05 January 2019

Penumbra: "Dispute it like a man."

MALCOLM: Dispute it like a man.
MACDUFF: I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me. 
Macbeth Act 4 Scene 3

I love how people to tell you to let things go, as if there were something wrong with you for being unhappy that you have been wronged. Or as if there were a switch installed somewhere (they never told you about) that triggered some ejection seat of grief and pain.

We must let things go. Of course we must. But to pretend they are gone, that they have been let go, before they have been fully felt, fully grieved, is a dangerous road to walk. Worse than deceiving others, it is deceiving ourselves. Wound? What wound?

When my mother died I was married and living in California. My wife neither said nor did anything to indicate that she was coming with me. She didn't start packing a bag, didn't say "let's go." When I got on the phone with the airline I looked at her with a questioning look, she turned away. I was actually in the car backing out of the driveway when she asked if I wanted her to come. Too late.

Before I had even returned from New York, she called me to tell me that her uncle was coming to town and wanted to know whether he could stay with us for a few days right after I got back. I couldn't believe she was even asking me to entertain people the moment I got back from my mother's funeral. I was stunned. In the moment I could either explode or say 'yeah, sure.' So that's what I said.

When I returned she never once asked me how I was doing, until after a month or so I was so hurt and angry because of this that I pointed out, not gently, how much this wounded me. After that she asked me how I was, dutifully and expressionlessly, every night. I was less than convinced that she cared what the answer was.

Though I didn't leave for another year, that was probably the end. Relationships you've invested a lot of yourself in are hard to leave even when they are painful.

I was no saint. She was no devil. Who would believe that anyway? Though she badly wronged me here, I had wronged her too at times, and made our situation worse. There were enough mistakes to go around, and more than enough pain. When I finally did leave, I think I wept the entire first 1,000 miles of my drive. It sure seems that way.

It took me years to feel my way through all of it, but tears were the way to start. Fortunately there was no one in the car with me to try to shame me for feeling this pain, to tell me to let it go or to dispute it like a man.

27 December 2018

Idiotic Book Blurbs

Writing blurbs for the covers of books reached Pythonesque heights of self-parody years ago, so to laugh at their idiocy is nothing new. Which doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

Here's one that merits ridicule as hyperbolic as itself:

----------- --------- writes with the unflinching, cumulatively devastating precision of Chekhov and Munro, peeling back layer after layer of illusion until we're left with the truth of ourselves. Practically every line is a revelation of language, of character, of experience; ------'s lyricism stalks our hearts like a gorgeous assassin.

In the first sentence we have the obligatory, tedious comparison to authors whom a duration of time longer than fifteen minutes has proved to be true masters of the short story. Then there's the cliche promise of illusions giving way to something as residually profound as 'the truth of ourselves.' More offensive, however, is the juxtaposition of the exponentially cliche 'peeling back layer after layer', suggesting subtraction, with 'cumulatively', suggesting addition. More is less, I can only conclude.

The first part of the second sentence would actually be quite fine, if the author had experienced a revelation about writing instead of using revelation in an attempt to bear witness to the perception of new truths. The final three clauses use both anaphora and asyndeton to good effect, with each noun one syllable longer than the one before it. Yet recovering this gem is rather like recovering illegal diamonds that a mule has swallowed. And the preposterous simile of the second part of the second sentence steals back with both hands the bounty the first half has given. 

It's even sadder of course that none of it's true. 

07 December 2018

The Gaffer should give lessons (FR 1.iii.69)

Gandalf's 'good morning' exchange with Bilbo in the first chapter of The Hobbit is rightly famous as much for its humor as for Bilbo's failure to get the wizard to go away and leave him alone. There is another scene, however, in which a hobbit outside Bag End succeeds in baffling the inquiries of an unwelcome visitor, and sees him off. In Three's Company, as Frodo, Pippin, and Sam are about to leave Bag End, Frodo overhears Gaffer Gamgee speaking to a stranger who proves to be one of Ringwraiths hunting Frodo.

[Frodo] turned to go back, and then stopped, for he heard voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row. One voice was certainly the old Gaffer’s; the other was strange, and somehow unpleasant. He could not make out what it said, but he heard the Gaffer’s answers, which were rather shrill. The old man seemed put out. 
‘No, Mr. Baggins has gone away. Went this morning, and my Sam went with him: anyway all hisstuff went. Yes, sold out and gone, I tell’ee. Why? Why’s none of my business, or yours. Where to? That ain’t no secret. He’s moved to Bucklebury or some such place, away down yonder. Yes it is – a tidy way. I’ve never been so far myself; they’re queer folks in Buckland. No, I can’t give no message. Good night to you!’ 
Footsteps went away down the Hill.
(FR 1.iii.69)

Bilbo was clearly too polite.

29 November 2018

Review: Beside the Ocean of Time

Beside the Ocean of Time Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just read this book for the second time. The first time through I had enjoyed its air of another world, its characters, and its wry and lyrical prose. The memory of that stuck with me, and kept calling me back to read the book again, as if it were my childhood memory of a former life. It was even better than I remember it.

View all my reviews

20 November 2018

'altogether precious' -- on the beauty of the One Ring

The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. It was an admirable thing and altogether precious.  
(FR 1.ii.60)

A comment by a friend, Kate Neville, on my last post got me thinking. She noted that pure gold was too soft to hold a shape, and that other substances -- in other words, impurities -- must be introduced to make it durable. She also noted that Tolkien clearly knew something about the properties of gold, since he knew the fire of a simple hearth could not melt it. Then Kate asked a marvelous question about the One Ring: 'Was the essence of Sauron the impurity added? And what does that say about the apparently intrinsic beauty of the Ring... Its "precious"-ness?'

When Sauron's body was destroyed in the drowning of Númenor, 'he was robbed now of that shape in which he had wrought so great an evil, so that he could never again appear fair to the eyes of Men' (S 280-81). We can see something similar in Morgoth after his duel with Fingolfin: 'Morgoth went ever halt of one foot after that day, and the pain of his wounds could not be healed; and in his face was the scar that Thorondor made' (S 154). What's intriguing here is that both Morgoth and Sauron have transferred much of their native power out of themselves as a means to exercise dominion, the one into the substance of the world itself, the other into the Ring (Morgoth 399-401). For Sauron at least this transfer seems permanent, since the 'strength and will' (S 287) he had put into the Ring did not return to him when the Ring was destroyed.

Now one might object that while Tolkien seems to have some knowledge of the properties of gold, his knowledge might not go very far. I have heard it said that throwing the Ring into a volcano wouldn't have melted the Ring any more than a hearth would. From what I can see, however, this is not so at all times. Lava can range from 700 to 1,200 ℃ (1,300 to 2,200 ℉), and the melting point of gold is 1,064 ℃ (1,948 ℉). Magma can be even hotter, up to 1,600 ℃ (2,912 ℉). Given that the Sammath Naur is inside Mt Doom, we might well surmise that we are talking about the upper end of the temperature range. 

Another objection would be that the Ring changes size and weight. Bilbo wrote to Frodo and told him as much (FR 1.ii.47): 'it did not seem always of the same size or weight; it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight.’ Frodo's experience is somewhat different. When Bombadil returns the Ring to him (FR 1.vii.133), '[i]t was the same Ring, or looked the same and weighed the same: for that Ring had always seemed to Frodo to weigh strangely heavy in the hand.' In Moria, 'at whiles it seemed a heavy weight' (FR 2.iv.312).

Note here the uncertainty introduced by 'seem' in each case, and contrast it with the following statement in Book 4: 'In fact with every step towards the gates of Mordor Frodo felt the Ring on its chain about his neck grow more burdensome. He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards' (TT 4.ii.630, italics mine). This suggests the subjectivity of the perception of the Ring's weight. We may also compare the experience of Sam. He feels the 'weight' of the Ring the instant he puts it on (TT 4.x.733; RK 6.i.898). But, when he picks up Frodo on Mt Doom, 'to his amazement he felt the burden light. He had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so' (RK 6.iii.941). At the very least examination of these passages calls into question the notion that the actual weight (or size for that matter) of the Ring changes. What seems far more likely is that the Ringbearer's perception changes.

Be that as it may, the One Ring is also a magic ring, imbued with vast power drawn from within himself by a being of angelic stature in his origins. Whatever the exact properties of the gold in the Ring, the infusion of Sauron's 'strength and will' changed it as much as it changed him. But is it not passing strange that this transfer seems to have left Sauron bereft of the ability to regenerate (to borrow a phrase) into a fair form while at the same time conferring a perfect beauty upon the Ring? If this is correct, if Tolkien actually meant this connection, we may see Sauron paying a terrible price for the power to dominate all others: all that remained in him that was fair and fine. The rest was darkness.