A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

A-Tale-Of-Two-Cities-no-TT-1170x476

What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

crowd

Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

prison

In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

Paris

As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

A Tale of Two Cities

Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Recently, I completed the Gold Coast Half Marathon, slowly and rather painfully. It made me think of one of my favourite writers and his love for long distance running.

Haruki Murakami is a best selling Japanese writer whose works have been translated into 50 languages and sold millions of copies globally. He has completed over 20 marathons since the 1980s and one ultra marathon.

Haruki Murakam

Famous for his fiction works which blend fantasy with realism, it’s his non fiction work “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” [走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること Hashiru Koto ni Tsuite Kataru Toki ni Boku no Kataru Koto] which depicts his love of running so well.

The book’s title was inspired by Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. Murakami sits within the tradition of post-modern writers such as Carver, Kurt Vonnegut and J. D. Salinger. Frequently featuring western pop culture, music and themes, Murakami’s works are a pastiche of impressions, often surrealistic, melancholic or fatalistic, characterised by post-modernist themes of alienation and loneliness.

What_I_Talk_About

The reason he is one of my favourite writers is because he paints a world of magical realism; a world in which dream and reality intertwine curiously lending an otherwise inexplicable existence, something magical, something mythical, something akin to wonder.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” recounts Murakami’s foray into long distance running in his early 30s, some five years after becoming a full time writer. 

He equates the process of setting out on a long run with writing, both methodical decisions to complete a journey, often pointless to everyone except the one undertaking it. Used as a metaphor for existence, the race and the novel are both grueling but beautiful endeavours, inexplicable yet sweet, painful yet redemptive, each in their own unique way.

image what I talk about when I talk about running

Through running, as with writing, Murakami has met many people, seen many strange and remote places, thought hours of his own thoughts and suffered great highs and great lows. It is the same methodical discipline that Murakami applies to writing and to life.

As with Carver’s original, what is talked about when talking about running is far more trivial and yet far more profound. By running and by writing about running, Murakami explores the sweetness and mystery of being and becoming. The sweetness and mystery of life.

What’s in a spell?

This semester I embarked on the very first subject of a law degree, a study which, if completed at the current pace of one subject per semester, will take me 12 long years to complete.

As a lover of debate, dialogue, the parsing of meaning, the construction of ideas from mere ink marks on paper, much of law, even the introductory subject I have completed thus far, is fascinating.

For example, the legal definition of a “person” in Australian law is “a body politic or corporate as well as an individual.” [Acts Interpretation Act 1901 (Cth)]. So, to be a “person” in legal terms is to be more than a human individual, but also to be a business, or a nation, at least in terms of rights and responsibilities.

Screen-shot-2014-10-16-at-10.50.06-AM

The magic is that a business is created, or born, when a person or group of people register a business name, acquire an ABN, perhaps create a constitution outlining shares and duties and VOILA,  a person is summoned from thin air, from ink marks on paper.

It follows, ergo, that since words create things, and contracts and constitutions, rightly parsed and formally agreed upon, create something with legal force, an entity, a person, out of the air from nothing…. then laws are like spells.

Furthermore, after studying a few semesters of Biblical Hebrew, it came clear that the commonly used magical term “Abbrakadabra” had Semitic roots. “E’barah, ki’dibborah” literally reads “let it be [created] by the word.” The Hebrew verb barah is used in Genesis 1 to describe God’s creation of the heavens and the earth from nothing, from mere words or commands.

bereshit_bara_elohim_400x400

What unfolds though is an interesting correlation between ancient literature and modern physics. The Hebrew account of creation, in comparison to many creation myths of the Ancient Near East [ANE] saw all matter arising from the divine word or “logos”. Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian creation accounts of that time, told of the stars, planets, oceans and mountains being formed from the corpses of slain divinities.

Contemporary physics identifies energy underlying all matter, and asserts that our thoughts themselves create energy. It seems the ancient Hebrews understood the world is the articulation of a spectacular divine thought and word.

bereshith

Another unique feature of the Hebrew creation story is the nobility granted to humanity. Rather than a servile race, condemned to suffer from the whims of their makers, Hebrews saw humans, gifted with God’s image, capable of further shaping and forming the material world.

Indeed, it is by “words” that humans create laws, contracts, constitutions and so forth, which form societies, nations, businesses, relationships and more.

Percy Shelley in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” [1821] writes “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What he points out is that by the “word,” poets move ideas into energy. In doing so they bring into being, a force and energy, much like a law or a spell does. 

It is their poems, songs, elegies and ballads, which have the force to move humans, to move societies, and to change them and form them anew. 

The-Creation-of-a-Poet

It was and is the job of poets, much like lawyers and good governors, to bring life to societies, to nations, to businesses, to individuals and more.

 

The Danger of a Single Story

This TED talk from 2009 has been viewed over 11 million times and is ranked among the top 20 most viewed TED talks of all time.

It is a powerful reminder that the underrepresentation of cultural differences may be dangerous.

Dangerous? Indeed so.

In this talk, Adiche explains that as a young child, she had often read American and British stories, where the characters were primarily Caucasian.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.”

 

Listening, empathy and truly understanding the “other” as a nuanced person with perspectives, memories, dreams, loves and fears, is the heart and soul of true relationships.

When we listen to the stories of those who are unlike us, we can enter into true relationship with them.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian born author who is an alumnus of Yale, Princeton and Harvard.

You can see the original TED talk here.

Ozymandias …. by Zen Pencils

On May 26, 2015 Bear Skin posted a blog about Percy Shelley’s classic poem from 1818,  “Ozymandias.” The poem captures beautifully the Romantic notion of transience and decay of what was once proud and beautiful.

Having recently liked the sublime page Zen Pencils, an illustrative blog of all things inspirational, I came across this version of an illustrated Ozymandias.

It’s too good not to share. Enjoy!

166_ozymandias

 

Death of a Salesman

Death of a Salesman [1949] written by Arthur Miller can also be paraphrased as “Death of the American Dream.” The celebrated play is considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.

The play examines the life of Willy Loman, a businessman who is losing his grip on reality. Willy’s dissolution lies in his belief that a “personally attractive” man in business deserves material success.

This fixation with the superficial qualities of attractiveness and likeability are highlighted by his childishly dislike of the success of others won by hard work. Willy cannot accept the disparity between dream and reality and this leads to  his rapid psychological decline.

poster

His sons Biff and Happy are yet to make anything of their lives while Willy’s neighbours and older brother are successful. The family dynamic between Happy and Biff with their father Willy is one of disappointment and delusions. The son lie to their father about their plans for success while Willy reconstructs reality through flashback reminiscences of better days.

Willy is rude and unkind to his wife and neighbour, those most kind and caring to him. We learn that Biff’s lack of desire to pursue the American dream of business success, was birthed by learning his father was deceitful and philandering. Biff prefers to be an ordinary man with an ordinary life working on the land with his hands.

Willy refuses to accept the reality of what his sons tell him, preferring to slip into imagined flashbacks of what really happened in his past.

DoaS.jpeg

Set in post war America, Death of Salesman was written into the twin sentiments of modernist melancholy and post-war optimism. While the United States experienced economic boom and rising middle class prosperity, socially and spiritually her people were struggling with existential crises.

The narrative shares timeless truths in relation to individual and national identity, capitalism, ideals of success and notions of integrity, morality and hard work.

 

 

 

 

Nevermore

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—            Only this and nothing more.”

.

First published in January 1845, The Raven is one of the most famous and recognisable poems ever written.

raven

It certainly made writer Edgar Allen Poe widely popular within his own life time.

.

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
.
It is noted for its musicality and stylized language. The rhythmic meter is called trochaic octameter – eight beats per line, each beat having one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable.
.
the-raven-1935
.
The poem is said to be inspired by a talking raven in Dickens’Barnaby Rudge.  It tells of a bird’s midnight visit to a distraught lover, pining for his love Lenore, and illustrates the man’s slow fall into madness.
Characteristically Gothic and supernatural atmosphere, Poe makes use of a number of folk, mythological, religious, and classical references.
.

 Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
.
The main theme of the poem is one of undying devotion and the agonising conflict between the desire to both forget his love and the desire to remember.
.
eap
The narrator hearing the bird utter one word “Nevermore” assumes it is the raven’s “only stock and store”, and, yet, he continues to ask it questions, knowing what the answer will be.
.
   “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

 

the_raven

He was also known to give recitals of “The Raven“. A guest at one soiree famously noted…

.

He would turn down the lamps till the room was almost dark, then standing in the center of the apartment he would recite … in the most melodious of voices … So marvelous was his power as a reader that the auditors would be afraid to draw breath lest the enchanted spell be broken.

the_raven_by_poe_by_karo_design

Poe wrote of the poem which immortalised him,

the death… of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.

.

Indeed, The Raven in Gothic tone and mood, certainly captures a lover’s midnight reflections and agonies powerfully and emotively.

The Poet Who Painted With His Words

Guillaume Apollinaire [1880-1918], part of the Modernist set of artists, writers and thinkers who gathered in Paris around the turn of the century, was a unique poet who combined text and images into a new form of poetry, the Calligramme.

Champion of the avant-garde, writer and art-critic Apollinaire explained and defended Cubism and other experimental art forms to a suspicious public.  At a time of rapid change and a growing gulf between classical forms of traditional art and the emerging popular art forms of cinema and the phonograph, Apollinaire sought to bridge the divide and express Modernism with his poetry.

Through the Calligramme, Apollinaire created a “written portrait”, a “poem picture”. He sought to express the unfolding Modernism and unchain his readers from the conventions of poetry – to read and see something new.

You can see more about Guillaume Apollinaire via this brilliant video from TED-ED.

Momo

Michael Ende is best known for his novel “The Never Ending Story” [1979] however, the German author was a prolific writer of fantasy and children’s fiction, selling more than 35 million copies of his works in his lifetime and having them adapted into  films, plays, operas and audio-books .

His fantasy novel Momo [1973], also known as The Grey Gentleman explores themes of modernism and materialism and the power of a young girl to simply give people a most valuable asset, her attention and time.

momo

Set on the outskirts of an unknown Mediterranean city, perhaps in Italy, the story centres around a neighbourhood of simple folk and an orphan, Momo.

Living in the ruins of an amphitheatre, Momo does not know how to read or write, nor does she know her own age. She however has a unique gift for truly listening to people. Momo is considered to be somewhat of an advisor to all the people of the neighbourhood for helping them solve their petty problems by simply listening.

Momo does not say much but her gentle ability to listen to people helps them untangle their problems themselves. Momo’s closest friends are Beppo, the street sweeper and Guido, a tour guide.

momo 3

Into the tranquil world of this community come the Men in Grey, bald men with greyish skin and grey suits who represent the Time Savings Bank. These men indoctrinate the people of this town to the value of ‘saving time’ which requires depositing time in accounts in order to gain interest on it.

Gradually, activities perceived to be time wasting such as socialising, art creation, imaginative playing or even sleeping begin to be replaced by hectic work and stress.

Momo remains immune to the powers of the Men in Grey. As her friends no longer come to her for counsel, she perceives the irony that the more time people save, the less time they have.

original

Momo is assisted by curious creature called Cassiopeia, a tortoise who communicates with words illuminated on her shell and who has the gift of future-sightedness.  Cassiopeia introduces her to the Administrator of Time,  Professor Secundus Minutus Hora, who grants her one “hour lily”, freezing time for one hour, long enough for Momo to infiltrate the lair of the Men in Grey.

Momo discovers the the Men in Grey are not real humans but are in fact parasites living off the time deposited in their bank by people. The cigars they smoke are made from dried “hour lilies” deposited in the bank for saving and without these cigars, the Men in Grey perish.

It is Momo’s challenge to deprive the Men in Grey of their cigars while simultaneously releasing the trapped “hour lilies” kept in the bank for safe keeping, and return them to the people who have lost them.

momo__s_grayman_by_leupeso-d37qni0

Written at the end of modernsim and at the cusp of post-modernism and the flowering of neo-spiritualism, Ende like the Romantics before him, lamented the gradual erasure of the mystical, spiritual or esoteric from human life in favour of utilitarianism, materialism and economic rationalism.

To Michael Ende, children such as Momo are unique symbols of resistance to adult preoccupations such as materialism, work, stress and time saving.

His story is an essay to the magic of friendship, the importance of time, the power of stories, the significance of compassion and the value of the small but pleasant things that make life more worth living.

momo 2

Our unlikely hero is Momo, whose invincibility lies in the fact that her childish imagination can see through the Men in Grey, and her love for her friends leads her to courageously challenge the establishment which would rob them of their most precious asset -time.