Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Six Primitive Egos in 'Le Petit Prince'

Before the Little Prince arrives in the desert on planet Earth, and meets the narrator-aviator representing the author Antoine de St. Exupéry, he visits six other planets. Each of these planets is inhabited by a primitive ego, a single adult character who has lost the innocence of childhood.

1. The king who gives orders to the universe, and tailors these orders to be reasonable so that the universe obeys and his illusion isn't broken.

2. The showman who wants to be admired.
3. The drunkard who drinks in order to forget the shame of his drunkenness.
4. The businessman who believes he owns every star he sees and spends his days counting and re-counting them.
5. The lamplighter who follows his primordial orders to re-light and extinguish the lamp on his planet each morning and evening, despite the change of circumstances of his planet that make this task exhausting and futile.
6. The geographer who studies the world second-hand through the comparison and assessment of the character of witnesses, but never sees it himself.

The Little Prince himself is not without ego. Ironically, our first encounter with him is the sound of his voice ordering "draw me a sheep!". This is reminiscent of the king, from the first planet he visited, in whom the prince unwittingly provoked a crisis by not obeying. 

The Little Prince also feels a sense of ownership towards a flower on his planet, whom he loves very much, and towards his planet generally, but unlike the businessman, his ownership involves looking after and being useful for the things that he owns. 

Unlike the six primitive egos that he meets, that the narrator tells us are so numerous on Earth, the sense of ego of the Little Prince is child-like, innocent and unselfish. More important though, it is without self-importance, even more so when he comes to see how little he really is compared to the vastness of the universe.

What gives his life importance then is not his sense of ego, but his love, his sense of place, his friendship, his rituals, his own experience. He learns all this from the wise fox, and in turn passes it on to the narrator after he befriends him. The narrator in turn passes this wisdom on to us.

It is sad that the book ends with the Little Prince leaving Earth, as if his childhood innocence could not survive any longer on this planet.

Postscript: I once had the idea of four primitive ego types: the master (1), the slave (5), the idol (2) and the idolator (3, 4, 6). Exupéry, however, distinguishes three types of idolatory in the drunkard, the businessman and the geographer. Perhaps these correspond to the three roots (the mental states that cloud the mind) of self-hate, selfish greed, and self-delusion. The geographer is like the university professor who writes books about books, but never perceives reality itself. On the subject of which I hope that, unlike the geographer, anything I write about a book is an exploration of truth (and beauty). 

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame

A Prudent Wanderlust & Gratefulness for the Joys of Home

'The Wind in the Willows' is a very wise book. From the outset, it requires a suspension of disbelief: 
"The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring- cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
Although all its main protagonists are animals, it is fundamentally a human tale imbued with the spirit of Nature. Its original frontispiece was a depiction of a pipe-playing Pan in the waking dawn. Curiously, it was originally entitled 'The Wind in the Reeds', but this was so similar to a book of poems by W.B. Yeats: 'The Wind among the Reeds' (1899) that only days before publication, the title was changed. What a good choice indeed! 

The first poem in 'The Wind among the Reeds' by Yeats expresses a yearning for nature and adventure which recurs throughout all the writings of Kenneth Grahame. In 'The Romance of the Road', Grahame writes, 
"There is a certain supernal, a deific, state of mind which may indeed be experienced in a minor degree, by any one, in the siesta part of a Turkish bath. But this particular golden glow of the faculties is only felt at its fulness after severe and prolonged exertion in the open air.
This yearning is expressed also in his essay 'A Bohemian in Exile'. Here is the aforementioned poem by Yeats, called 'The Hosting of the Sidhe'. The Sidhe (shee) are a race of fairy beings in Celtic mythology.

The Hosting of the Sidhe (W. B. Yeats)
THE HOST is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare;
Caolte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are a-gleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caolte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Almost all the characters of 'The Wind in the Willows' experience a moment of crisis, and must go through a process of finding themselves through forgiveness, friendship and a re-awakening of joy in familiar comforts.
Mole overturns Rat's boat, then later gets lost in the Wild Wood, reflecting afterwards on his own limits. Rat too is temporarily enchanted by the sweet words of his fellow wandering-rat. And then there is Toad, helplessly caught in his obsession for motor-cars: "poop-poop". The persistent exhortation is one of prudence in our wanderlust, and gratefulness for the joys of home. Even for the wandering-rat, it is the simple pleasures of food and company that bless his freedom, and make him feel at home in his wandering.

What energizes and inspires life? For Toad, it is the latest means of transport, here today, somewhere else tomorrow, "travel, change, interest, excitement". This desire turns out to be unskilful and gets him into all kinds of trouble. For the Rat, the river is the "only thing", and "there's nothing half so much worth doing as messing about in boats". Along with his love for his friends, poetry and an organised life, these are all skilful desires. They keep him happy and reinforce each other in his moment of crisis to ward off the dream of the wandering life that tempts him.

Unfortunately for Toad, the sheer will of his friends cannot save him. Like the archetypal Fool, he must journey over the brink of the abyss. Imprisoned, he is forced to pause and reflect, to think:
"new and inspiring thoughts: of chivalry, and poetry, and deeds still to be done; of broad meadows, and cattle browsing in them, raked by sun and wind; of kitchen-gardens, and straight herb-borders, and warm snap-dragon beset by bees; and of the comforting clink of dishes set down on the table at Toad Hall... and lastly, he thought of his own great cleverness and resource, and all that he was capable of if he only gave his great mind to it; and the cure was almost complete."
Isolation from unskilful desire only provides a temporary respite. Prison, whether by gentle friends or punishing foes, is not a solution. What is the healing balm for the never-ending wheel of desire and self-obsession? It is the inner sense of being loved, the inner self-confidence that is the ground of groundlessness and humility. When Toad at the end of the book finally has all the attention he could wish for, he no longer desires it!
The Everlasting Voices (W. B. Yeats)

O SWEET everlasting Voices be still;
Go to the guards of the heavenly fold
And bid them wander obeying your will
Flame under flame, till Time be no more;
Have you not heard that our hearts are old,
That you call in birds, in wind on the hill,
In shaken boughs, in tide on the shore?
O sweet everlasting Voices be still.

He who Just Is (Tom Bombadil)

Adapted from Samsaran's musings by okei:

Tolkien in writing 'The Lord of the Rings' saga said that he was attempting to give Western Europe its own epic mythology and he succeeded quite well. Tolkien, the devout Catholic, called upon pagan mythology and added a touch of Christian mysticism. Take the One Ring: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them". Created by Sauron, himself a “fallen angel”-character, it represents evil. Note how this evil shapes itself to the character of the bearer, that is to the degree of the bearer's pride, and to their ego. Ego makes us vulnerable to the siren call of power, of control, of dominion.

J. R. R. Tolkien explained in a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, “The chief power of all the rings was the prevention or slowing of decay (change viewed as negative); an Elvish motive. But they also enhanced the natural powers of the possessor, approaching “magic” and leading to a lust for domination. And they had other powers, such as invisibility and making the invisible world visible. The Three Rings of the Elves were beautiful and powerful, directed to preserving beauty and did not confer invisibility. But in secret Sauron made the One Ring, the Ruling Ring that contained all the others’ powers and controlled them, making their owners’ thoughts known, governing what they did, and eventually enslaving them. But the Elves became aware of his plan and hid the Three Rings, and tried to destroy the others.”

In the hands of the man Isildur, it plays to his human desire for power and selfish nature. In the hands of Gollum, a small soul, it merely makes him a petty thief and murderer. Gandalf and Galadriel, being great souls, see that in taking the ring they would be capable of terrible deeds and so passed the test and did not take it. The ring was relatively safe in the hands of Bilbo and Frodo because humility was the greatest virtue of the hobbits so they had little ego for it to play upon.

Only Tom Bombadil was entirely unaffected by the ring’s power. The part he played to the story was almost incidental, rescuing the hobbits in their journey through the Wild Wood from the menacing willows. He is a magical character, singing to the trees and able to soothe the turbulent forces of nature with the melody of his voice, jovial and powerful like a forest-shaman. He is many people's favourite character, and it was disappointing to see him left out of Peter Jackson's epic film adaptation. But perhaps we should not be surprised, for like the nature-god Pan who was missing from the otherwise excellent 1983 film adaptation of 'The Wind in the Willows', his presence is more of mystical significance. Mystery is shrouded in forgetfulness. Tom is He who Just Is. It could be said that he is in Middle Earth, but not of it, an elemental force of nature, an elder God in his own right, simply taking human form as a convenience. In this way, he is the ego-less, the “Buddha” of Middle Earth, more powerful than Gandalf, the great Elven Lords or even Sauron himself. He alone is not part of what the Buddhists would call “samsara”, the world of illusion, so he alone was immune from the evil of the ring. He desires nothing that the ring could give him. Already divine and eternal, he is the epitome of Castaneda's ideal of one who has transcended the "four enemies": fear, clarity, power and old-age. Gandalf knew he could have kept the ring in perfect safety, but he feared it was so insignificant to him that he would lose it.

What Tolkien is getting across here is that all evil is the result of ego. It is the result of our desire to control others. One devoid of ego cannot be deceived by evil. Even Gandalf and Lady Galadriel knew that in their desire to use it for good they would eventually be perverted by it. The ring gave the bearer knowledge but it was a tainted knowledge. Incomplete wisdom is often worse than no wisdom at all.

Yet to be without evil still does not make him perfect. Unlike Lady Galadriel, whose beauty is reflected in her surroundings, Tom Bombadil makes no effort to tame the wild and foreboding spirits that inhabit his domain. That the hobbits are saved from the willows and ultimately succeed to destroy the ring is thanks in larger part to Gandalf who alerted Tom of their quest and supports them in their onward journey. The world is still in need of those who have not yet abandoned ego and who strive to do good.

Despite Tom Bombadil not having the all-pervading influence of someone like Gandalf, he remains my favourite character. I am drawn to him by his good humour, and I leave him reminded of this inspiring and important lesson: that without ego one cannot be subject to the whims of the world and evil can take no hold in our hearts.


☯ Samsaran ॐ (originally here) Adaptation: —okei

Painting: ’Aphrodite’ by the English painter Briton Rivière (1840-1920)

Alone with a Friend (Yen Chun Cheryl Chen)

Alone drinking coffee,
My dear mug and me,
I look out my window,
Earth muffled in snow.
Within, safe and warm,
Suddenly so calm –
A feeling of bliss,
Angelic stillness.
Only an avalanche
From the tree's topmost branch
Penetrates these four walls –
Caressing the silence
As it falls.

Translation: —okei

Friday, 22 February 2013

Eulogy of Short Forms

Eulogy of the short story (in two haikus and a couplet)

Over far too soon,
The dark tale written well will
Have its way with you.

Short forms are the boo!
Their palms light with quick delight
Wrench your heart in two.

So leave them be my friend.
And they’ll leave you the end.


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Across life's sea...

Across life's sea...
A warm glow, a sunset, a starless night,
A vast ocean of despondency.

A memory...
A memory of warmth and light,
A hope, a prayer, a desire.

And we plough on...
In laughter, in sleep, in death,
A vast ocean of discouragement.

And we tear down to the bare bones
And we rise up to the snowy peaks,
What keeps us going?...

The power, the strength, the will,
The knowledge soft and gentle,
Rippling deep within us...

Yes to the world and all who love,
Yes to everything that breathes or moves,
Yes! my love, my sweet, my dream...

Everything will be ok,
Come at once, we'll dance and dine,
And spare no effort from this day
Nor waste another line.


Monday, 18 February 2013

Two Poems by Lorca

Philosopher Will Buckingham plays classical guitar, accompanied by two poems of Federico García Lorca in translation and a selection of Bulgarian art. The video was taken at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, 15th Feb. 2013. at a book reading of 'Descent of the Lyre'. More information here.

"Arbolé, Arbolé seco y verdé" literally means "Tree, tree dry and green" but it is almost impossible to translate capturing both the rhyming sound of it, and the opposition between "dry" and "green". So it is best left in Spanish.


 Arbolé, Arbolé... (original)

Arbolé, Arbolé
Seco y verdé.

The girl with the beautiful face
Is gathering olives
The wind, prince of towers
takes her by the waist.

Four horsemen pass by
on Andalusian ponies
with suits of azure and green
and long flowing robes.
"Come to Cordoba, young dear"
The girl does not hear.

Three young bullfighters pass by,
Slender about their waists
with suits of orange
and swords of ancient silver.
"Come to Sevilla, young dear"
The girl does not hear.

When the evening draws on,
In purple dusk diffusing,
a young man passes by carrying
roses and myrtles of moonlight.
"Come to Granada, young dear"
But the girl does not hear.

The girl with the beautiful face
still goes on gathering olives
with the grey arm of the wind
encircling her waist.

Arbolé! Arbolé!
Seco y verde.

Captive (original)

Through the indecisive
went a maiden
who was life.
Through the indecisive
With a tiny mirror,
she reflected the day
which was aglow
upon her clear forehead.
Through the indecisive
Upon night's shadows,
lost, she wandered,
weeping dew,
for time held captive.
Through the indecisive

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Lovers' Truth

The desert is a pathless land
For every path is steeped in sand.
Since we embrace the desert wide
We must not from our sadness hide.
For sadness is a ray of light,
A star that guides us through the night.
Lest I forget, lead me brave friend
But lead your own path till the end.


Photo: 'Purmamarca', courtesy of Hille. In the native Aymara language of the Andes, purma-marca literally means desert-city. 

To be with you...

To be with you this evening,
rarest of the evenings all,
And listen to the whispering leaves
and to the night bird’s call
The silvery moonlight on your face-
To be with you in some still place.
To be with you somewhere within
this evening’s mystic shade,
To hear your plans and hopes
and tell you mine, all unafraid
That you’d forget to hold them dear,
When I’m away and you’re not here
To be somewhere alone with you
and watch the myriad stars,
Far golden worlds beyond the noisy
earth’s unkindly jars,
As quietly they sail the night’s sea
Above all the world and you and me.

—Max Ehrmann

In my Book of Dreams

In my Book of Dreams
Moistened lips and hands
Tremble in expectation
Reaching for your kiss

Vanished from us now
Are the exquisite stanzas
In my book of dreams. 


The Fog has Cleared

I cannot say exactly
When it happened…
What does it matter?

—okei :^)

Spring (1925)
Moon at Megome (1930) 
woodcut prints by Kawase Hasui

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Beautiful Stained Glass (Jesus College)

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ub041pseYJc

Photos courtesy of TheRevSteve on Flickr. 
How TheRevSteve took such great photos:  http://quotidiancleric.wordpress.com/... 
Music by Jesus Choir at Compline
Stained Glass designs mainly by William Morris & Edward Burne-Jones

(in order of appearance)

Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon

Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham

Four Cardinal (Human) Virtues: Temperance, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence & their opposites: anger, slander, timidity, stupidity

Three Theological Virtues: Hope, Faith & Charity, with corresponding vices underfoot

Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Powers, Dominions across the first row. Principalities, virtues, archangels, angels, imago dei across the second.

St. Ursula, St. Dorothy, St. Radegund around whose convent now the chapel Jesus was built, St. Cecilia, St. Catherine across the first row. St. Jerome, St. Gregory, Bishop Alcock the founder, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine.

Bishop Alcock of Ely, founder of Jesus College

Angel playing violin

Angels playings cymbals & harp

Angels playing dulcimer & double-pipe

John, sibyls alongside

Luke, sibyls alongside

Mark, sibyls alongside

Matthew, sibyls alongside

Crest of Hugo de Balsham who founded the first Cambridge college (Peterhouse) in Bishop Alcock's chapel in Ely Cathedral

The baby Jesus, with mother Mary and shepherds adoring

The young Jesus confounding the scholars in the temple of Jerusalem

Inner chapel window, Agnus Dei (lamb of God) at the centre of a cinquefoil rose

Patience, Obedience & Docility

The original stained glass designs were destroyed by Puritan fundamentalists under Cromwell during the English Reformation. The new designs were done mainly by William Morris & Edward Burne-Jones in the 19th century. Notice the duality, good often literally stepping over evil. Notice the female saints are positioned superior to the male. Perhaps this is because they were literally there first — Jesus Chapel was originally a convent of St. Radegund (6th century) before it was appropriated to be the centrepiece of Jesus College, founded by Bishop Alcock (16th century). We might conjecture that the ordering left to right is chronological, but interesting that the right-most (right sometimes considered dominant) of these windows reads out: Solomon, Wisdom, Love (in the sense of charitas, or agape in Paul's letter to the Corinthians). Love is indeed the highest theological virtue, Wisdom the highest cardinal (human virtue) and Solomon a symbol of wisdom. All very fitting for a place of learning!