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Friday, June 19, 2015


Continuing to review books that have become foundational to my way of seeing, view of the world, weltanschauung, attitude toward life. How could I experience so directly from the source what Leo Tolstoy had to say if I didn't read? Tolstoy is a good place to start. He opened doors in my mind. A man of integrity such that reading his writing, he appears quite sane. Reading his life story, I found him a wise fool. He was not the best at making decisions for himself, though his wisdom was indisputable. Tolstoy was a wise man in the true sense of what wisdom means. Wisdom is not necessarily rational. Mind is rational. Wisdom is beyond mind, includes heart. Poetry is a mix of mind and heart, like prose writing, fiction. The mix of mind and heart, reason and emotion, weaves art forms, clarifies the difference between craft and art. Tolstoy inspires me to want to be fluent in the Russian language so I can read his beautiful stories as he wrote them. They are beautiful in translation, so beautiful it doesn't matter it's translation. Without translation, I could not read Tolstoy. Had I never found Tolstoy, my life would have been diminished. It's not anything I can put a finger on. It has to do with understanding. Like Ralph Stanley sings from the soul of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Leovochka Tolstoy wrote from the soul of Russia. 

I'm having a Russian film festival these months, seeing some of the finest films of my life, like Tarkovsky's the Sacrifice, and I've only begun. Years of reading Tolstoy, Russian names are familiar. I learned how to pronounce them in my head long ago. The names are familiar, not a problem. People I know who read most often won't read Russian writers, they can't pronounce the names. Same with Chinese and Japanese. I trained myself to get over the obscurity of foreign names. Sometimes after a movie, I'll read the names in the credits, like Japanese, and pronounce them in my mind, familiarizing with the names from another language. The same applies to Russian films, French, Italian, Turkish, Bosnian, Romanian. When somebody tells me they can't read a book full of Russian names, I think, Why not? They're phonetic. Learn them at the beginning of the book and they're easy by the end of the book. Some of the names are a bit awkward to the English reading eye, names that make some Polish names easy by comparison. 

I watch films suspending disbelief, reminding self this is only a peephole into how the people live, interact. It's a scripted drama telling a story in a given culture. It's the culture I'm curious about. I see landscape and architecture. I feel like I get a sense of Russian life acted by Russians portraying Russians, attitudes and beliefs. Saw two films on the battle of Stalingrad. First one was a 3 hour documentary told from the German side, using German film footage, filmed among the German soldiers. The Russians were the ones shooting back. Next, a Russian dramatic version of the battle from the Russian side, the Germans the ones shooting back. Saw them a couple days apart. I understand why Stalingrad has the name, the worst battle ever. I'm recalling in the German documentary, an older Russian man interviewed, who had survived the battle, said, "Russia is a great, vast country. Russia has never been defeated and never will." I thought this a commendable national legacy. He knew the "never will" as well as he knew the "never has." I include watching films with reading, as I watch mostly films from all over the earth, reading subtitles. I know less people who can read subtitles than I know who read books. 

Reading books has made it possible to read subtitles, giving access to some wildly extraordinary films, like Akira Kurosawa's Ran, and Dersu Uzala, Zhang Yimou's House of the Flying Daggers and the Hero, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, White and Red, three films, each titled a color in the French flag. I could not have enjoyed these films and hundreds more restricted by inability to read subtitles. I even have a few friends among the people I know who read books who refuse to read translations. They're not authentic, as the author wrote it. Though I don't know Chinese, I can read Mo Yan and Gao Xingjian, both mainland Chinese Nobel Prize winners. I can read Apollinaire's poem, Zone, Rilke's Duino Elegies, the Tao Te Ching, by allowing self to accept translation the only access I have. I can't learn the Turkish language to read Orhan Pamuk, especially when he's available in the language I'm able to read. I can't learn French to read Rimbaud, though have access to several translations into English. In translation, I even have access to Tolstoy's letters. I read to unrestrict myself, to spread my inner horizon, like in Han Yu's words from the Southern Mountains, "A new sun lights the summits / Stretching heights and breadths millions of feet."  Reading has been an educational entertainment throughout my adult life. It is incalculable how much I'd rather read Chris Hedges' book, The Empire of Illusion, than watch anything that's on television, even the races. 


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