Monday May 29, 2017

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A Dream of the Future

The future that never happens
is the one that makes us do
what we do while we are waiting
for what is never going to come
to take us away from the past,
which is a country that we do not
know anymore, where the language
is strange, only almost familiar.

Years not only go by, they carry us
into places where we meet the dragons,
the gorgons, the pack of wolves
circling with their sharp teeth, and
sometimes we lift a candle, sometimes curse.
Like scarecrows, we scare a bird or two.
We know what we are and are not.

But still we keep on dreaming, warming
our hands over the fire in that cottage
at the end of the road—where everything
is prepared for us, and someone we
never met has departed only minutes ago.

“A Dream of the Future” by Joyce Sutphen from The Green House. © Salmon Poetry, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of comedian Bob Hope (1903), born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, near London. His family moved to the United States when he was four years old, and he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. His first successful show-biz venture came at the age of 10, when he won a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. By 1940, after working in vaudeville, Broadway, and radio, he was one of America's most popular comedians. His comedy was verbal, not physical, and he usually played unsympathetic characters that the audience could feel superior to.

He never won an Oscar for his acting — "Oscar Night at my house is called Passover," he once quipped — but the Academy nevertheless honored him five times, with two honorary Oscars, two special awards, and a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The Guinness Book of World Records named him the most honored entertainer in the world, with 2,000 awards and citations, including 54 honorary doctorates and a knighthood from his native England.

In 1941, he performed his first show for soldiers, a group of airmen stationed in March Field, California. It was the beginning of nearly 60 years of shows at military bases at home and abroad. Congress unanimously passed Resolution 75 in 1997 to make him the nation's first Honorary Veteran, and he considered this his highest achievement.

He wasn't universally adored, however. A few days after Hope's death, author and journalist Christopher Hitchens called him "paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny" in Slate. He skewered the comedian and his fans, saying, "This is comedy for people who have no sense of humor and who come determined to be entertained and laugh to show that they 'get it.'" Hitchens closed his article by saying, "Hope was a fool, and nearly a clown, but he was never even remotely a comedian."

Bob Hope died in 2003, two months after his 100th birthday.

Today is the birthday of English author G.K. Chesterton (books by this author), born Gilbert Keith Chesterton in London (1874). He was a large man, well over six feet, and rotund. He disagreed sharply with many people, most notably H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but he was so agreeable and full of good humor that he kept them as close friends. He was also remarkably prolific, writing fast and scarcely editing what he wrote. He considered himself primarily a journalist, and he wrote 4,000 newspaper essays; he also wrote some 80 books — books of fiction, criticism, literary biography, and theology — as well as several hundred poems, about 200 short stories, and several plays. His best-known character is Father Brown, a detective-slash-priest, who features in several short stories. He dabbled in the occult as a young man, and he and his brother tried out the Ouija board, but eventually he returned to the Church of England, and converted to Catholicism later in life; his thoughts on religion influenced much of his writing. His book The Everlasting Man (1925) contributed to C.S. Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity.

George Bernard Shaw was his good friend and verbal sparring partner. They rarely agreed on anything, but disagreed amicably. Chesterton wrote of Shaw, a modernist, in Heretics (1905): "If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby."

He made his points with wit and paradox, and in such a large body of work, there is no shortage of quotable material:

"The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane." (Orthodoxy, 1908)

"Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." (Tremendous Trifles, 1909)

"Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it." (The Man Who Was Thursday, 1908)

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad."
(The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911)

It's the birthday of German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880) (books by this author), born in Blankenburg, Germany. He studied the history of civilizations; his theory was they all undergo an organic blossoming and withering over the course of 1,000 to 1,200 years, and that, by studying the past, it was possible to predict the future of all civilizations. "Each culture," he wrote, "has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return."

He put his theory forward in his book The Decline of the West (1918), in which he asked, "Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of the separate elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms — social, spiritual, and political — which we see so clearly? ... Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions?" He examined six cultures — Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu, Greco-Roman, Magian (mostly Arabic), and Western — and he believed that Western civilization had already experienced its creative flowering; it was in a period of reflection and material comfort, and that it had, at most, 200 more years. He believed that you could no more revive a dying civilization than you could bring a dead flower back to life.

The book received a lot of attention, and mixed reviews; it formed the basis for social cycle theory. Spengler's work influenced a diverse assortment of later writers and scholars, including the Beat poets, Fitzgerald (who called himself an "American Spenglerian"), Joseph Campbell, Henry Kissinger, and Malcolm X.

In The Decline of the West, he wrote: "The press to-day is an army with carefully organized arms and branches, with journalists as officers, and readers as soldiers. But here, as in every army, the soldier obeys blindly, and war-aims and operation-plans change without his knowledge. The reader neither knows, nor is allowed to know, the purposes for which he is used, nor even the role that he is to play. A more appalling caricature of freedom of thought cannot be imagined. Formerly a man did not dare to think freely. Now he dares, but cannot; his will to think is only a willingness to think to order, and this is what he feels as his liberty."

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