Tag Archives: criticism

Thoughts on “Don Juan in Hell” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Carlos Schwabe

The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.

Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.

Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.

The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?

A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.

(translation by James Elroy Flecker)

So I read this poem through a couple times, and had no sense on what Baudelaire was expressing. Mainly, because I did not understand all the references within the text. So I systematically went through and looked up all the references, and then the meaning became clear. So before I provide my interpretation of the poem as a whole, let me quickly share what I found regarding all the names mentioned in the text.

Charon was easy enough—the ferryman who brings the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Antisthenes, I discovered, was a pupil of Socrates and was known for being very ethical and “advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.” (Source) Sganarelle is a one-act play by Moliere, also coined “The Imaginary Cuckold.” “The story deals with the consequences of jealously and hasty assumptions in a farcical series of quarrels and misunderstandings involving Sganarelle (the imagined cuckold of the title), his wife, and the young lovers, Célie and Lélie.” (Source) Don Luis had a bet with Don Juan to see who could “conquer more women and kill more men than the other,” a bet which Don Juan won. (Source) And finally, Elvira is a reference to Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera. (Source)

So, now that all the references are cleared up, we can look at the poem as a whole.

Don Juan is the antithesis of Antisthenes. He is an unrepentant womanizer and someone ruled by his baser desires. On his journey into Hell, he looks around at the souls of those he destroyed and used, and feels no remorse whatsoever. In fact, one gets the sense that he almost feels a sense of pride in regard to his past exploits.

So how does Baudelaire feel about Don Juan? This is less clear. I suspect that Baudelaire wishes he could be more like Don Juan, trampling through life ruled solely by his passions and not caring about people who he may use and hurt along the way. But my impression is that Baudelaire is not as void of feelings for others as he may appear. While it may make things easier for him to not harbor emotions for others, he does, and even though he is prone to giving in to his desires, he feels remorse, unlike his anti-hero Don Juan.

These are just my thoughts on the poem. If you have other thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

As I am drafting this post on Grossman’s second installment in the trilogy, I am already well into the third and final book. These books are like crack for nerds who are into reading. I suspect that my thoughts on the third book will follow hot on the heels of this post.

This book is another version of the archetypal hero’s journey, but not at all hackneyed. It is full of current references to popular culture and it reads very well. Reading a page in this book is like eating one Dorito chip. You read it, and the next thing you know, a quarter of the book is gone.

“You wish to be a hero, but you do not know what a hero is. You think a hero is one who wins. But a hero must be prepared to lose, Quentin. Are you? Are you prepared to lose everything?”

(p. 179)

This quote really had a visceral effect on me. When I think back on the literature I’ve read regarding the hero myths, every hero loses something, and most of them lose a part of themselves. You cannot head out on a quest and expect to return the same person you were at the onset. Every hero must sacrifice in order to attain their goal. And even those who choose not to make the sacrifice after stepping on the path, they have still lost something, and likely that something is a more painful loss that that sacrifice which was asked for.

The hero’s quest is symbolic for a deep, often spiritual, transformation. And all transformations require the sloughing of the outer shell of the self to reveal the deeper aspects of the individual.

At one point in the book, Quentin discusses his quest with Ember, a god of the realm of Fillory. While it is a common trope in the hero myth for the hero to seek guidance from a divine being, what is interesting about this interaction is that the god Ember provides insight into the role of an individual on a quest, and how the quest ultimately transforms that person.

“I do not think you understand, my child. There are things a man must do, that a god may not. He who completes a quest does not merely find something. He becomes something.”

Quentin stopped, blowing, hands on hips. The horizon to the east was a solid band of orange now. The stars were going out.

“What’s that? What does he become?”

“A hero, Quentin.”

(p. 251)

Reading into what is implied here, the god is letting Quentin know that by pursuing the quest, something which he must do, that he will suffer a great loss. It is inevitable. No transformation can be complete unless the individual lets go of something important, whether by choice or by circumstance.

I’m intentionally keeping this post short, so as not to include any spoilers. I definitely recommend this book, and the entire trilogy.

Click here to read my review of the first book in the series: The Magicians.

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Thoughts on “There There” by Tommy Orange

This was the latest selection for the book club to which I belong. It’s a novel written by a Native American author that explores what it is like to be a Native American living in an urban environment. The book is set in Oakland, and follows the paths of multiple characters leading up to a big pow wow.

For me, the strength of this book is in the way Orange uses different voices and narrative styles for each of the characters’ stories. He does manage to give each one a unique voice, which is tough to pull off well, especially with the number of threads and stories that are woven together into the larger tale.

The structure of this book reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino film. There are all these story lines that wind together, bringing the characters together in unexpected ways. Maybe a better analogy would be that the story resembles a Native American dream catcher, with all the stories knotted together; and yet somehow the nightmare is not caught, but slips through, a symbol of how the American Dream just doesn’t exist for so many people of indigenous cultures.

While the title of the book seems conciliatory, it is actually a reference to a Gertrude Stein quote, about how the lives and places we knew from our pasts are no longer there.

“Do you know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says.

Dene shakes his head no but actually he knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.

“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of a whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.

(pp. 38 – 39)

I think of the various times and places of my past, and those are just snapshots in time. They no longer exist. On a recent trip back to a city where I had lived for over 20 years, it was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered. There were shadows of what once was, almost like a distant echo that sparks a nostalgic memory, but the place itself is gone, changed beyond recognition. I can only imagine that this feeling must be magnified 100 fold for Native Americans, who were displaced and stripped of their homes.

The book is unsettling, and might be disturbing for some readers. But it is worth reading. We should not avoid reading about topics because they make us uncomfortable.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 49” by Lao Tzu

The Sage has no interests of his own,
But takes the interests of the people as his own.
He is kind to the kind;
He is also kind to the unkind:
For Virtue is kind.
He is faithful to the faithful;
He is also faithful to the unfaithful:
For Virtue is faithful.

In the midst of the world, the Sage is shy and self-effacing.
For the sake of the world he keeps his heart in its nebulous state.
All the people strain their ears and eyes:
The Sage only smiles like an amused infant.

In this passage, Lao Tzu appears to be offering guidance to rulers and leaders. In the first two lines, the emphasis is on placing the interests of the populace above those of the ruling self. The rest of the first stanza expresses the “love thy enemy” mindset. It is easy to be kind to those who are kind toward you; but the ability to be kind to those who are unkind is a sign of deep spirituality.

The second stanza almost seems like it should be a stand-alone passage. For me, this stanza is expressing the importance of remaining childlike, of nurturing that sense of wonder when interacting with the world around you. It is so easy to get caught up in the stress, and the hustle and bustle of daily life. But when we allow this to happen, our happiness and our connection with the divine is diminished. It is only when we open ourselves to the childlike fascination that is buried within that we again experience the unbridled joy and deep connection that we felt when we were young.

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Have a blessed day!

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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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Stranger Things: Issues 1 – 4

Like most nerds, I love the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” So it should come as no surprise that I was excited when Dark Horse Comics released a four-issue arc based on the show. I decided, rather than reading them as they were released, I would wait until I had them all, then read them in a single sitting, which I did. So this post covers all four installments.

The arc basically explored in a little more depth what happened to Will Byers when he was trapped in the upside down, which for those who have not seen the show is a parallel dimension populated by some not-so-friendly creatures. The tale definitely assumes that the reader is familiar with the Netflix series, so if you have not watched it, don’t bother with this. You’ll be totally confused.

Anyway, I figured I would share a choice quote from each of the issues.

Issue 1

The first truth he learned about adventuring still stands. The party that fights together survives together. Splitting the party can have disastrous consequences. After all, on their own, an adventurer is the easiest of prey.

I see this as a quote in support of collaboration. Will is regularly engaged in role-playing games with his friends, and it creates a bond between them. They all know that they are stronger together. And as Will finds himself isolated, the importance of friendship and cooperation becomes all the more evident.

Issue 2

Having the means to speak isn’t the same as having the right words.

How true. I have often encountered people who, to quote Shakespeare, speak an infinite amount of nothing. Finding the right words to convey things is both a skill and an art. The difference that one wrong or one right word can make in a situation can be tremendous. As such, we should all weigh our words carefully.

Issue 3

What was buried in the graves of this unholy place, he didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. But cemeteries do more than just house the dead. They offer solace to the living.

I confess that I love cemeteries. Especially old ones, where the names of the buried are weathered beyond legibility. There is something tranquil about these places. And also, cemeteries serve to remind me that like all who came before me, I too will become dust. This does not make me sad or anxious. In fact, it strangely comforts me. It makes me realize how unimportant so much of our life is, and how precious are the finer, more subtle points.

Issue 4

Will is aware of time passing as he moves through the woods. Of things changing. How much of either, though, he can’t say. There is less and less he’s sure of here in the dark. All he knows is that this strange world is growing even stranger.

Ah yes. I look around, scan the news headlines, and I am forced to admit that these are strange days, indeed. And just when you think it can’t get any weirder, it does. But I’m OK with that. Strange times are interesting times. I don’t think I would be happy living in a sterile, unchanging world. Change is good. I embrace it.

That’s all I have to share. Thanks for stopping by, and have an amazing day.

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“Sonnet 36: Let me confess that we two must be twain” by William Shakespeare

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

The essence of this poem is expressed in the first three words: Let me confess. The speaker is confessing that he has done something wrong, the result of which is the separation of the two lovers. This sentiment is echoed in line 10, where he mentions guilt and shame.

As this is another of the fair youth sonnets, where Shakespeare is expressing his love toward a young man, I am curious as to what it was that the speaker did which would have caused such a public disgrace that the two could no longer be seen together. I cannot find any hints in the text as to what might have happened. But the emotion is clear. There is regret on the part of the speaker for his part in the separation, a feeling that too many of us have experienced in our past failed relationships.

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