Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Journeys, Ithaka - Inside the Wave part 2

(follows on from my posting 10th June of Helen Dunmore's wonderful poem "Inside the Wave.")                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 So Odysseus' wanderings over ten years, on the way home from the Trojan War, take him into enchantment, imprisonment, danger, and suffering, through all of which he keeps his destination firmly in mind: his wife and son Penelope and Telemachus, and his own realm, the island of Ithaca.

In discussion recently, a close friend said I seemed to be much interested in journeys. That got me thinking.

Odysseus gets home to find his wife besieged by suitors who have told her that the old boy must be dead by now; they want to marry his wife and take over his lands. They have been eating greedily and boozing and behaving really very badly, exploiting the code of hospitality, which is at the roots of civilization. Penelope has remained true to Odysseus. Just. She's had to be crafty about it. But Homer was a realist, and there are suggestions she enjoys the flattery just a bit. Well, who wouldn't? And maybe the old boy is dead?

Well he isn't. He draws his mighty bow - no-one else can - and he and Telemachus slaughter the lot. (This was an age of warrior-heroes, not gentle the moral code of the time, they had it coming.) 

But travelling changes us, journeys move us along, not just physically.

"At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
"Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore."

                                                 "The Dry Salvages," TS Eliot

There is only the journey. Everything changes, always - and maybe accepting that, living in that state of being, helps us live better, eases some of life's pains. Stasis can only be relative. (I'm almost tempted to refer to a recent political slogan about stability..) We're always travelling, it only looks as though we've "settled down." The great children's author Arthur Ransome wrote that a house is just a boat that's been moored rather too long.

As for Ithaka - Cavafy tells us it's the journey that matters more than the destination, so we should value it. Embrace the change fully.

 "As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean."

                                                                                  "Ithaka," CP Cavafy

"These Ithakas." We need them, but they are not ultimate realityThat's only to be found 

Dunmore's Penelope won't touch her hero; Odysseus is left gazing into,  meditating on,  the inside of the wave:

"And so he lay down
To watch it at eye-level,
About to topple
About to be whole."


Helen Dunmore - such a loss, such gifts she leaves with us.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Cavafy''s barbarians.

A poem by the great Alexandrian Greek poet CP Cavafy.

Wise old bird

 When we have an election, we divide and argue about The Best Things To Do Next, then we vote about it, and then, hopefully, we come together again and be with our friends and family even if they did vote for The Other Lot.

We define ourselves against The Other, weak or strong, the generalised Not Us But Them..Perhaps we need them not to be us so we know who we are.

"The Barbarians Are Coming"

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

            The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Helen Dunmore

In amongst the raucous cut and thrust, the sneers and groans and cheers of the run-up to the general election, the poet and novelist Helen Dunmore died, aged 64. 

It's easy not to notice her quiet voice amongst the self-advertising noise of our literary media. She wasn't a particularly fashionable writer; I'm quite surprised how many of my well-read friends have hardly heard of her (no point-scoring intended.)

The best of her writing has a grace, a lightness of touch, that I'm going to be cheeky enough to recommend to you. It's a kind of enlightenment. And it works so well because of the clarity of her gaze at the physical world about her.

In her novels, her imagination often worked very successfully through historical settings; her last novel is set in Bristol, amongst a group of radicals, in the days of the French Revolution. Its use of history - the tensions between public and personal - I find highly effective. 

She didn't find out she was dying until she was editing the novel, but in an afterword, she wrote that she must have known subliminally because the novel was “full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm." 

Her last book of poems, "Inside the Wave," is full of that sharp light. The title poem in particular, gives me what Eliot illuminated for us: the intersection of time with the timeless moment. It uses the story of Odysseus; I'll not bang on about it, though I might in a separate posting. Here it is for you:

"Inside the Wave"

And when at last the voyage was over
The ship docked and the men paid off,
The crew became a scattering
Dotted, unremarkable,
In houses along the hilltop
Where the lamps flamed in welcome
And then grew dim, where a woman turned
As if from habit to the wall.

In the bronze mirror there was a woman
Combing what was left of her hair
And beside her, grimacing,
A dirty old mariner.
He swore and knocked back the chair.

Yes, then Odysseus opened his mouth
And all that was left
Was the sound an old man makes
Between a laugh and a cough.
His toenails were goat's hooves
His hair a wild
Nest of old stories,

He straddled the tiles
As a man of the sea does
But she would not touch
His barnacled lips.
From the fountain, pulse by pulse
Came gouts of blood.

Everything stayed as it was,
There was no unravelling
Of wake behind him,
No abandoning
Uwanted memories and men.
Besides, the earth stank.

He went down to the black rock
Where the sea pours
And the white sand blows,
He turned his back to the land
And thought of nothing
For the voyage was over,
The ship dragged by a chain
Onto the ramp for inspection.

The waves turned and turned
Neither toward nor away from him,
Swash and backwash
Crossing, repeating,
But never the same.
At the lip of the wave, foam
Stuttered and broke.

It was on the inside 
Of the wave he chose
To meditate endlessly
Without words or song,
And so he lay down
To watch it at eye-level,
About to topple
About to be whole.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Enzyme gods

(Warning –this is likely to be an uncertain and tentative sort of posting...)

BBC Radio 4, "In Our Time," was about enzymes this morning. It was full of wonderful insights, even, or perhaps especially, for a non-scientist like me.

 I add this diagram (nicked off the internet ) in a spirit of confused humility!

Brilliant chemists, like this morning's panel, often need to find analogies to move their understanding closer to ordinary more or less colloquial speech. The panel's chair, Melvyn Bragg, asked "what would happen if there were no enzymes?" The answer was crisp and clear: there would be no life. At all. 

At one point, they were discussing the mind- boggling speed and effectiveness of enzyme reactions within cells. The way enzymes single out chemical situations and speed them up, or allow them to happen at all, sounded truly awe-inspiring.

Using the only sort of analogies that are available to most of us, Bragg said  they sound almost intelligent. 

The panel got a bit uneasy with the idea of intelligence at the level of chemical reactions, and framed it all entirely within the random processes of evolution.  I suspect the panel could feel at their backs the spectre of "intelligent design," of evolution as designed by God the Father, of the dogmatic ignorance and intolerance of some fundamentalist Christians.

But my little brain was whirling. Here was a contact point for those who who don't accept the anthropomorphic God of the Christian Bible, but who want to feel the presence in our lives of something more profound and more, er, sacred? than our ordinary human perceptions and context for actions.

Chemists can do extraordinary things with genetic engineering into the activities of cells and the enzymes, right down to the level of genes and DNA. So it is not, I hope, to obfuscate the rational power of their thinking with some wishful, vaguely consoling mystical mist, to say that the sense of wonder I felt at this point in their discussions was pretty close to what people often rather lamely call religious.

I guess I'm trying to say that a scientific view of the chemical reactions without which there would be no life is so complex, it reveals so intricate and powerful a life force, and it is so completely part of the rest of the universe that we call not-life; such a view can  make me feel the presence of what I have to call sacred because I don't know another word for it. 

I don't know another word because when we're in touch with this presence we enter states  of being and realms of paradox that may not be expressible in ordinary linear, rational speech.

I'll finish off this ramble with a very neat little observation from one of the chemists. He said that bacteria are much more adaptable, smarter chemists in one sense, then we are. They can adapt molecules to create new molecular combinations that they need. 

We can't do much of this. For example, we can't create vitamin C, but if we don't put any into our systems then we get scurvy, horrible things happen to us and we are likely to die. 

So we eat stuff with vitamin C in it and that passes into our systems so our teeth don't start falling out. A vitamin is just a term for an essential substance that we can't synthesise within ourselves. 

OK, there's nothing intelligent or divine in the ordinary sense about what bacteria do when they use enzyme reactions to adapt to their environment. They do what they do, they can't help doing it, they have no choice about it!

But look - enzymes can work at 10 to the power of 17. The lifetime of the universe, the chemists said, is calculated as 10 to the power of 16. (I had to let that thought-flare burn through for a moment...)

So: enzymes can make thousands of reactions occur per second that would otherwise take beyond the lifetime of the universe. And all life depends on these enzyme functions. That sounds pretty close to what people used to call omnipotent, Godly. This is within their own context of course, and literally countless other things have to happen, and have happened, for enzymes themselves to exist.

If they are Godly, they have no morality or allegience or other human attribute. So at least you can't claim they're on your side. The drone pilot and the suicide bomber, Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, the Pope and Ian Brady are all (or were) entirely enzyme-dependent!

A human being has been described (by one of them) as "just a puddle of chemicals." Just???