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Archive for March, 2010

Beyond Rangoon

Saturday, March 27, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

The only film in our series of journeys Around the World & Into the Past, Beyond Rangoon features Patricia Arquette as American doctor Laura Bowman, who is traveling through Southeast Asia in 1988 when she gets caught up in the Burmese democratic struggle led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Far from a vacation, the voyage is designed to help Bowman forget about the brutal murders of her husband and son, and Arquette plays Bowman as a blank, a woman with no affect and little connection to the world around her. As she tours the temples of Rangoon with her sister, she feels as dead as the great stone statutes of Buddha, and rather than soothing her grief, the exotic sights and sounds merely concentrate it.

One night, Bowman awakes to a racket of chants outside her window, and she steals out of her hotel room and into the streets, where she encounters a student protest against the repressive Burmese military dictatorship. She joins the protest, half in a dream, and witnesses Aung San Suu Kyi—the petite woman who would eventually win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma—as Suu Kyi stares down the guns of the Burmese military, sweeps them aside seemingly with the force of her will, and speaks to the masses of students gathered to hear her.

Bowman finds something to cling to in this rally, and she returns to her hotel room energized. Unfortunately, she has broken curfew, and the police are waiting for her when she returns; though they decide to allow Bowman to continue with her tour group to Thailand the next day, she discovers that she has lost her passport at the rally and is forced to stay behind while the American embassy issues replacement documents. Her sister travels ahead to Bangkok with her tour group, and Bowman is left to fend for herself as the Burmese government declares martial law and violently squelches the student uprising.

Left on her own for a day in Rangoon, with explicit instructions not to leave the embassy, Arquette’s character decides not only to go into the streets but to leave the city limits, which is strictly forbidden to foreigners. From there, the adventure really begins: grief-stricken and with nothing to lose, Arquette takes every dangerous opportunity that comes her way, and she eventually ends up among a group of student revolutionaries in hiding from the military. Now she has no papers, no way back into the city of Rangoon, and no clear idea what to do next, other than swim with the current of fate.

Partly a primer in Burmese politics, partly a taut thriller with an unlikely heroine, Beyond Rangoon grounds its tale in the struggle of Patricia Arquette’s character to feel anything at all after the loss of her loved ones, drawing frequent parallels between her personal tragedy and the sufferings of the Burmese protestors. At times heavy-handed and simple, the film’s politics can hit you like a sledgehammer, but the winning, warm performance of U Aung Ko—the central force in the movie’s little coalition of rebels—humanizes these politics, which, after all, champion democracy in the face of violent oppression.

Watch the Trailer

Arquette’s blank affect often acts as a cipher that allows each audience member to react individually to the action, and her transformation at the end of the film is convincing; but there are also many times during the course of the narrative when her blankness alienates the viewer, giving her dialogue a hollow, perfunctory ring. At these times, the extraordinary Malaysian locations and director John Boorman’s deft handling of both small interiors and massive crowds save the film from wallowing in its own pathos—Boorman knows when to ratchet up the thrills and when to linger on a poignant sunset.

Beyond Rangoon exemplifies the Euro-American tourist at the end of the colonial era, stumbling blithely into political turmoil partially of our own creation; and the film offers yet another example of complex local politics simplified through white Western eyes; but Beyond Rangoon also shows us the benefits of reaching out across borders, and it becomes a rare cinematic vehicle: a political thriller that thinks friendship is a transformative force.

You can find it on DVD or YouTube.

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A World Unto Itself: Riding the Iron Rooster through China

Friday, March 26, 2010 @ 07:03 PM  posted by Mark

Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster begins like the first book in our Around the World and Into the Past series, Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, with a long train journey to the author’s eventual destination. In Greene’s case, the journey began in Austin, Texas, and wound circuitously down to Chiapas; in Theroux’s case, his year-long journey around the interior of China in 1988 starts in London. Vowing not to fly on his journey, in order to understand the true distance and foreignness of China, Theroux takes rail jaunts across France and Central Europe to the Trans-Siberian Express to the Trans-Mongolian, eventually finding his way to the Shanxi Province of Northern China. There, he begins twelve months of vagabonding, taking in major cities and rural backwaters, unwittingly at a critical moment in modern Chinese history: just before the Tiananmen Square Protests.

Theroux finds a paradoxical China, ill at ease with its own internal contradictions but nevertheless unified by an Orwellian bureaucracy that rules with an iron fist. Nearly everywhere Theroux goes, authorities force him to play their favorite game, whose name translates roughly as “making up new rules on the spot.” Theroux finds that Mao and his successors have wrapped the country in red tape like a Gang of Christos turning China into a communist art installation; yet, he also sees clear evidence of the liberalizing free market reforms that would eventually turn China into the industrial powerhouse that currently owns 25% of U.S. debt. Theroux writes that “the Chinese are the last people in the world still manufacturing spittoons, chamber pots, treadle sewing machines, bed warmers, quill pens, wooden yokes for oxen, iron plows, sit-up-and-beg bicycles, steam engines and the 1948 Packard car.” A mere twenty years later, though, they would be making cutting edge technological gadgets for export to the West, entering into manufacturing partnerships with European and American companies such as Beijing Benz-DaimlerChrysler.

Everywhere Theroux goes, he finds paradoxes: tiny local free markets operating parallel to the central command economy; local cultures and languages thriving alongside the dominant, homogenizing Mandarin and Cantonese cultures; and a simultaneous veneration and contempt for authority among the everyday people he encounters.

Theroux is a charming guide, by turns gruff, worldly-wise, perplexed, and arrogant, and he’s game to try almost anything but the black carrots in Mongolia. He escorts us around a local bazaar in the Uighur town of Turshan, listens to complaints about the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai’s People’s Park, and ascends to the vast plateau of Tibet, where he sympathizes with the Tibetan independence movement. Along the way, he gives us lessons in Chinese etiquette, agronomy and traditional folk beliefs, and he even reads a smuggled copy of a medieval pornographic novel banned by the government but not, after all, very pornographic by Western standards.

Theroux’s journey itself is interesting, and the author is an engaging storyteller; but what makes Riding the Iron Rooster so interesting today is the snapshot it captures of a remote culture still mired in post-colonial politics, but poised for its starring appearance on the world economic stage.

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King Leopold’s Ghost; or Why There’s No Club Med in the Congo

Friday, March 19, 2010 @ 03:03 PM  posted by Mark

The only non-travelogue in this series of books taking us Around the World and Into the Past, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost is a history of Europe’s last major slave colony in Central Africa, where the devastating legacy of colonial exploitation continues even now. I have included it in the series because each of the books deals directly or indirectly with the European conquest of the globe, which colors American ideas of travel and shapes our experiences of foreign lands. Because it chronicles a slave empire so recently disbanded, and because the states that have followed in the colony’s wake in Central Africa continue to be war zones, King Leopold’s Ghost reminds us vividly of our own colonial and colonizing past, of the generations of exploration and violence that made today’s leisure travel possible, and of the ultimate sources of our disposable travel income.

King Leopold’s Ghost reads like a novel, with feats of derring-do, unlikely meetings and partings, and shocking revelations. The story of how King Leopold II of Belgium turned the Congo into his own private colony, this carefully researched book begins with the exploration of the Congo River by explorer Henry Morton Stanley (of “Livingstone, I presume” fame). It traces the subsequent employment of Stanley by Leopold as the king’s personal colonial emissary to Central Africa, explains the rise of the slave empire, and details the protest movement against Leopold led by E.D. Morel, whose coalition successfully brought international sanctions against Belgium and ended the king’s African fiefdom.

Briskly paced, Hochschild’s story includes the personal backstory of Leopold II’s early life, which led to the rapacious greed and corruption of his adulthood, explaining his lust for colonial wealth in context of his whoring, philandering and contempt for the Belgian state. Hochschild provides compelling evidence of the secret machinations of Leopold’s shady Congo dealings clearly and engagingly—no small accomplishment, given the millions of documents Leopold’s henchmen destroyed upon the king’s death—and he traces the very beginnings of Leopold’s idea of empire in the 1870s to its most gruesome success at the turn of the century and its final collapse with Leopold’s death in 1910.

Leopold’s network of dummy associations and foundations gave him sole private ownership of a territory as large as the United States east of the Mississippi—Belgium technically didn’t even have a Central African colony while Leopold was alive, because the king personally owned all of the Congo and personally kept all of its wealth.  Ultimately, this personalization of empire also makes him directly responsible for the 8 to 10 million Africans enslaved and murdered to fatten his bank account, a genocide that has largely been ignored in American school textbooks.

King Leopold’s Ghost hinges on the international protest movement against Leopold founded by E.D. Morel. Morel began his career as a shipping clerk for Leopold in the office of Elder Dempster, the bureaucrat largely responsible for cooking the books on Congolese exploitation. Dempster was responsible for making sure that the public accounts of Belgian trade with the Congo looked benign and that the profits were skimmed directly into Leopold’s pockets, and Morel simply couldn’t believe the truth when he saw it—of genocide, enslavement and corruption. He blew the whistle and his indefatigable efforts for over a decade around the turn of the twentieth century eventually drew President Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and a host of world leaders and internationally renowned authors to his cause. The pressure Morel brought to bear against Leopold made Leopold himself a pariah and caused no end of trouble for tiny Belgium, though in the end the King paid no real penalty for his abuses. Upon his death, the Congo became officially a Belgian colony and the worst of his abuses ended, though Belgian possession of the territory continued until 1960.

Morel’s movement was the first international human rights protest and laid the groundwork for subsequent organizations. It also helped shift public consciousness finally against violent colonial exploitation of the “Third World,” an important achievement just a generation after the end of slavery in the United States. But it did little real good for the people of the Congo.

Today, the hot and cold war that started in 1998 in Congo continues. It has claimed more than 5 million lives and directly involved eight African nations and 25 militia groups. The war has raged over a territory the size of Western Europe and troops have savagely butchered and raped civilians throughout the Congo, yet in America the conflict receives almost no attention. It is an inconvenient remnant of a failed colony and of a colonial past that the world would rather forget, and it seems to have little to do with America on its surface.

King Leopold’s Ghost appears in this series of travel books because it reveals a dark side of global adventurism that American and European travelers must always bear in mind when jetting off to “exotic” locations for pleasure. It reminds us that our forbears did not always have pleasure in mind when they set off to foreign lands and that, in many parts of the world, our faces still represent the face of death.

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An Antique Utopia

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is Jan Morris‘s melancholy love letter to a city that, one hundred years ago, was one of the most bustling ports in Europe but is now largely forgotten. Though Trieste is the capital of the Italian province also named Trieste, 70 percent of Italians polled in 1999 didn’t even know it was in Italy! So what happened? And why write a travel book about a fading outpost of the long dead Austro-Hungarian Empire? For Morris, the transience of Trieste’s glory is a metaphor for the impermanence of life itself.

Morris has a long, complicated relationship with the city. She first landed in Trieste during World War II, as a soldier in the British Army, when she was a man (she had a sex change operation in 1972). She returned periodically throughout the second half of the twentieth century, always finding there a terrestrial limbo, a place of indefinable hiatus between more substantial destinations and activities.

The city is simultaneously cosmopolitan and solitary. Cradled in a crook of land that borders Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia, Trieste is an easy drive from Austria and within steamboat distance of Greece, yet Morris finds that the very concept of nationality seems alien to the city. Formed by a dozen different civilizations over the course of four thousand years, Trieste’s character is shaped more by the cultural mementos of those past eras than by any present distinction.

Trieste sits on a plateau of karst (flinty limestone) above the Adriatic Sea, and the plateau is so formidable that, before modern roads and railways, the only people who ventured into the surrounding countryside were bandits and beggars. The land is essentially unarable, so large-scale agriculture is impossible, and hidden caverns and underground streams pock-mark the landscape: Trieste has therefore always been a port city that relies on trade. The Indo-Europeans known as Illyrians founded the city, then the Romans took it, the city-state of Venice colonized it, the Habsburgs occupied it, and finally the modern state of Italy got it after World War I. They gave it up briefly after the Axis defeat in World War II, but it returned to Italian control in 1954 and remains nominally Italian to the present day.

In each incarnation, Trieste’s role as a trading port was most prominent, and the Austro-Hungarians, by connecting railroads across central Europe to the terminus of Trieste, built the city into a commercial powerhouse. However, the ease of transport that made goods from Trieste so valuable continued only as long as the Austro-Hungarians controlled their vast territory, connecting Russia to France and Italy to Poland. When the Empire broke up after the First World War and dozens of international borders cut Trieste off from Central Europe, the city reverted to its older and more natural status as an out-of-the-way port disconnected from its neighbors by geological barriers, with no characteristic products of its own.

Jan Morris in 2008 and in the 1960s, when she was James Morris.

Today, with a population of just over 200,000, Trieste retains some commercial importance. It’s the headquarters of Italian coffee giant Illy, and its shipbuilding industry is still strong. And it still has a whiff of romance about it, at least for Morris: James Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there, and its architecture reflects its cosmopolitan past. But Morris is interested in Trieste mainly as a utopia: she conceives of it as the capital city of a people who form a secret worldwide diaspora, a people who don’t feel at home in the countries of their birth and are always longing for something at the edge of definition.

“They share with each other, across all nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them, you will not be mocked or resented. . . They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.”

The desire for a place to call home remains after imperial glories fade. For Morris, Trieste is the eternal center of that nation of people whose unfulfilled longings are as important to them as their grandest accomplishments.

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Journey to the Alcarria

Saturday, March 13, 2010 @ 08:03 PM  posted by Mark

Camilo Jose Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria captured a glimpse backward into Old World Spain just before it vanished and provided a peek forward at the coming struggles of everyday people under Franco‘s fascist regime. The record of a walking tour through the central Spanish countryside in 1948, Journey to the Alcarria is a sharply observed picaresque, a portrait of a moment in time between Spain’s agrarian antiquity and its slowly emerging—and troubling—modernity.

Cela undertakes the journey (one in a series of vagabundajes that he would write about) in order to escape the stifling despair of city life under Franco’s new regime. His goal was to observe the changes wrought by long years of armed conflict in the Spanish countryside and find out how people were living in the freshly forged peace. The Spanish Civil War, and then the economic privations of the Second World War, had wreaked havoc on everyday life throughout the country, and no one was sure whom to trust or what exactly to believe in now that the wars were over—republicans distrusted fascists, fascists distrusted royalists, royalists dreamed of a new aristocracy—and everyone was still nursing the literal wounds of war and the figurative injuries of betrayal. As Cela walks from one village to another toward the Alcarria, he finds that the psychological tensions of conflict remain, but so do the age-old virtues of community, family and civility.

The rural villagers Cela encounters— farmers, beggars, shopkeepers, and shepherds—have no model of behavior to rely on in Franco’s new order. Cela himself was of mixed allegiances—in the civil war, he fought for Franco, and, after he was wounded, he worked as a government censor, yet his sympathies lie with average people who are simply trying to make a living, without regard to politics. His idiosyncrasies make him both querulous and generous: he shares his scant resources with vagabonds he meets along the way, and he often relies on the kindness of strangers for food, lodging, information and companionship. Poverty creates its own community along the road and in the rural towns through which Cela passes, and the picture that emerges is almost medieval in its lack of wealth and prospects.

Cela’s journey becomes comic and tragic by turns. His battles with a stubborn mule, his conflicts with thieves and naifs, and his warmth toward fellow travelers are all colored by extremely romantic sensibilities. Cela seems completely at home with his own mixed emotions, and he assumes that everyone else has internal lives as complex as his own, which makes his narrative rich in detail and emotion. Though the people Cela meets are poor in worldy goods, they’re rich in spirit and have complicated lives that come through the page with humor and vitality.

In Cela’s post-war Spain, alliances and politics still matter, and everyone is still quick to judge everyone else; but the people Cela encounters also sense intuitively that they cannot maintain their old ways of life and that they must rely on each other to create something new, beyond the politics that are now out of their control. The fact that a whole generation would be born and live half their lives under Franco’s repressive dictatorship was not yet clear, but in Cela’s walk to the Alcarria, it is clear that the Old Spain has passed from the face of the earth, and it won’t be coming back.

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The Lawless Roads of Southern Mexico

Thursday, March 11, 2010 @ 04:03 PM  posted by Mark

The British publishing company Longman commissioned Graham Greene to travel to the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas in 1938, to investigate the anti-Catholic purges of President Plutarco Elias Calles. Greene’s assignment, more specifically, was to write a report about the reactions of the Catholic people there to the assassination of some 40 priests and the destruction of hundreds of churches, and to determine the state of the faith under the repressive regime. Greene had written eight novels, a book of poetry and an African travel book by this time, and he was a practicing Catholic himself, so he must have seemed an ideal candidate to take the lay of the land, but it’s hard to imagine that he completely grasped the difficulties he would encounter when he took the assignment. Granted, no one goes to a violent anti-clerical purge expecting a party, but Greene found the chaos in southern Mexico issuing from both the government and private organizations, and from right-wing and left-wing factions alike.

A more dour, grim, contemptuous travelogue than The Lawless Roads is difficult to imagine. The political instability puts Greene in many uncomfortable if not outright dangerous situations: the Calles government was pro-labor, and the United States called him a Bolshevik, yet the governors of Tabasco and Chiapas employed fascist paramilitary groups to enforce their own private orders, and Greene encounters more than one private citizen who identifies with Hitler and/or Franco. Corrupt generals in Mexico’s army also kept private armed forces to confiscate resources as they saw fit. While Greene is traveling south, Calles nationalizes the foreign oil companies exploiting Mexico’s new petroleum wealth, causing an international uproar and threats of war. The ordinary people Greene meets along the way seem resigned to their powerlessness in this atmosphere of unpredictable violence. However, Greene’s narrative concentrates as much on the strangeness of everyday life as it does on the revolutionary political events sweeping Mexico.

Greene spends much of his time waiting—waiting for a boat to take him by sea from Veracruz to Tabasco, waiting for a barge to convey him upriver to Villahermosa, waiting for a plane to carry him to Salto, waiting for a mule to ride to Las Casas, and he waits most of the time in torrential rains and stifling heat. When his waiting pays off, the travel is treacherous: the boat to Tabasco is barely seaworthy, overloaded and foul, and Greene spends the overnight journey vomiting; the barge to Villahermosa is incompetently piloted and runs aground three times; the plane has a faulty engine and is forced to fly between mountains instead of over them. Greene waits nearly a week for another plane to Las Casas, but it never arrives, so he is forced to hire an inexperienced mule guide to escort him on a four-day ride through the mountains, where he constantly encounters armed men of uncertain politics and where rains routinely wash out the trail. Oddly, factoring in the unreliable air traffic schedule, a mule ride from Salto to Las Casas costs more and takes less time than the plane trip would have.

Everywhere along the way, Greene meets hapless Americans, cynical Mexicans, a surprising number of Germans and Norwegians, and Catholics of all nationalities who have been driven to underground Masses by the religious persecution. Only in Las Casas, Chiapas, during Easter Week, do people worship openly—and most of the worshipers who defy the ban on celebrating Mass are Indians, who seem unaware of the ban in the first place. These Indians practice a hybrid of Catholicism and native religions that Greene finds both frightening and alluring.

Greene is openly reviled as a Gringo in Las Casas, yet he finds enough friends among the underground priests to escape serious confrontations. Despite Greene’s stature as an established author, it’s difficult to imagine that his fame had spread as far as southern Mexico by 1938, yet bishops and generals routinely grant his requests for interviews, and he seems to travel under a kind of magic protection, bestowed on him as much by his irrelevance as his journalistic credentials.

The Lawless Roads is witty and sour, and Greene involves you intimately and sympathetically with the everyday people he meets. He occasionally falls into colonial smugness, but most of his observations are keen and commiserative, and the portrait he paints—of people resigned to endure the whims of powerful tyrants that they have no hope of defying—is engaging. The Catholics, like everyone else in southern Mexico at that time (and now), carry on despite the oppressions and corruption of local government leaders.

When he left Mexico and returned to England, Greene found that the Mass in his home church felt curiously fictitious compared to the furtive, secret Masses he had celebrated in Chiapas. Later, he would describe this trip as the real beginning of his conversion to Catholicism, which he thought of ever afterward as a sustaining faith to people who have no other worldly place to turn for consolation.

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Around the World & Into the Past

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

For the last couple of centuries, our changing attitudes about travel have mirrored the effects of globalization: starting with the Industrial Revolution, as cultures worldwide became more technological, travel for average Western Europeans and Americans came to mean enrichment rather than danger. Travel once meant only hardship and adventure, the prospect of unpredictable and possibly life-threatening difficulties from which you might never return—normal people did not travel long distances in the seventeenth century, for example, and explorers and other world travelers were likely to be mad as hatters. As more of the globe became known and modern conveniences (like disposable income, internal combustion and industrial agriculture) spread, the idea of travel became associated with pleasure rather than risk, and it became a mark of cultivation to travel great distances to other cultures and return to tell the tale.

With the framework of the increasing ease of travel in mind, I’ve selected a series of six travel books and one film that will take us both around the world and into the past—a past recent enough to contain most of the elements of daily life that we all recognize, yet just distant enough to involve real dangers that the modern traveler can generally avoid these days (or at least avoid personal contact with): dangers of disease, life-threatening poverty and incomprehensible local political squabbles into which the traveler may stumble accidentally. Encounters in these narratives are just as commonly friendly and curious as they are suspicious, mistrustful or terrifying.

We’ll begin tomorrow with Graham Greene‘s The Lawless Roads, the narrative of a 1938 journey to the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, where the Calles government was systematically killing Catholic priests, destroying churches and suppressing religion. Then we’ll take a walking tour through central Spain just after World War II with Nobel Prize winner Camilo Jose Cela, in his Journey to the Alcarria. Next, we’ll jump to Italy as Jan Morris takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour of the long past and strange present of a cultural crossroads in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Making a hard right turn at the Balkans, we’ll head down to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore a pure and horrifying example of modern colonialism in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, after which we’ll journey by train through China with Paul Theroux in Riding the Iron Rooster, the tale of a trip Theroux took in 1989 but which feels a hundred years older because of the vast economic changes that have happened recently in China. Our one film in the series is next, with the John Boorman true-life adventure Beyond Rangoon, starring Patricia Arquette as an American Doctor in Myanmar whose life changes radically when she encounters the democratic political movement of Aung San Suu Kyi. Finally, we’ll jump and skip through the islands of Polynesia, as James C. Simmons tells us about early European and American explorers who lost their way in the South Pacific, finding sometimes heaven and sometimes hell, in Castaways in Paradise.

If you know the books and movie already, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them; if you don’t, I hope you’ll be inspired to take some of these journeys with me from the comfort of your favorite easy chair. The train leaves from this platform tomorrow, for Mexico.

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In the Catacomb of Dreams

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

After beginning a series of reviews of books concerned with sickness and death, my own rather routine head cold overwhelmed me and I spent more than two weeks lying in bed, sweating, sneezing and puffing like a melancholy penguin trapped in the Memphis Zoo. By the fourth day, I could no longer even think of thinking—it’s amazing, isn’t it, how much energy it takes to string a line of simple ideas into a coherent thought? Now that I feel normal again, I wonder at the seemingly ridiculous fact that, as recently as a week ago, I could not remember how Chester A. Arthur wore his mustache, or calculate the per-pound value of molybdenum, or identify any personal ambitions whatsoever beyond dozing in warm sunshine, just because I had a virus. There’s nothing like a preview of the permanent infirmity of old age (if you should be lucky enough to live that long) to make you want to stop wasting your energy. As a result, I have decided to abandon the increasingly morbid series on illness I had planned and switch instead to something more life-affirming in upcoming posts. For the moment, though, I’d like to share a few fever dreams that I jotted down during my illness, since I can’t make heads or tails of them—if any of you knows anything about dream interpretation, I would appreciate your insights.

Dream # 1: I notice that, in my backyard, an orange-and-white striped circus tent has appeared, and I enter it to find an army of undead fleas marching across the sawdust floor. The zombie fleas are dressed like soldiers from the Mexican Revolution, with bandeleros of ammunition across their chests, serapes and sombreros. The tent is entirely silent, though somehow I know that the fleas are marching to John Philip Sousa’s Transit of Venus, which all of the fleas are hearing simultaneously in their heads. The fleas don’t notice me at all, but still I feel compelled to donate a dollar to their war effort, and I drop four quarters into an old, unmarked coffee can.

Dream # 2: I am on a 70-foot-long three-sailed schooner from the mid-nineteenth century, in the middle of the ocean. In fact, it is the mid-nineteenth century. I am being chased around and around a deckhouse by a donkey laden with sandbags, and the other crew members are wagering on whether or not the donkey will catch me. What the donkey might do if it does catch me is uncertain, though the prospect is worrisome.

Dream # 3: I am dining with film legend Merle Oberon when I receive a telegram informing me that an aunt I had never heard of before has died and left me $7,000 in silver dental fillings and that I must immediately fly to Pierre, South Dakota, to collect my inheritance. I am torn between continuing my date with Merle and cashing in on the fillings but find that my choice is made for me when I can’t leave the table because the fly of my pants has somehow caught on the tablecloth. Merle spends the rest of the evening looking deeply into my eyes, while I pine for the mountain of silver fillings. This dream seems to last forever.

Okay, enough of that. Next: back to the book reviews!

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Rilke’s Book of Hours

Monday, March 1, 2010 @ 10:03 PM  posted by Mark

Last week, I caught a head cold at about the same time Obama and the Congress were hashing out health care reform, so I thought it an opportune moment to review a series of books about sickness, death and the body. I then promptly became too ill to carry on and spent the rest of the week in bed drinking hot blueberry tea, which is also where I find myself now, at the beginning of a new week. In case you’re holding your breath for the conclusion of the series on sickness and health, I won’t keep you waiting long, but in the meantime, I’d like to offer for your consideration a book of poems, which does not deal in illness per se but makes an excellent companion when you can do little more than loll your head pathetically against a stack of pillows.

Rainer Maria Rilke‘s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy) is typical of Rilke in many ways, offering paradoxical visions that lead to silence and contemplation, sentiments so direct in their simplicity that they become profound, and unexpected approaches to material that is otherwise utterly familiar. This translation is particularly deft, maintaining the mysticism of the German while lucidly translating concrete images, so that the epiphanies of the original rise naturally out of the new language. The subtitle, Love Poems to God, is something of a misnomer, since Rilke challenges and cajoles his God as much as he humbles himself before Him. Often, Rilke addresses himself not to God as a Being or a Concept but rather to mystery as a fact, for instance:

I love the dark hours of my being.

My mind deepens into them.

There I can find, as in old letters,

the days of my life, already lived,

and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open

to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree

rustling over a gravesite

and making real the dream

of the one its living roots

embrace:

a dream once lost

among sorrows and songs.

The poems are ineffable enough to reward repeated readings with new insights, so that you can read the whole collection and pick it up the next day as if you’d found an entirely new book, full of fresh mystery and novel images—just the thing you need when you can’t crawl out of bed.

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