Category Archives: literature
Well, I’ve worried some about, you know, why write books … why are we teaching people to write books when presidents and senators do not read them, and generals do not read them. And it’s been the university experience that taught me that there is a very good reason, that you catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with … humanity, and however you want to poison their minds, it’s presumably to encourage them to make a better world.
–“A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut. Jr.” by Robert Scholes in The Vonnegut Statement (1973) edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer October 1966), later published in Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut (1988), p. 123; courtesy of Wikiquote
Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī. In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).
Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát. This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines). The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar. Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent. The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”. However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason. Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in). Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát. This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.
This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion. There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind. It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.
Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged. I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov. Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references). Certainly, Asimov knew better. The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created. It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us. The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.
The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right. This leads to the topic I want to talk about here: What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy? That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.
If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”. You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”. “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated). Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means. True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence. Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.
What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”. The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, is more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism. Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit. The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language. Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.
Good-Bye My Fancy
Good-bye my Fancy! Farewell dear mate, dear love! I'm going away, I know not where, Or to what fortune, or whether I may ever see you again, So Good-bye my Fancy. Now for my last—let me look back a moment; The slower fainter ticking of the clock is in me, Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping. Long have we lived, joy'd, caress'd together; Delightful!—now separation—Good-bye my Fancy. Yet let me not be too hasty, Long indeed have we lived, slept, filter'd, become really blended into one; Then if we die we die together, (yes, we'll remain one,) If we go anywhere we'll go together to meet what happens, May-be we'll be better off and blither, and learn something, May-be it is yourself now really ushering me to the true songs, (who knows?) May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning—so now finally, Good-bye—and hail! my Fancy.
Unseen buds, infinite, hidden well, Under the snow and ice, under the darkness, in every square or cubic inch, Germinal, exquisite, in delicate lace, microscopic, unborn, Like babes in wombs, latent, folded, compact, sleeping; Billions of billions, and trillions of trillions of them waiting, (On earth and in the sea—the universe—the stars there in the heavens,) Urging slowly, surely forward, forming endless, And waiting ever more, forever more behind.
Grand is the Seen
Grand is the seen, the light, to me—grand are the sky and stars, Grand is the earth, and grand are lasting time and space, And grand their laws, so multiform, puzzling, evolutionary; But grander far the unseen soul of me, comprehending, endowing all those, Lighting the light, the sky and stars, delving the earth, sailing the sea, (What were all those, indeed, without thee, unseen soul? of what amount without thee?) More evolutionary, vast, puzzling, O my soul! More multiform far—more lasting thou than they.
How dare one say it? After the cycles, poems, singers, plays, Vaunted Ionia's, India's—Homer, Shakspere—the long, long times' thick dotted roads, areas, The shining clusters and the Milky Ways of stars—Nature's pulses reap'd, All retrospective passions, heroes, war, love, adoration, All ages' plummets dropt to their utmost depths, All human lives, throats, wishes, brains—all experiences' utterance; After the countless songs, or long or short, all tongues, all lands, Still something not yet told in poesy's voice or print—something lacking, (Who knows? the best yet unexpress'd and lacking.)
L. of G.’s Purport
Not to exclude or demarcate, or pick out evils from their formidable masses (even to expose them,) But add, fuse, complete, extend—and celebrate the immortal and the good. Haughty this song, its words and scope, To span vast realms of space and time, Evolution—the cumulative—growths and generations. Begun in ripen'd youth and steadily pursued, Wandering, peering, dallying with all—war, peace, day and night absorbing, Never even for one brief hour abandoning my task, I end it here in sickness, poverty, and old age. I sing of life, yet mind me well of death: To-day shadowy Death dogs my steps, my seated shape, and has for years— Draws sometimes close to me, as face to face.
More experiences and sights, stranger, than you'd think for; Times again, now mostly just after sunrise or before sunset, Sometimes in spring, oftener in autumn, perfectly clear weather, in plain sight, Camps far or near, the crowded streets of cities and the shopfronts, (Account for it or not—credit or not—it is all true, And my mate there could tell you the like—we have often confab'd about it,) People and scenes, animals, trees, colors and lines, plain as could be, Farms and dooryards of home, paths border'd with box, lilacs in corners, Weddings in churches, thanksgiving dinners, returns of long-absent sons, Glum funerals, the crape-veil'd mother and the daughters, Trials in courts, jury and judge, the accused in the box, Contestants, battles, crowds, bridges, wharves, Now and then mark'd faces of sorrow or joy, (I could pick them out this moment if I saw them again,) Show'd to me—just to the right in the sky-edge, Or plainly there to the left on the hill-tops.