Saturday, 26 September 2009

Le Guin on respect

She wanted no more talk of Erreth-Akbe, sensing a danger in the subject. `He was a dragonlord, they say. And you say you're one. Tell me, what is a dragonlord?'

Her tone was always jeering, his answers direct and plain, as if he took her questions in good faith.

`One whom the dragons will speak with,' he said, `that is a dragonlord, or at least that is the centre of the matter. It's not a trick of mastering the dragons, as most people think. Dragons have no masters. The question is always the same, with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count upon his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you're a dragonlord.'

`Dragons can speak?'

`Surely! In the Eldest Tongue, the language we men learn so hard and use so brokenly, to make our spells of magic and of patterning. No man knows all that language, or a tenth of it. He has not time to learn it. But dragons live a thousand years ... They are worth talking to, as you might guess.'
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan, 1971

Friday, 11 September 2009

Wild Billy's Circus Story

The machinist climbs his ferris wheel like a brave,
And the fire-eater's lying in a pool of sweat, victim of the heatwave,
Behind the tent, the hired hand tightens his legs
on the sword-swallower's blade —
Circus town's on the shortwave.

Well the runway lies ahead like a great false dawn,
Fat Lady, Big Mama, Miss Bimbo sits in her chair and yawns,
And the Man-Beast lies in his cage, sniffing popcorn,
As the midget licks his fingers, and suffers Missy Bimbo's scorn —
And circus town's been born.

Oh and a press roll drummer goes ballerina to and fro,
Cartwheeling up on that tightrope,
With a cannon-blast, lightning-flash,
Moving fast through the tent, Mars-bent,
He's going to miss his fall —
Oh God save the human cannonball!

And the Flying Zambinis watch Marguarita do her neck-twist,
And the ringmaster gets the crowd to count along:
Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven ...

A ragged suitcase in his hand,
he steals silently away from the circus-ground,
And the highway is haunted by the carnival sounds:
They dance like a great greasepaint ghost on the wind ...
A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin,
Running home to some small Ohio town:
Jesus send some good women to save all your clowns ...

And the circus-boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire,
As the barker romances with a junkie, she's got a flat tire,
And the elephants dance real funky,
and the band plays like a jungle fire —
Circus town's on the live wire —

And the Strong Man Samson lifts the midget little Tiny Tim
way up on his shoulders — way up! —
And carries him home down the midway:
Past the kids,
Past the sailors,
To his dimly lit trailer;
And the ferris wheel turns and turns like it ain't ever going to stop,
And the circus-boss leans over and whispers in the little boy's ear,
“Hey son, you want to try the Big Top?
All aboard! Nebraska's our next stop.”
Wild Billy's Circus Story is the fourth track on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Bruce Springsteen's second album. Released thirty-six years ago today, just eight months after his astonishing debut, it's still one of his best albums: it has the madcap zest of Asbury Park, but more discipline; more poetry.

It's not a record afraid of juxtaposing different moods. The exultation of E Street Shuffle leads right into Sandy, an elegiac farewell to life in his home town; the sublime rock of Kitty's Back cedes to the sympathetic freak-show of Circus Story. The second side opens with the nonpareil Incident on 57th Street — an opera of a story told with equal parts joy and ache — and gives over to the celebration of Rosalita. And then the dreaminess of New York City Serenade at the end.

I wrote that there's not a single dull song on Asbury Park: there's not a single song on E Street that's not brilliant, perfect of its kind, with gorgeously written lyrics and music crafted to its mood. When Springsteen released it, he was not quite twenty-four years old. When I discovered it in my suburban teens, courtesy of one of my English teachers, it broke on me like a wave, and while the lives in these songs could not be more different from mine, I've been riding that wave ever since, and probably always will.

[Wild Billy's Circus Story is on YouTube in the album recording, a live version from 1974 (with some great old stills from the road), and a 1990 acoustic version, amongst others.]

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Le Guin on identity

Ged had taken hawk-shape in fierce distress and rage, and when he flew from Osskill there had been but one thought in his mind: to outfly both Stone and shadow, to escape the cold treacherous lands, to go home. The falcon's anger and wildness were like his own, and had become his own, and his will to fly had become the falcon's will. Thus he had passed over Enlad, stooping down to drink at a lonely forest pool, but on the wing again at once, driven by fear of the shadow that came behind him. So he had crossed the great sea-lane called the Jaws of Enlad, and gone on and on, east by south, the hills of Oranéa faint to his right and the hills of Andrad fainter to his left, and before him only the sea; until at last, ahead, there rose up out of the waves one unchanging wave, towering always higher, the white peak of Gont. In all the sunlight and the dark of that great flight he had worn the falcon's wings, and looked through the falcon's eyes, and forgetting his own thoughts he had known at last only what the falcon knows; hunger, the wind, the way he flies.

He flew to the right haven. There were few on Roke and only one on Gont who could have made him back into a man.
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Death, life, choice, and cost

It sounds paradoxical to link the desire for unlimited medical treatment to the desire for physician-assisted suicide. But the idea that there’s a right to the most expensive health care while you want to be alive isn’t all that different, in a sense, from the idea that there’s a right to swiftly die once life doesn’t seem worth living.

In each case, the goal is perfect autonomy, perfect control, and absolute freedom of choice. And in each case, the alternative approach — one that emphasizes the limits of human agency, and the importance of humility in the face of death’s mysteries — doesn’t mesh with our national DNA.
Ross Douthat on physician-assisted suicide and the American polity.

There have been a string of good articles in the last month on such cases, where deeply-held but ultimately untenable positions come up against life's conditions and boundaries:

Tim Kreider on not pursuing happiness.

Eric Zencey on GDP as an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Douthat again, on on the conservatism of Judd Apatow movies:
More than most Westerners, Americans believe — deeply, madly, truly — in the sanctity of marriage. But we also have some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world, and one of the highest divorce rates. We sentimentalize the family, but boast one of the highest rates of unwed births. We’re more pro-life than Europeans, but we tolerate a much more permissive abortion regime than countries like Germany or France. We wring our hands over stem cell research, but our fertility clinics are among the least regulated in the world.

In other words, we’re conservative right up until the moment that it costs us...
Concerning that permissive abortion regime, there's this over at First Things:
Prior to the legalization of abortion in the United States, it was commonly understood that a man should offer a woman marriage in case of pregnancy, and many did so. But with the legalization of abortion, men started to feel that they were not responsible for the birth of children and consequently not under any obligation to marry. In gaining the option of abortion, many women have lost the option of marriage. Liberal abortion laws have thus considerably increased the number of families headed by a single mother, resulting in what some economists call the “feminization of poverty.”
(From Richard Stith's Her Choice, Her Problem: How Abortion Empowers Men.) Back at the Times, RD muses on how the issue might have played differently, if Ted Kennedy had shared some of his sister Eunice's qualms about the practice.

On a happier note, a couple of books reflect, forty years on, on what was special about Woodstock. The answers may surprise you.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Le Guin on wildness and wonder

No creature moved nor voice spoke for a long while on the island, but only the waves beat loudly on the shore. Then Ged was aware that the highest tower slowly changed its shape, bulging out on one side as if it grew an arm. He feared dragon-magic, for old dragons are very powerful and guileful in a sorcery like and unlike the sorcery of men: but a moment more and he saw this was no trick of the dragon, but of his own eyes. What he had taken for a part of the tower was the shoulder of the Dragon Pendor as he uncurled his bulk and lifted himself slowly up.

When he was all afoot his scaled head, spike-crowned and triple-tongued, rose higher than the broken tower's height, and his taloned forefeet rested on the rubble of the town below. His scales were grey-black, catching the daylight like broken stone. Lean as a hound he was and huge as a hill. Ged stared in awe. There was no song or tale could prepare the mind for this sight. Almost he stared into the dragon's eyes and was caught, for one cannot look into a dragon's eyes. He glanced away from the oily green gaze that watched him, and held up before him his staff, that looked now like a splinter, like a twig.

`Eight sons I had, little wizard,' said the great dry voice of the dragon. `Five died, one dies: enough. You will not win my hoard by killing them.'

`I do not want your hoard.'

The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon's nostrils: that was his laughter.

`Would you not like to come ashore and look at it, little wizard? It is worth looking at.'

`No, dragon.' The kinship of dragons is with wind and fire, and they do not fight willingly over the sea. That had been Ged's advantage so far and he kept it; but the strip of seawater between him and the great grey talons did not seem much of an advantage, any more.

It was hard not to look into the green, watching eyes.
Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968.