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by Richard Nilsen
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What’s the most beautiful sentence in the English language?
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In his epic TV series, The Singing Detective, author Dennis Potter has his hero ask a similar question: “What’s the loveliest word in the English language?” An answer is offered: “Love.” But no, you’re responding to the sentiment behind the word. What is the loveliest word “in the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page?”
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His answer: “E-L-B-O-W.”
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You may have your own candidate. Mine might be “anaflaxis,” or perhaps “curmudgeon.” Both pleasant to say, “in the sound it makes in the mouth.”
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My nomination for the most beautiful sentence?
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Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.”
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It is the opening sentence of the second chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is followed by a tasty list of those comestibles that Mr. Leopold Bloom especially savored. “He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes.” And then he brings you up short with the consummation of the paragraph: “Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
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If you get past the last bit without a distinct sensory, gustatory and olfactory assault, you aren’t paying attention.
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But it’s that first sentence I want to examine. It has a cadence to it: You can scan its metrics two ways. First, you can break it down into four brief bursts: His name, as if it were the first line of a song; then comes the two-beat “ate with relish;” another two-beat “the inner organs,” and the peroration in another two beats — “of beasts and fowls.”
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You can, however, scan it as two lines, a pentameter followed by a tetrameter. And if you do it that way, you can feel behind the rhythm the ghost of Anglo-Saxon poetry, each line interrupted by a caesura.
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Mr. Leopold Bloom // ate with relish
The inner organs // of beasts and fowls.
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Either way, it is a graceful mix of iambs and dactyls. All that is fine, and worth noting. But the real treasure is paying attention to where in your mouth you articulate the various consonants and vowels: You shift the sounds around in your mouth, front to back, roof to base, like you were savoring a morsel of tasty food. These are words that as you say them out loud, you practically chew on. Try it: Mister Leopold Bloom ate with relish, etc. Your tongue flies around, your lips purse, your teeth come together and separate, your jaw moves forward and back, in a fine simulacrum of mastication.
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This is one tasty sentence.
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You should also note how heterogeneous the sounds are. Few consonants or vowels are repeated. There are five “L” sounds, which move your tongue up to the palate; four sibilant “S” sounds; four “O” sounds, making your lips project, as if you were smacking them; four short “I” sounds drawing the tongue back in the mouth; four rhotic “R” sounds, which scrunches your mouth up in a contortion (admittedly, a different sound if you speak them with the Irish accent that Joyce would have used); three “T” sounds, moving that tongue to hide just at the back of the teeth; three “E” sounds, stretching your cheeks out wide to pronounce; two “M” sounds, making you go, “mmm,” like you really enjoyed that mouthful; two “N” sounds, drawing the aroma up into your nasal cavities; two “B” bumps, rhyming with the single “P” to keep your lips plosive. There are two different “TH” sounds, an eth and a thorn — voiceless and voiced dental fricatives.
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All the rest of the sounds occur only once. Which means, to read the sentence out loud, your tongue, lips and jaw get a workout worthy of Jane Fonda.
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So much for the gnathometry of the sentence.
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 I also want to point out that the sentence is not difficult to comprehend. It is, in fact, a fairly ordinary sentence, outside its poetry. And I mention that because I want to make the case for the book as a whole. It has a reputation. People who haven’t yet essayed it are apt to fear it like ebola. But, these days, now nearly a hundred years after its conception, we have grown used to many of its more idiosyncratic habits. Stream of consciousness has made its way to paperback bodice rippers and Tom Clancy munitionology. And after MTV, how simple seems the rapid cutting and multiple points of view. Joyce should not present any unclimbable obstacles these days.
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Which makes it all the more important to read the book. It is some of the best prose ever put to paper. Joyce’s writing is elegant, precise, musical and redolent.
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The entire final chapter of the book is one of the greatest monologues in literature, when Molly Bloom lies in bed next to her husband and recalls her love affairs, her life, her body, her mind and heart. It alone raises Ulysses to the level of classic. Everyone should read it and weep.
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But to enjoy the prose, you have to break yourself of the habit of reading solely for content. Speed reading Ulysses is flying over country where the driving would reveal cities, rivers, regional foods, national parks, and people worth meeting. The prose is meant to noticed. It is unsurpassed. The plot of the book is hardly more than an excuse for the writing.
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Joyce wrote the book over many years, writing and rewriting like a demon. It takes reworking on an obsessive scale to get just the right mot juste in every case. You can see that in the manuscript, worked over so thoroughly, it is barely legible.
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Ulysses was written at the end of the First World War and published in 1922 by Sylvia Beach and the Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. Joyce was 40 years old and an exile from his native Ireland. It chronicles a single day — June 16, 1904 — in Dublin, Ireland as lived by three primary characters, Stephen Daedalus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom. It’s a simple plot. Not much happens of consequence, but we follow the events in the minds of the characters as much as through the words of a narrator. And we aren’t often told which.
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But what is of consequence is the language. You can pretty much read any page and nearly swoon at the beauty of the words, the rhythm, pitch and melody.
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Of course, that’s not what caught public attention first. The book has been banned in many countries, including the U.S. It was considered obscene. It had to be printed in Paris, and at least 500 copies were seized and burned by the U.S. Postal Service as they were confiscated in shipment. Another 2000 to 3000 copies were seized and destroyed by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1929.
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When Random House decided to take up the American publication, The publisher sued and in The United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene. Random House published the authorized American edition in 1934.
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We say “authorized,” because Ulysses has been much pirated. Even printed as an underground book by publishers of pornography, wishing to capitalize on its notoriety. I have an edition by Collectors Publications of Industry, Calif., which features pages and pages of ads at the back for such other literary gems as True Love Stories of a Wayward Teenager, The Incestual Triangle, Four Way Swappers, and The Debauched Hospodar. (Along with Henry Miller’s The World of Sex and Lawrence Durrell’s Black Book and The Story of O. They seemed to make little distinction between actual literature and smut, i.e., they knew their audience).
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My wife’s father-in-law was a poet who had studied with Robert Frost, and after a trip to Europe, he smuggled in a copy of Ulysses in the 1920s concealed by binding it in a cover for a Nancy Drew mystery.
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To read it now, after Fifty Shades of Grey and countless Jackie Collins tomes, it one puzzles over the ruckus. You can search the pages ofUlysses looking for the “good bits” and be disappointed. Judge Woolsey in his judicious judicial opinion famously wrote, “whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” (Remember the mutton kidneys).
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 Woolsey’s opinion opened the door for Lady Chatterly’s Lover (or is it “Lady Loverly’s Chatter?”), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer., and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. It may be hard to define great literature, but you know it when you see it.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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I am writing in praise of ignorance. I believe it is too often underappreciated, and I wish to underline its beauties and benefits.
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No, I am not being ironic. Erasmus was being ironic when he praised “Folly,” but here, I am dead serious. In his book, the Dutch humanist has the personification of Folly as a goddess who praises herself profusely, in ways that only underline her unworthiness. In my treatise, I am one who is profoundly ignorant who praises his own ignorance. And I am quite sincere.
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Of course, like many of us, when I was young, I knew everything. I certainly knew more than my parents, who were surprisingly clueless, considering they had been through the Great Depression and World War II. You would think they might have picked up a clue here or there, but no, when I was young, they were so far out of the loop, I had to make sure my friends were not too often exposed to them, for fear of horrible and miserable mortification.
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But as I have gotten older, I have come to know less and less. Or rather, the mathematical equation has changed. Yes, I have learned a great deal, both through book learning and through common experience, but while I have learned arithmetically, my ignorance has grown exponentially. The more I learn, the greater the percentage left to unknowing.
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Once, I might have believed that I had a handle on 80 percent of what was important to know (including which kind of shoes were cool), now the ratio has been reversed — and beyond — so that I would express it as one over infinity.
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The benefits of this are at least twofold.
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First, the recognition of my own ignorance has forced me into a state of humility. Being less sure of myself means I am less prescriptive to those around me. I have no business telling them what to do or think, when I am so clearly in the murk myself.
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My wife would chide me for this in later years. She asked me questions; when we were younger, I answered them lickety-split; in recent years, I often admitted, after a brief moment of pondering, “I don’t know.” This bothered her. “You used to know,” she would say, petulantly.
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Well, I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure. It seems as if all those factoids I rehearsed have been undercut as further research has made complicated what once seemed simple.
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It is certainty that causes most of the ills of the world, whether it is religious certainty or political certainty. It is certainty that put human beings through the gas chambers of Treblinka. It is certainty that hanged witches and that emptied the French city of Béziers in 1209 during the Albigensian Crusade when the leader of the attacking forces, unable to tell the heretic Cathars from orthodox Catholics declared, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.”
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In his report to the Pope, Arnaud Amalric, the abbot of Citeaux who ordered the massacre, wrote, “Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt, as divine vengeance miraculously raged against it.”
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That’s what you do when you know for certain, when you believe you have a corner on knowledge. A little humble ignorance would have saved many lives.
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But ignorance has another important benefit.
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Before that, I should explain that I classify at least two types of ignorance. The first I call “pig ignorance.” This is ignorance that has no inkling of its nescience, but plows ahead in confident obliviousness. It is an ignorance of bluster and bullying — I think we all know who I’m talking about here.
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Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
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The pig ignorant do not know that they don’t know. Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a famous study in 1999 that gave name to the Dunning-Kruger effect, i.e., that the ignorant do not recognize their lack of knowledge, but overestimate their abilities. (Conversely, the intelligent frequently underestimate their own abilities).
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This, of course, has been known for as long as there were people who scratched their heads over the confidence of the dumb. Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Or, as Charles Darwin has it, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
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The most famous formulation is probably that of Socrates, who concluded, according to Plato’s Apologia, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to

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know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

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This is the Socratic Paradox, more simply stated: “The only thing I know is that I do not know.”
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And that brings us to the second great benefit of ignorance — the Socratic ignorance, not the Trumpian ignorance. And that is, in this form, ignorance is synonymous with curiosity. Our ignorance prods us on to learning. We want to find out what we do not yet understand.The world is a great inviting and seductive quest.
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This is ignorance with open ears and open eyes — in fact, wide ears and wide eyes. It is a voracious ignorance that sucks up everything it can, knowing it can never quench its thirst or satisfy its hunger. There is always more, and the more it takes in the greater its capacity.
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This is the ignorance I praise. It keeps life perpetually entertaining, keeps its bearer engaged, and in discovery, not only of what others already know, but of what is entirely new to our species. It is a horizon constantly expanding outward to fresh lands and fresh seas. Pig ignorance is smug; curious ignorance is open and eager.
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This second, curious, ignorance is a prime vivifying benefit to the individual; the recognition of our ignorance, and its consequent humility is a prime benefit to the world at large. Fewer people die.
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And so, I praise ignorance, my personal goddess, after whom I quest in the darkness..
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen

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I want to talk about education. Specifically: Mine.
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It is really only my own that I can speak about. As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”
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I don’t know if I can recommend my own course to others; all I can say is that it has worked for me.
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From my earliest years, I wanted to learn; indeed, I wanted to know everything. Literally: everything. (The older I’ve become the more I’ve faced the fact that the more you learn, the greater is the vastness of what you have yet to learn. Knowledge grows arithmetically; ignorance grows exponentially.)
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There is a story repeated in my family that when I entered second grade, I asked my parents, “Does this mean I get to go to college next year?” School has always been my briar patch.
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I cannot fix whatever is wrong with American schools — or American students (although I am pretty sure that whatever Besty DuVos has in mind is disastrously wrong), but I can recount my own transit through the grades from kindergarten through standing in front of a crowd in a silly robe and stupid hat to get my diploma handed to me. And really, beyond, because education for me has never stopped. There is little I get more pleasure from than tickling my little grey cells and expanding what is stuffed into my melon.
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Mine has been an entire life in a single direction: learning. Others wanted to play baseball, or drive fast cars, perhaps get married and have a houseful of wee bairns; I wanted to get my hands on another book, pore through it and achieve the greatest pleasure from it. Every book — or every class I took — stood not by itself, but as an addition to that I had absorbed before, until all that I had learned became a single great web of interrelated experience.
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In effect, this isn’t simply education, but paideia, the whole of it all rolled into a ball: education, history, culture, philosophy, literature, music, the arts, psychology, economics, law, physics, botany, politics — the whole undifferentiated, all of a piece.
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This has given me the permission — or the chutzpah — to write not only about art, but about music, architecture, dance, politics, history — even about typography. My assignment at The Arizona Republic, where I worked for 25 years, was critic “without portfolio.”
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To quote William Blake, “Less than all cannot satisfy.”
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It has all given me a rather peculiar attitude toward education: that it should make me more complete (and that it should be fun).
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But I’m afraid what I consider education is being left behind by a newer, narrower version: to provide skills to enter the job market. That is not education; that is training. Never have I considered how a class might help me get a job or make a career.
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Is there something subversive about my version? Perhaps.
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Back in the Pleistocene, when I taught photography and art at a two-year college, I told my class on the first day that I considered it my duty as a teacher to make them unemployable. They were to learn in my class the utter ambiguity and equivocality of everything, to learn to question every assumption, to scratch every itch of curiosity, no matter where it lead.
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Current education seems narrowly focused on the “how,” but I was intent on asking the “why.”
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If there is any central argument to my education it is that there has never been a goal, or at least, its only goal was itself. As a matter of fact, I have considered education — my own at least — to be a prophylactic against career, against the limitations of a single direction in my life. I wanted it all.
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I am not advocating that everyone learn the way I did, but that way fit me perfectly. While I have a modest college degree, most of what I have learned, I have come by on my own. My late wife maintained that all learning is self-taught. We are all autodidacts, although we may have been helped by a teacher here and there along the way.
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Even if you had a good teacher, you learned for yourself; if you didn’t internalize the lesson, it wasn’t really learned. How many memorized enough to pass the exam and then promptly forgot it all?
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I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. At the age of 70, this gives me unlimited opportunity for the years ahead. Who knows?
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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We are losing Shakespeare. He is standing on the dock and our boat is drifting off into a fog; we look back and it becomes harder and harder to make out his figure standing there.
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What is happening to the Bard is what has already happened to Chaucer and what has now completely obscured the author of Beowulf. Our drifting boat is

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language, and language drifts over time.

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So, what are fardels? A bare bodkin?
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And when Juliet asks, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, why do so many want to answer: “Here! Here I am.” Many an actress speaks the words “Wherefore ART thou, Romeo?” when it needs to be “Wherefore art thou ROMEO?” “Why are you Romeo, when any other name would be better?”
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“Now is the winter of our discontent” gets pulled out of context to mean, “We have arrived at the winter of our discontent,” when it is really just a noun-phrase and implies exactly the opposite: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”
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Words disappear and change meaning. When Hamlet says, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” the word “conscience” did not mean Jiminy Cricket. “Conscience” meant “consciousness,” and specifically “self awareness.” It wasn’t his scruples that prevented the Dane from killing Claudius, but his awareness of unintended consequences — in other words, what the whole soliloquy is about.
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By the way, fardels are burdens, something you might carry around, like a hobo’s bindle or an Aussie swagman’s  matilda.
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As for a bodkin, nowadays it is a type of sewing needle, but in Shakespeare’s time and before, it was a dagger. Chaucer says that “with bodkins was Julius Caesar murdered.” And in John Stow’s Chronicles (1565), it says “The chief worker of this murder was Brutus Cassius, with two hundred and sixty of the Senate all having bodkins in their sleeves.”
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A quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore tracks the etymology. In A Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakspeare and his Contemporaries Traced Etymologically to the Ancient Language of the British People as Spoken Before the Irruption of the Danes and Saxons, by Charles Mackay, printed in London in 1887, tells us that “bodkin” can be traced to the Gaelic biodag, a dagger, “But the anterior root is the Keltic and Gaelic bod, a sharp point that pricks, whencebodachean, a sharp-pointed instrument.”
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I can’t help quoting the rest of the entry, for a good laugh at Victorian squeamishness: “On this radical [root] word, that exists in many Asiatic as well as European languages, might be founded an instructive examination into the occult and deeply comprehensive meaning of the root words of all languages, starting from the fact thatbod signifies not only a point that pricks, but the divinely ordered instrument of human propagation, which none but physicians speak of without rendering themselves liable to the imputation of indecency and impropriety.
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As in, “Look at the bod on that lifeguard!”
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The first Shakespeare play I ever saw live was Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., when I was in seventh or eighth grade. It made quite an impression, but I was confused at several points, not the least wondering what kind of sect might be called “sleep-o-nights.” Was it like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks? I suppose my confusion counts as a minor mondegreen. “Let me have men about me such as sleep o’ nights,” says Caesar. I tried for years to figure out who these people were.
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We also studied in class the Merchant. I was spared the horror of Romeo and Juliet, the play that misguided educators believe is the best way to engage teenagers with Elizabethan drama. Then they have to explain what the underage protagonists were doing all night long together in Juliet’s  bedroom. Remember, when I was that age, it was at an era when the Rolling Stones had to bowdlerize the lyrics of “spend the night together” on Ed Sullivan, turning them into “spend some time together.” Mrs. Grundy, indeed.
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Shakespeare’s plays are not so far gone that a great performance cannot strike home. When excellent actors speak the lines, they can still make the dialog sound like conversation instead of declamation. But much verbiage will have to be glossed over by the audience, asked to parse out the meaning by context.
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Certainly it is more than just language that distances us from Shakespeare. Culture has moved, too. It is difficult to hear the implicit anti-Semitism in Merchant of Venice, and it takes a wrenching deconstruction to make Taming of the Shrew bearable in a time of failing patriarchy.
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And then there are all those kings and dukes. When the exploits of the feckless Windsors fill tabloids, it is hard to sympathize with authoritarian monarchs offing each other and demanding succession for their kin.
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But more than anything, it is the language that makes the problem. Not just vocabulary, but speech patterns have changed, and continue to change over time. Just to beat a dead horse, compare Harry and St. Crispin’s Day with the incoherent ramblings of a certain orange president.
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Even ordinary people used to speak and write with more formality than we encounter today. Listen to those Civil War letters recited in the Ken Burns documentary and marvel at the elaborate sentence structures and the casually assumed cultural references. Or listen to one of those scratchy Edison recordings of politicians in the late 19th century or early 20th century and hear in them the rhetoric of Cicero translated to English. To speak like that nowadays is to court derision and perhaps a skit onSaturday Night Live.
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The French have an answer to all this impermanence in language: The Académie Française, which has the official power to define and preserve the French tongue. Or try. The conservatism of the Academie has been a losing battle in the internet age.
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Language always changes, sometimes quickly, sometimes over centuries. We have a faulty idea that Latin was the same in the days of Brutus as it was in the time of Nero or later, as written by Augustine. All of these Latins were different. And, of course, regional Latins morphed into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. They continue to morph (despite the Académie Française).
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So, is there anything we can do about it? Not really. Consider the speech of your teenage children, which sometimes seems like a foreign language. Their children will subsequently mystify them. And so it goes.
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Even the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt shifted over the centuries, despite the astonishing conservatism of that culture.
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So, when I hear complaints about the singular “their” or the use of “hopefully,” or “less” instead of “fewer,” I cannot get all pedantic. These are evolutions in our language. After all, there used to be a distinction made between “will” and “shall.” No one pays any attention to that anymore, nor should they. “Thou” and “thee” are still there to be used if wanted, but you would sound like a Shakespeare, and he lived 400 years ago. Tempus fugit.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Sometimes, it seems we are entering a new period of Victorianism — an era of increasing censoriousness and a demand for superhuman rectitude. We have not yet got to the point of calling furniture legs “limbs,” but there is an increasing silliness to language proscription.
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I don’t want to call it “political correctness,” because much of our new-found sensitivity to language is certainly a good thing. Not calling people by ethnic slurs cannot be considered thought control. It is merely civility.
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But, on the other hand, some forms of this hand-fanning of our outraged cheeks is, like Victorian prudery, simply a denial of the facts of human existence.
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Can we expect our heroes to be spotless virgins? Our artists to be paragons of morality? If we check the record, we will discover that if we make such demands, we will soon have to empty our museums, shut down our theaters and movie houses, clear our bookshelves, and pretty well have to impeach all of Congress — to say nothing of most of the 45 white men who have taken up temporary residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.
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We would be in danger of emulating the Taliban vandals who blew up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001, or the ISIS bulldozing of Syrian Palmyra in 2015. The certainty of self-righteousness is perhaps the most dangerous thing in the world.
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Just consider the Iconoclasts of the Beeldenstorm in 16th Century Netherlands, when Calvinists tore through Catholic churches and busted statues and destroyed paintings; or the great Gothic cathedral statues with their heads knocked off by French revolutionaries in the late 18th century; or the book burnings of Savonarola’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497; or the destruction of the library in Baghdad in 1258; or that by the Qin Dynasty (including book burning and the burying of Confucian scholars) in the Third Century BCE; or the Nazi book burnings of 1933; or the destruction of Aztec and Mayan codices in the 1560s.
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Of the burning of books there is no end.
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In Chile in 1973; in Sri Lanka in 1981; in Croatia in the 1990s; in Egypt in 2001; in Florida in 2011. Thousands of rare Islamic texts were destroyed by al-Qaeda in Timbuktu in 2013. This short list is just the tip of the iceberg.
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Moral outrage mixed with absolute certainty has done more harm than all the supposed damage contained in the books burned or the art smashed.
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There is a great deal of beauty and wisdom created or written by those whose lives were never exemplary. It is a rare human being with no skeletons in the closet. Let’s consider some of those artists and historical figures who have been praised, read, and listened to over the centuries.
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My personal favorite is George Gordon, Lord Byron, who sodomized his wife, slept with his sister, got a serving girl pregnant, and then impregnated and abandoned his underage mistress, Claire Clairmont, separating her from her daughter, Allegra, who died under Byron’s care. By the way, he also liked to diddle young boys.
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So, should we stop reading Childe Harold or Don Juan? Or “She sleeps in beauty, like the night”?
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Roman Polanski is a reprehensible human being, but a very good filmmaker. Should we stop showing his Macbeth to high school students because of his crimes? Not if we want to convince those teens that Shakespeare is actually an exciting playwright.
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Separating the artist from his work is essential. Otherwise, we will need to get rid of our copies of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, after all, enjoyed taking photographs of naked little girls.
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And if we are religious, we will have to stop singing that Ave Maria, because Franz Schubert liked sex with underage boys.
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Artists are as venal, evil, self-centered, confused and destructive as the rest of us. The history of art is a landfill of disturbing biography.
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Robert Frost sounds wise and paternal in his poems, but he was such an S.O.B. off the page that he drove his son to suicide.
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William Burroughs and Norman Mailer have been hell on wives.
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Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic apologist for Fascism. Herbert von Karajan was a card-carrying Nazi. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Hector Berlioz were drug fiends.
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And we cannot begin to count the number of drunken novelists.
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Percy Shelley married a 16-year-old girl and then told her that he was in love with another teen-ager and that maybe all three could live together.
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Or that Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde while enjoying a love affair with a woman he borrowed from her husband, who was housing and feeding the freeloading composer at the time. Wagner’s wife wasn’t happy about the arrangement, either.
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This rogue’s gallery of adulterers, criminals, perverts and wackos made some of the greatest art of all time.
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Our heroes just can’t seem to keep their noses clean.
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One after the other they self-destruct, turning from demigods into blackguards before our very eyes.
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Pick one, let his luster shine for a few moments and then notice the worm.
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And I mean some of the most accomplished and meaningful personalities of the American century: Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer. Elvis was a drug addict.
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The list is long and luxurious, and the heroes in question come from politics, sports and the arts. We admire their accomplishments, even aspire to be like them, and then come to find out, as with O.J. Simpson, that they beat their wives and worse.
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It isn’t just a recent phenomenon.
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For every Woody Allen there is a Charlie Chaplin; for every Roman Polanski there is a Fatty Arbuckle. And let’s not forget Ingrid Bergman.
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Let us not forget the charm of Ty Cobb, the graciousness of Babe Ruth and the temperance of Pete Rose.
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Madonna raised eyebrows with her reputed NBA exploits, but what of  Clara Bow, who had a thing for the 1927 University of Southern California football team. Yes, the whole team.
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Just think of some of their stories, moving backward in time. Errol Flynn, the patriotic hero on screen, was a Nazi sympathizer who died in a hotel room with an underage girl.
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Horatio Alger, before he became the author of those inspirational rags-to-riches stories that Republicans like to recommend to those on welfare, was a minister who lost his job because he liked to seduce young boys.
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It seems as if no one can escape: Who was the most saintly man of this century? Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls, and he regularly weighed his excrement in the morning, keeping track of ingoing and outgoing, both.
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So beside that, a governor with his pants down in a motel room may seem kind of tame. Even if he later became president.
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I do not mean to debunk all our heroes, but to better understand what they are and what role they play in public life.
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But when we hold our heroes up to higher standards than humans can sustain, we are like little children who cannot tell the actor from the part.
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An adult doesn’t condemn Hamlet because Richard Burton was a lush.
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Our heroes are capable of doing all the things ordinary people can do, including lying, cheating and stealing. Murder and rape are not beyond them, nor is mere vanity or meanness.
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Like humans, our heroes are bundles of contradictions; they are large and contain multitudes.
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For their crimes, we prosecute them as we do anyone else. For their simpler sins, we develop short memories. For their art, we need to be grateful.
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What we forget is that an artist is an artist for what he makes, not for who he is.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Where is the East? In a round world, everything is east of somewhere. But the “East” is something different. It is an idea.
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It is an idea that goes back at least as far as Homer and the Trojan War, between the Achaeans of Europe and the Trojans in Asia Minor. It is an idea that recurs over and over. East and West. East Germany and West Germany; eastern Europe and western Europe; the Eastern Bloc and NATO. We have all lived through a Cold War divided with the Soviets playing the part of the East and the U.S. leading what we habitually call the West.
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Us and them is perennial. The real world is seven billion thems, each different, some 200 nations, all different, myriad cultures, each distinct. Yet, we still tend to break the cake in half. Us and them. The enlightened West and the inscrutable or barbarous East.
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Certainly the template for the way we think of this dichotomy was devised in the years during and after the Fifth Century BCE, when the Greeks defended their heterogeneous lands against invasion from the Persian Empire. It was given mythic importance by the writers chronicling the events by making it a culture war between the enlightened, rational Europeans and the Oriental despots of the East. It set the “us against them” trope up for the next 2500 years.
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Yet, the East isn’t merely an opponent. There is a seductiveness to the idea that plays out in Orientalist fantasies, such as the Arabian Nights and its harems; the exoticism of Samarkand and the Trans-Oxiana; the fragrances and flavors of the Spice Islands; and the calm spiritualism of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.
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In Classical times, the word “Asia” referred to Anatolia and the Levant. There was a vague awareness that there was an India out there that Alexander the Great had almost conquered, and a sense that black pepper and cloves came from somewhere beyond that, but little hard knowledge.
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All that began to change in the 14th century with the diffusion of a famous book that almost no one now reads: The Travels of Marco Polo. It is a wonderful grab bag of information and tall tales, misunderstanding and hyperbole. I have now read it so you don’t have to.
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Marco Polo left his native Venice in 1271 at the age of 17 with his father and uncle headed toward the China of Kublai Khan. He remained in the East for the next 24 years, often working as a diplomat for the Great Khan. He traveled from Beijing (then called Khanbaliq) to Tibet, India, Java and Vietnam. He also learned of other nations from Abyssinia to Mongolia.
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When he finally returned to Venice at the age of 41, he found his city at war with rival Genoa. He was captured by the Genoese and imprisoned. In the introduction to his Travels, he states that “rather than idle away time, he decided to put together this book for the entertainment of readers. So he had all these things written up by Messer Rustichello of Pisa, who was in the same prison; that was in the year 1298 from the birth of Jesus Christ.”
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In other words, like so many quick sports memoirs, it was written “as told to.” Rustichello was a hack writer and how much of the book is a faithful transcription of Marco Polo’s words and how much of it is fabrication has long been an issue.
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(It should also be noted that Polo’s book was compiled before Gutenberg, and hence was distributed in manuscript form, translated, none too scrupulously into dozens of languages, often with new material added, old material deleted and many mistranslations compounding the confusion. There is no single “right” version of the book, only hundreds of guesses.)
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Certainly, it is not a gracefully written book. It is often tedious and repetitive. As Polo moves from city to city and nation to nation, he often repeats the same formula:
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“Kesh-Makran is a kingdom with its own king and language. Some of the people are idolaters, but most are Saracens. They live by trade and crafts. They have plenty of rice and wheat. Their staple foods are rice, meat and milk. Merchants come here in large numbers both by sea and land, bringing many wares and afterwards carrying away those things of this kingdom. There is nothing else worth mentioning.”
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The narrative is rife with stock phrases: “What shall I tell you of?”; “You may believe me when I say that…”; “Now let me tell you…” and the ever-familiar, “There is nothing else worth mentioning.”
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I think one of my favorite paragraphs comes near the end of the text: “Since we have told you about these Tartars of the Levant we will now take our leave of them and go back to speaking about Turkestan, so that we can hear all about it. But as a matter of fact we have already told you all about Turkestan and how it is ruled by Qaidu, so we have nothing left to say about it. And so we will move on and tell you about the provinces and peoples to the north.”
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In the whole book, we learn almost nothing about Polo himself or what he does, but rather like a gazetteer, he lists countries and kingdoms and gives a brief summation of who they worship, what they eat, and whether or not they owe fealty to the Great Khan. If we are lucky, there are weird or interesting footnotes that speak of folkways or cannibalism or wild promiscuity. There are longer set-pieces describing wars and battles.
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It would be hard to overstate the influence of Polo’s book. Despite its many omissions and that it contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate, it gave Europeans a new vision of the rest of the world. It most likely influenced Columbus and its inaccuracies may have convinced the Admiral of the Ocean Seas that the Earth is much smaller than it actually is, leading him to believe the voyage west to the East would be shorter than it turned out — not even counting the North American roadblock that he never suspected.
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But you keep coming across passages that describe things Marco Polo has misunderstood or misnamed. I want to give you three of them. The first is part of his description of western China, which he calls Tibet (although not actually the region now called Tibet):
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“You should also know that the emperor … has many enormous lions, much bigger than those of Egypt. They have gorgeous richly colored fur marked with longitudinal stripes of black, red and white.”
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Elsewhere, he lets us know:  “The fact is that throughout the province of Cathay there is a kind of black stone that is dug from seams in the mountains and burns like logs. These stones keep a fire going better than wood. Moreover I assure you that if you put them on the fire in the evening and make sure they are well lit, they will keep burning all night and you will still find them glowing in the morning.”
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Enea Vico after Albrecht Dürer (Italian, 1523 – 1567 ), Rhinoceros, 1548, engraving on laid paper, Gift of Mrs. Robert A. Hauslohner

But my favorite is: “They have wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than an elephant. The unicorn has the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. In the middle of its forehead is a single horn, very thick and black. I assure you it does no harm with its horn but only with its tongue and knees; for it has long, sharp spines on its tongue, and whenever it wishes to hurt anyone it tramples him and holds him down with its knees , then slashes him with its tongue. It has a head like a wild boar’s and always holds it bowed towards the ground. It is perfectly content to wallow in mud and mire. It is a very ugly beast to look at. It is nothing like the animal we talk of and describe in our parts, where we say that it lets itself be caught by a virgin; in fact I can tell you it is the exact opposite of what we believe it to be.”
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A good deal else is the exact opposite of what we believe it to be. The East is burdened by a host of our cliches, misperceptions and prejudices — not the least of which is the idea that there is such a single thing as the East. The earth’s largest continent is home to a profusion of cultures with concomitant variety.
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Those prejudices have caused untold troubles, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Japanese internment camps of 1942. You see the fear and ignorance show up in popular entertainments, novels and movies. From 1919’s Broken Blossoms through James Bond’s Doctor No. There is not room to go into Hollywood’s yellowface tradition, or the stereotyping found in Charlie Chan, and Mister Moto movies, or the embarrassment of Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Marlon Brando as Sakini in Teahouse of the August Moon. Whole books have been written.
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The prototype stereotype of the evil Oriental is perhaps Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu. Introduced in 1913 in The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Rohmer describes his villain: “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
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Getting things wrong, or mostly wrong, goes back way past Marco Polo, but it goes forward from him also. We see what we think we see, not what is actually there.
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In the 1930 movie, The Mask of Fu Manchu, the fiendish villain is Boris Karloff in yellowface. And he is duded up in Oriental finery, although what he wears is actually a wealthy Chinese woman’s wedding dress.
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Postscript: Two and a half millennia later, Persia is back as a dangerous “other,” although now called Iran. And the yellow peril is now a nuclear North Korea. Of course, China still makes us twitch, too. And on the news one hears the age-old tropes, and it is hard not to worry that the same one-dimensional ignorance is governing our foreign policy. The history of ignorance and misunderstanding is long and painful.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
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by Richard Nilsen
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And then what happened?
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It’s the essence of story. What happened next? Turn the page to find out. Then the next page; then the next. The author who can make you turn the page has a special talent.
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This is a talent that can often be belittled. It is not the virtue of the “literary novel.” You don’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses for the plot. But you don’t read Stephen King for the elegance of his sentences. You read for the story. You turn the damn page.
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It is a talent that I have come to admire, perhaps mostly because I do not possess it. I remember, some several years ago, I was in a book store and while moving among the Classical authors and the Library of America sections, finding a slim volume of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. The Michener I knew wrote doorstop tomes like Hawaii, Centennial, Alaska and Chesapeake. They were big, commercial enterprises, designed from floor level up to be best-sellers. I grandly dismissed him as a hack.
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But I opened Tales of the South Pacific and thought I’d peruse a page or two to see what Michener’s style was like,

perhaps to gather ammunition to make fun of him. A page or two. I didn’t need much. But some time later, I awoke to find myself standing among the shelves, oblivious to my surroundings, on page 27, flipping them over one after the other without even recognizing that I was sinking deeper and deeper into the story. What happens next? I had fallen into the narrative. He pulled me along like rapids on a river.

 

And I realized, there is a kind of genius to the ability to tell a story.
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I had often made fun of Stephen King. He is not an elegant writer. His sentences are often choppy, awkward and even simple-minded. But, geez, he can tell a story.
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King has made the argument himself that in the past, authors made their reputations on the ability to tell stories. We respect Charles Dickens as a classic, but in his day, he wrote potboilers that were enormously popular with those who wanted to know “what happens next?” King argued that the plot-driven novel should be better valued — and of course, that meant King’s own oeuvre.
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It has been 15 years since King was given a lifetime achievement award by the National Book Awards and gave an acceptance speech scolding academic writers and critics for failing to recognize the importance of story in literature. Those writers and critics did not take it well.
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Harold Bloom — the most erudite and ponderous of critics — complained, “The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. … What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.”
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And compared with Joyce, or Flaubert, or Laurence Sterne, this is certainly true. Sentence by sentence, King can be clumsy. But he makes you turn the page. An hour later, you are a hundred pages in, and you don’t remember the time passing.
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As I said, this is a talent not to be sniffed at. Dickens had it; Victor Hugo had it; Henry Fielding had it. Jane Austen had it. What happens next?
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When film director Sam Fuller was asked what makes a good movie, he said: “A story.” Pressed, then, for what makes a good story, he said, with no hesitation, “A story.” He meant it.
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Why should we care? Beads on a string; beads on a rosary, we move from one to the next, chapter follows chapter, sentence follows sentence. What happens next?
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I don’t want to downplay the role story plays in simply keeping us entertained. From the earliest tales told in the cave around a fire to our uncle’s redoubtable blow-by-blow of the fish that got away, a tale fills the hours after work and before sleep. But there are other ways to fill that time.
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And there is the window that fiction gives us on the workings of minds other than our own. They can foster compassion and a wider understanding of the world. A really good character can persuade us they are real: Ask all those Sherlock Holmes fans who visit his “address” in London.
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As Shelley puts it in his Defence of Poetry, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.”
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A good story gives us those pains and pleasures. We internalize them and enlarge ourselves in the process.
But entertainment and empathy are byproducts of story. The power of narrative is found, I believe, in the very fact of one thing leading to another. The story itself is the hold it has over us.
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Consider: We live in a world of simultaneity — a chaotic chorus of seven billion human things happening at once in an infinity of extra-human activity. The world is a constant buzz, incoherent. If we listen to it all, it is white noise, undifferentiated.
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Yet, we live within ourselves as a single quiet stream surfing on the buzz. From birth to death, we understand ourselves to be a single thread, beginning, middle, end. We reassure ourselves that our stream is, indeed, coherent by comparing it with another stream: a story. If a tale being told, a novel being read, a TV show being watched is coherent, perhaps we are, too. This runs contrary to the latest findings of neurobiology, but it is as deeply embedded in our psyches as anything. Coherent narrative is how we make sense of chaos.
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“There is one story and one story only that will prove worth your telling,” wrote Robert Graves, but Graves was a crackpot. And yet, there is something in it: The one story is that of birth, life and death. Yet, it is the multiplicity of that story that reassures us. All that chaos can be combed out, like tangled hair, into parallel strands: Your story, your spouse’s story, Odysseus’s story, Humbert Humbert’s story, Carrie Mathison’s story — all laid out side by side to show that the singular flow, all in one direction, like the rosary beads told one after another, backs up our claim to the way we understand time, ourselves and our existence.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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