Tag Archives: Nonfiction

The unlikely duo

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The Unlikely Act: Jack the Baboon and James the Signalman, courtesy of google.com

As a regular customer of a commuter rail, I sometimes wish there was a signalman at my home station instead of an impersonal ticket vending machine without a proper waiting area on a barren platform that makes the nondescript station all the more desolate, drab, and dreary. California wintry mornings are treacherously cold and heartless; they make you yearn for a conspicuous presence of a guiding light of humanity. So it gave me a fillip when I happened on an article about an extraordinary duo from my subscription magazine on the train. 

Let’s take Time Train to Uitenhage in Cape Town, South Africa circa 1890. Meet Jack the Baboon and his senior partner James, the Signalman working side by side watching a train coming toward their station from a distance. James brought Jack to his station after losing both of his legs in a train accident to train the primate to push him around in a trolly, as well as to operate the train signals. Jack was indeed James’s working avatar and a best buddy at work. For good nine years, Jack’s work performance excelled some of his human colleagues, which earned him official employment for which he was paid twenty cents a day and a half a bottle of beer a week. A laborer is indeed worthy of his reward. 

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Jack and James at work, courtesy of google.com

Fast forward the mind’s cinema projector, and I am back at the same home station in the wee hours of cold, rainy California morning. There’s neither Jack nor James, except for a motley of hooded figures of would-be passengers on the platform. All seems crude and cruel except a light with a whistle approaching the station growing bigger and bolder, and I welcome it with the feeling of thankfulness mixed with adventurousness into an unknown new day

‘Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the ‘Foot Voyage”, by James Loxley – review

Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the 'Foot Voyage'Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the ‘Foot Voyage’ by James Loxley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first learned of Ben Jonson from Stuart Kells’s Shakespeare’s Library as a member of the Shakespeare triumvirate, I was piqued by the personal background of this unreconstructed Elizabethan playwright and poet and wanted to know more about him. My search for the intelligence of Jonson then met a devotee of Ben (a Tweeter equivalent of Sons of Ben) in London, England, which led me to the treasure cave piled with Jonson’s writings and the writings about him. Among the treasure is this pleasant travelogue of Jonson’s famous walk from London to Scotland with his unknown companion in 1618.

An energetic vicambulist and a lover of sensory delights of life, Jonson’s journey to Scotland, the land of his birth, on foot seems natural and celebratory of his feisty and adventurous spirit in comparison to his statuesque contemporary men of letters. Be it that his working-class background or unconventional Modus Vivendi, Jonson meets people of all walks of life, ranging from a madwoman to a jovial tinker, and to a scullery maid to the lords of stately houses, like a learned troubadour and interacts with them as such artlessly genial attitudes are also reciprocated with respect in jovial mood. The unknown companion whose identity is open to presumptions is nonetheless a vital witness not only to the authenticity of Jonson’s celebratory foot journey but also to the recognition of his humaneness that gives life to the textual figure of Jonson, bringing the reader close to this literary celebrity in his unvarnished prose narrative. In fact, it is this plainness of account without a platitude of florid language in want of erudition that reveals the person of Jonson and the realistic views on social and cultural landscapes of the Elizabethan era devoid of heavyweight academic stuffiness and intellectual seriousness.

Further to the authorship question, I like to think that Jonson as a producer must have commissioned his apprentice or trusty servant of literacy to write it because (1) the original manuscript called ‘A Discovery’ was burned in the 1623 desk fire; (2) the scrolls of documents presented by the Aldersey Family in Cheshire contains a manuscript entitled “My Gossip (c.f. the term meaning a kin through God) Jonson”; and (3) most of all, the narrative does not possess Jonson’s literary allure and erudition proprietary to his oeuvres. Notwithstanding the dubious authorship, the narrator went, saw, and narrated Jonson’s foot voyage to Scotland, where both were made honorary burgesses, a well-deserved titular trophy for the journey completed.

With respect to the motif of this voyage, I think it was intended to be a literary supplement to his well-heeled subscribers as an entertaining accouterments to their library in an appreciation of their patronage. In this regard, it could also have been a wager journey benefiting from the subscribers in the promise of delight from the travelogue to the seekers of vicarious pleasure as if they were traveling with the famed literary figure of their time.

Contrary to the introduction of the book as an appropriate read for upper-level students of English literature or scholars devoted to Ben Jonson, this book is accessibly enjoyable even to a general reader like myself and recommendable to the initiated and the uninitiated with a promising delight to the mind. Upon finishing my travel with Ben Jonson and his unknown companion, I now see him as an artless man of action with bouts of hearty laughter and a caring heart attentive to his ill servant and a lowest sculler maid in a manor he visited, not as an unapproachable Elizabethan celebrity whose star in in the constellation of universal literati sparkles radiantly in the celestial fresco. His bibliographic tantrums of temper were proverbially formidable, but his humanness wonderfully saturated with his literary feat and artistic talent dominated the vice as readers will see in this travelogue. And I think Jonson will like us readers to think of him that way. Or I like to think that way as a fan.

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‘Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward’ by Paul Johnson – review

Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel CowardHumorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s gobsmacking to see how people misidentify humor with mockery or sarcasm in their misconception about laughter (the loud the better) as a product of a merry heart. Whereas humor should be appealing not only to the senses but also to Reason with a natural assistance of wit to discern the light side of life and to elevate it to wisdom of life it bears, people tend to derive funniness from faux-pas and gaucheness of targeted individuals as if they were Olympian gods and goddesses laughing at the sorrow and travail of mortals on earth. That being said, this aptly witty book by Paul Johnson is an intelligent receipt against the philistine understanding of humor drawn on his erudition and sharp witticism.

Johnson sees humor as a handmaid to hope in life that gives a jolt to a meaning of life, a mental and physical therapeutic means to make the strains of existential malaises bearable, and presents us a society of famous artists who shares the same views on the pristine essence of humor. Life is indeed a comedy in a long shot and a tragedy in close-up. If our human existential life is a tragedy at the core, it also has a periphery of comedy, which helps us to understand and embrace the attitude of “Amore Fati” Love of Fate, regardless of a boundary of classes, races, and genders. Accordingly, finding humor in human suffering is one of the manifest functions of arts in sublimating human emotions and thoughts into the aesthetically pleasing and intellectually satisfying artifacts.

From Johnson’s humorists, the persons of Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton strike me as scintillating artists of classless humor whose abilities to draw humor upon people of all walks of life and to look upon the bright side of existential life and kindly side of human nature, for human nature is the same in all professions as it is in water, not stone. Even madness does not look grim and dismal in the eyes of amiable Chesterton: “The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

This is the fourth book by Paul Johnson I have read, and it never ceases to amaze me with his erudition and wit manifested across pages after pages at the expanse of his will to enlighten general readers in plain English accessible to all. If you think abrupt peals of boisterous laughter in disguise of hearty mirth in public places are none other than a sign of incivility and citizenship, then this is a fit read that you will enjoy to your quiet hear’s content.

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Dear editor

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On reading Mr. _______________ ‘s article on the instapoets, I was appalled at his dyspeptic raillery on the poems of the known poets and incandescent snark on the literary merit of the works by playing a role of agent provocateur following the instapoets just to mock their works with malice.

Just because one does not like another’s work doesn’t ipso facto endow the person with right to desecrate the work and to insult the author by putting him/her in the pillory and, thus dispiriting the mind and the heart that are indeed “noble” and respectful. As a hobbyist writer of my blog in English, I am now indeed in more sorrow than in anger that there might be agents provocateur or double agents in hides of followers intent upon deriding my amateurish but sincere writings.

The instapoets, bloggers, and anyone dabbling in the craft of writing are the cult of Knut Vonnegut’s maxim: “To practice any art, how well or badly, is to make your sol grow. So do it.” I hope the author and his likes will understand it with magnanimity of the learned literati who will not use their learning to reason against these noble spirits.

Author’s Note: This is my letter to the editor of a certain magazine that I subscribe. I couldn’t believe that such a historically famed magazine with reputation featured such an article publicly deriding the merits of poets on social media just because the style of writing and the subject matters do not meet the subjective standards of the journalist, who even became a follower of the poets to make fun of them behind the curtains… To think that he’s pleased with himself as a guardian of the English literature with a cruel intention! That’s why I had to send a letter to the editor even if it will not be featured in the magazine. Mind you that practicing art is not a prerogative of the privileged. 

On Ovid: The Exiled Poet in Woe

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People tend to think that the books of antiquarian authors are far-fetched from the reality of our digital era, whereas our calendar years on the evolutionary scale amount to microseconds on the twenty-four-hour biological clock. Apart from a great divide of time, great writers of all time show us the wounds and mirth at the heart of humankind and stand observant of the anfractuous human lives as though to be seen through opera glasses. In this respect, Ovid, author of Metamorphoses, can be regarded as an ancient trailblazer of popular literature whose subject matters, such as cause and effects of love and devotion, are still appealing to readers.

Ovid first gained popularity with The Ars Amatoris (The Art of Love), a kind of self-help book for men on how to woo women and keep their love with practical tips under the guise of a formal didactic reference to avoid censorship. Heroines, a series of dramatic monologues centering on mythological women, including Penelope, Dido, and Ariadne, lamenting on their mistreatment at the hands of their men, earned him the sobriquet of best-seller writer of his time. However, what Ovid secretly and really craved was a learned readership vis-à-vis the reputations of his peers Horace and Virgil whose works were regarded in high intellectual esteem by the elites. Hence, Metamorphoses, a series of 250 stories of gods and immortals intertwined in a vortex of love, lust, grief, and terror, was his magnum opus, a kind of literary vindication of mass demotic literature. It seemed that Ovid as a man of flowering Roman letters arrived at his pinnacle of literary career until fortune’s malice overthrew his state.

Ovid suddenly fell out of favor of the emperor and exiled to Toms, a city on the Black Sea. Whys and hows of Ovid’s exile are still clandestine to this date as Ovid also never recorded any details about what caused the emperor to banish him to the backwater of the empire. As with many a conspiracy story, there are hypotheses of the cause of this unfortunate event: (1) Ovid had a love affair with Livia, Augustus’s wife, while married with children; (2) Ovid knew of an incestuous affair between the emperor and his daughter Julia; or (3) the error might have been of political nature because Ovid might have gossiped about certain political factions. But then any of the above can be a figment of imagination.

Notwithstanding the above, I like to think that Ovid is a great benefactor of mankind with his dazzling reworking of Latin and Greek myths and entertainingly vibrant guidance of practical love. In fact, he was far more gentlemanly in treating women regardless of their age and looks than any of our contemporary man writers. To Ovid asking a woman’s age was highly improper and telling a woman of good things about her are a must to keep her love ongoing. In light of the above, none of the aforesaid presumptions rings true to me, and it is my presumption that maybe Ovid’s jealous contemporary despising the well-deserved success of Metamorphoses conspired against him and pushed him to banishment in the outpost of Rome, the city Ovid loved so much.