Thursday, February 26, 2015

Poetics of Passing Youth

Poetics of Passing Youth

As a boy I marveled, walking slowly between the musty shelves in the army surplus store. Here was a connection to pre-World War II history, such as leather bandoliers and webbing straps from India’s Northwest frontier, the colonies and the Canadian militia. Lots of cool stuff. But to buy anything, being a poor boy, was out of the question. Today, being a boring old grownup, I don’t buy any cool army surplus because I just can’t justify the expense. Similarly, while I enjoy looking at other men’s nice new rifles I won’t buy any of my own.

It’s the story of my life: As a boy, I couldn’t afford comic books because they cost as much as a bottle of soda pop—which I couldn’t afford. Not unless I first collected six empty bottles. Now pop is affordable—but not worth buying. Now I finally have a wallet, but—argh! Today one comic book costs several pops. Rats! Finally an adult, but still no comics… Except for the really good ones. But I’m still frustrated because, let me tell you, in my day there wasn’t so much advertising: Two-page panel spreads that you could really get “into” were normal back then, not the exception.

I guess my life is universal. In his film review of Moulin Rouge, (Starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor) Roger Ebert speaks of getting a cheap flight to Paris: “Like almost any American college boy…I went to the Moulin Rouge on my first night in town.” His ticket allowed him to stand at the very back, far away, past thick cigarette smoke. “The tragedy of the Moulin Rouge is that by the time you can afford a better seat, you’re too old to enjoy the show.” Ah, youth.

All I can say is: Good thing I have a sense of humor.

Youth, of course, in every time and space, means: something precious inside, something with a short half-life. The poet A.E. Housman understood.

“When First My Way to Fair I Took…”
by A. E. Housman
When first my way to fair I took
            Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
            At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered; if I care
            To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here’s the fair,
            But where’s the lost young man?

—To think that two and two are four
            And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
            And long ’tis like to be.

Sean Crawford

Footnote: Copying my brothers I eventually had a paper route, but I didn’t buy comics as they did: Besides a weekly history magazine costing a dollar, I forget what I bought… probably I just saved my money.
~The man they claim is President Obama’s mentor, community organizer Saul Alinsky, wrote in Rules For Radicals, shortly before he died, that he was still true to his youth because he was still trying for a better world, still caring. On another occasion, Alinsky wrote that young people expect to like, and be liked, by people they meet. Me too. (I feel sorry for grownups with mechanical hearts and eyes like fish)

The opposite of Alinsky-style caring would be the cranky old bachelor—every neighborhood has one—who appears to be “social-skill challenged,” being devoid of small talk. His problem is he needs to “give a care” before he can do small talk: A problem shared by Sheldon, that self-centered physicist on TV, on Big Bang Theory.

I think of writer-director Joss Whedon saying: “Loneliness leads to nothing good, only detachment.” I guess if you’re detached then you won’t be bonding with people…, which could explain a crank not doing small talk. I suppose, for nerds, understanding the value and purpose of small talk is a developmental leap in communication skills. It was for me.    

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Poetics of Communism and the Beautiful Art of War

China is on my mind, being twice in the media this week. I will review The Art of War, but first:

On China and communism
We think of students as being idealistic “peace and love” types. At Harvard University’s model United Nations this week the students from China were less peaceful, more hateful. They really didn’t like Taiwan being called a country. Their belief the Republic of Taiwan “belongs” to China is, of course, part of the cradle-to-grave communist propaganda they are so used to.

We forget how powerful the messages are in a controlled environment, and the students forget too. For example, my buddy Blair once had a Chinese student tell him that followers of Falun Gong kill their parents. Blair paused for thought, and then pointed out that Canada is keen on not allowing violators of human rights, such as parent killers, into the country as refugees. But Falun Gong are allowed in, right? Right. “Your government,” Blair said, “has been lying to you!” Blair told me, "This really stopped him in his tracks."

As for Taiwan, I have a Canadian view. A baby boy can come here from Germany or Japan and when he grows up he will love Canada and then, if he becomes an adult during World War II, he will go off to fight against those countries. Regarding South Africa, back during my boyhood, we might say that “guest workers” are not citizens, and we would surely say that any of their children born in South Africa must given full rights and responsibilities to vote and love their country.

In Taiwan the young soldiers and hopeful young adults who had escaped the mainland would today be as old as my father, in their nineties. Their children, and their children’s children, would have grown up loving the green hills of Taiwan, without any belief in communism. Taiwan students may, like me, own the Quotations of Chairman Mao, but they will also be free and safe to know who Sun Yat-Sen was, safe to meet and talk with Falun Gong—as I have, outside the British Museum, as they handed out information brochures not just about their sunny religion, but also about dark oppression from the Chinese Communist Party, the regime, Beijing—call it what you will.

The other mention of China this week is in Maclean’s magazine (February 16, p 74) where book reviewer notes a man “offers a rather frightful look into the mindset of China’s rulers.” The book is The Hundred Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury. “His book would appear to be his attempt to make up for the neglectful advice he offered America’s leaders over the years. It concludes with a number of straightforward recommendations for the U.S. to adopt.”

When I read Pillsbury’s quote, “Don’t let the enemy know you’re a rival until it’s too late for him to stop you,” I immediately thought of similar advice in The Art of War.

Beauty and The Art of War
"... This is the world in which Steve Jobs came of age. It was, not coincidentally, a world in which it became easy to believe that the United States was in decline. Our churches looked like recreation centers, and our rec centers looked like re-education camps. Our campuses and civic spaces were defaced by ziggurats of cement. Our cities had crime-ridden towers and white elephant shopping centers where the neighborhoods used to be. Our suburbs were filled with what James Howard Kunstler described as the “junk architecture” of strip malls and ranch houses.
Then, gradually and haltingly, beauty began to make a comeback...."
From Up From Ugliness, a New York Times op-ed by Ross Douthat October 8 2011, on-line.

I’m feeling contemplative.

Here before me is a thing of beauty. Here is traditional Chinese bookbinding, a method developed during the Ming dynasty. (1338-1644) Scarlet ribbons are stitched across the spine, the thick pages folded in half with the printing on the outside only, pages with both pretty calligraphy and print. The cover is black with gold lettering; yet not as stark as that sounds, for there is also a red plaque, with gold calligraphy, pasted into an indentation.

The piece, from Amber Books, is The Art of War by Sun Zu. I’ve long owned a paperback copy, in English. This new translation, 2011, is by James Trapp. Does the world need yet another translation of this 2,500 year old text? Actually, yes. I’ll explain below. For now, I’m just contemplating this piece, dipping into it, and thanking another James, one James Clavell.

Clavell is best known to the TV watching public for the mini series Shogun, of old Japan, featuring the actor from the weekly TV series Doctor Kildare, Richard Chamberlain. A huge tome, Shogun is about as thick as a paperback can ever be, a best seller, a book that would especially appeal to fans of science fiction or history, with its intricate fantastical depictions of a lone Englishman cast ashore, a stranger in a strange land. Castles, ninjas, even bathhouses—it’s all good.

I remember, in the 1970’s, lending the book to two brothers still living on our old homestead. When I returned I found my book battered and wilted, like it had been through a whirlwind. “What the heck happened?” I asked. “We both read it, twice.”

A western army officer must be confounded, at first, when he learns that fierce samurai also believe in the beauty of graceful caligraphy, tea ceremonies, haiku and other arts. It was a samurai, in fact, who invented the "way of the tea ceremony." But then the officer may reflect that not everyone believes warriors need the "strength" of being single-minded or crude. After all, the citizen-soldiers of ancient Greece thought a well rounded life was important to the strength of a republic. Their Olympic Games always included an arts festival. (As did the Olympics in my home town, although the world never knew: The festival was not televised)  Beauty matters.

I never did return to Shogun, but I read Clavel’s Tai Pan (colonizing Hong Kong) and King Rat (prisoners of the Japanese) twice each. And I also read twice, once as a little book and once as a Reader’s Digest article, James Clavel’s grim and controversial The Children’s Story, set in the USA. They called Clavel a communist for that one. I dimly recall the Digest people having to defend themselves in the next issue, saying how the story of poor Johnny, who’s father had been taken away for re-education, was only to dramatize how easily children can be led, and not for any other purpose. This would have been during the Kennedy or Johnson years. (Wikipedia mistakenly says 1981)

For me, it’s nice to contemplate the beauty of Clavell not being a “sellout” to mammon. Besides his best sellers, he also took time to write independently, to do what he thought was right.

As I see it, Clavel wanted to help inform his fellow citizens, realizing that many citizens know about only their own town and family, and some don’t care to know much more. For example, today I wonder how many Americans, even Muslim Americans, care that schools, “madrasses,” exported by the Saudis, are teaching children that having hatred is normal and commonplace, that hatred is a Good Thing.

I suppose that individuals, or nations, who believe in hatred have trouble believing in beauty: They don't know what strength they are missing out on.

It occurs to me that some people may find it easier than others to lift up their eyes beyond their immediate family. I suppose world travelers like Clavel find it easier to have a bird’s eye view of citizenship. Clavel realized something: The average educated Chinese housewife knew The Art of War as well as she and her American counterpart both knew a work of English literature, but the American housewife, at the same time, had never heard of The Art of War, and she didn’t have any of its classic concepts as part of her vocabulary. Over here, no one did.

In the west, as best I can judge by the before-and-after World War II writings of Captain Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, even army officers did not read the book. Not even when the French were in "Indochina" and when later the Americans were in "Vietnam"—Ouch! What Europeans did read, unfortunately, was a famous book, On War, by Karl Von Clausewitz, a Prussian staff officer who encouraged “blood.” Westerners, when I was young, would have thought you were crazy if you quoted Sun Zu and tried to say the highest form of generalship is to get the opposing army to surrender without any bloodshed. It’s queer to contemplate how certain armies—I’m thinking of the US civil war and WWI—might have avoided so many sorry casualties if only the wives and husbands on the home front had chosen an “anaconda plan” of naval blockade and sanctions.

But about the only translation, in the west, was by a Jesuit priest long ago. And so matters remained, back when I was a boy.

Then something happened. Today there is a mainstream movie, starring Wesley Snipes, called The Art of War, and the business section of a bookstore stocks Sun Zu’s classic as surely as it stocks books about samurai businessmen (‘swords’ and ‘rings’)… such books as would never have sold during my childhood, by the way. Over in the social studies area of the local big box store, last April, while I don’t remember if I specifically counted the actual number of translators, I know I counted eleven different editions of the work. Well! The western world has sure heard of it now!

What happened was classic: One man made a difference. Someday I will read again James Clavell’s forward to the first modern Art of War. I would have read it during college around 1981ish. (Wikipedia has the date wrong) What was Clavell to do? Well, he began having various characters, in his various best selling “Asian novels,” mention Sun Zu's book. Meanwhile he worked on a translation. And he wrote a forward. Then he had to persuade an otherwise sane editor that a book ostensibly about warfare, about long dead guys with bows and armor, would sell enough copies to break even. The rest is history. The irony, to me, is that not one of those eleven editions I found that April night was the first one with the introduction by James Clavell. Poor Prometheus!

I said “ostensibly.” What makes Sun Tzu’s (Sunzi’s) work suitable for the business section, and other parts of the bookstore too, is, as James Trapp puts it: “…the elegance of the prose and the underlying Daoist principles.”

And James Trapp has made an elegant translation, a much more humane one than the old standard translation on my shelf. Yes, plainly there is room in the world for a translation as clear and lyrical as this one.

I think I would like Trapp, with his interesting academic past, a past that must have fed his soul, not just his bank account. Like Sun Zu, he had an appreciation for beauty. His specialties included Bronze Age art and early Buddhist sculpture. Today he works part-time at the British Museum, and also as a consultant to the UK school system for integrating China studies.

Dipping into the piece before me, I like Trapp’s choice of footnotes, useful yet concise. In a footnote to page one of the final chapter, Using Spies, Trapp writes, “Sunzi’s understanding of the necessity of an effective intelligence network, its efficient organization and the various levels of expendability of its agents is chillingly calculating…and modern.”

James Trapp’s introduction ends, “In the eyes of Sunzi a general is no mere jobbing soldier: he is a scholar, gentleman and philosopher. The depth of meaning which this element of mysticism imparts is undoubtedly responsible for the work’s continuing and universal appeal.”

I am reminded of the engineers working with Steve Jobs, who said, "...some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side."

Now I contemplate citizenship; I cherish the responsible competence of James and James, and of course Sun Tzu… And I truly appreciate the beauty of the volume before me.

A pretty poem
The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck (a household name in her day) takes place on the coast of Japan. (Art) In one scene, the children visit an elderly gentleman. He is very pleased to have just written a haiku-sized poem about Christians. Here is his poem, according to my childhood memory:

The children of God
 are very dear,
but very queer.
Very straight,
but very narrow.

Sean Crawford
August 2013.45
February 2015.18 

~I just remembered: My favourite computer nerd millionaire and essayist, Paul Graham, has an art degree. Here is a painting at his contents page.

Update--Warning-The Amazon.UK reviews are for an un-new, un-improved translation, not for Trapp's. So as of August 3, 2013 I have phoned long distance to Britain and they are looking into it, expecting to get back to me in five business days.

Update II: As of August 9, someone commented that Amazon fixed the problem after he wrote in. How nice that I am not the only one who noticed. Too bad he and I didn't notice earlier—I wonder how many sales poor Trapp missed out on.

Update III: As of September, despite their promise, Amazon has never e-mailed me.

~The Steve Jobs quote at the end of this essay is on page 568 of the hardcover book by Walter Isaacson.

~Changing Sun Zu to Sunzi, (or Mao Tse Tung to Mao Zedong) is because the Chinese have switched to Pinyin (closer phonetically) spelling. I still write the old way, myself.

~Tonight I was watching the Japanese anime series Ghost in the Shell, (2nd Gig) using the English subtitles. (It's also voice dubbed) In one episode the pretty major shows up at a den of three wealthy old bad guys amongst luxurious furniture. Three angry young hoodlums are there too. An old man asks the major, “Are you the same race as Roh?” 

“Can’t you tell?” Meaning: Yes, the major has a "full prosthetic" body. How formidable. The major backs away with her prize (a young boy) and the hoodlums want to chase after her. The old man forbids it, and quotes Sun Zu: When you know yourself and you know your enemy (voice over as the major flees into a taxi) you can fight a hundred battles without defeat. The implication being: The hoodlums can’t know how effective the major’s prosthetics are.

~I can’t resist saying: Did you ever see the beautiful  art movie, with Peter Falk, about invisible angels on the roofs of Berlin? In the very next episode of Ghost, Batou is in Berlin, on stakeout on the roofs, (and so is the major) using his "optical camouflage," meaning he turns invisible like an angel. Batou is shocked when a girl in a wheelchair can see him. In homage, the episode was given the movie’s title, Wings of Desire. I thought the whole episode, with recurring angels, was well done. The Americans once made a mainstream-style remake of the art movie, starring Nicolas Cage.

~Here's the TV opening song from the the earlier Ghost series. I won't explain all the symbolism except: The doll breaks because the major got her new body as a girl, after losing her family, and couldn't control her strength yet. She is sleeping alone, no family, in a coffin room, which is what some singles use in today's crowded Tokyo. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Poetics of Face Lines

President Abraham Lincoln had a tiresome horde of strangers flocking to the White House seeking a job. Of course he had to reject nearly all of them, as there were few openings. Once, when someone asked Lincoln why he had rejected a certain man, Honest Abe replied, “Because I didn’t like his face.”
“But a man can’t help his face!”
Not so. Lincoln explained that we are all responsible for our faces by middle age.

The story has stuck in my mind. As a writer, I try to know something about faces, as an actor does. I agree with Lincoln: My belief is that while the very old and very young may look alike, the folks in between have a muscle memory of many years that comes to shape their faces, or at least their expressions. Some folks frown easily; some smile at the drop of a hat. Some have some stiffness around their eyes, like the worldly characters and near-criminals in a Doonesbury cartoon, with their stiffness indicated by black shading. I suppose folks growing up in an abusive Mafia family would have only a few basic expressions ingrained.

Can a  “drop of a hat” easy expression be changed? I have never tried, but I would think so. I remember a man from Arrette Comedy Troupe telling me he got really burning cheeks as he became able to droop his mustache. He looked so funny. I remember a dancer from Up With People answering me that it had only taken one season to be able to raise her leg to shoulder height as she danced. I liked how she had dedication to her dance craft. The best always do.

As a writer, I know that for our craft of using words, the best of us can rattle off grammar terms and the titles of books to learn from—books they have read. For actors, where their body is their instrument, the best can touch their toes and control their faces. I remember being taken out of a movie when Jodie Foster, in two seconds, rapidly put her facial muscles through a range that her character wouldn’t have—but I don’t think anybody else noticed. This was for a splendid scene in Elysium where she is being triumphant and pleased and forceful and predatory.

I wouldn’t want anyone to be over-conscious of her face, but I think it’s good to have some awareness. As Dale Carnegie might say, when his wife mentioned wanting a fur coat, “The expression on a woman’s face shines brighter than the clothes on her back.” And then immediately buy her the coat!

You may have already guessed what this week’s poem is:

It took the sea a thousand years,
A thousand years to trace
The granite features of this cliff
In crag and scarp and base.

It took the sea an hour one night,
An hour of storm to place
The sculpture of these granite seams
Upon a woman’s face.

Sean Crawford

~For the past month my most popular post by hit count, to my surprise, is Fears of Elysium, an essay built around the Matt Damon and Jody Foster movie. (Archived June 2013) No one has commented about why they like it. Blogger and writer Steven Pressfield, upon starting his blog, noted that a post with a thousand hits would get only two or three comments. My Elysium piece, with well under a thousand hits, has no comments, I have no idea why it would be “the post of the month.”

~The dark around the comic strip character’s eyes is not just so they can hide: The stiffness might be more accurately described as due to a dark signal delay—They have to process before they react. See my essay Sarcasm and Lies archived August 2010.