Sunday, 24 July 2011

140 Characters: Double-Haikus

  • The tube is a train
    Packed with people like smarties
    Wrapped in bright paper

    The chairs are a show
    A symbol of politeness
    Just waiting to go

  • Like summer kisses,
    We melted in the star light
    Of our racing hearts

    On the sunbathed roof
    It seemed like a good idea
    Until the wasp came.

  • The first time they met
    So fresh was the morning dew
    So red the rosebush.

    In the beginning
    She had the same name as all
    But he renamed her.

  • I did not come here
    Just to skirt my fingertips
    Around your desire.

    Trees cloaked in moonlight
    Yawn in the April umbra
    Of my longing heart.

  • Life’s a question mark
    You are the dot in suspense
    And the answer’s Love

    O Breath ephemeral
    Brave nymph of Eternity
    What makes you mindful?

Euthyphro - Plato

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Disarming The Idolatory of Divine Law
The young Meletus has charged Socrates for corruption of youth, more particularly for impiety in creating new gods, dishonouring old ones and teaching others to do the same. Socrates says that Miletus is wise and his concern noble, for care of the young comes first, but how can he know if Miletus is right? He asks Euthyphro, who professes divine knowledge, for advice about the nature of piety so that he might recognize any error in his ways and avoid it. Euthyphro, whose name literally means right-minded or sincere, is following his divine conscience in the name of Zeus to prosecute his father in a very questionable affair against the wishes of his own family. Both Euthyphro and Meletus are using the powers of the state, one justified by divine conscience the other indicting in the name of the divine. Yet how can we feel firm in our knowledge that what we are doing is right especially when our family or our fellow citizens condemn us? How can we know piety? Socrates really wants to understand. He will effectively put Euthyphro through a philosophical trial to prove the piety of his act, and it is this trial which more closely parallels that which Socrates himself will face from Meletus, except that the latter will result in a conclusive (and fatal) judgment.

Euthyphro argues first by example that what he is doing is pious, citing by way of precedent the actions of Zeus himself. Socrates asks for the universal behind the example. Euthyphro’s response is “piousness is that which is dear to the gods”. Socrates first challenges that the gods themselves argue amongst each other, whereas if there were some measure as there is in numbers or weights, then their differences could be reconciled. It seems then that such a measure could not exist and piousness can only be known if they all agree. But even then, their agreement does not make a thing pious but is because of it, so Euthyphro’s definition is not a definition at all, but a resulting quality of piousness. Perhaps, Socrates suggests, piousness is a type of justice, but the two need not be identical. He gives the example of shame that necessarily engenders fear, but fear need not give rise to shame (e.g. fear of poverty or disease). Euthyphro agrees, suggesting the pious is just, while the just is only pious if it serves the gods. Socrates helps him clarify that it does not care for the gods, nor is it of service to them, but perhaps it honours them. Euthyphro ends as he began with an example defining piety as like sacrifice or prayer, before he excuses himself to escape the terrifying prospect of an endless dialogue when Socrates insists they must begin again. So no satisfactory conclusion is reached, as Euthyphro’s description makes piety seem like some kind of exchange with the gods by which man receives divine favour, and Socrates is still at a loss as to why the gods should hold dear this gift from man, of what things they find pleasing, and so of how piety may be known. If anything, Euthyphro's concept of piety has regressed from doing as the gods do themselves, to doing as the gods would like us to do, but this regression is perhaps a necessary step in order to safeguard against hubris, along the way to reaching some better, as yet undefined, perhaps undefinable, Socratic notion of Good, independent of our belief in the gods.

No doubt, Socrates was very uneasy about the whole concept of piety and how the “wise” and “good” might project their own moral conscience as external, divine and universal, thus imposing it on others. He seeks himself this weapon of divine law by which he might distinguish genuine piety from fabrication, and so defend himself from his accusers. In demonstrating his failure to find it, he attempts to disarm those who think they know it. That is not to say that he does not believe in piety, but that piety in itself must have a disarming and intangible quality. If it exists at all, it is something experienced subjectively by the likes of Euthyphro through the innate vibration of a conviction, sacrifice or prayer, examples elusive to any rational explanations that might let us know it. Ultimately, piety is not something that Euthyphro can share, nor do Socrates or we the reader necessarily agree with his judgment of it. So we are led to doubt whether we should judge others on issues of honoring and pleasing gods, and in particular to question whether Meletus’ charge of impiety against Socrates should be decided by the law courts of men, not least because of the Greek mythological context of gods quite happy to mete out their own form of divine retribution.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Meeting the Beloved (René Char)

Three translations of poems by the enigmatic French poet René Char, much loved in France not only for his writing but also for his bravery in the French Resistance. The originals may be found following the title links. The painting right is "Mimosa" by the Italian, Nicola Simbari.

Parting Of The Wind

Camped out on the village hillsides are orchards of mimosa. During the gathering season, it may happen that far from this place you have an extremely fragrant meeting with a girl whose arms have been busy through the day in its fragile branches. Like a lamp whose bright halo is perfume, she wends her way, her back to the setting sun.

To speak to her would be sacrilege.

Sandal crushing the grass, let her pass on the footpath. You may chance to make out the glimmer on her lips of Night's elixir.

To —

You have been my love for so many years, 

My giddiness before so much waiting, 

Which nothing can age or cool; 

Even that which awaited our death, 

Or slowly learned how to fight us, 

Even that which is foreign to us, 

Both my eclipses and my returns. 

Closed like a box-wood shutter,
Compact and extreme,

Chance is our mountain-range, 

Our supercharged splendour.

I say chance, oh my finely wrought love; 

Either of us can receive 

The mysterious part of the other 

Without spilling its secret;

And the pain that comes from elsewhere 

Finds its shedding at last
In the flesh of our unity, 

Finds its solar orbit at last 

At the centre of our dark cloud
Which it severs and renews. 

I say chance, just as I feel it. 

You have raised up the summit 

Which my waiting will have to clear 

When tomorrow disappears.


In the streets of the town there is my love. It matters not where (s)he goes in the divided time. It is no more my love, anyone may speak to it. It remembers no longer; who exactly loved it?

It seeks a match in eyes of longing. The space it traverses is my faithfulness. It draws hope and lightly discards it, prevailing without taking part.

I live at its heart like a happy wretch. Unknown to it, my solitude is its treasure. My freedom burrows deep in the great meridian where it inscribes itself in flight.

In the streets of the town there is my love. It matters not where (s)he goes in the divided time. It is no more my love, anyone may speak to it. It remembers no longer; who exactly loved it and lights it from afar so that (s)he does not fall?

Friday, 8 July 2011

Saaleck Castle (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of the most maligned philosophers of all time. Few who have but heard his name realise that he was staunchly opposed to the anti-Semitism of his time in Germany, even falling out with both his publisher and sister because of it, but both survived him and misappropriated his work. His final act before descending into madness was to come to the rescue of a horse who was being beaten by its owner. It may be that the Nietzschean ideal of the superman is also a man of great compassion, harnessing this to creative ends, but it would require a very careful reading to cut through the irony and know for sure what he meant, if he meant anything at all. His purpose was rather to make one think, and in this regard many of the great philosophers of the 20th century cite him as an inspiration. It is said that his writing in German is akin to poetry, and it turns out he was a poet also. A complete literal translation of all his poems was released only in 2010 called "The Peacock & The Buffalo".  I would like to share here my verse translations of some snippets of his work and of his poem "Saaleck Castle". These were all mostly written in his younger years.


Standing naked on a hill,
Night’s dark garment draws about.
From this great height, behold still
Blooming meadows stretching out.
There an eagle floats down – look!
With such youthful zest to throw
Itself into the golden brook
Rising in eternal glow.

Old Coin

I am like an old coin, turned green with moss.
Once it sparkled like a jewel, now its face
Doubt-furrowed, deep and hard, there creeps across
Life’s grey dirt, frozen, seeking its embrace.

The Ladder (an allusion to Plato's "Symposium")

I must climb up a mighty stair,
But every step I hear despair,
“How cruel you are, are we mere stones,
That you should climb over our bones?”

For Dancers

Smooth ice
Is paradise
For those with figures nice
Whose dancing skills suffice.

Saaleck Castle

Tranquil evening peace sways
Over mountain and dell.
The sun with its last rays,
Smiles down in sweet farewell.

The heights around glow red
Shimmering splendid glory
And knights rise from the dead
Hark! One feels their story.

The castle comes alive
With merry to and fro,
And the trees laugh and jive
With a joyous echo.

Within resound the songs
Of hunting, war and wine
Clear horns and booming gongs
And drumming as men dine.

The sun has sunk away
No more the merry ball,
Stillness and deathly grey
Embrace the anxious hall.

Saaleck lies so sad
Upon a barren knoll
When I see it, deep within,
I shudder in my soul.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Fantasia of Life (Lin Yutang)

This is an edited version of poems selected and translated from Chinese by Lin Yutang, which all share a certain quality of understanding of life, reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam".

Liu Chienfu

O, have you heard of that immortal quest,
Five hundred virgins for a king’s behest,
Where are they? Where the potion Yenti promised?
Their eyes closed, and Laozi’s too like all the rest.

Teng Chingyang

We are but passing guests from who knows where.
Say not thy home is here, thy home is there.
It suits me well wherever I may be;
The flowers bloom here and there and everywhere.


What rich fields of gold below yonder hill.
A newcomer harvests what others till.
Rejoice not, dear newcomer, at your turn —
There waits behind a new newcomer still.

Shin Yu-An

The one who’s drunk shares liberally his smiles,
He does away with foolish masks and guiles
From him I’ve lately come to realize
Spurn bookish wisdom and ambitious wiles.

Su Tungpo

O speckless the clear moon, silvery the night!
When you fill thy cup, be sure to fill it quite!
Strive not for frothy fame, nor for bubbling wealth:
A passing dream —
A flashing flint —
A shadow’s flight!

O what is knowledge, fine and ultra-fine?
To joys simple and innocent resign!
When I go home, I’ll carry on my back
A pile of clouds —
A sweet-toned lyre —
A pot of wine.

Tung Chungfeng

I love my bamboo hut, by water surrounded,
Reached on either side by stepping stones well-grounded.
A quiet peaceful study, small but fine:
Ensconced so cozy —
So delightful —
So well-rounded.

No marble halls, no tall vermillion towers
Are quite as good as my secluded bowers.
The lawn with buttercups embroidered
Greets me in the cloudy morn —
Or when it shines —
Or when it showers.

A short low wall with windows hid by trees;
A tiny little pond myself to please;
And there upon its shady rocky banks:
A pretty girl —
A pale moon —
A soft breeze.

And how about this quiet life to lead?
A balcony to sit without a need
And earn from moon and flowers a peaceful hour
And have some friendly chats —
Some fine incense —
Some books to read.

For household use, some furniture decrepit.
Suffice with hills and water so exquisite.
When guests arrive, to set the perfect scene:
Put on the kettle —
Brew the tea —
And let us sip it.

O sweep the yard, but spare the mossy spots
Let petals speck thy stones with purple dots
And in a painting, what’s more wonderful:
Some pine trees —
And bamboos —
And apricots.

Let bloom in order pear and peach and cherry!
The morrow lies with God, so pick the berry;
Who knows but what and when the future holds?
But let’s be wise —
Be content —
Be merry!

When a friend arrives whom thou hast long admired,
Since by idle nothings you are both inspired,
Ask them to stay for a good carefree half-day:
And drink when happy —
Sing when drunk —
Sleep when tired.

A quiet home far from the hustling crowds;
Let not the trivial things thy mind becloud.
Be happy and never disenchanted,
Do not be fussy —
Nor selfish —
Nor proud.

Obey God’s will, and wait on Heaven’s pleasure.
Thy purity of heart alone do treasure.
Enough the library and the flowers’ court
For a life of peace —
And contentment —
And leisure.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Basketball at Downing

In May, I met up with friends old and new, one who'd come all the way from Taiwan.
We played some basketball and I was inspired to write this poem.

Under the eye of our Lady
And English Martyrs Catholic Church
You know what it means to fly free
And gazing up not at her spire
But reaching for some nearer goal
We circle, bustle and ascend
From a manger to a basket,
From a basket ever upwards,
Bounce, bounce, step, the shouts go up
And back we go to try again.
To try again
Is all we really do,
Is all we need to do
To see another chance slip by
And yet recall the still crisp sound
Of the ball that flies through the hoop
Without blessing of rim or board
In sweet perfection never found
Because in truth there is no end,
No basket of holy idols,
No church to sanction how we play,
But just ourselves to seek within
And let the great souls light our way.

–okei (15/05/2011)

Phaedrus - Plato

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Beyond Love and Knowledge

Reading the Phaedrus, one begins to really appreciate the complexity and depth of Plato’s thought, and when we consider moreover what a laborious process writing must have been two thousand five hundred years ago, it becomes all the more impressive. Without a clear structure or seeming balance, some early commentators relegated Phaedrus as being an early work of Plato’s opus. But the outward carelessness of form is but an illusion, and there seems little doubt that it is not only late Plato, but perhaps a dialogue to end all dialogues as we shall see, and unquestionably a masterpiece.

(Review by the absent-present Lysias)

“Phaedrus, my friend, where have you been and where are you going?" Thus is Socrates’ auspicious opening of the dialogue. Phaedrus it turns out is carrying a speech of Lysias on the subject of love under his cloak, symbolically in his left hand. To begin with, Phaedrus is a dialogue about love. In this regard it is in stark opposition to Plato’s Symposium both in the setting and in the movement of the argument. But discussion will turn towards the spoken word by which we access truth and seek to convince others, and finally to the inadequacy of the dead word, of writing. So on the surface, this dialogue weaves its way from the great mystery that is love to the great treasure that is knowledge, and its purpose is to inspire in [Phaedr]us a love of knowledge, to instill in us the way of thinking of the philosopher so that in our speech we seek truth, not merely persuasion.

But beneath the surface, Phaedrus is perhaps even more significantly a teaching by example of how the philosopher responds to the already-dead word of sophistry, or more generally to writing – it teaches us how to read and listen (outside the city walls of conventional thought, with a companion, a genuine interest, an open mind, inspired by the muses of nature and mythology and the text itself, but not weighed down by their truth, but rather using them as a vehicle for self-knowledge). Ultimately, as a dismissal of writing, it is also a challenge to the reader to spring back to its defence, just as Socrates does for love. Plato could have tried to do this himself, but to use writing to defend itself runs into the insurmountable obstacle of circularity, while to hint more clearly at this intention would undermine the self-confident finality of the Phaedrus itself. 

And so what a grand conception this is, if Plato meant it, to give us a demonstration in dialogue form of how to read the written word, so that we may imagine the possibility of doing the same for Plato’s own work, and so accomplish the impossible, if only by analogy. Because of the greatness of the Phaedrus itself, there is a deterrent for any who might actually think to carry off this feat, not to mention its impossibility, for in denigrating writing (as Lao-Tzu did in the Tao Te Ching at almost exactly the same time in ancient China), Plato has given himself the “last word”. Yet, to use the written word to dismiss writing as sophistry, in such a startlingly aesthetic way, is no less of an insult than the dismissal of love as madness which Socrates has to contend with in the Phaedrus. Indeed, just as Socrates conceives of such a thing as divinely inspired madness, we might conceive of such a thing as divinely inspired sophistry. Is that not the essence of Socratic philosophy? Is that not the essence of the Phaedrus? Truth transcends opposites, but words have power beyond their form.

“On the seashore of endless worlds, children play.” (Tagore)

Socrates: Ah, Phaedrus my friend, what a marvellous review. I’m in ecstasy!

Phaedrus: Oh, do be serious now Socrates. Tell me what you really think. Isn’t Phaedrus a remarkable piece of writing as the reviewer says?

Socrates: I enjoyed it immensely! It is remarkable especially that our conversation that day should have been recorded so precisely. And since there were only the two of us present, not to mention the crickets who despite their memory for speech and song are not known for their writing, I think I know who wrote it! Come now, don’t be shy.

Phaedrus: Well, in fact, that is true. By the time we returned within the city walls and bid farewell, the sun was already beginning to sink behind the western mountains, so I went straight to record our meeting as best I could from memory. It was at least two-thirds of the way through the night and at the expense of much wax before I had sufficiently satisfied myself of the main points and could sleep easy, knowing that what I had written would remind me of the finer points of our discussion which I could fill out at a later time. The following morning I would put your words of advice to Lysias and try to persuade him of his mistake. Alas!, he is not possessed by the prophetic Apollo like you, my dear Socrates, that would allow him to see how the structures of democracy and free speech will surely decay once separated from their nourishment in philosophy and truth. Nor does he suffer the madness of Dionysus nor the passion of Eros that might excuse him. Indeed, by Zeus, he is a pragmatic realist. Yet he is still subject to the great Muses whose eloquence can either exonerate or exacerbate our error depending on whether they sing with the voice of our own conscience or against it. Though refusing to write such a homage to Love as you had suggested, he asked me to provide him with the fullest account of our dialogue, and in the form of this review, he wrote a homage to writing instead. Just as we turned on its head his argument of the inferiority of the lover, he says he does the same for our dialogue, which in his view amounts on the surface to an argument of the inferiority of writing.

Socrates: It would be worthwhile to consider if the Phaedrus does indeed demote writing, and if so, whether there is something else that it promotes in its place. What do you think, Phaedrus?

Phaedrus: It promotes speech above writing, for the speaker of the word can be seen face-to-face and defend what he has spoken when questioned. Also, speech is closer to action, and action is by its nature superior. For, mere words would be empty if they did not move one to a corresponding action. Travellers from the far East describe a teaching of their philosophers of the finger pointing at the moon. Words are like this also! Even this teaching of theirs is itself but a finger, and their philosopher sages advise us to stop looking at the finger, but follow the line to where it points. They also describe a meeting between a man from the forest who has never seen the sea and a man from the sea who has never seen the forest. The forest man takes out of his sack a handful of leaves, each different, each a cure to some ailment of the body. “Where I come from, there are a hundred thousand trees,” he says, “of various kinds. And each of these trees contains a hundred thousand leaves just like this one, but utterly different.” And he gives a leaf to the man from the sea who marvels at the beauty of its colour and form. In exchange, the man from the sea takes out a single seashell. “Where I come from,” he replies, “there are a hundred thousand of these of all sizes and colours. They are living creatures in the sea, and get washed up on the seashore. What is more, if you put this shell to your ear, you will hear the sound of that sea echoing within, but the sea is a hundred thousand times more loud and powerful.” So saying, he gives a seashell to the man from the forest who is absorbed by its exquisite beauty, and hark! as if by magic, when he puts it to his ear, he can even hear the sea in which it once lived. Isn't that marvelous! Writing is a lot like the leaves and the seashells that the Eastern travellers use to describe the unknown secrets of the land from which they come. They are but a sign, but if we already have the understanding of experience, they remind us of what we already know.

Socrates: Well said, my dear Phaedrus! You’re not the same Phaedrus as I spoke to last time, no longer the practitioner of empty technique. We no more intended to denigrate writing than the man of the forest would his precious leaves, or the man of the seashore his exquisite seashell. We merely demote words as insignificant compared to the source from which they come. So, how did Lysias respond when you put this to him, as I am sure you must have done?

Phaedrus: He responded that if the source — that is Socrates and I — are so much more infinitely rich than the beautiful and complex work that is the Phaedrus, for which I am flattered to be partly responsible, then Socrates and I must be very complex beings indeed. So he asked me as you had asked yourself rhetorically, “Is Socrates a beast more complicated than Typhon, or is he a tamer simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature?” I had no answer, though I would like to say the latter. So I apologized my ignorance, made excuses and departed for my daily walk which you know my doctor recommends, and what a coincidence that I should meet you once again! So let me put that question to you, Socrates. Are you a complex or a simple being?

Socrates: You were right not to answer. For of course, I am both a being of such complexity that I cannot fully understand myself, and thus how could I hope to capture this vastness by mere words? Yet also, I am a simple fellow of little wisdom, but in possession of that divine essence of such minuteness that no word is small enough to describe it. Being both, how can one answer such a question? As Lysias himself observed, truth transcends opposites! How well you did to keep divine silence!