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Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Dervish Who Knew Swedish

I found this story in Sven Hedin's My Life as an Explorer:

In 1863, a Swedish doctor of medicine, named Fagergren, came to live in Shiraz and spent thirty years in the City of Roses and Poets. He lies buried in the Christian churchyard there. One day a dervish pounded on his door. Fagergren opened it, and threw a copper coin to the beggar. The dervish exclaimed scornfully that he had not come to beg, but to convert the infidel to Islam. First give me a proof of your miraculous powers, demanded Fagergren. Yes, replied the dervish, I can speak in any language you may name. Well, then, said Fagergren in his own tongue, speak a little Swedish. The dervish lifted his voice, and in faultless Swedish recited some verses from Tegnér's Frithiof's Saga. Our good doctor was amazed. He could hardly trust his years. Then the dervish, thinking he had tormented the doctor long enough, removed his disguise and revealed himself as Arminius Vámbéry, professor of Oriental languages at the University of Budapest, who later became world-famous.

This book of Hedin, My Life as an Explorer, if you start reading it cannot be left. From Pole to Pole was my constant companion during childhood.

I looked on the web to find information on this doctor Fagergren. I found an article published in NY Times in 1853! Here is a fragment from the article:

Well, it seems that Hedin made a slight error in his book: he said that Dr. Fagergren had come to Shiraz in 1863, while the article in NY Times dates from 1853! So I searched a bit more the web. Here is what Bo Utaz says about Conrad Gustav Fagergren in Encyclopaedia Iranica:

(b. Stockholm, 7 August 1818, d. Shiraz, 10 October 1879), Swedish physician in Shiraz, 1266-96/1848-79. Fagergren was the son of a wood-carver and was first trained as a bath attendant and barber-surgeon. Later he studied medicine in Stockholm and traveled in Europe, eventually enrolling in Russian military service. While with an army corps in Circassia, he was captured but escaped to Istanbul and became captain surgeon in the Turkish army. He proceeded to Persia, arriving in Tehran in 1265/1847. There he attracted the favor of Moḥammad Shah (1250-64/1834-48), but after the shah’s death he fled to Shiraz, where he served as physician and medical officer to the governor.

As for Vámbéry, the fake dervish, he was a remarkable linguist and a great traveler: he was able to reach, under the disguise of a Sunni dervish, Trebizond, Tehran, Tabriz, Zanjan, Kaswin, Ispahan, Shiraz (where he met Fagergren, as we see), Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand, and Herut on his way back to Constantinople. The guy knew about 20 Ottoman dialects! He considered that Turksih and Hungarian have common origin; here's what the article in Wikipedia says:

Furthermore, he enthusiastically advocated the theory of a close Turkish-Hungarian linguistic relationship, provoking a harsh scientific and political debate in Hungary. Vámbéry argued that the similarities between Turkish and Hungarian pointed to a common origin for the two languages in Northern Asia. This theory was opposed by followers of the Finno-Ugric theory of the origins of Hungarian, who gradually triumphed in Hungary but not in Turkey. In Turkey, Hungarian and Turkish are still considered as two branches of the same language family, the Ural-Altaic.

I have just bought his autobiography on the Amazon (The Life and Adventures of Arminius Vambéry: Written by Himself. With an Appreciation by Max Nordau).


As for Frithiofs Saga, the poem of Bishop Tegnér was based on an ancient lore; here's how it starts in Old Norse:

Beli hefir konungr heitit, er réð fyrir Svignafylki. Hann átti tvá sonu ok eina dóttur. Helgi hét sonr hans, en annar Hálfdan. Dóttir hans er Ingibjörg nefnd. Hún var væn ok vitr ok at öllu fremst konungs barn.

If you feel uncomfortable, I found also an English translation:

Thus beginneth the tale, telling how that King Beli ruled over Sogn-land; three children had he, whereof Helgi was his first son, and Halfdan his second, but Ingibiorg his daughter. Ingibiorg was fair of face and wise of mind, and she was ever accounted the foremost of the king's children.

(German and Nordic Literature)


Pissarro at Galerie Lareuse

Camille Pissarro - Gardeuse d'Oie Nue

(Galerie Lareuse)

Marc Chagall - Clown

Marc Chagall - Clown

He 's looking sad, our clown. He lives to give us joy, all his joy, so all that remains to him after is sadness.

(Galerie Lareuse)


Joan Miró - La Naissance du Jour

Joan Miró - La Naissance du Jour, c. 1957
edition: 300

I say again, it is much difference between the drawings of Miró and his sculptures: dreamy delicacy versus dreamy fears.

(Galerie Lareuse)

(Joan Miró)


Vlaminck at Galerie Lareuse

Maurice de Vlaminck - Le Bouquet, c. 1932
etching aquatint

(Galerie Lareuse)

Mardi Gras

Love, according to Barbra Streisand, is soft as an easy chair.

Wrigley Field- Chicago, Ill.
Sip an Old Style and cheer on the Cubbies from the lively bleacher seats of this historic stadium.

Am incercat sa intru odata pe Fenway Park din Boston - eram prima oara in vizita in America - vazusem in Bucuresti la televizor un documentar despre stadionul de baseball din Boston - cand am ajuns acolo era tocmai ora pranzului si era inchis - am intrat in schimb in barul suporterilor echipei de baseball din Boston, Red Sox - barul e in alta parte si il vazusem si pe el la Bucuresti la televizor - un serial care se numea Cheers - era The Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco, Calif.
Walk across the bridge at sunrise; just don't forget your comfortable shoes for the two-mile trek.

Vazut si el decocamdata doar la TV

Mardi Gras - New Orleans, La.
Witness the revelry: Ride a Mardi Gras float on Fat Tuesday.

Vazut tot la TV - tot soiul de filme politiste care se petrec exact de Mardi Gras si exact la NO

Willie Nelson's 4th of July Picnic - Austin, Texas
Celebrate the U.S. of A. singing along to Whiskey River with Willie and 30,000 of his closest friends.

In 2004 de 4 Iulie a plouat strasnic la Washington - parada s-a anulat

Tournament of Roses Rose Parade - Pasadena, Calif.
Camp out on Colorado Boulevard on New Year's Eve and wake up to the sounds of a marching band.

Am fost in America in noaptea de Anul Nou pe strazile Manhattanului si pe strazile Philadelphiei

Empire State Building - New York, NY
Meet the love of your life at midnight atop New York's most romantic skyscraper, a la An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle.

Bine de stiut

Pat's King of Steaks - Philadelphia, Pa.
On a Saturday night at 2am, wait in line for a cheese steak at the birthplace of Philly's signature sandwich.

O sa o fac

Pike Place Market - Seattle, Wash.
Grab a latte at the flagship Starbucks and watch the beloved public market open for the day.

O sa grab o black coffee, nu-mi place latte nici cu militia

Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, Ind.
Walk 16th Street the night before the Indianapolis 500--it's Mardi Gras, a bachelor party and an insane asylum rolled into one.

Alt Mardi Gras?

Wayne Newton - Las Vegas, Nev.
After a 12-hour gambling binge at the Stardust, join a cult-like crowd of fans to hear the croonings of Mr. Las Vegas.

Am un prieten bun pe care il vad foarte rar - locuieste acum prin Montreal - este gambler.

(A Life in Books)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Eheu Fugaces

(imagine din Encyclopaedia Metallum)

Scrisoarea pe care am trimis-o baiatului meu cu ani in urma si pe care el a gasit-o ieri prin biblioteca lui mi-a adus aminte amintiri vechi. Cred ca se cuvine sa pun aici poemul lui Horatiu:

EHEV fugaces, Postume, Postume,
labuntur anni nec pietas moram
rugis et instanti senectae
adferet indomitaeque morti;

non, si trecenis quotquot eunt dies,
amice, places inlacrimabilem
Plutona tauris, qui ter amplum
Geryonen Tityonque tristi

conpescit unda, scilicet omnibus
quicumque terrae munere uescimur
enauiganda, siue reges
siue inopes erimus coloni.

frustra cruento marte carebimus
fractisque rauci fluctibus Hadriae,
frustra per autumnos nocentem
corporibus metuemus austrum:

uisendus ater flumine languido
Cocytos errans et Danai genus
infame damnatusque longi
Sisyphus Aeolides laboris:

linquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum quas colis arborum
te praeter inuisas cupressos
ulla breuem dominum sequetur.

absumet heres Caecuba dignior
seruata centum clauibus et mero
tinguet pauimentum superbus
pontificum potiore cenis.

Si ca sa inchei intr-o nota mai putin elegiaca, iata o replica glumeata a lui Arlen Riley Wilson:

Eheu, fugaces, labuntur anni...
In these gaunt times
A princess, chained to rock,
Is eaten up by dragons every day.
Her Perseus stopped for coffee
On the way
Or just decided to forget the whole thing,
Who can say?
Even Andromeda, eviscerated,
Must condone:
Poor Perseus has problems of his own.


Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume...

Gosh, I am really old.

(A Life in Books)

Citeva impresii despre calatoria de-a dreptul fantastica pe care am facut-o in China

Draga Andrei

Vreau sa-ti astern pe hirtie citeva impresii despre calatoria de-a dreptul fantastica pe care am facut-o in China. Impresiile au fost coplesitoare, incit mi-a trebuit timp pentru a le ordona in minte. In curind vom pleca, Rodica si cu mine, in Uniunea Sovietica. Vom vizita Moscova, aceasta inima a Rusiei, Leningradul, "Venetia Nordului", Riga, Tallin, Vilnius, orase incarcate de istorie. Deci, cind ne vom revedea, Venetia Nordului imi va fi probabil mai mult in minte si in suflet decit Pekinul si de aceea e bine sa-ti scriu acum despre China.

Sa incep cu calatoria. Cu avionul faci de la Bucuresti la Karachi (in Pakistan)
sase ore, zburind peste Constanta, Istanbul, Larnaka (in Cipru), Orientul Mijlociu, Arabia Saudita, Abu-Dhabi, Golful Persic, Oceanul Indian. Calatoria se face noaptea, asa ca nu se vedea mare lucru, o singura data am zarit pe deasupra Peninsulei Arabiei (poate Abu Dhabi), o mare de lumini de diverse culori, rosu si albastru... La Karachi avionul a ajuns in zorii zilei, aici am facut singura escala, de o ora si ceva, timp in care avionul s-a realimentat cu benzina.

Cel mai interesant lucru la Karachi este sa vezi in sala de asteptare din tranzitul aeroportului fel de fel de arabi, indieni, pakistanezi, in felurite costume nationale, care cu barbi, care mustaciosi, care cu un fel de halate sau salvari, in orice caz cu infatisari si porturi mult diferite de ce vezi in Europa. Functionarele din aeroport sint imbracate in costum national pakistanez, cu un soi de salvari si un fel de halat pe deasupra. Indiencele care asteptau diverse avioane erau imbracate in sari.

Apoi, de la Karachi la Pekin, avionul a zburat sapte ore. Am zburat pe deasupra Muntilor Himalaia, cred ca traversarea Himalaieie a durat cel putin o jumatate de ora. Everestul nu s-a vazut, era prea departe. Dar inchipuie-ti avionul zburind la vreo 10000 de metri, virfurile inzapezite ale Himalaiei sub noi. Apoi s-a traversat desertul Gobi. Din avion s-a vazut o zona, nu mi-am dat seama, poate de munti, poate de dealuri, pline de nisip, continuate de Podisul Gobi.

La Pekin am ajuns pe seara. (La intoarcere aveam sa prindem dimineata deasupra Marii Mediterane, am vazut coasta Ciprului, si apoi a Anatoliei, Turcia asiatica). Aeroportul din Pekin este foarte mare si la vreo jumatate de ora de oras. Granicerii si vamesii vorbesc engleza. De altfel avionul nostru era asteptat si de lucratorii de la Ambasada Romaniei, care ne-au ajutat sa ne descurcam, pentru ca dupa atitea ore de zbor eram de-a dreptul buimaci.

Printre alte dotari ale aeroportului Pekin, vreau sa-ti spun ca transportul de la avion la cladirea aerogarii nu se face cu autobuzul ca la Otopeni sau Karachi, ci printr-un culoar intr-un fel de burduf, asa cum probabil ca ai vazut in filmele americane. De asemeni, aeroportul fiind foarte mare, in el mergi pe un covor rulant.

Diferenta de fus orar intre Bucuresti si Pekin este de cinci ore (de fapt sase ore, dar ora oficiala a Romaniei e devansata vara, cum stii). Asa ca daca la Bucuresti era ora 12 ziua, la Pekin era 5 dupa masa. Din cauza diferentei de fus orar, in primele zece zile dormi foarte prost, pina se adapteaza organismul.

Acum sa-ti scriu despre Pekin, unde am stat vreo doua saptamini.
Stii ca denumirea internationala este Beijing, insa chinezii pronunta Pei-tzing. De altfel am invatat vreo zece-douazeci de cuvinte chinezesti, pe care o sa ti le spun cind ne vom revedea.

Pekinul este un oras imens (vreo opt milioane de locuitori, cu suburbiile vreo noua milioane). Am locuit la Ambasada Romaniei, in centrul Pekinului, unde nu se vede muntele si lucram undeva la marginea Pekinului, la poalele muntelui.

Ca sa intelegi cum arata Pekinul, e greu. E o alta lume. La Pekin am inteles ce inseamna un mare oras asiatic. Un furnicar de oameni (in Asia, la Pekin, pe strazi, iti dai seama ce inseamna "un furnicar de oameni"). Un furnicar de biciclete. Strazile sint pline ochi la orice ora a zilei de biciclisti, de parca ar fi tot timpul si pe orice strada din Pekin Cursa Pacii. Efectiv nu poti sa arunci un ac pe strada de biciclisti (iarasi, e greu sa-ti inchipui fara sa vezi). Masini sint inca putine, dar majoritatea sint marci japoneze (in special Toyota). De altfel Pekinul este literalmente invadat de marfuri japoneze si de reclame uriase ale societatilor japoneze.

Chinezii traiesc inca in conditii grele (tu stii ca in China era
foarte multa saracie. Partidul Comunist Chinez a imbunatatit soarta oamenilor, asigurindu-le la toti in primul rind hrana zilnica, ceea ce inseamna enorm, dar efortul urias de modernizare a Chinei si de ridicare a nivelului de trai va mai dura inca foarte mult).

Asa ca pot spune ca nivelul de trai al chinezilor este cu mult sub nivelul oricarui popor din Europa, si ca hrana, si ca locuinte, si la salariu, etc. Tu sa stii insa ca efortul care se face pentru modernizarea Chinei isi va arata roadele.

Pekinul are bulevarde imense (de exemplu unul din ele, in lungime de vreo citeva zeci de kilometri, masoara 70 de metri latime), dar si stradute in care o masina nu are loc sa circule.

Se contruiesc blocuri care arata ca la noi, dar inca majoritatea locuintelor sint practic niste cocioabe, fara nici un fel de confort. Din aceste cocioabe, omul pleaca la munca dimineata pe bicicleta si munceste mult, dar iti repet ca roadele acestei munci se vor vedea pentru binele poporului chinez.

Fireste pentru straini Pekinul are o serie de hoteluri si magazine dotate cu confortul maxim. De exemplu afara era o caldura inabusitoare (35-36 grade Celsius, umiditate de 95%), dar cum
intrai in hotelul Beijing (cel mai mare hotel al lor), temperatura era de 21 de grade.

Chinezii muncesc mult si sint foarte staruitori, sirguinciosi. Am putut sa-mi dau seama de asta lucrind cu ei.

Sint de asemenea extraordinar de politicosi. Am avut un translatoar chinez de limba engleza, asa ca am vorbit englezeste cit n-am vorbit intr-un an de zile.

Mincarea chinezeasca este extraordinar de gustoasa. Nu prea iti dai seama ce maninci, dar e foarte bun. Se maninca cu betisoarele (am adus betisoare acasa si o sa-ti arat cum se folosesc). Pentru asta mincarea vine taiata in bucati care se pot lua cu betisoarele si baga in gura. E foarte simplu sa folosesti betisoarele, inveti imediat, desi in Europa pare atit de complicat. Am mincat si faimoasele lor oua negre, si castravetele de mare, creveti uriasi, peste. Mai ales pestele imi placea foarte mult. Ma crezi ca aveam un peste intreg la fiecare masa?

Acum sa-ti vorbesc de monumentele vazute. Am fost intr-o excursie la Marele Zid (poate stii ca de pe luna se vede pe Pamint doar Marele Zid).

Pe zid se poate merge. Zidul asta e contruit pe munte, urmind linia muntilor, urcind pe culmi si coborind in vai. Fireste, ne-am plimbat pe marele Zid numai vreun kilometru. Lungimea lui e imensa, a fost cindva granita Chinei, dar intre timp tara si-a extins mult hotarele.

Am vizitat apoi mormintele dinastiei Ming, Sint 13 morminte, unul a fost deschis si se viziteaza, e un adevarat palat subteran, compus din citeva sali, pline de sculpturi.

In Pekin am vizitat Palatul Imperial (numit si Orasul Interzis pentru ca pe vremuri chinezii de rind nu aveau voie sa patrunda in Palat). Templul Cerului, Templul Marelui Lama (care este ca templele din Tibet, pe care nu le-am vazut nici eu, nici tu).

Am vizitat de asemeni linga Pekin Templul Norilor Azurii, tot un templu budist ca si Templul Marelui Lama. Asa ca am vazut gigantice statui ale lui Budha, si am vazut si calugari budisti (se numesc lama).

Dar cel mai mult din toate mi-a placut Palatul de Vara, la marginea Pekinului. Un lucru foarte interesant in Palatul de Vara este un vapor de marmura. De altfel am fotografii si diapozitive din Palatul de Vara, pe care le vei vedea. Am si o harta a Pekinului si vederi de la Palatul Imperial si de la mormintele dinastiei Ming. Am o harta a traseului pe care l-a facut avionul de la Bucuresti la Pekin si care stiu ca te va interesa.

Dragul meu Andrei, poate vei avea ocazia cind vei fi si tu mare sa vizitezi China. Sa stii ca este un prilej unic si ca am avut dreptate atunci cind inainte de plecare ti-am scris ca asta este "calatoria
vietii mele".

Nu stiu daca voi mai fi trimis sau nu in China de serviciu, dar din aceasta, poate singura, calatorie in China am amintiri pentru toata viata.

Te saruta cu drag,

Bucuresti, 1981

Milk - Gus Van Sant, Sean Penn

The movie made by Gus Van Sant tells the story of Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn), the first openly gay who was elected to an official position (San Francisco Board of Supervisors), assassinated soon after that, victim of a hate crime.

I think two other movies of Van Sant (Gerry and Elephant) are masterpieces. Also I think Paranoid Park is at least as good as Milk. And also I think that what makes this new film distinct from all the others is its openness, its arrogance and its pathos.

Openness: most (if not all) movies of Van Sant carry a heavy homoerotic tension; but, while in his other movies the gay relation is only suggested, here everything is as explicit as hell. Here in Milk the story is permanently switching between the public and the intimate life of his personage. This going back and forth between the two parallel flows is done with a phenomenal sense of the cinematic rhythm: Van Sant is giving here his best.

I'm trying an explanation: in any of his movies, Gus Van Sant is trying to be inside the universe he's picturing. He's not an outside observer. He is there, together with his personages, trying to understand them, to believe what they believe, to be more than a witness: to be one of them, to be each of them, to be in the middle. You feel this in all his movies. He is not in front of the camera, but you get the feeling that he is telling each time his story, not just a story. His empathy is total.

So here in Milk there was no other way for him than to be extremely candid in showing the intimate aspects. It was about the fight for gay civil rights: in order to claim their acceptance by the society they had to emphasize their specificity. And so the movie could not be other way than extremely open about the universe of gay people, in all respects.

Arrogance: it is just the openness of the movie that leads inevitably to arrogance. Van Sant is very challenging in many of his movies; only it has been for us a cinematic challenge so far; here it is a challenge for all our deep convictions, and values, and habits, and senses. Each scene comes with the same brutal question, are you ready to accept them, or just to tolerate them?

Pathos: as I said, Gus Van Sant is immersing in each of his movies, to tell us the story from there, from inside. However, he knows how to simulate objectivity. He is there, in each of his movies, he is one of the guys there while he shows everything with a kind of detachment. No more the case here, in Milk. Here his passion is obvious, here he is openly taking sides. The life of Harvey Milk becomes his own life. And, of course, Van Sant succeeds here also because of the extraordinary performance of Sean Penn.

(Gus Van Sant)


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Solaris: A Visual Fantasy

Solaris: the book of Lem, the movie of Tarkovsky, scored by Eduard Artemyev. I love this so much.

(Musica Nova)



The Recurrent Panacea

I am sick of all stereotypes and insults proliferated against Rroma on each opportunity. Anything happens, some gurus offer the solution: Rroma should be called Gypsies again, and we should give up PC anyway. As simple as that! Racism as the recurrent panacea.

For all people of free mind, I recommend a book by Isabel Fonseca: Bury Me Standing. If you don't find the book, or you don't have time to read it, there is a review in some place within NY Times. You can read the review on the web: A Stranger in the Land of Paradox.

(A Life in Books)

The Jacobite Cathedral of Saint Mary in Kerala, India

- Martha Mariam Cathedral, Manarcard, Kerala -

A good friend of mine got married three weeks ago. The wedding was at the Jacobite Cathedral of Saint Mary, in the city of Manarcard, the Indian state of Kerala. I haven't been able to attend; India is far away. It would have been a great travel experience. I was once in China, many years ago, never in India.

- The Icon of the Holy Virgin and Child -

As I was browsing the photos of the cathedral, some memories of my childhood came to mind. I was perhaps eight or nine, and I got a book named From Pole to Pole. The first sentence was, It was in 1893... The old lady who gave me the book added, I was born in 1893.

The author was Sven Hedin. He remained for ever in my admiration and after many decades, when I moved to America, I found another of his books, My Life as an Explorer.

But let's come back to the book I got as a child, From Pole to Pole. It was there that I learned about Marco Polo and his travels. After a couple of years I got Marco Polo's book, Il Milione. It was a fine edition with a lot of comments for each page. And then, during all my childhood, I followed with my imagination his travels and his stories about the King-Prester John and about the fabulous animals and old kind of populations with incredible customs. And I learned in the book about the Christians that Marco Polo had found on the way; Jacobites, Maronites, Nestorians, old branches of the Eastern Church, the Jacobites claiming Saint Thomas as their ancestor.

- Jacobite Priests in Front of the Altar -

Later in my life I read about another medieval traveler to the Far East, the Franciscan missionary Rubruquis (his account is now on the web, in both Latin and English: up to you). Chapter 26 speaks of How the Nestorians, Saracens, and Idolaters are joined together (don't expect too much mutual religious acceptance in the thirteen century).

Well, my friend is a Jacobite and so browsing his wedding photos I came again to the stories of my childhood: Sven Hedin, and Marco Polo, and Rubruquis, and Prester John, and the old Eastern Christians living far away mixed with so many other religions and so many other populations, sharing with all of them customs and habits, while praising the Name of the Lord.

- The Stone Cross -

(Icon and Orthodoxy)


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Who Was Sōseki

Natsume Sōseki (real name Natsume Kinnosuke), born in 1867; discovered first the beauties of Chinese literature; his first compositions were haiku; he signed them Sōseki (stubborn in Chinese, as it seems); sent in 1900 in England with a scholarship that was by far insufficient; he lived in London a very reclusive life (beside the scarcity of funds, he was far too small, a dwarf among Britons his age); he spent all his time there studying English literature; returned to Japan in 1903 to take the chair of English literature at Tokyo University (where he followed Lafcadio Hearn); started to publish by that time; major novels, I am a Cat and Botchan (1905), The Miner (1907), Ten Nights' Dreams (1908), The Gate (1909), Kokoro (1914), Light and Darkness (1916); died in 1916; his portrait was till 2004 on the front of the 1000 yen bill.

Brief notes (chosen at random) on each of his books:

  • I am a Cat: I am a cat and as yet I have no name;
  • Botchan: most of the story occurs in summer, against the drone of cicadas and the sting of mosquitoes;
  • The Miner: being walking through this pine grove for a long time now; these places are way longer than they look in pictures. Just pine trees, and pine trees, and pine trees that don't add up to anything;
  • Ten Nights'Dreams: a riddle to be deciphered after hundred years;
  • The Gate: his prose is so delicate that each page is like looking at a set of dreamy watercolors;
  • Kokoro: it was at Kamakura, during the summer holidays, that I first met Sensei;
  • Light and Darkness: his last novel, a complex analysis of egocentric personalities of the modern age, was left unfinished at his death.

(A Life in Books)

(Japanese Cinema)


Michael Gerson: The Jindal Phenomenon

To be honest, Bobby Jindal failed to convince me yesterday. Possibly because he pushed too hard on the button labeled, hey folks, I'm as easygoing as Obama, and so he lost on the way the substance of his message. His entrance, along the corridor, the way presidents do at the White House, was definitely mauvais gout. There is only one President at a time, and the confidence game cannot be played just by everyone.

Which doesn't mean too much, however. Mr. Jindal remains a serious contender. Here is what Michael Gerson says in today's W Post (I'm not as enthusiastic as Mr. Gerson seems to be, but that's another story:)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal -- selected to deliver the Republicans' Fat Tuesday response to President Obama -- might also be voted the man least likely to let the good times roll. Slight, earnest, deeply religious and supremely wonkish, Jindal resembles neither his flamboyant predecessors as governor nor his reveling, 30-something contemporaries on Bourbon Street. Somehow the hall-monitoring, library-inhabiting, science-fair-winning class president has seized control of the Big Easy. And his coup has been an inspiration to policy geeks everywhere.

At a recent meeting of conservative activists, Jindal had little to say about his traditional social views or compelling personal story. Instead, he uncorked a fluent, substantive rush of policy proposals and achievements, covering workforce development, biodiesel refineries, quality assurance centers, digital media, Medicare parts C and D, and state waivers to the CMS (whatever that is).

Some have compared Jindal to Obama, but the new president has always been more attracted to platitudes than to policy. Rush Limbaugh has anointed Jindal the next Ronald Reagan. But Reagan enjoyed painting on a large ideological canvas. In person, Jindal's manner more closely resembles another recent president: Bill Clinton. Like Clinton (a fellow Rhodes scholar), Jindal has the ability to overwhelm any topic with facts and thoughtful arguments -- displaying a mastery of detail that encourages confidence. Both speak of complex policy issues with the world-changing intensity of a late-night dorm room discussion.

In recent days, Jindal has displayed another leadership quality: ideological balance. He is highly critical of the economic theory of the stimulus package and turned down $98 million in temporary unemployment assistance to his state -- benefits that would have mandated increased business taxes in Louisiana. But unlike some Republican governors who engaged in broad anti-government grandstanding, Jindal accepted transportation funding and other resources from the stimulus -- displaying a program-by-program discrimination that will serve him well in public office. Jindal manages to hold to principle while seeing the angles.

While Clintonian in manner, knowledge and political sophistication, Jindal is not ideologically malleable. His high-pressure Asian-immigrant background has clearly taught him not to blend in but to stand out. He has tended to join small, beleaguered minorities -- such as the College Republicans at Brown University. He converted to a traditionalist Catholicism, in a nation where anti-Catholicism has been called the last acceptable prejudice. Jindal, sometimes accused of excessive assimilation, has actually shown a restless, countercultural, intellectual independence.

But this has earned him some unexpected enthusiasm. In Louisiana, Jindal is the darling of evangelical and charismatic churches, where he often tells his conversion story. One Louisiana Republican official has commented, People think of Bobby Jindal as one of us. Consider that a moment. In some of the most conservative Protestant communities, in one of the most conservative states in America, Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, a strong Catholic with parents from Punjab, is considered one of us.

This is a large political achievement. It is also an indication of what has been called the ecumenism of the trenches -- the remarkable alliance between evangelicals and Catholics on moral issues such as abortion and family values against an aggressive secularism. Two or three hundred years ago, the Protestant/Catholic divide remained a source of violence. Two or three decades ago, many conservative Protestant churches questioned whether Catholics were properly to be considered Christians. If Jindal runs for president in three or seven years, he will be widely viewed as an evangelical choice.

Ultimately, however, Jindal is a problem-solving wonk, fond of explaining 31-point policy plans (his state ethics reform proposal actually had 31 points). This can have disadvantages -- a lack of human connection and organizing vision. But this approach also has advantages. Jindal is a genuine policy innovator. His reforms, says Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, are the only constructive thing Republicans are doing on health care anywhere.

And Jindal's résumé, intellectual confidence and command of policy make him the anti-Palin. Fairly or unfairly, media and intellectual elites (including some conservative elites) regard Gov. Sarah Palin as an inhabitant of another cultural planet. Jindal, while also religious and conservative, speaks the language of the knowledge class and will not be easily caricatured or dismissed. To journalists, policy experts and Rhodes scholars, Jindal is also one of us.

At this point in the election cycle, no Republican can be considered more than the flavor of the month. But this is an appealing one.

(Zoon Politikon)


The Brothers

(America viewed by Americans)

Sudip Mazumdar: Man Bites Slumdog

I found this in Newsweek: Sudip Mazumdar tells his own story. A street kid who escaped the horrible universe of slums through his passion for books. It reminds me of Buscapé, the personage who was telling his story of escaping the world of Cidade de Deus. And of course, of Jamal, the hero of Slumdog Millionaire. We should know: a few of them succeed, for the most escaping from the slum remains a fairy tale.

Here is the story:

On the way to see Slumdog Millionaire in Kolkata, I had my cabdriver pass through the slum district of Tangra. I lived there more than 35 years ago, when I was in my late teens, but the place has barely changed. The cab threaded a maze of narrow lanes between shacks built from black plastic and corrugated metal. Scrawny men sat outside, chewing tobacco and spitting into the dirt. Naked children defecated in the open, and women lined up at the public taps to fetch water in battered plastic jerry cans. Everything smelled of garbage and human waste. I noticed only one difference from the 1960s: a few huts had color TVs.

I still ask myself how I finally broke out. Jamal, the slumdog in Danny Boyle's award-winning movie, did it the traditional cinematic way, via true love, guts and good luck. People keep praising the film's realistic depiction of slum life in India. But it's no such thing. Slum life is a cage. It robs you of confidence in the face of the rich and the advantaged. It steals your pride, deadens your ambition, limits your imagination and psychologically cripples you whenever you step outside the comfort zone of your own neighborhood. Most people in the slums never achieve a fairy-tale ending.

I was luckier than Jamal in this way: I was no orphan. My parents came from relatively prosperous families in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), but the newlywed couple lost practically everything in the sectarian riots that led up to India's independence. They fled to Patna, the capital of northeastern India's Bihar state, where I was born a few years later. The first of my five sisters was born there in a rat-infested hut one rainy night when I was 3. My father was out of town, working as a construction laborer 100 miles away. My mother sent me with my 6-year-old brother to fetch the midwife, an opium-smoking illiterate. The baby was born before we got back, so the midwife just cut the umbilical cord with a razor blade and left. My mother spent the rest of the night trying to find a spot where the roof wouldn't leak on the newborn.

My parents got us out of the slums three years later. My father landed a job as a petty clerk with a construction firm that was building a dam, and we found a home. It was only a single rented room, but it was better than anything we had in Patna. I went to school nearby. Sometimes a teacher dozed off in class, and a few of us would sneak out the window to steal ripe guavas from a nearby orchard. If we got caught we could count on being caned in front of our classmates. Sometimes it would peel the skin off our backs. By my early teens I was running with a local gang. Membership was my source of confidence, security and excitement. We stole from shopkeepers and farmers, extorted money from truckers and fought against rivals for turf. Many of my pals came from broken families with drunken fathers or abusive stepmothers. Their big dream was to get a job—any job—with the dam-building firm.

Those days ended abruptly when we challenged a rival gang whose members had teased some girls on our turf. Both sides suffered serious injuries before police arrived to break it up. My parents didn't try to stop me from fleeing town. I made my way to Ranchi, a small city then in southern Bihar. I took on a new name and holed up in a squalid neighborhood. A local tough guy befriended me. He and his partners liked to waylay travelers at night. He always kept me away from his holdups, but he fed me when I had no other food. I also fell in with a group of radical leftists. I didn't care much about ideology, but they offered the sense of belonging I used to get from my old street gang. I spent the next five years moving from one slum to another, always a step ahead of the police. For money I took odd jobs like peddling newspapers and washing cars.

I might have spent the rest of my life in the slums or in prison if not for books. By the time I was 6, my parents had taught me to read and write Bengali. Literature gave me a special refuge. With Jack London (in translation) I could be a brave adventurer, and with Jules Verne I could tour the world. I worked my way up to Balzac, Hemingway and Dostoevsky. I finally began teaching myself English with the help of borrowed children's books and a stolen Oxford dictionary. For pronunciation I listened to Voice of America broadcasts and the BBC World Service on a stolen transistor radio. I would get so frustrated I sometimes broke into sobs.

I started hanging around the offices of an English weekly newspaper in Ranchi. Its publisher and editor, an idealistic lawyer-cum-journalist named N. N. Sengupta, hired me as a copy boy and proofreader for the equivalent of about $4 a month. It was there that I met Dilip Ganguly, a dogged and ambitious reporter who was visiting from New Delhi. He came to know that I was living in a slum, suffering from duodenal ulcers. One night he dropped by the office after work and found me visibly ill. He invited me to New Delhi. I said goodbye to my slum friends the next day and headed for the city with him.

In New Delhi I practiced my English on anyone who would listen. I eventually landed an unpaid internship at a small English-language daily. I was delirious with joy. I spent all my waking hours at the paper, and after six months I got a paying job. I moved up from there to bigger newspapers and better assignments. While touring America on a fellowship, I dropped in at Newsweek and soon was hired. That was 25 years ago.

My home now is a modest rented apartment in a gated community in New Delhi. I try to keep in touch with friends from the past. Some are dead; others are alcoholics, and a few have even made good lives for themselves. I've met former slum dwellers who broke out of the cage against odds that were far worse than I faced. Still, most slum dwellers never escape. Neither do their kids. No one wants to watch a movie about that. Slumdog was a hit because it throbs with excitement, hope and positive energy. But remember an ugly fact: slums exist, in large part, because they're allowed to exist. Slumdogs aren't the only ones whose minds need to be opened up.

(A Life in Books)

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The Five Best Movies According to Gray

James Gray (director of Two Lovers) gives his list of five preffered movies in Newsweek. Here you go:

  1. Le Notti di Cabiria (Fellini's peak: raw emotion, pure and simple, with the best ending in the history of pictures)
  2. Il Gattopardo (Visconti's epic vision, a majestic spectacle about a Sicilian prince - Burt Lancaster, who's simply great - trying to come to grips with a changing world)
  3. Vertigo (Hitchcock's hypnotic and haunting story of obsessive love, with a brilliant twist; James Stewart and Kim Novak are fully committed to their wounded and vivid characters, and it shows)
  4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick's classic remains perhaps the only great narrative picture without a true lead character)
  5. Ran (music and image the Kurosawa way, with a Shakespearean sweep; every frame is worth looking at)

It's time for me to announce that I'm waiting for a DVD with one of the most haunting movies ever:Tian's Dao Ma Zei (The Horse Thief); Scorsese considers it the best film of the nineties.


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Robert J. Samuelson about Obama's Stimulus Plan

President Obama addressed yesterday Congress on the status of the US economy. Governor Jindal gave then the GOP replica. The strategy of the Dems is very ambitious, targeting energy, healthcare, education. Here is a critical view, expressed by Robert J. Samuelson in Newsweek:

Judged by his own standards, President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus program, which he signed into law last week, is deeply disappointing. For weeks, Obama has described the economy in grim terms. This is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession, he said at his Feb. 9 press conference. It's the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Given these dire warnings, you'd expect the stimulus package to focus exclusively on reviving the economy. It doesn't, and for that, Obama bears much of the blame.

The case for a huge stimulus, which I support, is that it's insurance against the possibility of a devastating downward economic spiral. Spending and confidence are tumbling worldwide. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the U.S. economy contracted at a nearly 4 percent annual rate. In Japan, the economy fell at a nearly 13 percent rate; in Europe, the rate was about 6 percent. These are gruesome declines. If the economic outlook is as bleak as Obama says (and it may be), there's no reason to dilute the upfront power of the stimulus. But that's what Obama's done.

His political choices compromise the program's economic effectiveness. Let's start with the numbers. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that about $200 billion will be spent in 2011 or later—well beyond when it will do the most good. For starters, there's $8 billion for high-speed rail. Everyone is saying this is [for] high-speed rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas—I don't know, says Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association. Whatever project or projects are chosen, the decision process, design and construction will occupy many years. It's not quick stimulus.

Then there's $20.8 billion for improved health-information technology—more electronic records and the like. Probably most people regard this as desirable, but here, too, changes occur slowly. The CBO expects only 3 percent of the money ($595 million) to be spent in fiscal 2009 and 2010. The peak year of projected spending is 2014 at $14.2 billion. Or consider the $5.8 billion in outlays for water-treatment plants. The CBO reckons that only 27 percent will be spent in 2009 and 2010.

Big projects take time. The reason they're included in the stimulus is that Obama and Democratic congressional leaders decided to use the legislation as a way of advancing many political priorities instead of just spurring the economy. At his press conference, Obama argued (inaccurately) that the two goals don't conflict. Consider, he lectured, the retrofitting of federal buildings to make them more energy-efficient. We're creating jobs immediately, he said.

Yes—but not many. The stimulus package includes $5.5 billion for overhauling federal buildings. The CBO estimates that only 23 percent of that would be spent in 2009 and 2010.

What's worse, the economic impact of the stimulus is already much less than advertised. The final package includes an obscure tax provision: a "patch" for the alternative minimum tax (AMT). This protects many middle-class Americans against higher taxes and, on paper, adds almost $85 billion of stimulus in 2009 and 2010. One problem: It's not stimulus, as Len Burman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says. [Congress was] going to do it anyway. They do it every year. Strip out the AMT, and the stimulus package drops to about $700 billion, with almost 30 percent spent after 2010, by the CBO's analysis.

The central purpose of the stimulus is to prevent, or minimize, declines in one part of the economy from dragging other sectors down. We want to stop a chain reaction. The next big vulnerable sector seems to be state and local governments. Weakening tax payments create massive budget shortfalls. From now until the end of fiscal 2011, these may total $350 billion, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a liberal research and advocacy group. Other estimates are somewhat lower, but it's clear that states—required to balance their budgets—face huge pressures to cut spending and jobs or raise taxes. All would worsen the recession and, presumably, deepen pessimism.

Yet, the stimulus package offers only modest relief. Using funds from the stimulus, states might offset 40 percent of their looming deficits, says Nicholas Johnson of the CBPP. The effect on localities would probably be less. Congress might have done more by providing large, temporary block grants to states and localities and letting them decide how to spend the money. Instead, the stimulus doles out most of the money through specific programs. There's $90 billion more for Medicaid, $12 billion for special education, $2.8 billion for various policing programs. Even $54 billion of block grants to states impose restrictions on how funds can be spent. More power is being centralized in Washington.

No one knows the economic effects of all this; estimates vary. But Obama's political strategy stunts the impact from what it might have been. Postponed spending weakens the economic benefit. By using the stimulus for unrelated political and policy goals, Obama mandates delays. Obama brags that there are no earmarks in the package. This is technically true if an earmark is considered a project specifically designated for a politician's home district. But hundreds of billions are earmarked for identifiable constituencies. There's another downside: temporary spending increases for specific programs, as opposed to block grants, will be harder to undo, worsening the long-term budget outlook.

Politics cannot be removed from the political process. But here, politics ran roughshod over pragmatic economic policy. The stimulus program was highly partisan from the start. The feeble efforts to win Republican support resulted in changes (including the AMT provision) that actually weakened the package. Obama is gambling that his flawed stimulus will work well enough, or seem to work well enough, that he'll receive credit for restarting the economy—and not engineering a colossal waste.

(Zoon Politikon)


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Amazing Grace


Late Spring - The Authority of Nietzsche

When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home...

Let's discuss one of the scenes from Ozu's Banshun (Late Spring): the last night in Kyoto. Father (Chishu Ryu) and daughter (Setsuko Hara) are preparing their baggage as the following day they would leave for Tokyo.

They had taken for the trip a lot of books and now they are packaging them. So sometimes they hand books one another, as his books should go into his baggage and her into hers.

And suddenly the daughter said one of the most touching sentences ever, father, even if you get married I'd like to remain with you; I want to be always on your side.

This is too much for him: how could he possibly say no? He is just a father, just a poor being, and he knows very well that he would actually not get re-married, that he would remain alone for the rest of his life.

However he must say no.

It happens that exactly in that moment he has the book of Nietzsche in his hands, Also Sprach Zarathustra. And what follows is like the father takes his forces from that book. He speaks much longer than he did for all the rest of the movie; and he speaks with authority. It is about her duty to build together with her future husband their happiness; it will not be easy, it never was; it will take long, long years, and it will be hard; that is her duty in the world.

How can he speak with such determination?

It is not his will, it is the will of Nietzsche! Unconsciously, he places himself under the moral authority of the great philosopher and he finds there the courage to say what needs to be said.

(Yasujiro Ozu and Setsuko Hara)


(Richard Strauss)

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Notes on Shinto

This happened a couple of years ago. I wanted to watch Kurosawa's Dreams; I considered important to look firstly for some information of help to enter the universe of the movie. So I started with Shinto. Here are some basics (I took these notes from a guide on Japan).

Shinto does not have have Sacred Scriptures (however, two ancient texts could be considered as some kind of Holy Tradition: Kojiki - The Records of Ancient Matters and Nihongi - Chronicles of Japan). Propaganda and preaching are not common either.

Shinto gods are called kami. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die. The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is considered Shinto's most important kami.

- Some prominent rocks are worshiped as kami -

There are no absolutes in Shinto. There is no absolute right and wrong, and nobody is perfect. Shinto is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good, and evil is believed to be caused by evil spirits. Consequently, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits by purification, prayers and offerings to the kami. Shinto shrines are the places of worship and the homes of kami. Most shrines celebrate matsuri regularly in order to show the kami the outside world. Shinto priests often live on the shrine grounds. Men and women can become priests, and they are allowed to marry and have children. Priests are supported by young ladies (miko) during rituals and concerning other tasks at the shrine. Miko wear white kimono, must be unmarried and are often the priest's daughters.

- Miko at Aso shrine -

The introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century was followed by a few initial conflicts, however, the two religions were soon able to co-exist harmonically and even complement each other. Many Buddhists viewed the kami as manifestations of Buddhas. A large number of wedding ceremonies are held in Shinto style. Death, however, is considered a source of impurity, and is left to Buddhism to deal with.

- Ise Jingu is Shinto's most sacred shrine -

And here is my comment:

There is no definite barrier in Shinto between immanent and transcendent: we live in a wonderful world populated by kami: nature and divine are metamorphosing each other continually.

(A Life in Books)

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