Monday, May 19, 2008

Miscellany 2: Grave Injustice

We live in a strange world. It is not a strange nation, but a strange world withal. "The Developed World" is peculiar because of how it has been developed.
"What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others" -- Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
I was at the local inexpensive prepared food vendor, eating a Big Mess, and the fact that I was began to ring bells in my mind. Earlier, I had been listening to BBC World Serviette, and they had discussed a controversy about the Dutchness of York. She had said that anyone in a council flat could eat properly and that there was no reason to be obese.

Now, for my money, the original Fergie has always been sexy and alluring and beautiful. She has had her gaffes, but she has always seemed somehow more realistic and human than her sister-in-law, whose genetic beauty left little room for human experience and the negotiations of unhappiness. Then again, redheads always attract men.

Fergie's advice to the poor of London is not new, and it really shouldn't even be news, except that she feels that lack of information is the reason the poor eat poorly, while the well born eat well. If you, reader, wish to be fit and healthy, cook at home. It's easy, and it will save your life. Even I know this, and yet there I was, reflecting on how I knew it, as I ate a Big Mess Meal for $4.60.

The truth is that our world is developed because it has gotten structured around one central, misaddressed paradox. For us in the Developed World, luxury goods are cheap, and staple goods are expensive. In the "developing world," luxury goods are unthinkable, and staple goods are the whole concern. These two paradigms -- the emphasis on plentiful staples and the emphasis on plentiful luxuries -- has caused enormous suffering.

In the US, it's common for the bigoted and the resentful to point to a poor person's house and say, "Oh, but he's got a satellite TV!" or "Oh, but he's got an X-Box!" This is because luxury goods like games are cheap, in the US and UK, but the house to put them in is impossible to afford. The super high calorie Ho-Ho is cheap, but the meat and vegetables on a table is expensive. If restaurants with good food ran as inexpensive as bad food, this would be a different world than the Developed. The Developed world is the mass produced world, and nutritious and good food is apparently (only apparently) impossible to mass produce, while preserved and fattening food can go from truck to freezer to fryer in minutes.

The poor are time poor, generally, and skills-poor, as well as cash poor. One of the first things depression and despair will do to you is get you away from tasks like cooking, especially if there is an alternative that looks faster and less expensive. As the developed world dies to get enough agriculture, the developed world has to subsidize the non-production of agriculture, because it has too little demand for that kind of thing.

Good luck, Fergie.

My other topic is the grave. Yesterday, I went to a family reunion with a group of people to whom I am only distantly related. Before and after this, we went to visit cemeteries. Not so oddly, we had been discussing, before all of this and afterward, our own ends and final resting places.

Of all the things I saw, the grave featured to the right was the most breath taking. The young lady buried there was only eighteen, and there is a small photo of her on her headstone, as well as a replica of her family dog, sleeping beside her. It's very touching, and those two things alone, even without the verse on her stone, are poignant enough to bring tears.
"The breezy call of incense-breathing morn
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed. " -- Thomas Gray

It's affecting, and yet what I saw, for the most part, was a general run of stones. Some had clear engraving, some faded, some mossed over. Some were cracked, some were tall, and some had plaster-like figurines nearby.

It was depressing, but not because of the thought that I must one day lie in such a narrow cell. What bothered me was that there would be little to represent me. Most headstones function either for utility or to mark the sorrows of the survivors. The young lady's stone tells us that she was loved, that her loss has obliterated the joys of her family and friends, and the constantly fresh flowers on her grave say that she is remembered now and freshly. It is a monument to her value.

Is there nothing, though, to speak of the person?

" Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief." -- Shakespear, King John III iv ll. 92-7

Why, when we have designers making "clamshell" packaging for iPods and scissors, when we have designers coming up with clever ways to hide cup holders in cars, when we have designers rethinking the t-shirt, do we have the same funerary architecture and monument as we had in 1900? It's not like we lack for examples of style, if we want to look.

Of course, all that old stuff was designed to attest to power or beauty of the dead. A gloriously rococo stonework tells the passerby that the person below was once more beautiful than all others, according to the sextons. A giant spire says that the dead was once mighty. All of these boastful and empty gestures are out of line for we in the developed world, as we no longer expect anyone to come to pass by our markers and be inspired, no longer expect people to be awed, no longer think that we have to throw fear or awe onto the passerby. Those of us who believe in an afterlife seek humility in death, no matter how we struggled against anonymity while alive.

What depressed me was that there was no choice for me. There would be no stone that would indicate to the visitors to other graves that I was once witty, that I was creative, that I sought to explore my world with mind and heart, that I wanted to see every relationship as it was and as it could be. Why, I wondered, doesn't some bright spark at RISD, SCAD, or other design school set down and get to work making monuments that are playful, interesting, creative, thoughtful, and a measure of the person, as well as a frozen record of the regard of the survivors? It seems unjust some way.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Wee review

This is going to be short, with nothing significant in it, so I figure that I might as well make sure that the illustration is worth looking at. For those who wonder about my process, it's creating the images that takes most time. Getting links to various sites takes time, too, and coming up with the ideas and the writing is nearly no time at all, but the illustrating takes an eternity, and I'm often not very happy with the results in any case.

T is pleasant, sure, to see one’s name in print;
A book ’s a book, although there ’s nothing in ’t. -- Byron
First, a book, and then a movie. That's the way of things, after all. All books turn into movies when once they're watered with sufficient money and vanity. The main page article at Wikistupidia today was Battlefield Earth -- a film designed and executed as a war against humanity. Had it possessed any force, it would have qualified as a form of assault. It, you see, was a book. I don't know why it had been a book, except that it required delusions on the part of fewer people to appear that way.

The book I have to review as a word of warning, but slight warning, is Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I bought it on my last paycheck exsanguination, and I did so on the advice of the reviewers at
  1. The New York Times
  2. The New York Review of Books
  3. Times Literary Supplement (link not available).
I did so, and now I have to demur from all of those established, celebrated, and wise reviewers.

One hates to show one's own vainglory, but this one does hope that you readers mine are clicking on the links, as I have made an effort to have them be entertaining and even metaphorical. If you have, then you already have a sinking feeling in the pits of your stomaches or stomae, because you have seen the author's photograph at the Simon Armitage site. It's the kind of thing that can cause fits. As a man of limited beauty, myself, I do not begrudge the Poet his half-face Mesmer portraits, nor his grimace of portent.

I got the book on Friday, and today is Monday, and it is done. What I found interesting about myself during reading was that I spent far less time reading the translation than I did reading the Pearl Poet. I couldn't keep my eyes on the right hand side of the page. I was magnetically drawn over to the noble verse itself. Part of this is because I have read the poem in Middle English before, so the language isn't that much of a barrier to me. However, when I was not drawn to the left, I was often as not catapulted there by the translation.

Oh, there are stinkers. Stinkers are inevitable in any translation. I have to pick on the poor poet some time (although I suppose he is not so poor now that his book is selling like mad, and I think of how Aurelian Townshend died "a poor pocky poet" who would write a century of sonnets for a few pence), so I'll stick in my thumb and pull out something dumb.

Around 2116, we get this:
He's lurked about too long
engaged in grief and gore.
His hits are swift and strong --
he'll fell you to the floor.
Well, "he'll fell you to the floor" kind of sounds dumb. It's not Anglo-Saxon litotes. It fails to undercut enough to catch the spirit of "that was a good king," but it's following on a description of chopping and maiming and clobbering and mincing people. It's the kind of thing that makes you rub your eyes, do a double take, and fly to the left page to see what the Pearl Poet wrote. Was our glaring contemporary being fair?
He has wonyd here ful yore,
On bent much baret bende.
Ayayn his dyntes sore
Ye may not yow defende
is what our unknown poet wrote. Don't ask me to translate it, please. You can pretty much do that yourself. You don't need my efforts.

Oh, alright!

He has lived here for years,/ On doing much grief and gore bent./ Against his sore blows/ You may not yourself defend.

Simon Armitage has decided to go the "fluid" route and avoid the stiffness of previous poets (dunces including W. S. Merwin and Tolkien, we gather) who tried to maintain cognates where possible. Being knocked down just seems a little less fluid and a little more watery. I don't consider it quite the same in force as being defenseless. Never mind, though. Perhaps Mr. Armitage's squire is telling Gawain that Bersilak is a black belt in Aikido or Tai Chi.

What bugs me, though, and the reason I am dissatisfied and constantly jumping to the left, is not a particular weak spot here or there. I commend Mr. Armitage generally on his translation. If his goal was liveliness and a translation into contemporary poetry, he did a fine enough job. What scarred my mind as I tried to read the translation was not any given word choice, but the fact that the alliteration is whatever happens to fit the form and sense for contemporary British English. The Pearl Poet was not a fool, I think we can all agree, nor a shoddy craftsman. Double negatives were still in his language, but they were not at all necessary. The general subject-verb-object monotony of Modern English was dominant for him, too. However, he varies. He chooses which consonants to alliterate, decides when to repeat words, knows when a double negative will be amplification.

There is a muscularity to his preferred consonants. He likes p's and t's when men are being mainly, and he likes l's and m's when ladies are lounging (and lying). The effect is to make the throat work, to make the sound embattled, to create importance with repetition. With Armitage, you can easily miss that there is any alliteration present, but with the Pearl Poet, there is no way you can forget it. His linguistic effects are not pyrotechnic, but they are expert. Form and sense are perfectly married. They're so perfectly married that we sit back and stare, slack jawed, at how one human could have gotten every word right over the course of thousands of lines.

Listen to the original lines, above. Listen to how the 'you not defend you' acts as a sign of absolute doom, how impossible the situation is as the page presents it. "Knock you down" is not merely an accidental bit of bathos, it's a sign that fluidity has come at the cost of appreciation.


Oh, the movie?

Well, I'm watching "The Holiday." Critics were dismayed that it did not do well at the box office last year. One made a bitter comment about how the public had decided, instead, to go see some fart and vomit comedy instead.

Well, I don't know about the latter very much. After all, I watched pieces of "Jackass" on Comedy Central last night and laughed until tears came to my eyes, but I did so with my finger on the "flip back" button on the remote so that I would not see at all any of the bits that offended me. However, I will say that "The Holiday" is about letter perfect as romantic comedies go.

I don't generally like romantic comedies, as my own romantic life is more farce than comedy, and I do not find that the happy ending ever comes. After all, any ending is necessarily not happy, when it comes to romance, and freezing the action at the moment of marriage and claiming that all of time has been soaked in bliss, that the future is only an unending line of joys, can no longer fool me. However, for clever dialog, true characterization, and innovative situation, I have to say that "The Holiday" gets very high marks. Oh, and beautiful people who would never be without suitors have to go through much suffering to find suitable suits. Other than that, it's pretty good.

Sorry to have taken so much of your time today.