Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Building on the Past

It is a tragedy for anyone who, like myself, is impressed by the marvels of the past to know how they have been bypassed and forgotten by most of the world. Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only one, the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, remains. The Mausoleum in Halicarnassos, Turkey, was shaken down by an earthquake and then quarried for building stone; the great temple of Artemis in Ephesus, was closed by a Christian emperor, quarried, then the city around it died; the statue of Zeus at Olympia lasted until the Olympic Games were closed by imperial order, then was damaged by earthquake; the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were abandoned along with their city; the Colossus of Rhodes was destroyed by earthquake then looting; the Pharos of Alexandria, the world's first lighthouse, gave a thousand years of service before being levelled by an earthquake.

If enough knowledge exists of an ancient wonder, it can be recreated. For example, the city of Nashville has a copy of the Parthenon that now includes a reproduction (or reinterpretation) of Phidias' famous statue of Athena. Since the French had to close the Cave of Lascaux to the many visitors who wanted to see its famous ice-age paintings, they made a copy in which the visitors could ooh and aah. A copy of the Chauvet Cave will open in 2014. (There's a documentary film on the wonderful art at Chauvet called The Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog).

This approach to the past can be much better than the alternatives of letting the original be destroyed or shutting it away from the world. On the other hand, it risks turning an artistic and cultural wonder into a Disneyland attraction. For example, in the case of the Nashville Parthenon, the original temple is sited high on the Acropolis and is visibly the centre of Athens; the copy is on a level space in a public park. The original is carved of Pentelic marble; the copy is cast from concrete. The statue inside was made of ivory and gold; the copy is gypsum cement and ground fibreglass, although it was recently painted and gilded to resemble the original. Even with the best will in the world, such reproductions are not equivalents to the real thing.

It might come closer to the real thing if the building's use was restored along with its appearance. For example, there are modern pagans such as the members of Hellenion who would, I am sure, be happy to worship Athena there.

On the other hand, people sometimes try to restore the original. The members of Nova Roma tried an interesting example of this. They co-sponsored the excavation of an ancient Roman temple in the expectation that they would be able to restore it and worship there. Unfortunately, the project was beyond their means

The Victorians had a penchant for restoration. For example, parts of Knossos were restored by Arthur Evans using modern materials and a good helping of imagination. These days, it is dictators who are mostly likely to rebuild the past: Mussolini restoring the Ara Pacis; Saddam Hussein restoring parts of Babylon. The problem with this is that we "restore" according to what we know now, not according to what we could have learned if we had let things be. That is why modern practice is to make the original and the new portions of a reconstruction visibly different.

Perhaps the best way to venerate the great achievements of the past is to build modern structures beside them that will carry on their work. For example, near the old Library of Alexandria is the new Library of Alexandria. (Its home site is here). Likewise, the University of Nalanda, India, will be accepting its first new students in 800 years in a new campus being built near the old one. Significantly, both of these projects were built through multinational funding because the original institutions were important far beyond their local region. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina received support from the Egyptian government, UNESCO, several Arab states, and the French National Library. The new University of Nalanda received a gift of land from the State of Bihar and money for construction from Japan and Singapore. It may become a project of the East Asia Summit. Similarly, after large parts of the Shaolin Monastery had been burned by a warlord in 1928 and its library destroyed by Red Guard vandals in 1966, martial artists around the world contributed funds to revive it. This was their way of paying tribute to the institution where Kung Fu was created.

It is pleasant to think of what institutions of the past could be fanned back into life. One obvious candidate is the ancient University of Timbuktoo, though the civil strife in Mali would make that difficult. Another is the old House of Wisdom in Baghdad, which introduced European learning to the Arab world, thus preserving and extending it. Notably, algebra was invented by one of its scholars. Alas, Iraq, too, is in an untranquil state.

One institution that should not be rebuilt is the temple in Jerusalem. To rebuild that would risk knocking down the second most sacred structure in the Islamic world, the Dome of the Rock. I know of no better way to ensure the instant launching of a world-shattering holy war, although some people are working towards it. If it's to be rebuilt, it should be rebuilt elsewhere. Perhaps on the island of Elephantine?

If you can think of other worthy candidates for revival, please let me know in the comments.

The Germans seem fond of partially restoring, partially modernizing historically significant buildings. One example is the old Parliament Building, the Reichstag, which was damaged by bombing in World War II and sat unused while Germany was divided into East and West. After unification, its exterior was mostly restored, but a new dome on the building was made of glass and metal in a modern style. The difference is not immediately apparent from the outside.
From the inside, however, it looks entirely different, just as the modern Bundestag differs from the parliament of the German Empire in 1894, the year the building was completed.
The East Germans built their modern-style parliament building on the site of Frederick the Great's palace. The modern building, in turn, has been demolished and the plan has been announced to, in part, rebuild the old palace. That is, the fa├žade of the new building will match the old palace on three sides, but the fourth, facing the river, will be of modern design, and the interior will be entirely new.

Dresden suffered from a famous firebombing attack that destroyed much of the city. Important buildings in the city centre have been reconstructed from ruins and the plan to restore the rest is in progress.
Dresden, before
Dresden, after. The Opera House.
The British city of Coventry, also extensively bombed, which almost destroyed the city's cathedral. The decision was made to leave the damaged cathedral in place and build a new cathedral, in modern style, directly beside it. In this way, the legacy of worship is honoured and the legacy of war is remembered.

The different approaches to rebuilding or reusing the past are exemplified by two theatres in London. The first is Shakespeare's famous Globe Theatre. Near its buried remains, a faithful reconstruction opened in 1997. Shakespeare's plays have been performed there since.

On the other hand, the remains of Shakespeare's Curtain Theatre were discovered in 2012. Planning permission has been sought to create a new playhouse here that will protect and display the ruins of the old one. A similar plan has been proposed for The Theatre, which was discovered five years ago. It was the second playhouse ever to open in London.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Attending Church

These days, the reputation of religion in general seems to be suffering. Some of the damage is self-inflicted (whether by Christians, Muslims, or even Buddhists) and some comes from outside. For example, there is a strain of thought called the New Atheism. It is a ridiculous name that irresistibly reminds me of a clip from the film L.A. Story.

I suppose the reason that I don't support the stance of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, which is to confront and nullify the influence of religion wherever they find it, is my firm belief that they don't have a logical, consistent philosophy themselves. Because no one does. The best we can do is an approximation that helps us live as we believe that we should.

For example, the most congenial philosophy that I've found is Utilitarianism. It states that the moral value of an act depends on the net happiness it generates. By "net happiness" I mean the amount that's left after subtracting any unhappiness that the action causes. I'm quite willing to believe this, though no-one has found a way to measure happiness. That is enough to rob this promising philosophy of any claim to being logical and consistent, even before the Germans got started on it. (Nietzsche: "Humanity does not strive after happiness; only the English do.")

At other times, Stoicism provides advice as to how I should behave. It tells me that I should resist wrong actions and beliefs, whatever the result. It is not a very utilitarian attitude!

I switch from one philosophy to another depending on which seems "right" for the situation that I am in. Certain philosophies just seem appropriate for certain sets of circumstance. In other words, I am, as Robert Heinlein said that all men are, "not a rational animal" but "a rationalizing animal."

This brings me to my recent decision to attend church. I was raised as a Lutheran and considered myself a member in good standing of a culture and tradition that is Christian, even though I was not a Christian. For example, I remember a high school student who came to me for tutoring in English. He decided that he wanted to read Milton's Paradise Lost, but had no understanding of Christian belief. Our classes were as much about prophecy, original sin, salvation, demonology, the relation of Judaism and Christianity, and of the Old and New Testaments as they were about Puritans, blank verse, and the epic tradition. I relished the irony that I was teaching Christianity and, since our classes were on Sunday mornings, I referred to them as my "Sunday School" classes.

Similarly, when I wrote my book on poetry (The Complete Poetry Guide and Workbook), I had to include poems that are explicitly Christian and discuss their meaning. I knew that we cannot understand Western Culture or its expression in art without understanding its religious tradition, whether or not we share it.

Nevertheless, as a teenager, I resented my family's pressure to attend church. From the time I left home until this year, I have not attended, nor seriously considered attending.

What changed was that, two years ago, my wife became a Christian. It filled a hole in her life, gave her membership in a strong community, and made her much happier. As a good Utilitarian, how could I disapprove? As a supportive husband, how could I help? I could not, at the time, make a habit of attending with her because the services were conducted in Korean, which I do not speak. However, when she asked me to help her find a closer church to attend, I found a Lutheran church that seemed like a good group and have attended it with her since.

I don't think I am being hypocritical by going to church, even though I can't treat the Apostle's Creed as a checklist of my own beliefs. I see no harm in taking time in the week to participate in rituals that empty my mind of current concerns. I see no harm in thinking about community, forgiveness, and right behaviour. I appreciate that each service ends with "Remember the poor." Nor do I feel set apart by my disbelief since I share that with many who are better believers than I am; see Mark 9:24 for proof.

To conclude, I now think of my attendance at our local church much as Scrooge's nephew thought of Christmas in Dickens' Christmas Carol.
"But I am sure I have always thought of [it] a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

Friday, 17 May 2013

A Close Reading of "The Lady of Shalott"

 What is This?

The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote two versions of a poem on the Lady of Shalott, dated ten years apart (1832 and 1842). You can compare the two at Ed Friedlander's site, but it is the 1842 version that is the most famous. Consequently, it is the version that a student I was tutoring had to study. I wrote up notes on the poem as an example of how to understand a text through close reading. The notes spent some time on my first web site, long deceased now, so it is time to put it up again.

It would be wonderful to hear Tennyson himself reading the poem, but the closest we can come to that experience is to watch this short film. (Its Facebook Page is here).

The poem has been turned into music by several people including Loreena McKennitt and adapted into original lyrics by Emilie Autumn.

There is a surprising number of paintings to illustrate the poem. Many are in this video version of McKennitt's song. I'll include some wherever they seem appropriate.


When you try to understand a piece of writing you can use three methods, usually together:
  1. research secondary sources or, in other words, read what others say about the work;
  2. read for pleasure to see what emotional effects the work has on you;
  3. and do close reading of the work itself to see how it creates those effects.
Do not do these in any particular order. In fact, ideally, you will mix all three methods.

Close reading, the way I do it, means that you read the work with a pen in your hand and writing paper beside you. You read a line, stanza, or paragraph, and then you think about it. You write down your questions and observations. You read on.

Close reading is very different from reading for pleasure. Your mind should be active, probing, wondering. You do not suspend disbelief. Instead, you examine the words, sentences, symbols, characters, and plot, as well as anything else that interests you. And you remember that to analyze something means to pull it into pieces. Strangely, good writing not only survives this treatment, but your respect for it and your pleasure in it increases afterwards.

To show you how close reading works, I have reproduced Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" below, together with my thoughts about each section of it, just as they occurred to me. If I were writing an essay on the poem, these would be my rough notes.

You could read straight through this article, but you would get more from it by pausing after every section of the poem to think about it and write down your own thoughts about it. Remember that your thoughts are not "wrong" and mine are not "right." My thoughts are just to show some of the kinds of questions you can ask about a work.

Close Reading

Part I

    ON either side the river lie
    Long fields of barley and of rye,
    That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
    And thro' the field the road runs by
            To many-tower'd Camelot;
    And up and down the people go,
    Gazing where the lilies blow
    Round an island there below,
            The island of Shalott.

"Long fields of barley and of rye..."

Most of this stanza describes the countryside and the local people. Only two lines are indented. The first question to ask, then, is if these lines describe things that are different from the rest. The first indented line certainly does: Camelot is different because it is a city, the seat of government, and filled with heroes and at least one wizard. The other indented line is about the island of Shalott. The indentation hints that it is equally set apart from ordinary life, but we don't yet know why.

Camelot is described as "many-tower'd," which (if my memory serves) is how Homer described Troy. A hint about its future death when King Arthur dies?

Shalott is surrounded by lilies. The word could apply to a land flower, a symbol of innocence, death, and rebirth. (Thus, there are lilies at weddings, "the Madonna Lily" representing Mary, lilies at funerals, and "the Easter Lily" representing Christ's resurrection). Later in the poem we see that both innocence and death are appropriate for the Lady on the island because she experiences a type of death in life.

It could, more likely, be the water lily, related to the lotus flower. In fact, a later line is "She saw the water-lily bloom...." This flower symbolizes the feminine, sexual purity, and detachment from the world. Again, the symbol is appropriate for the lady.
Water Lily
But both sides of the river are clothed with the makings of bread ("the staff of life") and beer. People there "gaze" at Shalott, which you would think is non-intrusive, but foreshadows the lethal gaze later in the poem.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
        Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
       The Lady of Shalott.
Once again, Camelot is set apart by indentation. This time, however, it is the lady, not the island, who is equally set apart. Also, this time, a single, four-walled structure is mentioned, with a "tower" in each corner--contrast this with "many-tower'd" Camelot. The single building is simple in design and surrounded by flowers. Notice, no mention of people, or even animals: it is all inanimate or plant on the "silent" island.

If you look at it in terms of the four elements that the Greeks believed in, we have air in the first and second lines, water in the second and following, then earth. No "fire" (the symbol of life). The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biederman says that fire is "the apparently living element, which consumes, warms, and illuminates, but can also bring pain and death." (pg. 129). Intuition: let's keep an eye out for fire imagery later on.

There is a low barrier of water (the river) surrounding the island on all sides. There is a high barrier of earth (the tower) with four walls, symbolizing the four directions. The completeness of the isolation is emphasized in this verse, although the one hole in the defences, the window, is mentioned later.

What is the symbolism of the willow tree? It is feminine, not masculine. According to The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism (pg. 91), the Weeping Willow was a popular symbol of death during the Romantic period. On pg. 381 it says:
In the ancient Mediterranean world it was generally believed that the seeds of this tree [willow] were dispersed before they matured, and that the willow therefore did not reproduce 'sexually.' This belief made it an image of chastity and an ideal first ingredient for preparations to promote sexual continence.
In China, for whatever it is worth, the willow represents female eroticism. Hmm.

The Weeping Willow is a cross between a Chinese willow and the White Willow of Europe. The White Willow looks like this.
The White Willow

The words "whiten" "shiver" and "quiver" make the island sound like a nervous maiden on her wedding night. "White" is a symbol of virginity (bridal gown) and I think, here, of death. (Again, like in the orient. Probably not a significant correlation, though).
By the margin, willow-veil'd,
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhail'd
The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd
       Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
       The Lady of Shalott?
OK, now let's see how successful water and earth have been in protecting this woman. "By the margin, willow veil'd" slide heavy work boats. Note the magic, virginity-protecting tree species again, keeping her unseen. And the shallop (a small, open boat using sails or oars, designed for shallow waters) skims right by without being hailed. So the senses of sight and sound cannot pierce the island's secret. This is made explicit in the second half of the verse. The question is asked, who has seen her standing and waving at the window? The answer is "no-one," because her curse keeps her away from the window. The question implies, I think, that she WANTS to be seen and spoken to, but it helpless to accomplish this.

She is not seen, and she is not widely known, but some few people know of her...
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
       Down to tower'd Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ''Tis the fairy
       Lady of Shalott.'
Locals don't know her, but know of her, and think that there's something "otherworldly" and magical about her.

In contrast to the the willow trees on the island, the plants on either bank are male ("bearded") and support life, as bread.
"Bearded Barley"
Barley was also important for the ancient religious mysteries at Eleusis because it sometimes has hallucinogenic fungi growing on it like "beards," but I don't want to take the religious symbolism too far! You can take that tack, if you want.
Ergot: The Hallucinogenic Fungus on Barley

Part I has set the scene. And notice how lifeless it is: we know nothing about any individual yet. Part I is like a landscape painting: There's a tower on an island of lilies and willows in the middle of a river which has agriculture on either side and boats going by...

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
       To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
       The Lady of Shalott.
"The Lady of Shalott" by Sidney Meteyard

What is the symbolism of weaving? First of all, it is the essence of female work, and has been for a long time. (Have a look at the book Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber). Whenever you see cloth, even in the most masculine associations, it represents the presence of women.

More importantly, it is a symbol of fate. The three fates span, measured, and cut people's lives to weave them into the cloth of past time. This weaving is mentioned as a "magic" web. And web, of course, has associations with both spiders and possibly shrouds.
"Les Parques" (The Fates) by Alfred Agache
She has a premonition that some "bad thing" will happen if she looks at Camelot, the other pole of this circumscribed universe, but has no idea what it is.

Camelot is a city, and she's alone. Camelot is "many tower'd" and diverse, she is cloistered and simple. I'd have to say that Camelot is the male side of life and she, the female. Yang and yin, if you prefer the Chinese terms.

Isn't it interesting that virginity and death are sharing symbols, but also sex and death are combined? Robertson Davies' novel The Cunning Man discusses paintings of young women and skeletons standing together, called "Death and the Maiden". (Here's a good example).
"Death and the Maiden" by P.J. Lynch

Apparently, this was a popular theme. Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" also associates virginity and death in the lines "then worms will try/That long preserved virginity."
And moving thro' a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
       Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
       Pass onward from Shalott.
The way that I think of "mirror" images, especially when paired with the phrase "shadows of the world" is similar to Plato's "Myth of the Cave."
In Plato's story, we are in an enclosed space, a cave. There is a source of light, a fire, and there are real objects between the fire and our backs. However, we cannot turn to see the real objects; we can only infer their existence and nature from their shadows, cast upon the cave wall in front of us.
If we apply this idea to the poem, what does that say about the lady? That she sees not the highway, but an image of the highway from which she infers that a highway must exist, and a destination for said highway. Thus, she can make a pretty good guess that there's a "real" destination for the highway, Camelot, of which she knows nothing directly.
Mirrors have associations with femininity (look at the biological symbol for females, ♀, which is a hand mirror). On the other hand, the Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism (pp. 222-223) mentions several other associations:
  1. mirrors allow the life force to be held in a room, which is why mirrors in a room must be covered when someone dies in it;
  2. mirrors are also amulets, offering protection against evil forces.
  3. Mirrors are instruments of augury (thus, seeing your fate) and analogues to the eyes,
  4. but mirrors can also capture and hold your soul (like Narcissus. His reflecting pond is a mirror).
  5. Seeing yourself in a mirror is like stepping outside of your body to look at it, so Jungians link it to death.
  6. Others think of it as a route to self-knowledge.

A very ambiguous symbol! So the way to interpret it is not in one way or the other, but in all ways. It represents safety, and confinement, knowledge of the world, but partial knowledge only, a partial wisdom, and a means to her death, all simultaneously with reinforcing the entirely feminine nature of her little room.
By the way, although I don't go much for this kind of analysis, draw a little map of an island (convex sides and pointed ends) in a river. Draw crops over both banks of the river. You have just drawn a pretty acceptable image of the female genitals surrounded by pubic hair. (The "secret garden" surrounded by walls is a common symbol of this. Tennyson's "island" is just a more anatomically correct version). This is an example of imagery that is so heavy-handed that you either have to love it, the way that you can enjoy a really bad movie, or hate it. Almost certainly, it was not intended.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad,
       Goes by to tower'd Camelot;
And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
       The Lady of Shalott.
Hey, there are NO heterosexual couples that show up in her mirror! A group of female virgins, OR a young boy (rich and poor versions mentioned) OR a group of men. She realizes that there is some connection that she's not making ... "She hath no loyal knight and true..." but I doubt that she knows what is involved.
The mirror is blue. (Is that water or air's colour? Both, probably). The young man in red is the first mention of the colour of fire/sexual desire. Just a hint of it, though. He's not old enough to affect her much.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights,
       And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
'I am half sick of shadows,' said
       The Lady of Shalott.
"I Am Half Sick of Shadows..." by John William Waterhouse
Ah, now she sees couples and says the first thing that we hear directly from her in this whole poem: "I am half sick of shadows"! Pretty unambiguous, although plumes, representing flight (birds) and freedom are an interesting touch. The mirror, it is repeated, is a "magic" one. The moonlight often represents madness--look up the word "lunatic".

So, part I painted the scene. Part II introduced what the lady is waiting for. Part III will bring it onstage...

Part III

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
       Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
       Beside remote Shalott.
"The Lady of Shalott" by Gley

OK, I knew that red would show up here. Blazing masculinity steps up. And it is available to women, too, since it (in the person of Lancelot) has been known to "kneel to a lady." However, although the Lady of Shalott has excellent taste in men (choosing to be impressed by the best knight in the world), anyone who knows the King Arthur stories knows that this isn't going to turn out well. Lancelot is big-time in love with another: Queen Guinevere.

Notice that, rather than "Camelot" being set apart in the verse, the representation of the masculine pole has focussed narrowly on a single human being: "Of bold Sir Lancelot."

In Europe, there used to be a harvest ceremony where a sheaf would be dressed up in women's clothing and treated as the personification of the harvest, a "corn dolly." A female goddess of the earth's fertility. Notice that Lancelot doesn't bump into any sheaves, but rides between them.... His lack of availability to any woman except Guenevere is reinforced in that line.
The gemmy bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
       As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
        Beside remote Shalott.
I wonder if there's a pun between "bridle bells" and "bridal bells"? And though "blazon'd" has a special meaning of decorated with a heraldic design, it is close enough to "blaze" (fire, again) to be meant to suggest that, too.

Anyway, like the previous verse, all the words and images associated with Lancelot are martial, male, or metallic. Summary: he's a man's man, and a real hunk.
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
       As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
       Moves over still Shalott.
Fire and phallic symbols on his head! The meteor image represents impending and foretold doom. It is a "dis-aster" (a bad star). There's something in Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR about there being no comets when poor people die, but "the skies themselves cry out the deaths of princes."
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
       As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash'd into the crystal mirror,
'Tirra lirra,' by the river
       Sang Sir Lancelot.
OK, so we get only the second oh-so-profound statement by a character in this poem. The lady is definitely ripe for a change from her routine: it just takes a "tirra lirra" from the right guy to make her go crazy for him. Watch!
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
The curse is come upon me!' cried
       The Lady of Shalott.
"The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot" by John Waterhouse

She is no longer really innocent, having looked upon Lancelot with desire. After that, she is no longer suited for her former, confined, and maiden life. Her life will change, in one way or another! Part IV tells how...

Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
       Over tower'd Camelot;
Air and water (the boundaries) are violently disturbed.
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
       The Lady of Shalott.
"The Lady of Shalott" by John Waterhouse

Um, she's riding in something that looks vaginal. It was found beneath the female-and-death symbolic tree.
And down the river's dim expanse--
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance--
With a glassy countenance
       Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
       The Lady of Shalott.
Comparing the Lady to a bold seer is an ironic pun. It is a pun because "seer" has two meanings. One is a person who "sees" something, as the Lady has just seen Camelot for the first time. The more common meaning is someone who foretells the future. All that she "sees" of her future, however, is her own death. The irony is that the Lady spent much of her life seeing only reflections in a mirror, rather than the things themselves, so she was not much of a "seer" at all.

"Did she look to Camelot means "She did look to Camelot." Now that the curse is on her she is, in a way, free. She can look anywhere and choose to go anywhere.
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Thro' the noises of the night
       She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
       The Lady of Shalott.
Is the white dress a bridal dress or shroud or both? Air and water surround her again, but light is fading, and there are those willows again. It is as though they are trying to maintain her former state by killing her. SOMETHING is killing her, anyway, rather than let her join life, which it is her wish to do.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken'd wholly,
       Turn'd to tower'd Camelot;
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
       The Lady of Shalott.

How useless and weak this exemplar of sheltered femininity is! She can't even survive a simple excursion to the city, where coarser types like us can go every day. She's like one of those laboratory rats who have never been exposed to any disease organisms, and who therefore have no immune defences. Take them into the world, and they die.

There's a hymn for the dead being sung for, and by, this dying woman. Even in this, her loneliness is intact.
Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
       Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
       The Lady of Shalott.
"The Lady of Shalott" by Arthur Hughes

Pretty self-explanatory. She is finally being joined by other people. She simply cannot do that and live.
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd themselves for fear,
       All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, 'She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,
       The Lady of Shalott.'
"Elegy for Darkness--The Lady of Shalott," by Donato Giancola

Just like a man! A pretty useless comment from Lancelot, though I am sure it was well meant. He has no idea that he is the cause of her death. On the other hand, it does emphasize that he is a noble and worthy man. It also poses a question: by liberating her from her limited life, has God already granted her grace? Is her short voyage downstream to a destination of her choice the high point of her life?

Why was everyone afraid? Although knights know all about death, there's something strange about the circumstances of this one. They sense a mystery. Is it the mystery of her fate? Is it the strangely intimate relationship between Death and the Maiden? (Either the presence of death in the midst of life, or a suspicion that death and womanhood share a common nature: passive and dangerous to right-thinking males, but unavoidable). To put it another way, is it simply that the female must be forever a mystery to the male? (You will find that thought in Freudian and Jungian analysis, and a lot of religions).

You Can Do It

A student might say "How can I analyze a poem or story like this? I don't know what things symbolize." There are a couple of answers to that. First, a book of symbolism, like The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann, translated by James Hulbert, is a cheap investment. Second, if you read literary criticism, you will pick up on what symbols literary critics talk about. You will eventually know all you need.

It will also help you if you feel free to be free-ranging and even disrespectful about the work you are reading, just as I was. (You may have suspected that I am not a big fan of this poem because it lays on symbolism with a very full trowel). The tone can be corrected to a more impartial one in your essay. The notes, however, are for your eyes and your convenience; they can be as irreverent as you like, as long as they are accurate, detailed, and many. The process of close reading is similar to brainstorming in that your goal is to put down as many questions and insights as you can, not just a few "good" ones.

My last advice is to use whatever associations you have with events and objects in the poem. My comments are based on my knowledge; yours will be based on yours.

The humorous book 1066 and All That has a question in one of its "Chapter Tests" that was something like "Discuss X with special reference to anything you happen to know." That is less of a joke than it seems. In fact, it's all that we ever do.


My purpose is to teach the skill of close reading, not to provide information on a particular poem. There are two exercises that can strengthen the skill:
  1. Choose another poem of about the same length as "The Lady of Shalott" and do your own close reading of it.
  2. Select one topic out of all the ones in your close reading and write an essay on that topic. For example, I could write an essay on the symbolism of the four Greek elements in the poem, or the balancing of male and female symbols, or the plant symbols in "The Lady of Shalott." Writing about all of them would be too much for an essay.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Music from Space

I have just finished posting one music video, and here I am posting two more. Forgive me; compared to any other music videos, these are just out of this world.

The first is Colonel Catherine (Cady) Coleman, on the International Space Station, playing a duet with Ian Anderson, on Earth. They are playing a rendition of Bach's "Bouree," which Anderson had made a hit while he was with the group Jethro Tull.

That makes an interesting complement to this Star Trek scene from the episode "The Inner Light" (1992).

The second video I've only just seen. Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield sings a cover version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" while up in space.

Background information on this performance is on Ars Technica.

To go with that performance, have a look at Andrew Kolb's take on the song. (The pdf is here). His illustrations turn Bowie's lyrics into a sad and moving children's book.

Tim Minchin on a Busman's Holiday

Tim Minchin is an extremely talented guy. He mixes musical talent with comedic talent with a talent for perceiving and calling out BS wherever it is found. I've previously linked to the animation that was done for his song "Storm." (See the update below on that). Anyway, I now want to link to his version of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah." Here it is:

The poster's comment on this video is
This is from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005 at the Wine Bar in the Gilded Balloon on the final night of the fringe.
I take this to mean that after performing on stage, Tim Minchin and Geraldine Quinn retire to a wine bar, get themselves a few beers, and keep on singing. Thus my reference to a "busman's holiday."

Update 31 Oct 2013

Oops. I said that I had linked to Minchin's video "Storm," but, if I did, I can't find it. Here goes. As with just about everything Minchin does, there's some bad language in this one. Unlike in others of his works, it gets saved up for the height of the "storm."

I really enjoy both the music and the message in this one.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Art You Like, from People You May Not

Last night, a student of mine (hello, Chris!) was writing on a short story, "War," by Luigi Pirandello. It tells of people sharing a compartment in a train. It is a time of war, so people are naturally concerned about the fates of their sons who are entering battle. One man, whose son had already died, tells them, in effect, that it is sweet and proper to die in war. He is asked, "Did your son really die?" Then he bursts into tears.

I invite you to read the story. It is powerful. It shows how war destroys lives far from the battlefields, even in peaceful train compartments.

I then looked up information about Pirandello. I discovered, first, that he'd written "Six Characters in Search of an Author," of which I've heard, and had received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Then I discovered that he was an early supporter of the Fascist Party. According to a very good article I read but can't find again, Pirandello was attracted to Fascism precisely by its antidemocratic, authoritarian, and imperial nature. In fact, he handed over his Nobel Prize to be melted down so that the gold could go to support Italy's conquest of Ethiopia.

Does this change what the story is saying? If we look at only the words on paper, the theme seems clearly to say that calling death in war "sweet and proper" is, as Wilfred Owen puts it, "The Old Lie." However, Fascists thought of war as good and necessary. That included Pirandello, judging by his support of the Ethiopian campaign. So, then, does that mean it is sweet and proper to lose your children? The author's known beliefs lead to that conclusion, but the words in the story do not.

This is an old conundrum that is raised again and again: Can bad people create good art? If we condemn or avoid Pirandello's writings because of his fascism, do we do the same with Ezra Pound's poetry for the same reason? If I do, then the only one to suffer will be me.

The conundrum is more pressing when the artist is alive, which brings me to Orson Scott Card. In 1985 he published a superb book called Ender's Game. It presents a brilliantly science-fictional twist on the truism that old men send young men to die: What if the young people we drafted, used, and used up were literally children? The book is great art, and its first two sequels--Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide--are as good. (The next installment in Ender's story, Children of the Mind, failed to match them, in my opinion, or even come close).

By the way, I just discovered that Ender's Game is coming out as a film.

What I didn't know about the author, and the books gave no clue to it, is that he is prejudiced against gays, to the point that he once called for revolution rather than let them marry. In that same article he said that recognition of gay marriage by the courts would be the "end of democracy." Nor does he confine extreme opinions to paper: he feistily foists them in interviews, causing no small distress in the process. They also leak noticeably into some of his art to its detriment.

The question of how to react to a good artist who supports bad policies must be answered in some way. DC Comics chose one way when it hired Card to be one of the writers for Superman comics. The illustrator for those comics chose another when he resigned in protest. I cannot bring myself to boycott Card's best writing to protest his worst. I do not follow his work avidly, but I will pick up his new works from time to time, and I will not scruple to re-read Ender's Game.

Perhaps, in the end, certain books are wiser than their authors.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Poor Polar Purchase Process

One of the federal government's big-ticket purchases is a set of icebreakers, called Arctic Patrol Ships, which will be built in Nova Scotia by Irving Shipbuilding. Another is a larger icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, which will eventually get built here in North Vancouver by Vancouver Shipyards. The other items in the shopping list include fighter jets, warships, replenishment oilers, military helicopters, and search-and-rescue aircraft. Shall we see how those are going?

First, the eight ships (or fewer, if the price per ship is too high) in the Arctic Patrol Ship Project. As a first step, Canada did its research on suitable ships and then purchased the plans for the most suitable, the Norwegian Svalbard class for the price of $5 million. So far, so good. Since we pretty much want a Svalbard, let's build it, right? Well, no. Ottawa will pay Irving Shipyard $288 million just to alter the design.

The Norwegians designed and built the Svalbard for less than $100 million. We have the plans in hand, so building should be cheaper. Instead, we are putting almost three times as much as the Norwegians paid for a ship just to alter a set of already usable plans. If that were not enough, Irving is getting paid over ten times as much as it should be for the design work it is doing, according to other shipyards. No explanation from the government has been forthcoming.

(Update: The government has started its defence. Have a look at Chris Alexander--Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence--here to see if it's sufficient. My favourite part was his tarring of a critical shipbuilder as "a failed NDP candidate" and of the reporter who broke the story as "the old Trotskyite, Terry Milewsky." Oh-ho, I know who won't be sitting by him at the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner. Milewsky stands by his story and chuckled at the jaw-dropping reference to Trotsky. The Defence Minister himself, Peter Mackay, eventually stated that a third of the money is to order ship parts that take a while to be delivered and the rest is because we pay "a premium" to build ships in Canada). 

(Update: Irving Shipbuilding's own defence is two-pronged. First, that "definition" work is different from the engineering that is done to create blueprints. As a former draftsman, I don't quite understand the distinction. The other is that the Canadian ship will be considerably larger than the Norwegian ship, which is fair enough and takes us part-way to an acceptance of what's going on).

(Update: Chris Alexander's statement in parliament that the CBC was given the cost breakdown for the Arctic Patrol Ships money is false, though the CBC is still trying to get the details as of today, 9 May 2013). 

The selection of the F35 fighter plane has been covered on this blog before (here, here, and here). The first problem with it was that the military and the government decided which plane to purchase without properly considering the options. The result is that we were going to buy a plane with an escalating price, high operating and maintenance cost, and technological problems still to work through. The second problem is that the government originally lied about it. We'll see what happens now that the selection has been handed to a different ministry (Public Works) and is starting from scratch.

The warships mentioned above are the Single Class Surface Combatant, which will replace Canada's destroyers and frigates. As no design has been settled on, there is little room for a scandal so far. However, the Iroquois class destroyers were supposed to be retired in 2010, at the very ripe age of 40, but will have their service life extended until whenever the replacement comes.

The replenishment oiler purchase is going to cost about twice what it should, and provide less capable ships, because the Conservative government cancelled existing plans upon coming into office and restarted the process. A years-long timeline of the procurement process is here.

(Update: another problem exists. The CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, a heavy icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard, is intended to be built at the same time as the replenishment ships in a shipyard that can only take one such project at a time. The scheduling conflict, as the linked site says, means that the government must "decide whether resupplying Canada’s navy or Arctic sovereignty is more important...").

The replacement of the fifty-year-old Sea King military helicopters is, according to the Minister of Defence himself, "the worst procurement process in the history of Canada." A replacement was selected back when Mulroney was in power and was cancelled for political reasons by Jean Chretien. The Sikorsky Cyclone that was selected under Paul Martin's government in 2004 is being designed for the Canadian forces and (as it turns out) will only be used by the Canadian forces. It was supposed to be delivered, ready for use, in 2009, but has been pushed back to later this year. The budget for these helicopters has already doubled.

Search and rescue aircraft "has been listed as a 'top priority' by every Federal government since 2003," though with no results so far. Here is how one story on the process begins.
After more than six years of delays, the federal cabinet is expected give approval this week to open a project office to buy new fixed-wing search and rescue planes, according to senior federal officials.
It is the first step in getting the stalled, nearly decade-old program to replace C-115 Buffalos and older model C-130-H transport aircraft.
The $3.1 billion replacement plan has been mired in controversy and bureaucratic in-fighting almost since it was announced by the Martin government -- obstacles that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has yet to overcome.
 As with the decision to buy the F-35 fighter, the decision was made early on by the Ministry of Defence to buy one particular type of plane. Specifications were rigged so that no plane other than the C-27-J Spartan would be considered.
One of the competitors, the Spanish-made EADS C-295, was shut out because its cruising speed was just 12 knots slower, and its cabin just 15 centimetres shorter, than the Defence Department’s specifications.

At this point, the procurement was taken out of MacKay’s hands. The National Research Council was asked to review the situation and, in 2010, it criticized a number of the Defence Department’s decisions and recommended that the specifications be rewritten.
The planes may arrive in 2017, fifteen years late.

As Auric Goldfinger stated in the James Bond book that bears his name, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action." By this standard, successive Canadian governments have been the enemy of the Canadian Armed Forces and, more generally, the Canadian people. There has been the occasional smart purchase, such as the used Leopard 2 tanks that Canada bought from the Netherlands in 2008. On the whole, however, military procurement of new equipment has been a national embarrassment.


There's a chance that, if the Conservative Party loses the next election, it will be because of its history of poor military procurement and worse damage control efforts (including bluster, untruths, and stonewalling) about the poor military procurement. Chris Alexander's ad hominem attacks just add a bitter flavour to the already unpleasant stew.

Update (26 June 2013): The next twist on the military helicopter procurement is this:
CBC News has learned that Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose has gone outside government and hired a consultant to study Sikorsky's work, and Canada's contract, to determine whether it's even possible for the U.S. helicopter giant to deliver the aircraft Canada ordered.

Update: 12 October 2013

The government has placed the navy's replenishment ships at a higher priority than the Coast Guard's big ice breaker, according to a CBC report. Other interesting points in the article:
  1. The government thought that building the replenishment ships in Canada would cost about 10% more than building them in Canada. Ten percent evidently sounded reasonable. However, I strongly doubt that the figure has any worth. As I have pointed out before, the British are getting four, much larger replenishment ships built for only $712.8 million Canadian. The two, smaller Canadian ships will cost us either $2.6 or $4.1 billion, depending on whether one accepts the government or the Parliamentary Budget Officer's figures. The British are achieving this by giving the work to a South Korean shipyard. If we did the same, or even asked the British to tack two more onto their order for us, could we get our ships for only $360 million? That's a lot bigger difference in price than 10%.
  2. We have a date for the start of construction of the replenishment ships: construction will start "in late 2016 with a target of having them in service by 2019-20, almost two years later than the last estimate contained in last spring's federal budget."
  3. As for the Louis St-Laurent (the Coast Guard ice breaker), it will have to "remain in service until 2021-22, but it will require as much as $55 million in refits and upgrades to keep going over 10 years." Fortunately, the ship is in good shape at the moment. The year in which her replacement will be ready was not included in the article. 
Update 12 October 2013

An October 4 story on the CBC web site says that government officials are meeting with manufacturers of military helicopters to explore alternatives to the Sikorsky Cyclone. Government officials met "executives of AgustaWestland and NH Industries, but also Cyclone manufacturer Sikorsky." They were handed "an abbreviated set of requirements" and given three weeks to say if they could meet the requirements. The copters being looked at are "Royal Navy HM-1 Merlin helicopters built by AgustaWestland," Eurocopter's NH-90, and not only Sikorsky's Cyclone but its other maritime helicopter, the MH-60 Sea Hawk.

Friday, 3 May 2013

More on "I Write Like"

I did one post on "I Write Like," a web site that reveals what writer writes most like you. It's fun. However, it occurred to me that it would be even more fun to post samples of famous writers' work for the site to chew on. Does Hemingway write like Hemingway? Or does Shakespeare write like Hemingway?Here are a few results.

When I put in Hemingway's short story "Hills Like Elephants," I discover that Hemingway writes like Rudyard Kipling. Surprisingly, when I tried "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," I discovered that Rudyard Kipling writes like Rudyard Kipling. Surely that is an anomaly, as it is inconsistent with the other conclusions of this fascinating web service.

Mark Twain writes like Shakespeare, at least in his classic "The War Prayer." In contrast, Shakespeare writes like Shakespeare, based on a sample from "As You Like It."

A bit from Robert E. Howard's "Red Shadows," reveals that he writes like Stephanie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series. On the other hand, Stephanie Meyer, who provided a sample chapter from her novel The Host on her website, writes like Robert Louis Stevenson.

Theodore Sturgeon gave good advice when he said, "Ask the next question," so I immediately took "The Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts" from Stevenson's New Arabian Nights for the site to chew on. Stevenson writes like Anne Rice, apparently. So does Edgar Allan Poe ("The Masque of the Red Death"), whereas Anne Rice herself (Chapter 1 of Taltos) writes like Chuck Palahniuk, the author of The Fight Club.

I think this mad trail should end with that or it might never end at all.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Using the Ubuntu HUD ("Heads-Up Display") to View Web Page Source Code

The user interface in Ubuntu Linux, called "Unity," has four main elements, all of which have caused some controversy.
  1. First, there is the "Launcher," a fairly normal dock on the left hand of the screen. The controversy is because it stays on the left hand of the screen. I can't say that I mind too much. On my monitor, which is fairly wide and not too tall, I wouldn't want it on the bottom, stealing my precious vertical space.
  2. Then there is a global menu, much like that on the Mac, which sits at the top of the screen instead of on top of a window. Since my computing history began with the Apple II, progressed to the IIgs, and then to the very similar Macintosh, this location is actually an improvement on what went before. The problem is that the menubar disappears whenever I move my pointer from it. The benefit is a nice, clean screen; the drawback is that this behaviour will frustrate new users and annoy a good proportion of the experienced ones (including myself). I think the chorus of complaints was loud enough to eventually produce a fix for this.
  3. There is a Dash or Dashboard that lets you find almost anything by beginning to type its name: programs, music, files, and even information from different web sites, if you choose. You pop up the Dash by holding down the "Super" key (the one that is often marked with a Windows symbol). I've used this from time to time to launch a program that isn't in my dock, but I have long-established methods to find everything else.
  4. There is a HUD (Heads-Up Display) that is revealed by quickly tapping the ALT key. If you start typing here, it displays all the menu commands in your current program that contain the term you are typing. I haven't had much use for this, even in theory. I like menus.
Well, as it turns out, I have found a use for the HUD. Once upon a time, you see, web browsers had an easily-reached menu item called "View Source Code" or something to that effect. Typically, it was in the View menu. Now, in Firefox, I find that it  Tools Menu and the Web Developer submenu as Page Source. This is equivalent to putting the plans for a road bypass  in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'

I liked having that menu item in plain site. I could point people at it and explain that this is the difference between an internet that was created by academics for general use and any equivalent that was created by a business. I also used it to learn how to make my own web pages, though blogging software seems to have made this a less vital skill for most people.

 So, I ran Firefox, tapped ALT to bring up the HUD, and typed "Source." The result is as you see below.
 Just pressing "Enter" at this point shows the page source.

The Unity interface has many critics. I am one of them. On the other hand, it doesn't get in my way too much as I work, and if the disappearing menus can be made permanently visible, I will be mostly satisfied. On the other hand, I don't actually use any of the innovations in Unity to any great degree. I've only just started using the Dash and HUD at all, and that in a limited way. Nevertheless, there are times, and this is one, that I am grateful that they exist. 


Update: Just after all those nice things I've said about changes to the UI...I've just discovered that the file manager, Nautilus, has had its statusbar permanently removed. I relied on that to discover how much free space was on a drive. Grrr. I may end up using something other than Nautilus. Something with Miller Columns would be nice.