Monthly Archives: June 2020

‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, by Daniel Defoe – review

A Journal of the Plague YearA Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The biblical cyclicity of history proclaims that what is happening now happened before because there’s no new thing under the sun. As I agree with the cyclical history theory, I prefer stories that confirm the continuity of human nature, which results in this felicitous book I came across on the Kindle store. The precedent epidemic scares and the response to them in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, a classic 1722 account of the Black Death that devastated England from 1664 to 1665, do not read no less different than ours. Defoe’s recounting of the plague successfully resurrects the spirit of the epoch as his narrator guides the reader to the places and scenes of the seismic event in the capacity of a charitable and knowledgeable guardian of posterity, making them surprisingly familiar with ours.

It is a literary eye-witness account of what happened during the resurgence of the bubonic plague that had ravaged Europe hundreds of years earlier in the semblance of a nonfiction narrative. Even though Defoe was only five years old when the plague swept England, his fictional narrator feels very real and the account telltale as though it had been written it in the spirit of Veni Vidi Vici. So much so that the story seems more veritable than the counterpart of Samuel Pepys, whose narrative feels comparatively prosaic without the personal charm of the narrator. The reader will also learn that the 17th-century modus operandi of dealing with a pandemic is not that far from the current 21st-century preventive measures of social distancing, personal hygienic disciplines, and other relevant systematic societal restrictions.

Defoe holds up a mirror to his posterity that shows what it was like during the epidemic scare and what the people from days of yore did to sail through such calamity as a wise and warm advisor to our current global pandemic situations. In fact, while I was reading the book, I was surprised by how similar the cautious measures decreed by the authority were then to our own now. In my opinion, this book replaces Boccaccio’s The Decameron as a must-read during the pandemic, because of its power of reality drawn on empirical oral accounts so close to the lives of the ordinary folk that we can relate to our own time.

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the ugly princess

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Many moons and suns ago when the Nymphs of the West

Tended and guarded the Garden of the Hesperides,

In the city of Alcantara, there lived a king, the most

Loving father of all who loved his only child in spades,

So utterly ugly in every possible variety of imaginations

That her presence made the beholders into muted stones.

They called her Ugly Altamira, but the king called her Love,

Showering her with Bounty of Beauty, Treats of Tenderness,

Telling her how beautiful she was as a magic spell of love.

 

Whereas the princess in her father’s glamour spell drove men away –

Prince Alanbam, the hundred knights in armors, and the barber –

All fleeing with horrors of taking her hand and kissing her lips.

Then the king told the princess to marry the Church in a veil

To which she retorted, “I will not marry the Church but find

A husband in the land beyond the sea where the day never dawns

And the night is eternal, so beauty is seen common in darkness.”

 

Therewith, the princess amounted her beautiful white horse

For departure to the land of equality when the elegant figure

Suddenly appeared at the gate of the castle whose visage was

Beaming with beatific beauty with a voice sonorous and melodious.

Felisberto, the blind fiddler, exclaimed in the bliss of love mysterious:

“Princess, you need not look anywhere else but to behold one

To whom night and day, ugliness and beauty are all but one.

Since all your suitors are too bashful to marry you so beautiful,

Allow me to be of your service as a husband who makes you happy,

For beauty is as beauty does, so is the pleasure of love in all fancy.

 

Thereupon, the princess dismounted her beautiful white horse

walked to the handsome fiddler and touched the beautiful face

of the man with tenderness and love full of passion and felicity

by which the man became ecstatic with the sensuous touch

of the delicate beauty of the princess and kissed her tenderly.

 

Thereafter, the princess and the fiddler married and lived happily

In a castle from the window from which they could see the Hesperides

Water the garden of divine golden apples and dance around the tree always.

 

P.S. The subject matter of this poem comes from a Spanish folktale of ‘The Ugly Princess” who was so homely that everyone except her loving father couldn’t stand the sight of her presence as though she had been a violation against the natural law. The father’s indoctrination of confidence as a positive reinforcement into his daughter is worth noting as a proto-clinical behavioral therapy in relieving the patient’s depressive obsession with her unattractive physical trait. In fact, the king’s therapy was so successful that the daughter’s identification with prime beauty that was deemed too high for the underserved was remarkable and seemed simply magical.

From movies to novels to the profiles of the authors and of the administrators of social media platforms, the social spencersim of the beautiful champions the law of attraction, whether or not you will vehemently disagree with that usual enforcement of the mantra of self-confidence equipped with a feminist armor and a diversity-rule shield. For beauty gives confidence to a woman in a social setting, and that’s the truth. No wonder folklore treats beautiful women as a rewarding virtue that handsome men are worth fighting for. 

Although the ending of the Ugly Princess is unrefutably sweet and happy, I cannot help but relate it to the ending of  ‘Plain Girl’, by Arthur Miller – review in which the not so attractive but intelligent protagonist Janice Sasson ultimately finds the consummate love of eros and psyche in the figure of the handsome blind musician. Does the happiness that Janice so cherished have to be in the form of blindness? Can’t a woman deprived of glamour and the matching social adroitness meet and fall in love with a handsome man full of warmth, tenderness, and understanding?  Does it have to be a blind man to whom nothing is different, hence an absence of beauty is acceptable?  Does love agree at best only at night?

the journal of cat writer #1

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The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said, ” Don’t feel harmed, and you won’t be, and you haven’t been.” Centuries later the emperor’s medieval Christian heathen Thomas Aquinas corroborated that no words should do harm on the soul of the heard. Well, it’s easier to say than to be done, especially from the high chairs of big wigs. So much so that none of those self- hypnosis of affirmation prescribed by the privileged rings true to me as I am trying to put together pieces of my heart.

The cause of the malady of the heart ensues from my twitter correspondence with a literary man over my prescient knowledge of Theodora, a former comedian turned the wife of emperor Justian of East Roman Empire in the 6th century A.D. She was later canonized in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and her feast day is November 14, which he had denied. As it is my nature to strike up a meaningful conversation based on knowledge with an intelligent person with seeming affability, I commented on his tweet politely in bona fide intention to inform him of ill-conceived intelligence. However, the response felt heartbreaking with a blunt inflection that froze my heart instantly.

By the spirit of utilitarian knowledge, I guided him to Wikipedia source that corroborated the fact. Despite his gratitude for the rectification, the disheartening incident has only cemented my long-term speculation that it’s either I was born luckless to have a seamless casual conversation with a stranger or I am hexed to be kept from anything nice even to the simplest and smallest degree happening to me – ever. Methinks, everything I think and touch turns useless gold with a feckless Midas touch.

As Shakespeare aptly described, my nature is modulated by what it works in, like the dyer’s hand. I have also found that these flaunty intellectual men and women in the habiliment of affable erudition often turn out to be a superficiality of knowledge and disappointment of heart, floundering me ever in the lurch of disillusion. Moreover, although they seem so dazzlingly smart, they are not always omniscient. Maybe, I think, unless you are educated under the tutelage of kindly Chiron, the wise elderly centaur to whom Achilles, the son of Thetis, and Asclepius were entrusted, the immaculate acquisitions of knowledge and cultural finesse require divine intervention.

‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, by Washington Irving – essay

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Shakespeare once said that ghosts were amiable, harmless in want of company to console their haunting loneliness, lost in the crossroads between this world and that world. But that is not the case of the headless ghosts – the angriest and most terrifying of all other specter ilks, evoking the most primitive sense of fear to the eyes of beholders by the sheer eeriness of the appearance.  Because they despaired and died in oft violent ways, the headless ghosts are putatively the most furious and vengeful with the domes of their souls forever lost. No wonder there are legends of headless knight riders prevalently existent in the universal world.

Meet the famed headless nightrider of the Sleepy Hollow in New York. Originally hailed from a province of old Germany, he used to be a soldier fighting on the British side during the Revolutionary War who was decapacitated by an American cannonball. His battle buddies buried him without the missing shattered head. The residents of Sleepy Hollow believed that the soul of the unfortunate young German soldier risen from his grave by his supernatural ire burning with vengeance against the earthlings that killed him was restlessly riding his phantom horse at night furiously brandishing a Jack-o’-Lantern in a semblance of face made out of a displaced pumpkin as his a makeshift head, glowing in a flame of fury as to light his nightly way.

The indelible image of the restive headless horseman is terrifically and vividly resurrected by the literary alchemy of the great American writer Washington Irving in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in which the unlikely protagonist of a meek, naive, willowy school teacher of New England by the name of Ichabod Crane stumbles into his frightful encounter with the Horseman on his fateful night during his doomed journey home. Woe betided the unfortunate benevolent schoolteacher believed to be spirited away with the headless horseman to the legion of wandering spirits in between the world of the living and that of the dead till the eternity.

Apart from the spectral elements of the story, Irving’s characters in the story convey the displaced post-colonial sentiments of unease for the present and uncertainty for the future in the chaotic aftermath of the war that was supposed to beget promptly promising bright outcomes to the post-colonials. The nervous semi-detachment from the old world’s cultural and political authority and the unsettled practical value of the war due to all kinds of border chicanery in the still socially volatile post-war valence of setting intersperse the story in the fumbling figure of naïve Ichabod haunted by the furious ghost of a fallen soldier from the war. The legend of Sleepy Hollow is Irving’s superb storytelling of the birth of a new culture begotten from its old motherland at its infant stage of building a national character afresh with its own cultural capital, such as folklore endemic to the new land of hope that Irving so cherished.

The good teacher Ichabod Crane

Flees from the Headless Horseman

With all his gentle might in vain

For the ghost rider outruns the man.

Now the riders roam in the shadow

Looking for recruits in Sleepy Hollow.

P.S. This short essay on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is my contribution to a weekly Twitter event whose theme for this week is ‘The Headless Horsemen”, which seems to prevalently existent throughout the cultures of our global village. What uncanny synchronicity is to come upon this subject matter since I am currently reading Irving’s eponymous book that also contains many other stories from his wonderful ‘Sketch Book’.