English, France, Literature, Writing

I Believe in Fairies

Well I just returned from an excellent meal on Montmartre (de Leopold if anyone is interested) this evening, and I consider myself to be at the perfect level of contentment to write this article. How’s that for a title, eh?

I’ve long had a semblance of an idea in the back of my head that, to me, seems relatively novel. And like all ideas that seem novel to the individual, it is likely an idea that someone has articulated far better than I ever could (and is quite famous to boot). Regardless of the fact that it is likely not novel in the slightest, it certainly seems uncommon. That is, I rank my beliefs by how much I believe in them. It doesn’t seem that strange at first but think about it. If someone said ‘I believe in God but not as much as I believe in gravity’ it seems odd. Or at least it ought to. If you believe in God at all, that is, the omnipotent God. Then by saying that you believe in God less than you believe in gravity, then you are more or less denying the existence of God.

To say I believe in Hell but less than this apple is to damn yourself. Frankly it is ridiculous, if a single shred of you believes in an eternal pit of fire (eternal – try to imagine an eternity), then you damn well better believe in it more than the apple you hold in your hand – or at least hold it equal, as most people have a binary view of existence (real or not). This is a concept with which I have always struggled – if one is truly Christian and believe that there is the possibility of eternal torture because of things that you have done on earth – then the only logical thing to do is become a monk and devote yourself wholly to being holy. In comparison with eternity, the human lifespan is non-existant. With such a brief trial and such a long, long, long reward, why would ANY believer be anything but a devout hermit praying every waking hour?

This is kind of a demonstration of the ‘levels of belief,’ sure one many believe in God, but manifestly not so much as he believes in what is in his hand or right before him.

This is something that my mind ran with as a child. I stratified my beliefs – and by doing so I was able to believe in things that many people found ridiculous without putting them on par with my core or observable beliefs. In some cases it runs along the lines of provability or how ridiculous I would sound if i shared it with someone (although ever since one of my English professors at University told me that he believed wholeheartedly in fairies, I have had a much easier time with this belief).

So here is how this works for me – at the highest strata I have things that are core to my existence or directly observable. Here you find the belief in God (more on this in a minute), gravity, evolution, apples, etc. In the next level you have things that seem likely to exist or possible but we haven’t confirmed it yet – things like aliens and other civilizations falls under this category (I mean there are trillions of galaxies, we can’t be that special). Just below this is the eponymous level: here I have fairies, dryads, fauns, elves, etc. Then there is the level of larger things, things that I can’t tell myself ‘oh they’re hiding from us’ and that would be larger things like dragons, griffins, etc. Then there is non-belief.

If you were to ask me: ABlaine, so do you believe in God? I’d say yes, then if you asked me if I believe in fairies, the answer would be the same. I believe they both exist. It is the fact that I believe in the former that that I can believe in the latter. And as someone raised Catholic, it is very hard to just become wholesale atheist. As I said earlier, if a single fiber still believes, you may as well go for it all the way. In a way this is something like Pascal’s wager. And if an omnipotent god exists and he made us, why couldn’t these other things exist?

An it makes life so much more interesting to read Arthurian legends or Ovid’s Metamorphoses as though they actually happened (although Ovid was quite clear that he did not believe in the things about which he wrote). And there is a strong western bias here, for example I don’t believe in voodoo and the like. I am a product of Western culture, what can I say? When I go to Brittany to visit Merlin’s Tomb, the Mirror of Fairies, or Morgan Le Fay’s home – it is inexplicably more exciting for me than others.

And this is an excitement that can be found in gardens, forests, plains, mountains, the sea, anywhere really. I don’t expect to see any of these things in my life (much like the lost devout Christian would go to their shrink if they heard God speaking directly to them). But such beliefs color life in an extremely interesting way – and they give you insight into how our ancestors lived for millennia.

English, Literature

Middle English- A Fading Tradition

Less than 40 years ago Chaucer was still a critical part of the progression of an English student. At the very least there would be the expectation of having studied ‘The Canterbury Tales’ if you went to a relatively good school in the UK or a private academy in the US. If you studied English in University you could expect to also read ‘The Parliment of Fowls’ and ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ of Chaucer, ‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland, and ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ by an unknown poet today called ‘The Gawain Poet’ or ‘The Pearl Poet.’ These are magnificent and hugely influential writings that have been slowly forgotten by modern English speakers. And, although they are seldom read outside of academic settings, their influence is still felt in the literature. Old poetry like this doesn’t die, the tales and themes live on in the works of men who had read them.

This is one of the greatest arguments for studying Middle English (beyond the fact that it is really easy to pick up), you will begin to see the influence that ME works had and still have on English today! It is almost as eye opening as when one reads the bible for the first time and starts to see biblical themes everywhere in literature. The influence of poets like Chaucer is difficult to shake!

In the old way, my school still required public recitation in class. And one of the things that we had to memorize was the first lines of the Prologue of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ These are lines that have been studied for over 700 years and used to be common knowledge among all educated adults. Please listen to them read aloud, the are really quite beautiful:

It sounds foreign and difficult to understand but read read the beginning here:

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
8: Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
9: And smale foweles maken melodye,
10: That slepen al the nyght with open ye
11: (so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
12: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
13: And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
14: To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15: And specially from every shires ende
16: Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,

It really isn’t the difficult to understand, and with a well annotated reader, one could be reading it as easily as Modern English by the end of ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ People who haven’t read ‘The Canterbury Tales’ tend to think that they are rather short, but these are not tales in the vein of Grimm rather these are short stories – some 40 pages long. Unfortunately fewer and fewer people are reading these wonderful stories. And the few that do read them on translation! A real shame because ME is so easy to pick up with a little effort.

If you are at all on the fence about learning this wonderful poetic and literary tradition (a tradition you are a part of as an English speaker), please read the Miller’s Tale. It is as funny as South Park, but you’ll also be able to brag about it.


Literature, Writing

Marginalia: Reading as a Conversation

For the first time in a long time I sat down to read without writing in the book. I had walked all the way to a small park in the center of Paris (Jardin Nelson Mandela, just west of Les Halles), sat down on a concrete bench and took out my poorly taken care of copy of Paradise Lost. Usually there are large groups of Algerians listening to indecipherable French rap music through their phones, but no music today! It should have been so nice…

I had forgotten my pen.

With nothing to write with, I had no choice but to carry on, I had walked all the way there after all. It was terrible, and it totally reassured me of the value of marginalia. Especially with a long, complicated book like Paradise Lost, writing in the margins as you read really helps you keep track of what’s going on, who is talking, etc. I also like to make notes of obvious references to other literature that Milton put in his poem (usually Latin and Greek works). Further, it helps with pacing, it is very hard to skim if you are busy underlining, circling words, and writing short reactions.

Reading ought to be a conversation. Writing in the margins keeps you more engaged, and now that you can’t unconsciously skim, you retain much more. Beyond retention, this process also adds a very personal touch to your book. It makes it much more entertaining to return to five or ten years later. An should you want to find a quote that you really liked 400 pages ago, you probably marked it the first time you saw it and can quickly find it by flipping through the pages.

Lastly, when you read a really long novel with an enormous cast (Russians…) it can make it way easier to follow. When a long conversation started between major characters, I’d write right up front which Nikolay this is; how he is related to Sofia, which house they are at, etc. After doing this for a few hundred pages you develop an extremely intimate understanding of the family trees and begin to glimpse complicated family politics. You might be surprised how many things were slipping beneath your notice.

Give it a try, it might seem tedious at first, but it is a habit worth developing.

Literature, Uncategorized

Good Writers and Great Readers

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King

Of course to be a great writer one has to write a lot (though perhaps not so much as Stephen King…) but that is self evident. The thing in which I am more interested is the place of reading insofar as becoming a great writer is concerned. this seems self-evident, writing is the other side of reading! Of course they would be closely linked, however I’d, if I may be so bold, go even further than Mr. King. I believe to to be a great writer one has to be a phenomenal reader.

But why? If the goal is to become a good writer then why wouldn’t one spend the majority of his time practicing the art itself? Well, at a simpler level, think of it this way. You learned to speak via listening to your parents, if you spent most of your time working with what you already had… well, you would not have gotten very far. When you were learning to write, if you spent the majority of your time writing and had very little input from people that had already learned to write, well your writing would probably not improve very much would it?

We learned to speak by listening to a huge amount of material and eventually trying ourselves… but even then we listened far more than we spoke. It is the same with writing, if one focuses on practicing writing in and of itself but rarely or never draws from those far more skilled, then growth will be heavily stunted.

Reading graces the reader with experience, exposure to new styles of writing, as well as new plot devices and vocabulary. Not to mention the sheer joy of reading a good novel, poem, or story. And better, the reader doesn’t have to put much effort into the exchange. Provided he has a well developed attention span and is willing to look up the odd word he doesn’t know, all that is left is to enjoy the fruit of a stranger’s labor. And, of course, passively absorb what makes their work so enjoyable (or distasteful) to you.

Good writers are not just ‘good’ readers. I’d say to be more than a middling writer one has to be a great reader. Being very, very well read is the first major step to being an excellent writer. There is no way around it.


More than a Novel

“It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”                                                                                                           – Leo Tolstoy

When I first read War and Peace, I treated it as many do: as a slog, a final march one has to complete before he can say ‘Yes! I have read far and wide and, at long last, I am finally well read!’ naturally with an attitude like this the book is extremely difficult and left little impression on me. A month ago I was browsing Galignani on rue Rivoli looking for something new to read – a good friend of mine recently moved from Paris to St. Petersburg and I had Russians on my mind. I picked up Anna Karenina and remember reading that Tolstoy had declared this to be his novel, where War and Peace was some nebulous story that even Tolstoy couldn’t put a finger on. A week later, having finished Anna Karenina, and having begun to glimpse what others saw in Tolstoy –  I returned and purchased War and Peace.

And there it stood on my shelf. Thirteen hundred pages glaring at me as I sat at my little desk. As the immediate euphoria of Anna Karenina  wore off I began to recall the difficulties I had had with War and Peace so many years ago. After a week or two of nonchalantly covering the book or being ‘too busy with my studies.’ I gave in, picked it up, went to the park and read. Three hundred pages later I was sold. It was a masterpiece.

A few days later I finished and couldn’t believe it – it felt like it should never end! Everything was so real and the world so vast, how could it just be gone? A familiar feeling, to be sure, when one finishes a particular wonderful novel (or book, I should say). But now it was magnitudes greater and feeling very palpably weighed on me.

Why? Because War and Peace is not a novel. It follows none of the standard clichés and tropes that one would find in a novel (especially a self described novel of that period in history). There are no heroes, there are no heroines. The problems are all real and shown from every imaginable perspective. Count Rostov might have financial problems but to the soldiers with whom his son serves he seems unimaginably rich. Dolohkov is a loving son and brother who searches for a pure and wonderful girl for a wife. But he is also terribly spiteful and constantly destroying the lives or his friends on accident as much as on purpose. Then this same man is a hero on the battlefield.

Natasha herself, probably the most famous character from the entire book, is impossible to describe without writing another book. Her youth and subsequent coming of age is so convincingly written that she might well be real. In many ways the description of her growing up reminds me of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man sure the means of telling the story is different: Natasha’s youth is described from a indifferent 3rd person perspective. But they are similarly convincing. And the most incredible thing is that Natasha is just a facet of the entirety of the book.

I really can’t recommend it enough. Having returned to it once, I am sure I will be returning to War and Peace many times in the future.