Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Maybe death is like camp?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author of The Gulag Archipelago, among other books, was born on this day in 1918.

Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in a Soviet labour camp for criticizing the government in his writings.

In an interview with Spiegel Online International, Solzhenitsyn was asked if he was afraid of death.

"No, I am not afraid of death any more," he said. "When I was young the early death of my father cast a shadow over me -- he died at the age of 27 -- and I was afraid to die before all my literary plans came true. But between 30 and 40 years of age my attitude to death became quite calm and balanced.

"I feel it is a natural, but no means the final, milestone of one's existence."

See another writer's opinion of Solzhenitsyn at www.cynicalendar.blogspot.com.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor Day

On the morning of December 7, 1941, a Sunday, a swarm of 360 Japanese warplanes attacjked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The surprise attack struck a critical blow against the U.S. Pacific fleet and drew the United States into World War II.

That morning, many military personnel had been given passes to attend religious services off-base. At about 7 o'clock, two radio operators spotted large groups of aircraft in flight toward the island from the north, but, with a flight of B-17s expected from the U. S., they were told to sound no alarm. Thus, the Japanese assault came as a devastating surprise.

Five of eight battleships, three destroyers, and seven other ships were sunk or severely damaged, and more than 200 aircraft were destroyed. A total of 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,200 were wounded. It could have been worse: Three fleet carriers were out at sea on training maneuvers.

Japan's losses were some 30 planes, five midget submarines, and fewer than 100 men.

The next day, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress and said, "Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy..." and asked Congress to approve a resolution declaring war between the U. S. and Japan. The Senate voted in favor 82 to 0, and the House 388 to 1. The sole dissenter was Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a devout pacifist who had also cast a dissenting vote against the U.S. entrance into World War I.

Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war against the U. S., and the U.S. government responded in kind.

The American contribution to the successful Allied war effort spanned four years and cost more than 400,000 American lives.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Erewhonsville, man

English novelist Samuel Butler was born on this day in 1835.

In his utopian novel Erewhon, Butler has his narrator describe the Erewhonians' attitude toward death.

"The Erewhonians regard death with less abhorrence than disease. They insist that the greater number of those who are commonly said to die, have never yet been born--not, at least, into that unseen world which is alone worthy of consideration.

"As for what we call death, they argue that too much has been made of it. The mere knowledge that we shall one day die does not make us very unhappy; no one thinks that he or she will escape, so that none are disappointed. We do not care greatly even though we know that we have not long to live; the only thing that would seriously affect us would be the knowing--or rather thinking that we know-- the precise moment at which the blow will fall. Happily no one can ever certainly know this, though many try to make themselves miserable by endeavouring to find it out.

"The Erewhonians…hold that death, like life, is an affair of being more frightened than hurt.

"They do not put up monuments, nor write epitaphs, but they have a custom which comes to much the same thing, for the instinct of preserving the name alive after the death of the body seems to be common to all mankind. They have statues of themselves made while they are still alive (those, that is, who can afford it), and write inscriptions under them, which are often quite as untruthful as are our own epitaphs--only in another way. For they do not hesitate to describe themselves as victims to ill temper, jealousy, covetousness, and the like, but almost always lay claim to personal beauty, whether they have it or not, and, often, to the possession of a large sum in the funded debt of the country.

"If a person is ugly he does not sit as a model for his own statue, although it bears his name. He gets the handsomest of his friends to sit for him, and one of the ways of paying a compliment to another is to ask him to sit for such a statue. Women generally sit for their own statues, from a natural disinclination to admit the superior beauty of a friend, but they expect to be idealised.

"When any one dies, the friends of the family write no letters of condolence, neither do they attend the scattering, nor wear mourning, but they send little boxes filled with artificial tears, and with the name of the sender painted neatly upon the outside of the lid. The tears vary in number from two to fifteen or sixteen, according to degree of intimacy or relationship; and people sometimes find it a nice point of etiquette to know the exact number they ought to send.

"Strange as it may appear, this attention is highly valued, and its omission by those from whom it might be expected is keenly felt. These tears were formerly stuck with adhesive plaster to the cheeks of the bereaved, and were worn in public for a few months after the death of a relative; they were then banished to the hat or bonnet, and are now no longer worn."

Monday, December 3, 2012

A little Kurtz-y to Death

Novelist Joseph Conrad was born on this day in 1857.

Born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzenioski, in Poland, Conrad went to sea at 16 and spent 20 years there, first on French merchant ships in the West Indies, then on English ships, where he learned the language and traveled to Latin America and Africa. He drew on these experiences for much of his fiction; in 1890 he was the commander of a ship that traveled up the Congo River, the inspiration for Heart of Darkness.

He began writing in 1892, on a voyage from England to Australia, and in 1895 he left the British merchant service to become a full-time writer. He settled in London and married an Englishwoman.

Although English was not his native language, he is renowned for the subtlety and descriptiveness of his prose--despite the fact that he spoke the language all his life with a heavy accent.

In Heart of Darkness, the narrator, Marlow, recounts to his friends a trip into Africa, where he becomes curious about a man called Kurtz. He travels up the Congo River to reach Kurtz, an agent whom Marlow expects by his reputation to be a "universal genius," an "emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else."

As they near Kurtz's camp, they are attacked, and Marlow's helmsman is killed. They learn that Kurtz has made himself the natives' god and has decorated the posts of his hut with human skulls.

Marlow tries to get the seriously ill Kurtz away down the river, but Kurtz dies, his last words being, "The horror! The horror!"

Back in Europe Marlow tells Kurtz's fiancée that "the last word he pronounced was-your name."

Joseph Conrad died of a heart attack at age 67. His epitaph, taken from Spenser's The Faerie Queene, reads: "Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas, /Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please."

In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz says:

"I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat."