Monday, December 22, 2008

Prophetic Men and Music

I am happy to say that I've got A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall pretty down pat. I just played it again after a few days not and made it all the way through without reading or stopping, which started one of the more satisfying rounds of music I've had in a while. Sometimes you get in a mood that you just don't want to change, but all things have a right ending. I played a few songs in between - an old original that has never been better, free falling (for old times sake, one of the first songs I learned on guitar freshman year - I remember being corrected on the strumming of part of it but just not getting it at the time), Josh Ritter's Potter's Wheel (another hard one to remember, though not quite as bad as Dylan's), and finally, just playing around with the sounds of the guitar and coming up with something right and letting it naturally end. I remember once seeing a spiritual show - I was recruited to help out ushering through someone I met at work - in a giant church in west downtown-ish Portland, by that long park with the statue fountains. There was chanting in sanskrit and spiritual sing alongs to lines like 'there is so much magnificence...near the ocean...near the ocean...' and I think my favorite part was when the husband (of the husband and wife duo) started playing a Beatles song and the wife wasn't too happy about it. (They also had an amazing young Indian-flute player.) But they were big on letting their songs fade out into complete silence; there was no clapping to cover that moment. They went so far as to say that that was the point, or the best part, which they probably meant (it was something to do with the spiritual part, I suppose). All this to say it is nice to play music alone and almost unheard so you can sustain the mood even after.
I wanted to follow up the last post about the Hard Rain with a quote from Nietzsche about prophetic men. Why? A lot of what I like about that song is its almost biblical feeling of prophecy - the young man comes home with mysterious insights which are portents to him of a certain kind of future. There's something powerful in prophecy, or at least in the ability to appear prophetic, which makes it something desirable - like, ooh, I would like to be like that. I'd like to write that kind of song, I'd like to make that kind of work of art (예술품), I'd like to be that kind of person. Enter Nietzsche with a response to this kind of feeling that arises in the admiring spectator. The passage is from the Gay Science (316):

Prophetic men.--You have no feeling for the fact that prophetic men are men who suffer a great deal: you merely suppose that they have been granted a beautiful "gift," and you would even like to have it yourself. But I shall express myself in a parable. How much may animals suffer from the electricity of the air and clouds! We see how some species have a prophetic faculty regarding the weather; monkeys, for example (as may be observed even in Europe, and not only in zoos--namely, on Gibraltar). But we do not heed that it is their pains that make them prophets. When a strong positive electrical charge, under the influence of an approaching cloud that is as yet far from visible, suddenly changes into negative electricity, these animals behave as if an enemy were drawing near and prepare for defense or escape; most often they try to hide: they do not understand bad weather as a kind of weather but as an enemy whose hand they already feel.

I like this passage - it's a good reprimand, and it is somehow comforting to think that prophetic men had to suffer for their 'gift' and didn't just get a handout in it - it makes the world seem both more expansive (there are whole feelings we don't know) and more just (if they had to suffer, they earned it). I also like the parable he uses to illustrate it just in itself - the idea that animals can predict the weather because they feel the pain from it, they feel it as an enemy - a good imaginative leap on N's part (more feelings we have no idea of), and dramatically-written. I'm curious about the pseudo-scientific reasoning he gives for it - a cloud's strong positive electrical charge suddenly changing to electricity to cause animal pain? Is that explanation really dated or naive or does something along those lines happen? (I clearly know no science.) And finally, I like that there actually are monkeys in Gibraltar, in England, and that Nietzsche took the trouble to point out that he knew this. I wonder, did he actually go there to look at the monkeys? Imagine that scene, complete with the spectacles and mustache. Or, as is more likely (and less funny), did he just hear an account of the monkey-viewing from an acquaintance or friend? Finally, telling us at the beginning of the passage that we "have no feeling for that fact that" prophetic men suffer humanizes them and is a call for us to feel compassion for them rather than applaud them as a phenomenon. I remember somewhere else in Nietzsche's corpus (I'm not going to bother finding out where) he characterizes the artist or poet more generally as one who suffers and tries to communicate his pain, only to be met by cheers and enthusiasm for it. It's an idea I've come across before - take one of Dylan's later great albums, Blood On the Tracks - he names it that for a reason. Those are some of the most pain-filled songs I know. "You're a Big Girl Now" "If You See Her Say Hello" and "Buckets of Rain," for instance. And a more living case - I once worked at a show for a singer-songwriter named Ellis, who was one of the most engaging performers in that between songs, she talked a lot and laughed like a dork in a way that made people happy and really like her. Her audience loved her, anyway. During the show, after a round of making everybody laugh, she said that she was so surprised at a show earlier that week when an audience member approached her and asked her how she could be so happy all the time. She didn't know she appeared that way, and told that girl something like, "Happy? Are you kidding? I was crying my eyes out an hour ago!" And everybody, her included, laughed about that one too.
Anyway, it's all well and good to wish to be prophetic, wish to be an artist, wish to be profound, what have you. But it's also good to recognize that in order to avoid being fake or superficial about it, to avoid pursuing an image of it (imagining yourself from an audience's point of view), going with this wish is also being okay with being unhappy for a lot of it. Maybe one does not want to suffer that much for it, maybe one is not strong enough to do so, and there's something to be said for that, too.
But the best part was about the monkeys on Gibraltar. It cracks me up that Nietzsche made a point of that. Apparently they're called Barbary Macaques, they don't have tails, and it is theoretically punishable by law to feed them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hard Rain

I want to memorize the lyrics to A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall so I can play the song without looking them up on the computer. It's such a fun song to play, I promise. I just came across a cover of it by Jason Mraz (track 10 here), and though he plays well overall I don't like it. He does things like throw in "you bet it's a hard rain" or "I met a man who was wounded in love 'til I met another man who was wounded in hatred", showing that he doesn't have the proper respect for the lyrics - he just adds in words as filler that either add nothing to the meaning or changes it in a dumb way (what does it mean to meet someone until you meet someone else?). He also changes the guitar and makes slight changes in vocal rhythm, and the guitar is nice and more pretty-sounding, but one of my favorite things about playing the song is the relentless 3/4 rhythm of it - the strumming goes 1 2 3&1 2 3&1 2 3&1 2 3& (you get the idea) and that rhythmic effect is one of the two main aspects of the song that gives it its hypnotic effect. The other is the held-back quality of the lyrics - there seems to be a lot behind each line but we're not given enough to easily figure out what they mean. A series of cryptic, non-rhyming lines is usually a recipe for bad lyrics, but this song is saved by two things - its form, which gives it some degree of structure and coherence, and the lines themselves, which are both poetic and all fit together in a certain mood if nothing else.
I recently read an essay by Phillip Pullman, the author of the Golden Compass, about the writing of Richard Dawkins, in which he observes that a crucial feature of good writing is to maintain a sense of the bigger picture in the readers. Part of the reason Lord of the Rings is so successful, according to Pullman, is that we know that everything that happens works towards a bigger, simple goal - Frodo has the drop the Ring of Power into Mount Doom and destroy it. Pullman thinks Dawkins is good at providing a big picture view like this in his scientific writing. (It's also a big part of Nietzsche's appeal - his claim to thoughts that 'span millenia' and make you feel as if you understand the basic direction of the Western tradition since the Ancient Greeks.) I think the Dylan song here is held together by a bigger picture as well, though it's kind of hard to articulate. We're listening to a dialogue and can sense the situation - a young traveler has just returned and is being asked about his journey by someone older who seems to know, love and understand him: calling the traveler "my darling young one" repeatedly and asking a follow up question after each answer, in increasing urgency - oh, where have you been? what did you see? what did you hear? who did you meet? And the son answers each time in such a way that his listener understands him but we only get a sense of what the listener is hearing. The son predicts some momentous happening beyond our comprehension, some disaster, some hard time, which leads the listener to ask the hardest question of all - what'll you do now, with your knowledge? And without a glitch in the rhythm, this elicits the final verse, which is pretty much heroic. And it's the last line before the refrain that gets me as I'm trying to play it, knowing that I don't know the lyrics or understand them but I'm warbling it anyway - "and I'll know my song well before I start singing." That's why I'd like to memorize the song, repeat it, and take the time to try to understand it, all just so I can really play it. That's also why I don't like it when someone musically talented like Jason Mraz plays it and is just singing words and making everything sound soft and emotional and pretty. He gets this last line slightly wrong and then repeats it (for emphasis of its significance, which he doesn't understand), saying "I'll know my songs well before I start singing," as if Dylan is just talking about making sure he's rehearsed his set list enough.
I guess the important thing that holds together the son's report on his journeys is that it seems like he was changed by everything he saw. A lot of it is charged with disillusionment and compassion, noticing the injustices, the outcasts, the unfairness of life among ignorance of it - obviously with "I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'; I heard the song of a poet who died in a gutter; I heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley". But it seems like an honest and not all that happy look at life in its human complexities, one that necessitates the conclusion that we're up to a hard time and a challenge, which is what makes the last verse as inspiring as it is: he'll go straight to the heart of it, the worst of it, in order to reflect it to all of us and bring it out, and I think that's what he means by the song he has to know well, which why I think it misunderstands him to carelessly pluralize it.
Let us know if you have any thoughts on the song, the lyrics, the cover, any specific literary references you think he may be making, the state of the world, or whatever. I guess it's just worth mentioning at the end here though that the question and answer format of the song is based on an old ballad called Lord Randall, published by Francis James Child, and in that song the son character is telling his mother about being poisoned.

UPDATE: video clips from Christmas Day (they're cut off pretty suddenly).

Monday, December 8, 2008

Coming Home

Hello everybody! I admit I've been lax on the blog posts lately, but many things have been happening. Since my last post, I've flown from Korea via Bay Area back to Portland Oregon, and from there down to my country home in Roseburg to recover from jet lag.
There is a part of me that would like to be multilingual and international - this part wants me to go back to Korea for a long time and really get a grip of the language; it also makes me want to spend at least a year in Germany in order to rescue the language skills I learned in college. How great it'd be to move between those three languages - English, German, and Korean - I'd feel quite cool. But another part of me recognizes that that sounds like too much effort. It's a big relief being back in my home state where I understand the culture and the store signs, street signs, newspapers, and magazines are all in my native language. There's a strain to being a foreigner, and sometimes it doesn't seem like a bad idea to save your travel money and stay home.
Oregon is beautiful, too. As obvious as this may seem, it's striking, especially from the air as the plane starts coming down, that there are a lot of trees. Also, the hills are beautiful this time of year with all the soft grays of the oaks. Oregon may not have dazzling fall colors, but the subtlety of the colors in winter are awesome. Though I don't have any winter photos of Oregon right now (my camera having been on my Korean phone), here a few late summer pictures of my state from before I left.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

English in Korean

Here's a list of Korean words that have been adopted from English. It may be good practice with alphabet to sound them out and then try to guess what they mean. The answers are below.

1. 마트
2. 센터
3. 테레비존
4. 하우스
5. 피아노
6. 바나나
7. 컴퓨터
8. 소파
9. 기타
17.브라드 피트

1. Mart (a lot of small convenience stores have names that end in this)
2. Center
3. Television
4. House
5. Piano
6. Banana
7. Computer
8. Sofa
9. Guitar
17.Brad Pitt
22.Apart (short for apartment)
23.Air Con (short for air conditioner)

Koreans call these kind of words 외래어, which means words from foreign countries. There are a ton of these in Korean, and not only adopted from English. For example, 아바이트 is adapted from the German Arbeit, which means work, and in Korean it refers to the kind of work you'd do as a part-time job, like working in a cafe. And of course there are a huge number of words in Korean that are derived from Chinese, including the number system used to count days and currency, that have become a major part of the language. These are called 'sino-Korean' words. This means that knowing Chinese would be really helpful in understanding Korean, kind of like Latin would be useful in learning English, but it seems more directly.
Anyway, this list should give you a chance to practice sounding out han-gul letters as well as a sense of what sounds are lacking in Korean and how other western words and names are likely to be adapted into Korean. I can continue to add to the list as time goes on.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Names of Korean Letters

In my last post about Korean, I introduced the Korean consonants. Now it seems like a good idea to have a quick post about what those are called so we can talk about them. Most of them are pretty regular so it's easiest to just list them and you can very easily see the pattern. The form of my presentation will be consonant: consonant's name.

ㄴ: 니은 nee-eun
ㄹ: 리을 ree-eul
ㅁ: 미음 mee-eum
ㅂ: 비읍 bee-eup
ㅇ: 이응 ee-eung
ㅈ: 지읒 jee-eut
ㅊ: 치읓 chee-eut
ㅋ: 키읔 khee-euk
ㅌ: 티읕 tee-eut
ㅍ: 피읖 pee-eup
ㅎ: 히읗 hee-eut

That's right, the basic form of the name of a consonant is two syllables: that consonant plus ㅣ and then that consonant ending 으. [I've romanized ㅡ as "eu" for lack of a better way, and that's how they do it on the subway system for stops like 대흥 (Dae-Heung)].

There are a few irregular verb names:

ㄱ: 기역 gee-yuk
ㄷ: 디귿 dee-geut (diggit)
ㅅ: 시옷 shee-oat

The English glosses are more accurate if you say them quickly rather than drawing out each syllable.

Finally, there are the double consonants, and for these, you just add the word 쌍 (meaning 'double') in front of their single counterparts.

ㄲ: 쌍기역 ssang gee-yuk
ㄸ: 쌍디귿 ssang dee-geut
ㅃ: 쌍비읍 ssang bee-eup
ㅆ: 쌍시옷 ssang shee-oat
ㅉ: 쌍지읒 ssang jee-eut

That takes care of the consonants. Be sure to look at the last post on consonants to make sure you're pronouncing them correctly.

The names of the vowels are much easier than the consonants. To name a vowel, you just make its sound, so the name of ㅏ is just "ah", the name of ㅜ is "ooh", and so on.

Now that you know the names of the letters, you can verbally communicate how a word is spelled in Korean. So 강 (river) is spelled "gee-uk, ah, ee-eung". This should be moderately useful if you're learning new Korean words verbally and want to know how they're spelled to help you remember.

This post was so easy that I wrote it while drunk. :)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some Recent Photographs

It's been a while since my last post (I think perhaps the longest stretch since this blog's inception) so I want a quick post to catch up. Of course, I have quite a few ideas in the works but not the time to do them, and I may let them die for fresher thoughts.
Here are a few mood pictures from my journey home today from work. The first is near Sinchon station in Seoul; the others are closer to where I live.

Somehow on the bus ride home I was fascinated both by light and by lines. It is ridiculous how many surfaces reflect the many lights of a moving city and the interior of a full bus at night, and how much that light can shift and change with such detail. In this picture I like the dominance of the lines over the distant crowd of small people, the unidentifiable white splot (new word, somewhere between spot and splotch) on the first stripe, and the perspective provided by the lines.
I also thought of something I was told once, that psychologists have shown that lines do not exist out there in the world but are made by our brains. The person who told me this was incredulous about it; I'm still not sure precisely what it means. (What would it mean for lines to be "out there" in the world?) But we certainly make plentiful use of guiding lines in cities. Sometime during the ride, however, it started raining softly and stopped again, so that when I disembarked everything had more of a haze to it. The streets were also shining.

There is a book by a Proust scholar and philosopher called the Art of Travel in which he explains the appeal of lonely night-time scenes of transitional places like roads, train-cars, and hotels using the art of the Edward Hopper, whose paintings invite you to wonder about the solitary figures they depict. Most of his paintings are in transitional travel places that many would see as mundane; for instance, a gas station, an automat, and a hotel room. The man in the first picture passed me walking up the hill in this late night rainy scenery with a business suit and briefcase. It was probably the last leg of his day's journey from his apartment to work and back again, a period of involuntary introspection and quiet when there is nothing to do but put one foot patiently in from of the other to bring himself home. Who knows what is going through his mind - something in Korean, most likely. ;)
Photography is one of the most introspective mediums, but I don't pretend to be an artist in it. The pictures as shown here are as high quality as they're going to get; they were taken on a whim with my cell phone. I also noticed that the pictures don't end up framed as they look on the phone's screen when I try to take the picture, so when I get a picture I like it is usually pure luck. This last one is most like that; I just stuck the phone out of the window of a moving car this weekend during my trip to the southern coast of Korea. I was really lucky to get some of the Korean letters painted on the other lane, which is one of my favorite parts of the picture. I believe those are rice fields and a small bridge in the background.

And we'll end with some pictures near the ocean; I will soon be crossing that beast again at 30000 feet, though to the east, not in this direction, which is south. Those are islands that you see in the distance in the first one. There are quite a few of them in that direction, and many are developed just as the mainland.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Stay Home

I want to share a poem by Wendell Berry. It is the first one of his collection called "A Part", published in 1980. I have a copy of it that was given to my dad from his professor as a wedding present. The poem is called "Stay Home".

Stay Home

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man's life
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.

I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.

Does this poem have any resonance with you? Berry is really a poet of the country, a farmer-poet who loves the land. Right now I am also reading a book by him called Andy Catlett: Early Travels, in which a grandfatherly voice narrates a trip he took as a nine year old boy to visit his grandparents in the fictional town of Port William. It is all about the old ways retreating under the advance of modernity, and Berry seems to me an intelligent advocate of simple conservatism - preserving a known good and settled way of life - without any of the intolerant social views associated with that term.
I remember being really impressed with an article of his that appeared in Harper's earlier in the year. It was called "Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits", a cry for us to realize and live within our limits, for example in natural resources like oil. He wants us to realize that limits are not confinements but allow for fullness of feeling, elegance, and that within the limits of, say, a small farm or a short poem, there can be inexhaustible lessons. He wants us to recognize that we live within certain self-imposed limits in society and in personal relationships - in love, in family for instance - and that our happiness and freedom lie more in this voluntary self-restraint than in the absence of any obligations or barriers to our desires.

I like this poem partly because the agrarian message does resonate a little with me. That lifestyle sometimes seems more simple, more fulfilling, more physical, more real. But I mainly like it for the sentiment of its refrain: "Don't come with me. You stay home too." While it pulls you in to his love of the country, it also pushes you away and tells you or reminds you the importance of staying with what you love.

It's interesting in this context to see how farming is treated by Thoreau. I don't know if there can be a bigger contrast. He seems to think the farmers he sees are stuck with it to their great misfortune, and it's only ignorance that keeps them toiling away:
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labour in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot!...But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and theives break through and steal. It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

I think both Thoreau and Berry value nature in some sense, but it is very different between the two of them. Berry wants to participate in the land responsibly, to work in it and feel it. While Thoreau wants more to be able to wander through it freely, observe it, and let it inspire him and be a mirror for his exploration of himself. His is a more leisurely appreciation.

In the future I hope to have a post on the contrasting ideas of freedom in Berry and Thoreau - for Berry, living within the limits of place, relationships, and society and indeed seeing them as voluntary self-restraints, and then finding the inexhaustible meaning within those; for Thoreau, getting away from all relationships and obligations and experiencing true leisure and self-exploration. I'll maybe approach it through sociology and bring Nietzsche in for commentary. But right now Berry's attitude seems more mature to me, whereas Thoreau's is more extreme, Romantic, self-absorbed, and childish. It reminds me a little of how he is quoted in Into the Wild. Because of this current leaning, I'll let Mr. Berry of Kentucky have the last word, though it's not one that has to do with this particular topic. This poem is from later in that same collection, and it is called "Woods".


I part the out thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.

I like that poem, too. I'd be interested in any comments about these poems, whether you like them or don't get anything from them, as well as anything about the limits/restraints/freedom issues that I mentioned that might be relevant to a future post.