Three for Three

21 Mar

Today is the first day of Spring and it happens also to be World Poetry Day and Mother’s Day (in Egypt and the US and several other places in the world, in the UK, however it falls on Sunday 26/03). For this triple occasion, I chose three short but potent poems, which are Victorian in the broader sense of the word. The first two poems are Ionic and Anna Dalassini by the renowned Alexandrian Poet, C. P. Cavafy, whose birth and death were in the Springs of 1863 and 1933. The third poem is by Ann Mary Evans (1819-1880), whose pen name is George Eliot. Evans is an internationally-renowned Victorian novelist but she is less known for her poetry. Her poem Roses is such a delightful one and well-fitted for a sunny Spring day like today.

c-p-cavafy

Ionic

That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

 

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated from Modern Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

 

Anna Dalassini

In the royal decree that Alexios Komninos
put out especially to honor his mother—
the very intelligent Lady Anna Dalassini,
noteworthy in both her works and her manners—
much is said in praise of her.
Here let me offer one phrase only,
a phrase that is beautiful, sublime:
“She never uttered those cold words ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’ ”

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated from Modern Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

 

george_eliot_at_30_by_franc3a7ois_d27albert_durade

Roses

You love the roses – so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be
Like sleeping and like waking, all at once!

(George Eliot, 1819-1880, The complete poetical works of George Eliot. New York, F.A. Stokes & brother, 1888)

On Darwin’s Birthday

12 Feb

I have not posted much lately, but couldn’t miss the occasion of Darwin’s birthday to briefly remind my readers of his main achievements and his racial views.

On this day, in 1809, Charles Darwin was born. His evolutionary theory of natural selection has been the cause of great controversy since its publication in his On the Origin of Species in 1859. Despite Darwin’s large body of evidence which is based on years of gathering data and analysing various species, his ideas were as hard for many to accept in Victorian times as they are ironically hard for many to accept today (it would be superfluous to even mention the recent US presidential campaign here and a similar argument could be easily drawn on Climate Change).

800px-charles_robert_darwin_by_john_collier

Darwin, by John Collier 1883

In spite of the apparent novelty of Darwin’s ideas at the time, Darwin’s findings were the culmination of accumulative research and a steady rise in atheism across Europe since the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, evolution was known outside Europe 600 years before Darwin’s publication. A Persian scientist called Nasir Tusi (1201-74), who was in the fashion of his day a Renaissance man even before the Renaissance, arrived at the same conclusion, acknowledging that Humans have evolved from superior primates in Africa, such as apes. Tusi’s evolutionary theories, revolutionary as they were, did not induce as much change as Darwin’s. The Mongol invasion of West Asia brought a halt to the scientific and cultural boom of his age, and vast quantities of manuscripts were destroyed and/or forgotten in the turmoil.

Between 1959 and the publication of The Descent of Man in 1971, Darwin embraced racist theories which claimed the racial superiority of White Europeans over the rest of Humankind. How ironic for a six-hundred-year-old late new-comer to the evolutionary debate!

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

26 Mar

Retro Me Sathana (1848) or Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, was initially a painting project which Dante Gabriel Rossetti started in 1947 and later had to abandon. The curator of the National Gallery, Charles Eastlake, did not favour the project, perhaps due to its Satanic invocations. It is worth mentioning here that ‘Retro Me Sathana’ is a latin quotation from the Gospel of St Luke; it’s English translation is from King James’ Bible. Somehow the unfinished painting has been transformed into this beautiful Sonnet XLII, first published in the House of Life (1869).

Get thee behind me. Even as, heavy-curled,
Stooping against the wind, a charioteer
Is snatched from out his chariot by the hair,
So shall Time be; and as the void car, hurled
Abroad by reinless steeds, even so the world:
Yea, even as chariot-dust upon the air,
It shall be sought and not found anywhere.
Get thee behind me, Satan. Oft unfurled,

Thy perilous wings can beat and break like lath
Much mightiness of men to win thee praise.
Leave these weak feet to tread in narrow ways.
Thou still, upon the broad vine-sheltered path,
Mayst wait the turning of the phials of wrath
For certain years, for certain months and days.

Haythem Bastawy – Translations of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’

8 Mar

LTU Explorers

Sheherazade

18th Century Translations

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1706-21) is the very first translation in English of A Thousand and One Nights. It was translated from Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704-17) by an anonymous ‘Grub Street’ translator. Antoine Galland, a French scholar well-read in languages, is generally considered the European discoverer of the Arabic manuscript which was itself a translation of combined tales in Persian, Indian and other languages.

The English translator, despite producing a superb translation lasting unchallenged for over a century, remains anonymous to this day. His choice of title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, rather than A Thousand and One Nights, is very significant as it from the start represented the book as something very different from what it really was. This also began a naming tradition of the book that all succeeding nineteenth-century translators have preserved even though each of them claimed…

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Review of The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer

3 Oct

The two volumes of The World as Will and Representation are Schopenhauer’s most important work and his complete philosophy. Surprisingly written in his twenties, this comprehensive work covers all aspects of life and known fields of knowledge to civilisation in the early nineteenth-century; from his critique of Hegel and hailing of Kant to supporting his argument with elements from Buddhism and neuroscience. His philosophy can be summed up in this quote: ‘The will-to-live does not appear in consequence of the world, but the world appears in consequence of the will-to-live (V.II, 360).

Schopenhauer talks about two kinds of will, one includes the other: the will of the world and the will of the individual which is also part of the will of the world. The will of the world represents itself in all forms of life on earth, including human beings. In other words, all forms of existence are a demonstration of the world to be or of matter to live. To Schopenhauer, this is the prime causer of conscious existence (human beings) as well as non-conscious existence, and continues to be the prime mover of all living organisms and their ultimate instinct: survival. The second will Schopenhauer assesses is the will of the human being which is both an individual will by itself and also the universe’s most successful attempt at representing its will: being a conscious form of life. Unlike the will which is always subjective to the universe and/or the individual, representation can be objective as well as subjective; Objective in being an object existing by itself (though still in representation of the will) and independent from conception, and subjective when perceived by the human mind or other living organisms (animals) which can perceive but are incapable of forming concepts. Other forms of the subjectivity of representation could be argued as Schopenhauer himself mentions, such as the secondary representation of the individual’s conception of the universe, but these infinite replications of the Platonic ideal are not Schopenhauer’s concern.

Schopenhauer’s is the most logical fundamental philosophy I have come across and one that has from the beginning gained my attention and agreement with its argument. Having said that, there are several issues I am having with it. One of which is his soft spot towards what he perceived as genuine Indian religions, namely Hinduism, Brahmanism and Buddhism as opposed to his unjustified aggressiveness toward Islam and disliking of Judaism. At one occasion he mentions, ‘atheistic Buddhism is much more closely akin to Christianity than are optimistic Judaism and its variety, Islam (V. II, 444).’ The named above Indian religions have, without doubt, contributed heavily to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, especially when linking concepts such as reincarnation to the infinite cycle of representation. Nevertheless, at times Schopenhauer enthusiastically praises India and gives it credit for groundless achievements. For instance he asserts that Christianity as a doctrine ‘is Indian in spirit, and therefore, more than probably, Indian in Origin, although only indirectly, through Egypt (V.II, 488).’ Not only does this claim an incorrect and unsupported history of Christianity, but it also claims bizarrely that Egypt, the oldest known civilisation in the world, is Indian or India-influenced at the least. On the other hand, Schopenhauer aligns himself with Christianity in a way that undermines the independent superiority of his philosophy.

I wish perhaps to try to resolve the deepest mystery of Christianity, namely that o the Trinity, into the fundamental conceptions of my philosophy […]. The Holy Ghost is the decided denial of the will-to-live; the person in whom this exhibits itself in concerto is the Son. He is identical with the will that affirms life, and thereby produces the phenomenon of this world of perception, i.e., with the Father, in so far as affirmation and denial are opposite acts of the same will (V. II, 629).

Not only is he aligning his philosophy with Christianity here to add to its weight, but in doing so he is also saving Christianity from its opaque mysticism. The Trinity are translated into direct and simple symbols to the essence of life: Will and its consequences.

Schopenhauer’s style is akin to the classical fathers in its simplicity and directness; something which he consciously achieves being opposed to the verbosity of many German philosophers known in his time and particularly Hegel. This makes him one of the easiest modern philosophers to read. His philosophy though borrows from religions and science, carrying over some mistakes from both, stands high and aloof above any faith or philosophy. Its fundamental achievement is in regarding the world comprehensively and logically without superfluous complexity, and spiritually without mystery or mysticism.

The Reviewed translations from German are:

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, VI. Trans. by Alistair Welchman and Christopher Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

This is a superb translation with a lot of explanations, commentary and footnotes; very helpful in understanding the context of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and his multifarious references to all fields of knowledge. This translation is also sufficient for getting a basic grasp on Schopenhauer’s philosophy and comes with a supplementary consisting of his critique of Kant’s philosophy. I look forward to the publication of the Cambridge translation of volume II.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, VII. Trans. by E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1966) – a reprint of The Falcon’s Wing Press edition of 1958.

This translation is equally excellent though it lacks the commentary of the newer translation and its fluidity. Having said that, this remains a masterpiece from its time and currently the best published second volume translation available. I particularly like the italicising of the conceptual phrases; something which the newer translation has adopted. I also like the use of Schopenhauer’s references and quotes in their original languages within the translated text, while translating them in the footnotes.

Note on my use of quotes:

To the critical reader, it may seem inadequate that I have quoted Schopenhauer only from his second volume. I only did so as he goes over many of the topics he discusses in the first volume in his second. It seemed to me more appropriate to quote him from his latest and most developed work while I was writing this review.

Review: A Woman of No Importance

3 Sep

A Woman of No Importance
A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Woman of No Importance is a short entertaining play of four acts, by Oscar Wilde. Lord Illingworth, the main protagonist of the play, reminds me a lot of Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Indeed his views and philosophy of life echo many of those mentioned in Dorian Gray. He and the rest of the featured aristocracy in the play represent the morally degenerated elite of English society and how dehumanising English and European (French novels mentioned) modernism has become. Hester, the American puritan novelist, on the other hand, stands for the purity and the morality England has lost to attain its condemned modernity. Hester visits England as a descendant of a generation which left England to America three hundred years ago, and after being shocked and insulted by English aristocratic modernity, she decides to leave, taking back with her to America the only two pure characters in the play -who also represent the last of the purity of England. This is a sign of the irredeemability of England’s immorality and the doomed irreversibility of its monstrous modernity.

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Review: Arabian Nights’ Entertainments

2 Aug

Arabian Nights' Entertainments
Arabian Nights’ Entertainments by Robert L. Mack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments is the very first translation in English of A Thousand and One Nights (1706-21). It was translated from Antoine Galland’s Mille et Une Nuit (1704-17) by an anonymous ‘Grub Street’ translator. Antoine Galland, a French scholar well-read in languages, is generally considered the European discoverer of the Arabic manuscript which was itself a translation of combined tales from Persian and Indian languages. The English translator, in spite of producing a superb translation lasting unchallenged for over a century, remains anonymous to this day. His choice for the title as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments rather than A Thousand and One Nights is very significant as it has from the start represented the book as something very different from what it really is. This also begins a naming tradition of the book which all succeeding nineteenth-century translators have preserved even though each of them claimed to be directly translating from original manuscripts.
The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments has been produced at a time when Europe was reconnecting with its medieval past through an unquenchable thirst for fairy tales, something which has massively contributed to the translation’s instantaneous success. It was even very popular amongst culturally influential figures such as Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli and Charlotte Bronte. Its stories are alluded to in their work, its plot imitated, and its themes and characters adopted and reincarnated.

The stories of The Nights are based within the frame of the story of Scheherazade. Prince Schahriar, having been betrayed by his first wife, decides that all women are ‘unchaste’. He marries a new bride every night and has her beheaded when the first beam of dawn appears in the sky. It is Scheherazade’s turn to marry the prince, and to avoid a similar fate to her predecessors, she devises the trick of telling the prince a new story every night. Her stories do not end by the end of the night, but become rather the starts of new stories to be told the following nights. Schahriar’s interest in the new story she promises to tell the following night, saves Scheherazade’s head from the executioner’s scimitar at every break of dawn. Some of the popular stories told by Scheherazade to Schahriar, including Aladdin and Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, are not based on the Arabic manuscript but are rather pseudo-translations devised by Galland to complete a thousand stories for the thousand nights he appears to have taken literally.
For over a century this version of The Arabian Nights has continued to be the sole representative of the people it has been given their name in the English language. Subsequent translations could only attempt to get beyond its centrality by exaggerating its stories and excessively annotating them. Its intimate scenes and sexual references have awed and offended its readers. Nevertheless its endless chain-like narrative has never stopped to inspire authors, artists and politicians, and its prisoner queen has been the subject of wild British dreams and illicit aspirations.

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