November 29, 2008

Independent People, Halldor Laxness

I knew this was great literature, although I had not remembered that the author had the Nobel in literature; and I have enjoyed some of the epics of the North to which it is compared: it was Hesperion XXI, I think, that accompanied the singing with an actual swans-bone flute. Iceland is in the news, of course; and the book itself was on the `employees recommend' shelf last week.

It is great literature, but you aren't going to get analysis of it from me, because I haven't the time or the skill and anyway better writers than I have done it. One of the cover blurbs is from E. Annie Proulx, who must be as close as the US gets to this degree of dank hyperrealist gloom -- but Proulx writes Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared to this slow starvation and rape and lightless mud. The hero Bjartur of Summerhouses is a freeholding sheep-farmer whose sole determination is to owe nothing to anyone. In trying, he kills most of his family by disease or starvation and loses his farm anyway.

EPIC FAIL: dead sheep

Now, one of the reasons this is great literature is probably that it's also regularly funny, in a bitter way, and has episodes of any of the great emotions, although the kinder ones tend to be tragically misapplied, partly because almost everyone is badly malnourished and not thinking very well. There's some comment by, by, Marx? Shaw? Wells? about rural idiocy, which is much sneered at as classism; but here it looks like a consequence of starvation. Marginal farmland gives back fewer calories than it takes to farm it, and the people doing it wear out. Some wear out sooner than others: Bjartur loses two wives and regularly relies on the labor of female indigents sent by the parish. He's not willing to marry an equal with savings, though. Bjartur has virtue in the very, very old sense, which is sort of grand but painful to hear, like a swans'-bone flute.

P.S. -- The picture of the dead sheep is copyright by John and Susy Pint, from their blog entry Saudicaves in Iceland;

Apparently, even though it found itself inside a long narrow tube, with daylight rapidly fading, it didnít have the smarts to turn around and go back out, preferring to starve to death rather than try something new.

Find in a Library: Independent People

Posted by clew at 10:50 AM

November 11, 2008

The Log School-House on the Colombia, Hezekiah Butterworth

Butterworth actually visited Seattle - talked to Yesler, Denney [sic], and to "Old Angeline" Seattle; and still he shows the local tribes with feathered war-bonnets and tipis. Apparently there was only a little stretch in the mind of an 1890 Bostonian.

All his goal was to show the glory of the mission work that brought the Oregon Territory into the United States; the blurring of religious and economic conversion is pretty dire, especially since we were really fighting with England. I can't even comment on the lackadaisical acceptance that a successful missionary might convert the natives but not mind that obviously they're all going to die because of colonization. The other world is better for me but not for thee, etc. And even then people would say so:

"As a missionary," said the old hunter, "you would teach the Indians truth; as a pioneer, you would bring colonies here to rob them of their lands and rights. I can respect the missionary, but not the pioneer. See the happiness of all these tribal families. Benjamin is right—Mrs. Woods has no business here."

Mrs. Woods defends herself on the grounds that she works, and to my sorrow no-one points out that the Indians work nor suggests that she pioneer on the inherited estate of an East Coaster who doesn't... Consciousness-raising is not enough; the past knew what it was doing, so I suspect knowledge won't do good by itself in the present either.

It was already obvious that the US wanted the Sound as a gateway to trade with the Far East.

The story is clunky, and full of painful dialect from poor Mrs. Woods and a lot of article-free imagery from the 'noble savages'. Strangely, the final violence of the locals is prevented not by Christian prayer, but by a German immigrant girl playing Traumerei on her violin. I know Jacques Barzun, for instance, was greived that high aesthetic culture had not guaranteed high moral culture in Germany; but I'm always a little surprised when I run across the old belief that it would.

I was delighted when I realized that this is a multi-media work. On the left-hand page, '...then the Traumerei lifted its spirit-wings of music on the air'; on the right:

Sheet music for Traumerei

And, since many nineteenth-century readers were fluent in written music as well, they would have heard the strains.

I am indebted to the Project Gutenberg HTML version of the book which not only has the scans of the music in the right place, but will play it as a MIDI file for those of us who aren't sufficiently skilled, and have translated it into Lilypond! I started this blog entry a couple years ago, didn't get the scan right, moved away from the Seattle Public Library that has the book in the stacks, and only just discovered that it's now available online to all.

Find in a Library/OCLC/Worldcat:The Log School-House on the Columbia; or the Project Gutenberg HTML version with dubious illustrations and music and all, The Log School-House on the Columbia.

Posted by clew at 04:41 PM

Magical origins

Galileo's Glassworks: The Telescope and the Mirror lays out the stories about ancient, more-or-less mythical seeing devices that were confused with the development and capabilities of the telescope. The ancient devices were generally curved mirrors, and may have had some historical basis -- on the Pharos of Alexandria, perhaps. Since, in the late 1500s, rediscovering ancient knowledge seemed more admirable or likely than making new discoveries, people writing about new instruments they didn't understand tended to throw in references to the magical ones.

Benjamin Franklin's Numbers is mostly about the enormous, plicate magic squares Franklin developed. Magic squares don't tickle my fancy, but the ones represented by overlapping multicolored circles are quite the thing.

I did enjoy the first chapter, in which Pasles defends Benjamin Franklin from the charge of being mathematically untalented. (I hadn't even realized there was such a charge; is not dear Ben our Founding Nerd?) Franklin was an applied mathematician first, e.g. as a founder of demography. Malthus eventually cited him in An Essay on the Principle of Population. All the estimation of how fast populations would grow, and what to invest in, fit the early American history laid out in A Calculating People, q.v..

In a library:

Galileo's Glassworks, Eileen Adair Reeves

Benjamin Franklin's Numbers, Paul C. Pasles

Posted by clew at 03:48 PM
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