The Mastermind Of Mars

This seventh of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels was probably my least favorite so far. What does it mean to be disappointed in a book in a series of books that, we can all surely acknowledge, aren’t actually that good, at their best?

Mastermind reads like ERB fan fiction. By the way, did you know that some fans of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs will call him ‘ERB?’

It’s ironic that it reads that way, because the main character, Ulysses, is a fan of the earlier stories (you see, John Carter would sometimes return to Earth and tell his tales of Martian adventures to ERB, who then published them. Well, Ulysses is a fan and when things go badly for him WWI, he… wills himself to travel to Mars (known to the inhabitants as Barsoom). There, he learns how to transplant brains into new bodies, marries a princess and all the usual derring do, but he seems to lake the verve of John Carter and the heroes of the first six books. But I will keep on reading them, gosh darn it!

‘Confucius: A Throneless King’ By Meher McArthur

This brief book is an interesting, but ultimately disappointing ‘biography’ of Confucius. I say ‘biography’ because, as the author admits, it is almost impossible to put together an accurate bio of the man, because so much of what is known is not able to be disentangled from myth. While he admits the problem, it’s not clear from the book itself how he went about it. How much can we trust the incidents described? I certainly don’t know. And the ending is downright confusing, because it’s a series of short narratives about the spread and influence of Confucianism outside of China (Vietnam, Korea, etc). Interesting, but felt like filler because… wasn’t this a bio of the man? And if you were going to do more, why not actually talk more about the philosophy cum religion called Confucianism? There’s a little, but honestly, if I hadn’t read Fung’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (also disappointing), I wouldn’t really have known what he was talking about when he says things like ‘Neo-Confucianism.’ Perhaps my main takeaway from this book is that it’s past time for me to read the Analects.

‘Chardin And Rembrandt’ By Marcel Proust

It was pretty exciting when this was published in English. It’s a little padded, to make it the length of a long chapbook, but that’s okay.

Chardin and Rembrandt opens with a description of a young man (clearly upper middle class, at least), looking around the dining room table and is disgusted. The half eaten food. The meats laying out. The ash strewn fireplace. In retrospect, it reminds me of the reactions of the narrator of Sartre’s Le Nausee.

But then he says to go to the Louvre and check out the still life paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. By doing so, you will see the sublime in the quotidien. You don’t have to be a scholar nor even to have read Proust’s masterpiece to see the comparison to the episode of the madeleine or, really to the whole damn book to know that.

As for Rembrandt… he starts to write about Rembrandt representing something more traditionally sublime, but then he trails off. Literally. It ends with “…”

This is not a mature book, by any means. Proust is famous for his long sentences, but he also has a certain economy. This is more… florid. A younger man’s essay.

Ezra Pound: Canto LXXXII

If the previous Canto was about composers, this one is about poets. At first I thought it was a narrative about a sort upper class, English house visit – only this one happened to include friends of Algernon Swinburne. But then Whitman gets named dropped and it’s hard to find two more different poets than them (arguably all they share in common is that they are both great poets and wrote a lot, if often obliquely, about sex). But it still seems like, in large part, the over educated fragments of educated English people (‘Lytton’ is mentioned; Lytton Strachey? Is this the Bloomsbury circle?).


Ezra Pound: Canto LXXXI

A much shorter one than its immediate predecessor (which was over twenty-five pages). It is much concerned with Spain, but a contemporary Spain (and some anti-Catholicism; there is much Catholicism here, he writes, but no religion).

It is a crude and comic Spain and it is mocked by somewhat uncouth English speakers (I’m not sure whether the English speakers are British or American). I was imagining Fawlty Towers – a working class Englishman and his incompetent Spanish servant.

I don’t think I’ve remarked on this before, but high modernism tends to mix its pretensions with close reading of lower class/working class speech and slang. Joyce’s ear for the Irish manner of speech in… well, everything he wrote. Stein’s well regarded rendition of early twentieth century African-American speech in Tender Buttons. And The Wasteland, for all of its reputation of being a bastion of arcane learning, is chock full of lower class English speech.

Ezra Pound: Canto LXXX

It’s been almost three years since I last wrote about one of the Cantos, but it felt good to be back.

Maybe it was distance, but I was struck by the natural similarity between this one and The Wasteland. Pound famously edited Eliot’s masterpiece and some scholars think that it was almost to the point of co-authorship. But also, by this time, The Wasteland was rightly admire as one of the crowning works of the century and could, ironically, have been a reciprocal influence on Pound’s later works. I’m not going to guess here, though. Just something to think about.

The bad news: LXXX is pretty fascist.

Multiple references to Mussolini (some ever so slightly veiled, like a reference to ‘the Duke’ – il Duce, of course, being his nickname). More than a little anti-semitism. Blum (clearly Leon Blum, the Jewish Prime Minister of France) defends a bidet (implicitly attacking his masculinity and sexuality), in Pound’s estimation and is negatively compared to the collaborationist Petain, who, as Pound writes, defended the Verdun. The Sadduccees are mentioned in connection to Eliot, for some reason that I won’t pretend to understand.

In the beginning, I thought it might be about music. Finlandia was mentioned and a few lines, so was Debussy (leading my to think that ‘Finlandia’ is not a reference to a country, but to Sibelius’ tone poem). Later, Bach and Gluck get name dropped.

This canto feels, for long stretches, like the tale of young man, traveling to world (mainly Italy, France, and then England) and seeing historical sights and places associated with writers and artists and then relating them to himself and his understanding. I’m not sure if I’m explaining myself well here. I love history and when its comes to my mind or I’m in a place that I can relate to something I know from history, it feels very present (almost Faulknerian).