Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Slaying of Meghanada by Michael Madhusudan Datta

Written in 1861, the verse narrative 'Meghanadavadha Kavya' ('The Slaying of Meghanada') is a true meeting of East and West. The author, Michael Madhusudan Datta, was a successful poet in both Bengali and English and well-versed in Western and Indian literary styles. Those familiar with the Western classics will recognise respectful nods to Homer, Milton and Virgil throughout. Like Homer's 'Iliad', 'Meghanada' begins in the middle of a prolonged war and ends with funeral rites for the hero of a defeated city (here Meghanada acts as Hector, his father Ravana as Priam, Lanka as Troy). Datta's poetic description of a visit to the underworld owes much to Virgil's Aeneid. The opening lines of the epic are clearly a nod to the opening lines of Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. And just as Milton chose Satan to be his protagonist, Datta presents the demon king Ravana in a sympathetic light.

Readers familiar with the Ramayana will appreciate this unique take on the Indian epic. Most will recognise the story of Ravana's kidnapping of Sita, retold by Sita in canto 4 of 'Meghanada'. The poem has been beautifully translated by Clinton B. Seely, who includes an interesting introduction and an extensive glossary, essential to the majority of readers who would otherwise be overwhelmed by the many demons, gods, goddesses and humans that populate Datta's wonderful epic. An excellent addition to the many Ramayanas available to us.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gary Wittner/Thelonius Monk

Fans of Bill Frisell should check out Gary Wittner's CD 'Roadway'. Though few who listen to Gary Wittner will mistake him for Bill Frisell, these two unique guitarists are similarly rooted in Americana. Wittner's strongest influence by far is the quirky, angular music of Thelonius Monk.

Though only three of the thirteen pieces on 'Roadway' are Monk tunes, Monk's presence is felt throughout. Wittner's many original compositions are clearly and profoundly Monk-inspired. The three remaining pieces, solo guitar pieces recorded live at Concordia University in Montreal, are country blues in feel, but here again the spirit of Monk bursts forth occasionally. The instrumentation adds quirk with the odd addition of Howard Johnson (tuba, contra-bass clarinet) to the guitar-bass-drums core.

Aiko Shimada: Blue Marble

Aiko Shimada: Blue Marble I discovered this CD thanks to the recommendations of a computer. "People who buy Laurie Anderson CDs," it told me, "also bought Aiko Shimada's 'Blue Marble'." This was a major breakthrough. At the time (2002?), most computer recommendations were ridiculous. "You like classical guitar? You might also like the Spice Girls!" After this I began to trust my computer just a bit more.

The Laurie Anderson comparison is a stretch, but understandable. There are moments reminiscent of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," others of the the Kronos Quartet. Sometimes Shimada sings accompanied by a band, sometimes by a string quartet ala "Eleanor Rigby". Sometimes it's just her and her electric guitar, or just her ethereal voice overdubbed over itself. There are also two instrumentals, one for violin and viola, the other for electric guitar (Bill Frisell!) and string quartet. But for all its diversity of instrumentation, Blue Marble is solid and cohesive, strong but gentle.

On Beyond Zebra (epics): Acts of Andrew

Pardon my blasphemy, but many of the more exciting stories were removed from the New Testament. The (now apocryphal) Acts of Andrew is a case in point. The travels of the apostle Andrew, his miracles and eventual martyrdom, make for fascinating reading.

I first became interested in the Acts of Andrew through Dennis MacDonald's book 'Christianizing Homer: The Odyssey , Plato, and the Acts of Andrew'. I was intrigued but not convinced by MacDonald's argument that the Acts of Andrew was a Christian retelling of Homer. And yet MacDonald's point-by-point comparison of the Odyssey and the Acts of Andrew enhanced my enjoyment of this (truly odd) story. In it Andrew survives among fierce animals, calms storms, heals the blind, raises the dead, and defeats armies. He also causes an illegitimate embryo to die and rescues a boy from his incestuous mother.

In his book 'The Acts of Andrew in the Country of the Cannibals,' Robert Boenig traces the development of the story by presenting translations from the Greek, Latin, and Old English. A highlight is the Old English version, in which a Beowulf-ish Andrew (with the kind assistance of Jesus, of course) rescues Matthias from the country of cannibal anthropophagi (literally man-eaters). Absurd, perhaps even heretical, but fascinating stuff.

Brad Shepik

There are many stories, myths and cliches about a player who is so excellent that, after hearing that person perform, other players become frustrated and throw their instruments out the window, off a bridge and/or into a river. Brad Shepik is one of those players. In fact, he's a level higher. I went to the same school as Brad Shepik for a very short time in the early 80s. Shepik (then Schoeppach) must have been nineteen at the time. When I first heard him play, not only was I inspired to toss my guitar, but the people who inspired me to toss my instrument were inspired to toss their instruments! He blew away the people that blew me away, then moved on.

I followed his career for a short time in Seattle, then he was off to New York. Shepik has gone many different directions, musically speaking. On 'Drip', he forms a trio with Scott Colley on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. The eight tracks showcase not only Shepik's excellent guitar playing, but also his skills as a composer. A highlight is 'Reve pour Louis', a beautiful and respectful 'jazzification' of the gamelan music of Java.

Ibrahim the Mad

The play 'Ibrahim the Mad' follows the reign of Ibrahim I, the mentally unstable Sultan of the Ottoman Empire who reigned from 1640 until 1648. Ibrahim was placed on the throne after the death of his brother, Murad IV, probably by his mother, Kosem Sultan, who wanted to rule the empire by proxy. Murad IV had ordered him killed upon his own death, but Ibrahim had been allowed to live, probably because he was too mad to be a threat. Ibrahim had spent his entire life in the Golden Cage, a prison with unreachable stained glass windows, with a few deaf-mute servants and some harem girls, under the constant and reasonable fear that he would be put to death. When guards showed up to bring him to the throne, he refused to go, thinking it was a trick. Ibrahim's rule grew ever more unpredictable. He raised and executed a number of viziers, declared war on Venice, and brought the empire almost to collapse in a very short space of time. Eventually the Grand Mufti, with the permission of Kösem, led a coup to overthrow Ibrahim. He was deposed, sent back to the Golden Cage and later strangled.

The play opens with the terrified Ibrahim being coaxed out of his cell by his mother Kösem.

Nine Visits to the Mythworld

"Nine Visits to the Mythworld" is the second book of Robert Bringhurst's three volumes of translations of mythtellers of the Haida people. Bringhurst manages to avoid the "Once upon a time" sameness of many collections by translating, not retelling, the tales. "Nine Visits" focuses on the mythteller Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas. Personal favorites include "The Way the Weather Chose to be Born" and "Spirit Being Living in the Little Finger."

Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita

I first experienced "The Master and Margarita" as a play at university. It was the final presentation of a Russian exchange student for her (I think) MA in directing. It was an odd but strangely haunting experience. Since then I have read the book, reread it (in a different translation), listened to two different audiobooks, and watched three different movie/TV adaptations. I also plan to read the graphic novel once I seek out an affordable copy.

Bulgakov's masterpiece is a tough one to describe. It is a beautiful and touching love story, a slapstick attack on Soviet-era hypocrisy, a rewriting of the bible and an homage to Goethe's Faust. It features a talking cat, a hyper-real Jesus and a fascinatingly bureaucratic 'Satan.' Magical and profound, it deserves a second, third or fourth read.

There are two audiobooks available. One is an unabridged and 'serious' reading. The other is abridged, and the reader clearly interprets the novel as comic. There are also three adaptations available on video. The love and respect for the original is clear in the Russian TV miniseries is reflected in its faithful adherence to the text. The same love and respect are apparently (and not surprisingly) found in Poland. The Polish version also follows Bulgakovs text and dialogue faithfully. These two versions differ in style, and because the Russian version is more recent the special effects are more impressive. But both are well worth watching. The third version, however, is not. Perhaps the director felt he was paying homage to Bulgakov, but by rewriting the story as a realistic autobiography, he squelches the originals magic.

On Beyond Zebra (Epic): Scanderbeide

My most exciting recent discovery is 'The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe', a series of translations published by the University of Chicago Press that focuses on works by 16th and 17th century women. My first glimpse into the series was Margherita Sarrochi's 'Scanderbeide'. Published in the 17th century, Scanderbeide's claim to fame is that it is the first historical heroic epic authored by a woman. More importantly, it is an excellent read. Sarrocchi took as her subject the war of resistance against the Ottoman sultanate by George Scanderbeg, a fifteenth-century Albanian warrior-prince.

The 'ide' in the title means tale, as in the Iliad (tale of Illium) or the Aeneid (the tale of Aeneas). Readers familiar with classical epics will recognise the many references to these works, as well as Tasso and Ariosto. But the Scanderbeide is a unique and enjoyable work. George Scanderbeg was apparently an obvious choice for the subject of a heroic poem. His war against the Turks saved the Roman church from its greatest threat, the Ottoman Empire. Sarrocchi deftly weaves a complex and fascinating story from her sources.

Friday, March 27, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: A Thousand Nights and a Night (2)

Raqa'iq al-hilal fi Daqaiq al-hiyal' (literally "Cloaks of Fine Fabric in Subtle Ruses") is a collection of parables and allegories believed to have been compiled in the late 13th or early 14th century. The anonymous compiler organized his anthology hierarchically, beginning at the top with God (whose ruses he respectfully refers to not as 'cunning' but as 'wisdom'). He works his way down, chapter by chapter, through angels and jinn and then prophets before getting to us mortals. He continues to descend the hierarchy with tales of caliphs, kings and sultans, then vizirs and governers, and finally judges, ascetics and tax collectors.

The book is full of familiar characters. Besides God, there is, of course, Satan, as well as Jacob, Gabriel, Adam, Jesus, Muhammad, Abraham and others. Some of the stories will be familiar to many readers, but others are unusual and perhaps unique to this collection (The Angel of Death, for example, uses a ruse on Moses to get his soul). Alexander the Great is here as well, as is Caliph Al-Rashid.

The stories are many and varied, with titles like "A Supposedly Impotent Man", "How to Weigh an Elephant", "The Testimony of the Tree" and "The Harmful Effects of Eloquence". Military ploys abound, with tricks used to win battles or avoid wars. "The Boxes", for example, includes a siege-ending ruse that is very reminiscent of Odysseus's Trojan Horse. Translated by Rene R. Khawam as "The Subtle Ruse: The Book of Arabic Wisdom and Guile."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: Epics (1)

Those already familiar with the major Western and Indian epics will enjoy "Meghanada-vadha-kavya" ("The Slaying of Meghanada"), an odd but beautiful blend of many cultural traditions. It's author, Michael Madhusudan Datta, a colonial-era Bengali author, mingled aspects of Kalidasa, Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Tasso.

The story itself is taken from the Ramayana, though many references to the Mahabharata also appear. The story starts, not surprisingly, "in the midst of affairs" (in medias res). Like Milton, Datta focuses on the traditional "bad guy" of the epic (Ravana) and presents him in a sympathetic light. Particularly fascinating is Rama's descent into hell. Like Aeneas, Rama is conducted through hell and meets his father. The underworld he visits is the city of Yama, the Hindu god of hell, but there are clear references to Milton's "Paradise Lost" and Dante's "Inferno", as well as, according to the translator's introduction, the Bangla translation of the Bible. Other influences such as the Ramlila and characteristics of Tasso's "Jerusalem Liberata" are harder to detect, but the final canto of Meghanada is clearly based on the final canto of Homer's "Iliad", with Ravana/Priam saying farewell to his slain son Meghanada/Hector and asking for a promise of peace from Rama/Achilles.

One warning: there are many characters in "Meghanada", but not nearly as many characters as names. There is a glossary in the back of the book, but constant reference interferes with enjoyment of the epic. In canto two, for example, there is a conversation between Ambika, the hurler of thunderbolts, Katyani, Vasava, the queen consort of the skies, Uma, son of Aditi, the ideal wife of Bhavesa, and Sati, queen of queens. I found the scene confusing, and after refering to the glossary I was shocked to find that what I had envisioned as a mass meeting was in fact a conversation between Indra and Durga, a god and a goddess, neither of whom had actually been refered to by name. To make matters worse, "Indra" is occasionally used as a superlative suffix. Perhaps it is a convention of Indian poetry not to refer to characters by name, or perhaps Datta wanted to portray the two pulsating between manifestations as their moods changed. Fortunately Clinton B. Seely's translation is gorgeous. "The Slaying of Meghanada" may need a second read, but it also deserves one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: Dante (1)

For eight weeks in spring I, by necessity, contemplated varioushells, both Christian and Buddhist, on Tuesdays as an instructor for the class "Samurai Epic and the Traditional Noh Theatre of Japan," then on Wednesdays as a student of the Northwest Classics Society class on Dante.

It is only natural to compare the two works. As Dante did in the ‘Divine Comedy’, Genshin, in his‘Ojoyoshu’ (Essentials of Birth) gives a vivid description of the glories of paradise and the horrors of hell. In reading the ‘Ojoyoshu’ one is repeatedly reminded of Dante’s immortal work. I came across Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’ while doing research for my class on the traditional Noh drama of Japan. Because the ‘Samurai Epic’ class focuses on the Japanese war tales and the plays they inspired, most of the plays we studied feature the ghost of a samurai warrior that disappears at the end of the play, having asked a monk to pray for his soul, which must return to Ashura (the Realm of Furious Demons), where the condemned engage in eternal combat. Though horrible, Ashura is not hell, but one of the six migratory states of existence. It is directly below the Realm of Humankind, the "cesspool of perdition and corruption" where we are now.

Genshin, like Dante, painted the glories of Paradise in all the beauty that his imagination could conjure up. Genshin’s vision of Paradise, however, is based on tenth century Kyoto, with lotus ponds and artistic pavilions made of "the Seven Precious Treasures."

Like Dante, Genshin gives hell an elaborate architecture with many levels. The tortures of hell increase as you descend, and to arrive completely into the lowest level, the condemned must fall head first for two thousand years, reminded the entire way of what’s in store for them and why. This is hugely vast when compared to the treck of Dante’s pilgrim. With such a great variety of hells, there is a place for every sinner, with every sinner in his or her place. Those who enter into Genshin's hell, however, do not have to abandon all hope. Time spent in tortures in the lower realms, though excrutiatingly long, are not infinite.

Like Dante, Genshin populates his hell with bizarre creatures. In Dante, these include Cerberus, Medusa, the Minotaur, Harpies, and the Titans of Tartarus. Genshin’s various levels of hell also have their share of monstrosities. There are serpents whose barking voices are like a hundred thousand thunderclaps, and an evil bird the size of an elephant called Emba. Both hells are also peopled, as it were, with devils. In Dante there is a band of antic devils who happily toss public swindlers and grafters into boiling pitch. Similarly, Genshin’s hell crawls with "hell wardens" who have sixty-four eyes and emit iron balls from the tops of their heads, or have eight oxen heads with eighteen horns attached to each head.Not surprisingly, Genshin’s hell is a place of tortures, both numerous and horrific. In a level called Receiving-Limitless-Suffering, wardens use iron shears to cut out the victims’ tongues which, like Prometheus’s liver, grow back repeatedly only to be cut out again and again. The tortures of Genshin’s hell are so awful, in fact, that "if anyone should describe it thoroughly or listen to a full description of it, he would vomit blood and die".

Like Dante, Genshin used remarkable poetic imagery. The souls of heretics, for example, are carried up into the sky by "an evil wind," twirled around like the wheel of a cart, "spinning so fast as to be invisible," then are cut into pieces "as small as grains of sand and scattered in fragments in all directions." To try to escape "is as vain as a mantis fighting against an axe, or a monkey trying to grab the moon." The punishments in Genshin’s hell can also be quite poignant. One punishment reminiscent of the tortures of Tantalus, has sinners parched by the heat reaching for water which dries up and ceases to flow or suddenly turns into flames and burns them. Many of Genshin’s sinners are served with poetic justice, and certain sections even seem somewhat self-serving (one section, for example, is set aside for "those who have burned the bedroom furniture of priests"). But for Genshin, when human beings die, they cease to be human, so the Ojoyoshi lacks the personal enmities found in Dante's Inferno.

The influence the two writers have exerted on the religious life of their times and in subsequent centuries is great. Many Jigoku Zoshi ("hell scrolls") were produced, somewhat revolting, tragically impressive scrolls pictured the different types of hells described in Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’. Like illustrated copies of the Inferno, these had an enormous influence on public art.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Beyond Zebra: A Thousand Nights and a Night 1

People who enjoyed "A Thousand Nights and a Night" should check out Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani's "Book of Wisdom and Lies." One of the first books to be printed in Georgia (the country, not the state), it is a collection of a hundred and fifty two folktales and anecdotes. Like "A Thousand Nights," there is a collection of allegorical teaching-stories to educate the son of a king.
The wise vizir suggests a mysterious stranger for the job, but the court eunuch does not approve of the stranger's bizarre teaching techniques, and the five characters - the king, the prince, the vizir, the tutor and the eunuch - argue and debate through fables and proverbs.

During his lifetime Orbeliani was a nobleman, courtier and diplomat, but also spent some time as a destitute monk. The stories reflect his life experiences and travels. Some of the stories are comic, others melodramatic. Many will recognize similarities between tales here and well-known Sufi tales ("What did you expect? I'm a scorpion!"). Other stories are of Georgian origin. A personal favorite is "The Man Who was Buried Alive and the Country of the Giants," a tale that reads like a fusion of the fourth voyage of Sindbad and Gulliver's Travels. A traveler in a foreign land marries a local, only to discover that it's the local custom to bury the surviving spouses with the deceased. He protests, but to no avail ("There's always been a lottery!"). After escaping from his wife's tomb, he enters a land of giants, and ends up in the mouth of a giant who, in turn, tells the story of hiding inside a huge skull (huge to the giant, mind you) from a true giant's giant. Katharine Vivian's translation is highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Orlando Furioso

I don't know if Orlando Furioso is the most over-the-top book ever written, but it may very well be. It is arguably the BEST over-the-top book ever written. Ironically, it has inspired some truly awful B-movies. In fact, a plot synopsis would read like a Readers' Digest compendium of ten seasons of the silliest of Saturday morning TV shows. The characters, though numerous, are often interchangable and for the most part disposable. That said, Orlando Furioso is truly unique and a very enjoyable read.

The key, of course, is the author. Ludovico Ariosto was a wonderful poet with a boundless imagination and astounding quality control. The poem, first published in 1516, predates television by more than half a millenium, but plays to the short attention span perfectly. His goal was to entertain, with never a dull moment. If there is a dull moment in the poem, the reader need only press on for a short while, because entertainment- perhaps even brilliance- is sure to be only a paragraph or two away.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino

We've finished the first three tales in Italo Calvino's fantastical book The Castle of Crossed Destinies. In the book a group of travelers, inexplicably struck dumb, try to communicate through tarot cards and gestures. I have read many books in the past by authors that are intentionally vague, or that require the reader to "read between the lines." But this book is unique in that it is made up almost entirely of assumptions made by the narrator, both about what each storyteller "must have been trying to say," and about what the other travelers at the castle were thinking. The narrator often gives more than one interpretation for each segment (card) of a tale, and many of his assumptions are far-fetched, even impossible (at the end of one tale, he concludes that the teller must have been hacked to pieces, eventhough the two are sitting across the table from one another, both reasonably healthy).

I have, to date, spent approximately one-third of my life living in cultures other than my own (the percentage is even higher if you include the five years I spent in eastern Washington). I have spent many hours in situations similar to the one described here by Calvino. I have had long 'conversations' with people with whom I do not share a common language. Living abroad, I've spent many hours trying to explain 'American culture' to people who, quite often, don't have a clue, and then had to return to my homeland and try to explain to my fellow Americans a culture that, to them, is mysterious at best.

Over the years I've found that language is often worthless, and logic overrated, in working with special needs kids, their parents and (especially) school administrators, even just trying to understand the current political situation. Assumptions are made daily in traffic, on the bus, reading a blog... How much of what we're trying to say, what we think we're communicating, is really getting across?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Camelot Project and Arthurian Poets

One of my absolute favorite websites is Camelot Project. Dedicated to Arthurian literature and art, it contains many e-texts of Arthurian literature, especially medieval texts and poetry from the Victorian era. There are also links to TEAMS Medieval Texts and Robin Hood lays. Because they are e-texts, I am able to download the medieval texts, render them into modern English spelling and read share them with my kids.

Many of the poems have been anthologized in an excellent series entitled "Arthurian Poets." Featured poets include Matthew Arnold and William Morris (together in a single volume), Charles Williams, John Masefield, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Edwin Arlington Robinson.