Monday, December 27, 2010

The Black Prince

Historian Richard Barber knows how to tell a good story: Just get out of the way and let the story tell itself. In “Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince,” Barber collects and selects the most interesting contemporary source materials about his subject, Edward of Woodstock, and only appears occasionally to point out and clarify certain aspects of the writings that otherwise may be confusing.

The Black Prince was the eldest son of Edward III. He played an important role at the Battle of Crecy and at Poiters captured the king of France. Barber begins his book by presenting the prince’s own letters home and reports from his fellow soldiers. There is also a large section from the fourteenth century chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker, one of the sources used by Froissart for his well-known chronicles. The final section is devoted to Chandos Herald’s poem ‘Life of the Black Prince.’ Through these materials you can trace Edward’s evolution from human to hero to legend.
A good companion piece is ‘Edward III’, a play sometimes attributed to William Shakespeare. More and more experts have added this to his list of works, and their arguments are convincing (one computer analysis seems to indicate that about 40% of it was written by Bill). More importantly (to me, at least): it is a good play and well worth reading. But first, clarify its historical background by reading Barber’s book.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shakespeare’s Historical Dramas

Each of Shakespeare’s historical dramas can be read as an independent piece, of course. Many are masterpieces, and even the worst of them is excellent. Fortunately, Shakespeare never let facts get in the way of a good story. Clearly reading his plays is not the best way to study history. That said, the arc of his works does cover a large chunk of English history. Reading the plays in chronological order (see below) is ultimately a very rewarding experience.

1) King John (1199-1216)
2) Richard II (1377-99)
3) Henry IV parts 1 & 2 (1399-1413)
4) Henry V (1413-22)
5) Henry VI parts 1-3 (1422-61)
6) Richard III (1483-85)
7) Henry VIII (1509-47)

Also, check out “Holinshed’s Chronicle as used in Shakespeare’s Plays.” The 1587 reprint of Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande” was apparently a sourcebook of sorts for Shakespeare, and certain phrases from it are repeated in several of his plays almost verbatim. Editors Allardyce and Josephine Nicoll selected and reordered sections from Holinshed’s vast work, indicating the acts and scenes related to those sections. It’s a fascinating comparison.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Yoshitsune and Bonnie Prince Charlie

It’s easy to see the appeal of Yoshitsune. A master horseman and strategist, he won several major battles in his short career. His jealous and powerful brother had him pursued. Disappeared, violent death. Fill in the blank. Love interest and faithful follower Benkei. Noh drama, kabuki theatre, puppet plays, woodblock prints, paintings, manga (Japanese comics), novels, movies and tv series.

Similarly, the journey of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Prince Charles Edward Stuart), has become one of Scotland’s most treasured legends. Heir to the exiled Stuart dynasty, the Prince came to Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the throne. After a bloody defeat at Culloden, King George II’s men hunted the Prince for five months. Hiding in homes and mountain caves, the Prince’s flight led him from the mainland to the far Hebridean isles and back, and finally to France.

For more on Yoshitsune, see Helen Craig McCullough’s translations of the classic Japanese military chronicle “Heike Monogatari” (Tale of the Heike) and “Yoshitsune: a 15th Century Japanese Chronicle,“ a collection of the Yoshitsune legends. On Bonnie Prince Charlie, seek out “Jacobite Memoirs” edited by Robert Forbes and Robert Chambers, a well-selected collection of primary source materials presented in chronological order, covering the Prince’s return, the Battle of Culloden, and the now legendary manhunt.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Strindberg’s Historical Dramas

I’ve been reading lately August Strindeberg’s historical dramas, a cycle of plays concerning the history of Sweden from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries. The plays, written between 1872 and 1908, are not well known outside of Sweden. This is unfortunate, as they are very well written. Like the historical dramas of Shakespeare, each play can be appreciated (read or performed) as a self-contained unit. The translations by Walter Johnson are very readable. Reading the plays not in the order written but according to historical time gives a sense of the sweep of Swedish history from the late 1200’s through 1789, with its national, personal and religious conflicts.

1) Earl Birger of Bjalbo (late 1200’s)
2) The Saga of the Folkungs (middle 1300’s)
3) Engelbrekt (1430’s)
4) The Last of the Knights (1512-20)
5) The Regent (early 1520’s)
6) Master Olof (1520’s-40’s)
7) Gustav Vasa (1540’s)
8) Erik XIV (1560’s)
9) Gustav Adolf (1630-32)
10) Queen Christina (1654)
11) Charles XII (1715-18)
12) Gustav III (1789)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

‘Neuromancer’ by William Gibson

William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’, a science fiction classic first published in the 80s, is most famous for coining the word ‘cyberspace’. In some sections it reads for all the world like a detective novel, and the reader has to spend much of the time figuring out not whodunit, but what is real and, more importantly, what is reality. Very little of what I’ve read since high school can be considered science fiction (‘The Time Machine’, ‘War of the Worlds’, ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ being notable exceptions), but ‘Neuromancer’ came highly recommended from a friend who has similar tastes to mine, and very high standards in what he reads. My friend and I are now locking horns about my take on this award-winning book.

I feel Gibson was clearly, at least in part, inspired by Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. ‘Neuromancer’, like the Divine Comedy, opens in medias res, with its main character, Case, an exile wandering lost in a futuristic and awful Tokyo (with a sky described famously as “the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”). Dreary, menacing and violent, Tokyo (the Inferno) is the books most real area. Case is guided not by the poet Virgil but by (and through) Molly.

Their mysterious hacking mission becomes simultaneously more deadly and less threatening as they pass into (it seems to me) Purgatory. Life becomes more random as Case is channel-surfed from reality to reality. Characters appear then fade. Finally, he is in Paradise, completely abstracted. Distant music, ghost hieroglyphs, translucent lines of symbols…”There was a gray place, an impression of fine screens shifting… degrees of half tone…voices…a plain of black mirror, that tilted, and he was quicksilver, a bead of mercury, skittering down, striking the angles of an invisible maze, fragmenting, flowing together, sliding again….”

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, similarly, the main character is guided through a sinister hell full of monsters and demons and into a purgatory of characters, all with stories to tell. Paradise, their final destination, is an abstraction of symbols and light.

My friend does not agree. I wonder what Gibson would say.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hell -Part8

The influence the two writers have exerted on the religious life of their  times and in subsequent centuries is great in both cases. Illustrated copies  of the Inferno had an enormous influence which extended to public art, and  many Last Judgements commissioned for cathedrals reflected Dante’s  invention. Similarly Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’, in the many centuries since its  first appearance in the latter part of the tenth century, has been published  in countless editions, many graphically illustrated. The macabre and  imaginative work struck a chord with the people, whose minds had been turned  toward the Buddhist ideas of retribution and reincarnation by the wars and  chaos of the times. Many Jigoku Zoshi (“hell scrolls”) were produced, series  of scrolls picturing the different types of hell. Though somewhat revolting  the scrolls are also tragically impressive in their Dantesque grandeur. In  addition to its influence on art, Genshin’s ‘Ojoyoshu’ had a profound  influence on Japanese Buddhism, and made Amidaism the supreme way of  salvation in Japan. The dominance of Amida Buddhism, which makes central the  Buddha Amitabha and salvation in his Western Paradise, or the Pure Land, is  a result of the popularity of Genshin’s work.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hell -Part7

 Many of Genshin’s sinners are served with poetic justice. Certain sections  of Genshin’s hell even seem somewhat self-serving (the Iron-Plane-Fox-Eating  Place, for example, is set aside for “those who have burned the bedroom  furniture of priests”). But one never feels in reading the Ojoyoshu that  Genshin's own personal animosities had anything to do with the place in  which sinners were assigned. In his deeply personal narrative Dante peoples  the otherworld with people he calls by name, both fictional and historical,  even assigning to the lower hells men of high authority in the church. With  the exception of well known Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Genshin does not give  a single name. For Genshin, when human beings rise to the stages of  existence above the human stage, or when they fall into hell, they cease to  be human. In Paradise they are Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, in the Realm of  Beasts they are beasts, and in hell they must be demons. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hell - Part6

Proportions are also distinct in the two hells. Dante’s hell is a deep pit extending from a point under Jerusalem to the center of the earth. Purgatory is a mountain on the opposite side of the earth. Genshin's hell is also an abyss but a rather vast one. Entrance to this abyss begins a thousand leagues beneath the base of Mount Sumeru. To arrive completely into the eighth level, the infernal abyss called Hell of No Interval, the condemned must fall head first for two thousand years, reminded the entire way of what’s in store for them and why. Hugely vast when compared to the treck of Dante’s pilgrim.    Genshin's conception of time was similarly vast, often measured in ‘kalpas’, with one kalpa described as ‘approximately how long it would take to wear down a large granite mountain if a little bird should graze it with the tips of its wings once every three years or so’. Those who enter into Genshin's hell, however, do not have to abandon all hope. While those who enter Buddhist Paradise are forever saved, time spent in tortures in the lower realms, though excrutiatingly long, are not infinite. Like Dante, Genshin held that a person’s lot in the next world is determined not by the whimsical decrees of ecclesiastical authorities, but by what one is in his inner life in this world. While this belief was somewhat unusual in the Europe of Dante’s day, Genshin was but applying the Buddhist doctrine of  ood and evil Karma. In his Buddhist hell, when the evil karma has been exhausted by the measure of suffering it causes, even the lowest hell will give up its victims.

Hell - part5

While King Emma, in charge of Buddhist hell, has more in common with Hades than with Satan, the Hells of Dante and Genshin, not surprisingly, have similar occupants. Both writers, however, differ greatly in their conceptions of the shape and size of the cosmos. Dante's conception was the general Ptolemaic conception, with the heavens lodged in the spheres. For Genshin, many of the various realms of the six migratory states of existence mentioned above are located on or near Mount Sumeru, the axis of every Buddhist universe. The lower divisions of the Earthly Paradise are located on top of this mythological mountain while the True Paradise lies trillions of Buddha lands to the West, beyond the limits of the World as we know it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Hell - Part4

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” (the punishment of child molesters is particularly disturbing and will  not be described here). Like Dante, Genshin used remarkable poetic imagery.  In Dark-Fire-Wind the souls of heretics 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,” only to reconstitute and go  through the process again and again. In some levels of hell iron mountains  tumble from the sky. Others are filled with “burning fire of such intense  heat that ordinary fire seems like snow,” causing the bodies of sinners to  “shrivel up as small as a mustard seed.” Occasionally “swords sharp enough  to split a hair…fall like a large waterfall from the sky.” In one level  sinners are immersed in a boiling river. 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. In another, “those who partook in evil passion”  wander a forest of sword blades. They look up to the top branches and see  beautiful and well-dressed women, the faces of those whom they once loved.  They lacerate themselves as they climb the trees, but when they reach the  top the object of their desire appear below beckoning them to come down. The  swords then turn upwards as the sinners, slow learners, shimmy down. This goes on for ten trillion years.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hell - Part3

 Like Dante, Genshin populates his hell with bizarre creatures. In Dante’s  the attributes of the Christian Hell are peppered with references to Hades.  The second, third and fourth circles, for example, are guarded by Minos, Cerberus and Plutus, and the City of Dis by the Furies and Medusa. Also present are the Minotaur, Centaurs, and Harpies, and the Titans of Tartarus guard the pit Genshin’s various levels of hell also have their share of monstrosities.

  There are copper dogs whose eyes are lightning, and whose teeth “are  mountains of swords” with “tusks and tongues that are like thorns of iron”. There are serpents whose barking voices are like a hundred thousand thunderclaps. There is an evil bird the size of an elephant called Emba, and in one level (aptly named the Place of No Joy) there are birds with red hot beaks and dogs with jaws of flaming iron.

  Both hells are also peopled, as it were, with devils. In Dante’s fifth bolgia are the Malebranche (literally ‘Evil Claws’), a band of antic devils  who happily toss public swindlers and grafters into boiling pitch. Similarly, Genshin’s hell crawls with faceless demons that have no faces, as well as “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. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hell - Part2

  Though horrible, Ashura is not hell, but one of the six migratory states of  existence. It is directly below the Realm of Humankind, where we are now.  Above us is the highest state of existence, the Realm of Heavenly Beings, a  sort of earthly paradise. Genshin, like Dante, attempted to paint the glories of Paradise in all the attractiveness that his imagination could conjure up. Genshin’s vision of Paradise, however, is based on tenth century Kyoto, a luxury-loving culture that had succeeded in blending the works of  Chinese art with the natural beauty of Japan. With its lotus ponds and  artistic pavilions made of “the Seven Precious Treasures,” Paradise is  described by Genshin with startling beauty and originality.  

The Realm of Human life, meanwhile, is a cesspool of perdition and  corruption, a land without peace. Below us, things only get worse. In  descending order, there is the Realm of Beasts, then the Realm of Hungry  Spirits, and finally Hell. Like Dante, Genshin gives hell an elaborate  architecture with many levels. Hell itself has eight divisions, with such  ominous-sounding names as the Hell of Repetition, the Hell of Black Rope and  the Hell of the Great Scorching Heat. The tortures of hell increase as you  descend, with the first level of hell set aside for anyone committing even  the slightest evil, such as the killing of fish or chickens. The eighth  level, meanwhile, is reserved for those who have killed their mother and  father. Each of the eight divisions has its sixteen minor hells. With such a  great variety of hells, there is a place for every sinner, with every sinner  in his or her place.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hell - Part1

Author’s note: This article, a comparison of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and ‘Ojoyoshu’, a major Buddhist work by the tenth century religious teacher and scholar Genshin, is the result of what can only be described as an overdose of hell. For eight weeks last spring I, by necessity, contemplated various hells, 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 NCS 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 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.