. It seems that the more a being resembles us the easier it is to connect with it and feel empathy, whereas we have apparently (and sadly enough) big problems to feel compassion for beings – or people – who are different. A study seems to support this. Another reason is the sheer number. Heidi was one, and Clarence was one, a single being, lifted out of the masses, one we could turn our eyes to and concentrate on, in contrast to those zillions of other animals. There have been studies recently that leave me sore and sad, saying that obviously our compassion quickly reaches its limits as soon as there is more than one who would need it. We seem to have less compassion already, if there are two – and it almost vanishes when we talk about dozens, hundreds, thousands. We just grow case-hardened when we are confronted with masses of suffering. That seems to be what makes it possible for us to stare at pictures of piles of people who died in wars or massacres without an emotional breakdown. I really would want to believe that this is not true – yet it seems to be supported by psychological research.
Also, Heidi and Clarence are not the average animals of their kind, which might be another reason. Did you know that Heidi has two siblings, both squinting, both alive, both living at Leipzig Zoo? Why aren’t they as famous as their older sister? It is only a thought – but if you check out their images at the zoo’s website, they look rather “normal”, despite their cross-eyedness. Heidi on the other hand was ugly. Just look at her! She looks devastated, worn out and helpless – and our hearts fly to her, full of sympathy. We seem to give compassion easier if the subject is extremely indigent. But what about Clarence? He didn’t look needy. He looked strong and powerful. What was the crucial point about him? Probably exactly that – wasn’t he the “fallen king”, the “crushed power” because of his squinting? In the film we saw him, the beautiful king of the savannah, frail. His wild mane, his gracious walk, his iron muscles – everything in vain. That little weakness of his made him dependent on humans, far inferior to his strength, to feed him and care for him. Perhaps this was the reason for my awkward wish to cuddle an animal that could have fed on me for breakfast.
In the end there might be different reasons why people are fascinated with animals like Heidi, Clarence and the others you see on this page. Human emotions are a complex thing, and our reasons to feel – or not to feel – compassion, mercy, tenderness and empathy are strongly dependent on who we are, what values we cling to and what we have gone through. But one insight became important for me, while I was thinking about this issue: We should be compassionate. We need to be compassionate. We can be compassionate. No matter who needs our sympathy. We are human beings. Let’s show it.
“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business. It is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.” (Dalai Lama)
A wholehearted “thank you ever so much” to Paul, Brandon and Martyn from the Community of Flickr for the instant willingness to let me borrow their pictures for my blogpost! (Click on the names to visit their photostreams – it’s worth it! Also check out Paul’s wonderful Blog “Bedlington Wanderer“!)
A special thanks also to the people of Leipzig Zoo who generously allowed me to use the pictures of Heidi!
October 4, 2011
On poetry, love in the antiquities and the art of translation
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea. And on this Island, there lived a gifted woman. Her name was Sappho, and her talent was so extraordinary that people called her “the 10th muse”.
No, actually I don’t want to tell you a fairy tale ;-). The idea for this blog post came to me in a more modern way: A friend of mine posted a tweet on Twitter, featuring a poem by Anne Carson. I liked it, and was reminded that I had already heard about her. Scouring my library, I quickly found what I was looking for: A little book, containing her translations of Sappho’s poems.
I reread them. Well, to be honest, I didn’t simply read them, I savoured them, drowned in the delight of Sappho’s wonderful, colorful words. And while doing that, I came to three conclusions:
The first one was not very astonishing. I already knew Sappho’s poetry, and I’ve always loved it. The words drop of her lips like honey…full of exquisite sweetness. And herself – what a stunning biography for a woman in those times, more than 2500 years ago (read more about her life here).
I was touched all the more by my second conclusion. All my life, through all my history studies, this was what I had been taught, what I believed and also taught my own students: That people in ancient times didn’t feel like we do. That it was not possible for them, living in times of plagues and early deaths, to invest as much feeling into other persons as we do today, or else they would have gone mad over the loss of one beloved after the other. That love, that deep, intimate feeling we know between men and women was an invention of the 19th century, of no use in earlier times. That there were totally different reasons that held relationships together: Caring for family and offspring, conserving land, creating power bonds between families or simply struggling for survival. If there were tender feelings between two people…nice. But it had been my firm conviction that this was not an important – or even necessary – foundation of marriage or a relationship.
And then I read Sappho’s words – in a powerful translation – and it hit me like a bullet. What she describes in her unique, artful words – is nothing less than love. The deep, intimate love we know today. Exactly the love I know. And I wondered, how I – and all my teachers before me – could have been so mistaken.
It occured to me that the reason for it probably wasn’t really “far away”. I, and all my teachers before me, used translations of ancient texts that were made mainly in the 19th or early 20th century. And even more recent translations took these as a role model for their choice of words. The language that had been used there was simply not our language. So the words about emotions, love and sexuality came out strangely cool and flat. Not at all the way we would talk about feelings so deep and profound.
That led me to my third conclusion: The importance of a contemporary translation of classic texts, and, in the same breath, how wonderful Anne Carson’s translation in “If not, Winter” is. Anne Carson, a classical scholar and poet herself, has managed beyond awesomeness to put Sappho’s words, written 2500 years ago, into a language that speaks to us. And even more: Though Sappho wrote dozens and dozens of poems in her lifetime, merely three have survived as a whole! All the others are fragments, sometimes only a few words or even letters. A challenge for every translator – and still, Anne Carson managed to create sense beyond sense in her translation…even the fragments talk to us and give us a vivid impression of what they may have sounded like once they had dropped from mellifluous Sappho’s lips.
Just listen to her:
“He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking.”
(p. 63, from poem 31, one of the rare almost complete ones.)
“You came and I was crazy for you and cooled my mind that burned with longing.”
(p. 101, fragment 48)
“I am aware…of evildoing…other…minds…blessed ones….”
(p. 9, fragment 3)
Or this one:
“….beautiful he…stirs up still things….exhaustion the mind…..settles down…but come O beloveds….for day is near“.
(p.87, fragment 43)
Or even this, only a few words left, and yet so sad and beautiful:
“……rumor…..hair…..at the same time…..man…..anxiety…..ground……daring.”
(p. 169, fragments 87 a-c)
Who could say this is flat? Who could say this is old-fashioned and lacks emotion?
Reading these texts I saw it crystal clear: People in ancient times weren’t that different from us. Of course I was right, as were my teachers: People in ancient times had a hard life indeed. It was dangerous then to invest feelings and emotions. Death came cruelly and unexpectedly. It was a craze to waste feelings when you knew there would be nothing but loss and pain. But still: People were born and died, they laughed and cried, loved and hated…just like we do. They were the same as we are. They were no different. That’s what Sappho and Anne Carson taught me. I bow in awe, humility and admiration.
“I don’t know what to do. Two states of mind in me.” (p. 51, fragment 51)
Read much more about Sappho (Essays, texts in Greek and English, and lots of links) here.
Listen to how Sappho’s poems, actually songs, may have sounded like in ancient times: