Venice Observed (McCarthy)
Mary McCarthy’s book on Venice is clever, erudite, poetic, and alive with aesthetic judgments. Every reader must pay her attention when she begins her book with a series of pans of la Serenissima: Venice left Stendhal “cold,” to Herbert Spencer St. Mark’s was “barbaric” and the Doge’s Palace “dumpy” and “meaningless,” while D. H. Lawrence wrote of the “abhorrent green, slippery city.” Her treatment of painters is lively and entertaining – full of curious details such as the description of a grand life-size banquet scene designed by Sansovino and constructed by a druggist for the amusement of the French Henry III, this in the middle of a treatment of Veronese. Such grand artificiality is her theme, and she does the best job I know of the exploring the strange conundrum of the visitor who seeks a city’s essence in its “old town” which has no current use but to beguile the visitor’s gaze and to make of its populace touts and waiters if not worse.
Original Teachings of Ch’an Buddhism (Chang Chung-Yuan)
I am not familiar with any other translation of Shi Daoyuan’s Jǐngdé Chuandenglu (Transmission of the Lamp), a thousand year old record of Zen masters, one of the most important documents of the tradition. The early chapters in which speculative philosophy of the Tiantai and Sanlun schools arising from the work of Nagarjuna seeks ever subtler ways of engaging Ultimate Reality will give any thinker a salutary workout. With this foundation, he is better prepared for the confounding narratives of Mazu Daoyi who valued direct experiential insight and sudden enlightenment over systematic meditative practices, and established a new and distinctly Chinese Buddhism, influential to the present day.
The book is almost too rich. Who can absorb koan after koan, page after page, each seeking to crack the great nut of the true nature of things? A monk in traditional practice would ponder a single one for weeks. The seeker after Zen on the printed page can do no better than to read and reread and reread again.
Prose Edda (Snorri Sturluson)
In spite of Wagner’s operas and creditable translation work by William Morris and Auden, and Ursula Dronke’s magisterial though incomplete edition of the Poetic Edda, the Germanic pantheon has suffered from Greco-Roman cultural privilege. The great legacies of the Northland are the sagas written in Iceland that so effectively blend magic and history, hyperbole and understatement, high courage and rank selfishness and the fragments of an encyclopedic mythological system in the Eddas.
The Prose Edda, which I read in the unambitious Penguin rendering by Jesse Byock, resembles many other primary mythological texts in that it presents little systematic narration. As in Greek and Sanskrit myth, Odin and Thor, Loki and Balder, frost giants and black elves appear in discontinuous incidents or glancing references as often as in connected narratives. The awesome gap between human and divine familiar to followers of Abrahamic religions is absent here. Not only are various orders of being described – Loki, for instance, is neither divine nor human, Baldr is killed, Odin tricked, but, in addition, the whole house of the Aesir face Ragnarok, though the text tells us that beautiful places will remain after the cataclysm. Here is an apocalypse that could coexist with modern physics.
Those who have attended open poetry readings will find likely the story in which poetry is transmitted with mead made with the body of Kvasir, consumed by Odin, and spit into vats for the use of humanity. Some, however, he happened to expel from his rear: “We call this the bad poets’ portion.”