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Asian and Middle Eastern Literature – Selections and Reflections

By Michael Clark

When a classic poem works it transcends time so we can almost be there with the poet and, in a sense, feel their feelings and see what they see.¹

The following selections of Asian and Middle Eastern literature are all English translations, which some may say is a shortcoming. But if a passage speaks to a reader, it’s a moot point whether a translation is legit or not.

One could argue that translated texts, like the Bible for instance, are part of God’s plan and previous language versions are not necessarily of any greater value.

Some scholars and pundits might be too rigid to appreciate this perspective. They could also be unaware of postmodern theories about language, specifically, the ideas of connotation and endless chains of signification. For postmoderns, all texts have open-ended meanings that depend, in large part, on the reader’s interpretation.

In addition, theologians often say that the meaning of a given text is influenced by its numinous potential. And it seems that most words – not just religious ones – within any language carry a kind of numinous potential, however great or small.²

While some old style scholars dogmatically insist on the importance of original languages, we’d do well to remember that language prowess has been used for centuries by unscrupulous elites to oppress and marginalize individuals perceived as a threat to prevailing powers, be these religious, regal or academic.

Not to say that all linguists are arrogant and self-serving! The vast majority are humble, innovative thinkers who use their abilities for the common good. Sincerely delighting in the subtle nuances of world languages, these individuals have a great gift and, obviously, much to offer.³

The authors highlighted below seem to be well aware of the arrogance of petty scholars and, more generally, to the bright and dark hues of human existence. Ancient and medieval people knew all about war, intrigue, betrayal, poverty and broken hearts. But amidst all that, their souls yearned for goodness and beauty. And their works give us profound insights into the nature of time, eternity and ourselves.

Part I

From the Meditations of Ma’arri al-Ma’arri, circa 973-1057 CE

In the casket of the Hours
Events deep-hid.
Wait on their guardian Powers
To raise the lid.

And the Maker infinite,
Whose poem is Time,
He need not weave in it
A forced stale rhyme

The Nights pass so,
Voices dumb,
Without sense quick or slow
Of what shall come.

* * *

From the Shakuntala Kálidása, circa 5th century CE

It is natural that the first sight of the King’s capital
should affect you in this manner;
my own sensations are very similar.
As one just bathed beholds the man polluted;
As one late purified, the yet impure:-
As one awake looks on the yet unawakened;
Or as the freeman gazes on the thrall,
So I regard this crowd of pleasure-seekers.

* * *

Yakamochi from the Manyo Shu, compiled 760 CE

[These] meetings in dreams,
How sad they are!
When, waking up startled
One gropes about,-
And there is no contact to the hand.

* * *

The Priest Hakutsū from the Manyo Shu, circa 704 CE

O pine-tree standing
At the [side of] the stone house,
When I look at you,
It is like seeing face to face
The men of old time.

* * *

Looking in the Lake Po Chu-I, 772-846 CE

I look at my shadow over and over in the lake;
I see no white face, only the white hair,
I have lost my youth, and shall never find it again.
Unless to stir the lake-water!

* * *

The Girls of Yueh Li Po, 701?-762 CE

The jade faces of the girls on Yueh Stream,
Their dusky brows, their red skirts,
Each wearing a pair of golden spiked sandals-
O, their feet are white like frost.

* * *

The Girl of Yueh Li Po

She is gathering lotos-seed in the river of Yueh.
While singing, she sees a stranger and turns around;
Then she smiles and hides among the lotos-leaves,
Pretending to be overcome by shyness.

* * *

A Song of War Li Po

Before the Peak of Returning Joy the sand was like snow,
Outside the surrendered city the moon was like frost.
I do not know who blew the horns at night,
But all night long the boys looked towards their homes.

Selections in Part I from A Treasury of Asian Literature, ed. John D. Yohannan. New York: Meridian, 1984.

Part II

A Simple Rustic You Seemed Wu-Chi Liu from the Book of Poetry, 10th to 6th centuries BCE

Three years I was your wife,
I never tired of household chores.
Early I rose and late I went to bed;
Not a morning was I without work.
First you found fault with me,
Then treated me with violence.
My brothers, not knowing this,
Jeered and laughed at me.
Quietly I brooded over it
And myself I pity.

* * *

Tales of Ise Collection from unknown Japanese authors, 10th century

Priestess at shrine:

Did you come here?
Or did I go to you?
I cannot recall,
was it a dream or was it real?
Was I awake or was I asleep?

Young man:

In utter darkness
my heart is clouded
and I am lost.
Was it dream or was it real?
You will have to decide.

* * *

I’d like to include one modern selection from a Pakistani poet-philosopher:

The Caravan Bell Muhammad Iqbal 1877-1938*

In bondage life shrinks to a rivulet;
in freedom, a boundless ocean.

Selections in Part II (adapted*) from Great Literature of the Eastern World, ed. Ian P. McGreal. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Part III

Among countless compendiums of Asian literature, standing out are Han-Shan’s Cold Mountain poems.

Han-Shan was a wanderer during the Tang Dynasty, 627-650 CE. Gary Snyder says “he is a mountain madman in an old Chinese line of ragged hermits.” But Lu Ch’iu-yin sketches a more reasonable picture by saying “No one knows just what sort of man Han-Shan was.”

Living at a place called Cold Mountain, he was known to appear at Kuo-ch’ing temple, where one of the local monks fed him scraps of food, concealed in a bamboo tube. Once, when other monks approached him, Han-Shan apparently stopped, clapped his hands and laughed, leaving behind his signature “Ha Ha” phrase.

Beat writers like Jack Kerouac picked up on Han-Shan’s verse, as did the hippies and seekers of the 1970s. And I sometimes wonder if his ideas might help us to understand some of our 21C homeless people. It’s doubtful that all street people are spiritually achieved and happy. But might some be? And, for that matter, was Han-Shan?

The following selections are from Literature of the Eastern World, ed. Leo B. Kneer. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1970.

7

I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things in themselves.
Men don’t get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow,
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.

19

Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease-
No more tangled, hung-up mind.
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.

24

When men see Han-Shan
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at-
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don’t get what I say
& I don’t talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
“Try and make it to Cold Mountain.”

Notes

¹ This also happens with short phrases. Whenever I think of veni, vidi, vici I can just imagine Caesar standing at the top of a hill, looking down on the town he’s about to plunder.

² Consider the English word salubrious. One senses its history. It carries not only “horizontal” meaning (its current conceptual connotations) but also “vertical” meaning (a numinous mystique that resonates through the ages, across Europe back to its Latin roots). Many words seem to evoke a kind of spiritual ambiance or, if you prefer, subtle mystique. While this horizontal vs. vertical distinction is arbitrary, it suggests that words in any language hold not just conceptual plurality but also numinous potential. Jungians talk about the numinous, transcendent power of standard symbols like the mandala. But it’s quite possible that all language signifiers carry subtler, more specialized numinous potentials.

³ An interesting and informative scholar of languages whom I recently stumbled upon is Nicholas Ostler.

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Review – Secrets: The Director’s Cut (DVD)

Image courtesty Knight Productions

Title: Secrets: The Director’s Cut
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Production Company: Knight Productions

Last November I reviewed Kemal Yildirim’s film, Secrets (review is here). Now, with The Director’s Cut I’ve been scratching my head over what to say. The two movies are strangely similar but somehow miles apart.

The closest analogy I can come up with is a stereo signal. Have you ever listened to a favorite song through just one stereo channel, with the other one muted? That might sound okay to most listeners. But to anyone loving that song, something’s not quite right (Try it with Sgt. Peppers and you’ll see what I mean).

Also, I’m not the same guy who wrote about Secrets last November. My perspective on life has evolved during the past three months, so my resonance with the film has likewise shifted.

This review, then, is something of a completion, sort of like the yin-yang symbol. I’ve seen both sides and, today, am coming from a different angle. You can look over my first review (here) before going any further. Otherwise, what follows probably won’t make much sense.

So… The Director’s Cut.

Well, to begin, some longer scenes are clipped for faster pacing, others are deleted. On the whole, these edits are a good move. The original film was provocative, partly because it challenged some of my cultural expectations about filmmaking. I was able to shift gears and appreciate Secrets for what it is (just as I did, for instance, with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). But, again, The Director’s Cut moves faster. And since I’m to some extent a socially conditioned creature, this works better for me.

In addition, some new scenes – and snippets of scenes – are interspersed throughout The Director’s Cut, making this revamped Secrets feel a bit more fleshed out and humane than its predecessor.

Moving toward the close, a prominent part of the first film (where characters privately confess into a video cam) is completely axed. Quite a gutsy move, and an effective one.

My November review also says I couldn’t really identify with the characters. But for some reason, I was right “in there” this time around. Did I feel for the characters more because of the extensive editing, or was it more about me and my updated outlook?

I can’t be totally sure. And that’s okay. Because both versions of Secrets are all about ambiguity. The film’s twisting storyline leaves just as many questions as answers. And its character development takes place within a tight-knit circle of increasingly confused relationships, where friends become lovers and lovers friends.

The Directors Cut‘s portrays a curious mix of merrymaking, musing and mayhem. But among this, the timeless capacity for joy and sorrow stands out crystal clear. And this might be the keystone that connects this vibrant indie film to a larger audience.

–MC


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Review – Secrets (DVD)

Image courtesty kemalyildirim.com

Title: Secrets
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Production Company: Knight Productions

Secrets is all about relationships, ambiguity and the loss of innocence.

Something like Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983), the film kicks off with a tight-knit group of buddies getting together to celebrate the passing of a close friend.

Except for the subplot of substance abuse, however, any similarity to that film pretty much ends here.

After confessing their innermost secrets to one another while camping at the waters edge and carousing in various indoor locations, the group’s unrestrained boozing and, especially, drug habits lead to an unfortunate unraveling.

The turning point occurs over a bad drug deal. Suddenly the innocent, soul searching found earlier in the film moves to something darker.

From the DVD liner notes we learn that Secrets was shot in 7 days with an improvised script. This gives the film freshness and spontaneity. And for me, anyhow, its laissezfaire production style confronted some of the cultural tropes that – God forbid – have burned deep neural pathways in my brain by virtue of my proximity to North American culture.

True, Canadians get a fair amount of European, Asian and other international TV and film. But the American Dream still lights up our CRT and Flat Screen TVs, working its way into our subconscious desires more than, perhaps, we wish to admit.

Like something out of a George Orwell novel, I see that elusive, ephemeral Dream flickering away every night as I take my evening walk. You don’t have to be a peeping Tom to see it. TVs just keep getting bigger and bigger, making it all so much easier to see the 21st-century Screen through so many Toronto living room windows.

Tron..?

So I had to pull back and readjust my expectations while watching this film. Not that I’m a stranger to international cinema. I’m not. I can handle subtitles just as well as anyone else. And I like taking imaginal trips without having to worry about the inherent dangers of flying.

By the same token, the overseas films that make it big here usually follow, to some degree, a commercially proven formula. And why not? After all, most people want to hit the jackpot–even if they claim otherwise with a false humility ironically mingled with an air of artistic superiority. In Western movie halls and DVD sales, making it big often means drawing on, to some extent, the Hollywood legacy (I know next to nothing about Chinese films, except for Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan…).

Sure, artistic styles have always been evolving, interpenetrating and expanding, and no doubt will continue to. As Heraclitus once put it, you can’t stand in the same river twice. But, having said that, there’s still a river to think about.

Ha. Okay. Now you get it.

Well, actually, maybe you don’t. Because the most powerful and surprising secret about Secrets is that it subtly undermines quite a few contemporary conventions.

Secrets is almost like a watercolor in motion. It’s got focus; but different approaches and ideas flow into one another, offering complexity and a touch of chaos without sacrificing overall coherence.

At first, I didn’t really connect with the characters in this film (although many of the same actors were quite absorbing in other Yildirim films). But after letting Secrets percolate for a while, the film simply wouldn’t let me go. Like other Yildirim productions, this one, too, got under my skin.

The phrase “thought-provoking” comes to mind. Along with “challenging.” Both are good things, as has been the lingering influence of Secrets.

–MC

(Review for Secrets: The Director’s Cut is here)

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