Monday, July 31, 2017

Who was the first sinner in the Bible?

If you know anything at all about the Bible, even if it's only something from the first few chapters of Genesis, you probably have a pretty good idea about the identity of the first sinner. Of course, defining "sinner" might be part of the challenge.

Whom would you name? Adam? Eve? Cain? Someone else?

Well, you might be wrong. So you might want to read this brief article.

You might also enjoy the additional links within and at the end of the article. 

Now, let the discussions begin. What do you think?

God's Grandeur by Hopkins

First there is this magnificent sonnet, "God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

And there is this personal postscript:

In invite you to read the sonnet aloud. Savor the sounds: the assonance, alliteration, rhythms, and rhymes (internal, end, near, slant, and others).

Notice how the closing sestet, easier to read aloud, responds to the more difficult to read aloud opening octave. What contributes to the ease and difficulty? Now ponder this: in what other ways is the sestet different from the octave? which is negative? which is positive? why the differences? These are very important considerations.

Any thoughts?

By the way, to my mind, this is a masterpiece by Hopkins. If you want to enjoy some of the best poetry written in the English language, read more by Hopkins.

Now I invite you to share your reactions to and explications of the Hopkins sonnet.

Also, to keep the conversation going forward, I hope you will recommend other poets who focus on God's grandeur. One poet who comes to my mind immediately is Emily Dickinson, and perhaps I will be featuring more poems by her in the near future. But, friends, in the meantime, I look forward to your recommendations.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

In the beginning: my focus on the Holy Bible

Okay, here is the baited hook: I'm now going to embrace and reject my own words.

The words to which I refer are included in my comments within my previous posting (i.e., the post entitled "Blogging Notes and Queries").

The "embrace" is encompassed in my sad but true understanding that what I have done in past postings and what I am about to do in future postings has much to do with attention and ego; in other words, my ego dominates me so much that I seek attention for my postings. It is part of the universal human condition: we speak in order to be heard. Moreover, we speak often in order to communicate with others in conversations. So, I hope future postings will lead to conversations.

However, because of what I am determined to do in future postings, I try to "reject" those previously cited words -- attention and ego -- and instead I embrace the life-and-death compulsion to understand my place in this world and beyond. My single-most indispensable guide for that understanding is the Holy Bible. I understand that some people think the Holy Bible is God's word; other people think the book is merely a book filled with stories. As for myself, I tend to be among the former rather than the latter. But we will not debate the issues underlying the differences of opinions.

Now, even as I realize my future postings by their very nature will be personal and selfish, perhaps without wide appeal or interest to or acceptance by others, I will nevertheless try to keep my focus on the Bible's cultural, historical, and literary matters rather than my own religious or spiritual reactions and musings. Those latter will considerations will be private. This is, after all, a book blog. So, I will focus on the book as a book.  

Of course, I will continue to offer postings on other items of interest. 

So, friends, even though I know what I am about to do with respect to the Bible is filled with ironies and problems, I am determined to proceed. And here is my fervent hope: I hope you will continue to visit here, read the postings, offer comments, and join the conversations. Help keep me focused on my promised focus: the cultural, historical, and literary aspects of the Holy Bible. 

Moreover, on a related note, there is this article about Biblical narrative and knowledge.

Well, what do you say?

Let me begin the discussion in a different, perhaps more provocative way: What does the Bible mean to you? 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Blogging Notes and Queries

I wonder. Why do people write blogs, why do people visit blogs, and why do people comment upon blog postings? 

Each question, I think, can have different answers. 

Do you have any answers to the questions. 

I have a few. Some will amuse, some will surprise, and some will offend. 

However, you go first with your comments. Let's see where the discussion takes us. Will we be amused, surprised, or offended? I wonder.

Postscript: Take out the word blogs, and substitute words like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or any other social media network. I bet the same answers work for all of those options.  But that's just my cynical speculation.  And I guess my use of the word "cynical" foreshadows my answers. Hmmm.

Missing: Biblical metanarrative in literature

First there is this:

Although there may still be some, as Flannery O’Connor describes them, “Christ-haunted” places in the South, the biblical metanarrative as an operating cultural storyline is almost nonexistent.

Do you want to read more? Follow this link.

In what works of literature, from the past or in the present, do you see Biblical metanarrative operating as a storyline? My favorite author of such literature is Flannery O'Connor, and I will be rereading her work and posting about it soon. However, in the meantime, I hope you can add to my reading list.

So, what do you say?

My Own Heart by Gerard Manley Hopkins

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
‘s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

"My Own Heart" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Public domain.

And there is this personal postscript:

Hopkins gives us a sensible sonnet

About comfort in spite of our torment,
And I have not a thing further to add,
Which must be comfort to everyone.

Friday, July 28, 2017

John Ashberry on some words worth pondering

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery (books by this author), born in Rochester, New York (1927). He grew up on his family's fruit farm near Lake Ontario. He went to a small, rural school, and although they read some poetry, all of it was old. Then he won a contest, and the prize was Louis Untermeyer's anthology Modern American and British Poetry. He didn't understand many of these contemporary poems, but he was fascinated by them - poems by W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. A generous neighbor, seeing how bright Ashbery was, paid to send him to a good academy for his last two years of high school, and he started writing poetry more seriously. He went on to Harvard, and he published his first book, Some Trees (1956), when he was 29. He has been publishing ever since. His books include Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), A Wave (1984), Where Shall I Wander (2005), and Planisphere (2009).

He said: "I don't quite understand about understanding poetry. I experience poems with pleasure: whether I understand them or not I'm not quite sure. I don't want to read something I already know or which is going to slide down easily: there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience."

And there is this personal postscript:

Ashberry's words about reading, understanding, and experiencing poetry, words about resilience and crunch worth remembering, are among the most sensible and helpful that I've ever encountered. 

What say you?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Ralph Waldo Emerson and a yellow-brick road to Puritans

So, as I announced in a previous posting, I began reading about Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But that led me to reading about Unitarianism.
And then that led me to reading about Harvard Divinity School.
But then I wound up reading about Congregationalism.
Well, of course, the next link backward in the seemingly endless chain was Puritans.

At this point, I've thrown up my hands in frustration. Everything I read sends me backward in time to something else. The antecedents seems endless.

Hey, does something like that ever happen to you? Let's talk about the problem.

Perhaps I should stop now and face up to the fact that I should read more about Puritans, colonial America, and the connections that will eventually take me back to where I had meant to start: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Otherwise, how will I properly understand Emerson's life and environment. 

Now, what did this posting signify? Probably not much. But it is, I guess, evidence of the sorry state of my Swiss-cheese mind. Moreover, it demonstrates that I have hit a helluva snag in my previously announced plans to read about Emerson, Hawthorne, Fuller, Alcott, and Thoreau in mid-19th century Concord, Massachusetts.

So what should I do? Well, here is a solution: I will instead follow the advice Dorothy received about where she should begin her journey along the yellow-brick road in The Wizard of Oz: begin, of course, at the beginning. 

So, I'm returning to the beginning -- Emerson's New England antecedents -- with the book featured below. I have a feeling that I'm going to be on the yellow-brick road, with its potholes and detours, for quite a while before meeting up again with Emerson et al

A poem for a summer morning in the late autumn of life

Here is a poem from today's online edition of The Writer's Almanac.

Entitled "Brothers at the Reunion" and written by Athena Kildegaard, the poem resonates with me on this fine summer morning in the late autumn of my life.

I have no comments on the merits of the poet's technical or aesthetic artistry. I leave those considerations to people who are poetry experts. Instead, as an old man standing near the exit sign, I tell you that I very much like the poem, and I invite you to read the poem and offer whatever comments suit your fancy.

The old men stood below the exit sign
laughing and cussing as though they were
in a well-lit bar—though they’d all
given up drink years before. They cussed

for the electricity of the words. Some, widowers
who hadn’t kissed a woman in years, stroked
the air with their hands. They didn’t touch
one another. The one holdout blew smoke

away from their privacy. They did not talk
of faith—these men whose father had been
a deacon—they disagreed. Instead they told
the old stories about creek beds and whippings

and snakes in mailboxes. And jokes featuring
viagra and gravity. Their laughter bound them,
that and a loss of faith in their bodies,
though desire hammered there still.

"Brothers at the Reunion" by Athena Kildegaard from Bodies of Light. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2011

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review Redux: American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever

I offer you the following book review, copied from BookLoons (site linked here) where it originally appeared; I have also appended a postscript at the end of the review: 

American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work 
(Simon & Schuster, 2006)     

Special moments occur in history when certain lives and circumstances intersect - as if ordained by a higher power - and the world is enriched because of those intersections.

The Golden Age of Greece was one such moment (and philosophy, literature, and architecture were forever altered and influenced); the English Renaissance was another such moment (and, once again, literature, including drama and poetry as rendered by William Shakespeare was changed); then, during the middle of the nineteenth century in a landlocked town a few miles west of Boston, Massachusetts, another special intersection of lives and minds occurred.

That intersection is the subject of Susan Cheever's magnificent book, American Bloomsbury. Yes, this golden age of American literature was of a scale and quality different from its Greek and English antecedents, but - as argued by Cheever in her exciting narrative - it was, for all of its differences, the most important and most intriguing intersection in American literary history.

With Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord, Massachusetts, as the gravitational center of their intellectual and social universe, four other geniuses - Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau - gathered together, and 'these men and women wrote some of the most enjoyable and enduring works in American literature'. Moreover, they 'debated and wrote about original ideas that continue to shape our beliefs about environmentalism, feminism, sexuality, freedom, education, materialism, spirituality, and the importance of the individual.'

In a period of about twenty-five years in the middle of the nineteenth century, the American character was given its special shape and voice; in fact, if you want to understand America's intellectual heritage, and if you want to understand the challenges that continue to confront American culture, then you simply must read Cheever's American Bloomsbury. This must-read book offers everyone 'a fresh and intimate look at a very special time and place, where five giants of our culture tangled with one another and the world, and wrote the books that inspire us still.'

In closing, I would add only this additional endorsement for Susan Cheever's superb study: As a former university instructor of literature, I have found the one book - above all others - that I can recommend to anyone who wants to appreciate the significant forces, ideas, and personalities in 19th century American literature; better than individual biographies, American Bloomsbury is wonder-filled portrait of five of America's most important literary figures. Don't miss it!

* * * * *


The reason I have offered you a reprint of this review is because I will be revisiting the times and lives of people in Susan Cheever's book. Perhaps you ask, "Why?" Well, like a ship without a rudder, I have been drifting around without any navigational control for the last few months, but I think I can regain some sensible direction and purpose by spending some time with Hawthorne, Alcott, Thoreau, Emerson, and other great minds of the era. Herman Melville, although not a major player in Cheever's book, also waits for me.

Moreover, my previous posting this morning -- about Aldous Huxley's dystopian vision in Brave New World -- has been the catalyst for my reading plan. Perhaps the following excerpt from the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (which appears as an epigraph in Cheever's book) will make this all a bit more clear:

"I think we escape something by living in villages. In Concord here there is some milk of life, we are not so raving distracted with wind and dyspepsia. The mania takes a milder form. People go a-fishing, and know the taste of their meat. They cut their own whippletree in the woodlot, they know something practically of the sun and the east wind, of the underpinning and the roofing of the house, of the pan and mixture of the soils."

And there is this excerpt from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (which also appears as an epigraph in Cheever's book):

"There is always room and occasion enough for a true book on any subject, as there is room for more light on the brightest day, and more rays will not interfere with the first."

So, ponder those epigraphs and my previous posting, and you might have an insight into why I am returning to a simpler life via my vicarious experiences in Concord and the 19th century. 

But there is more (and this is important):

I remain an eclectic, impulsive, and unpredictable reader. So, even though I have declared my renewed interest in the Concord group, I will still be including all sorts of other books, postings, digressions, and comments here at Informal Inquiries. Perhaps some things will pique your interest. 

Perhaps you have comments, and you might also have special favorites and a few reading recommendations from the American Bloomsbury era. And what on earth do you think was in the water at Concord? Something was going on there. Well, ponder that for a moment. At any rate, I look forward to hearing from you. Let the discussions begin!

Brave new world and radical surgery

Good friends, I have performed some radical surgery on this blog. Superfluous tissue has been excised, and only the bare bones remain. On this denuded skeleton will be a rebuilt blog with what I hope will better focus, better discipline, and better content. And here is a big irony: I promise not to make and break any more promises here.

Well, for whatever it might be worth, here is the first two-part offering in my brave new world of blogging.

This first part comes from The Writer's Almanac:

     Today is the birthday of English author Aldous Huxley (books by this author), born in Godalming, Surrey, in 1894. He was born into a family of intellectuals, writers, and scientists: his father was a poet and biographer; two of his brothers became respected biologists; and his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a famous biologist and naturalist who received the nickname "Darwin's Bulldog" for his defense of the theory of evolution. On his mother's side, Huxley was related to the novelist Mary Humphry Ward, the poet Matthew Arnold, and famous educator Thomas Arnold. Even among these luminaries, Huxley was gifted, alert, and intelligent.
     Huxley lost his mother to cancer when he was 14 years old. Two years later, when he was a student at Eton, he suffered an illness that left him almost completely blind. A blind man couldn't be a scientist. A blind man couldn't be a soldier, either, so Huxley stayed home while many of his peers went off to fight in World War I. Huxley had to rethink his career aspirations. He turned instead to literature, and studied at Oxford, where he met and befriended D.H. Lawrence. In 1916, Huxley published his first book - a collection of poems.
     He married Maria Nys in 1919, and the couple traveled a lot during the early years of their marriage. In his book Jesting Pilate: An Intellectual Holiday (1926), Huxley wrote about the people and cultures they encountered on their travels. He liked the vitality and energy of the Americans they met, but he thought that energy was wasted on mindless pursuits. "Nowhere, perhaps, is there so little conversation [...] It is all movement and noise, like the water gurgling out of the bath - down the waste. Yes, down the waste."
      Huxley published four novels in the 1920s, including Crome Yellow (1921) and Point Counter Point (1928), as well as numerous essays, poems, plays, and six books of stories. And in 1931, he began work on a novel that he intended to be a light look at what the future might hold - a satiric response to the utopian novels of H.G. Wells. He wrote the book in four months. It was Brave New World (1932), and it ended up being a darker book than he'd planned. The book is set in London in the year 2540, a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford's assembly lines. People are genetically engineered and mass-produced in hatcheries. They're fed a steady diet of antidepressants, amusements, and sex to keep them complacent. When George Orwell's dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in 1948, people liked to compare the two and argue about which bleak future was more likely to happen. Huxley defended his vision, saying it would be easier to control people through pleasure than through fear.

This second part is a personal postscript:

Let me repeat a portion of the foregoing article. "And in 1931, he began work on a novel that he intended to be a light look at what the future might hold - a satiric response to the utopian novels of H.G. Wells. He wrote the book in four months. It was Brave New World (1932), and it ended up being a darker book than he'd planned. The book is set in London in the year 2540, a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford's assembly lines. People are genetically engineered and mass-produced in hatcheries. They're fed a steady diet of antidepressants, amusements, and sex to keep them complacent."

I sense that life for most people in 2017 is too much like Huxley's vision of life in 2540. It seems to me that we are engineered, manipulated, and medicated creatures living on steady diets of chemicals, diversions, and pleasures. And I wonder how we can save ourselves from this dystopia.

Do you have any thoughts on all of this?