June 24, 2016

Metaphysical poetry as explained by Florence + the Machine (part 3/4)

eden

(For the introduction to this series, see here)

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“The stars, the moon/ they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark/ No dawn, no day, I’m always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart”

Paradise Lost largely focuses on the Fall of Man and the loss of privileges that Adam and Eve suffer in the wake of their condemnation. As such, one of Milton’s chief methods of imparting the feeling of hell both on earth and in actual hell is by emphasizing the link between despair, darkness, and the absence of God. The introduction of darkness to Man’s paradisaical world once the Original Sin has been committed is symbolic of Man and earth’s tainted status. In Book IX, after Eve convinces Adam to also partake of the fruit, the pair feel briefly invigorated and flee into a shadowy forest. Upon awakening in the darkness, however, they see the world in a new way and realize that they have lost favour with God, thereby losing Paradise.

“I can hear your heartbeat/ I tried to find the sound
But then it stopped/ and I was in the darkness
So darkness I became”

One of Adam’s first lamentations after his expulsion from Eden is that he can no longer communicate directly with God. Although he is aware of his maker’s presence on earth, he can only offer prayers to an invisible force rather than speak to God, face to face. Adam’s world becomes that much more silent as a result, and he finds himself in anguish over the loss of God’s physical voice.

“I took the stars from my eyes/ and then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back”

In Book X, the archangel Michael descends to escort Adam and Eve out of Eden. After putting Eve to sleep in order to have a private conversation with Adam, Michael comforts Adam with the thought that his separation from God is only as temporary as his life on earth, so long as Adam lives virtuously. Having seen Michael’s visions of how humanity will withstand the forces of evil despite their tendency to sin, Adam then feels reassured that he and his descendants will be able to rejoin their maker in heaven and becomes resolved to endeavor towards that end.

“Then I heard your heart beating/ you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you”

Once Eve awakens from the sleep that Michael induced, the couple is led to the gate of Eden. As soon as they pass through, Michael stands before it alongside other angels, wielding a flaming sword to protect its entrance. Adam and Eve tearfully turn away, hand in hand, and venture out to take their place in their new, impure world. As sorrowful as they are to leave, however, they are assuaged by the idea presented by Eve in Book X that they might not be overwhelmed by the darkness of their new home as long as they remain united and equal in sharing the burden that has befallen them.

Next (part 4/4): The Sonnets of John Donne as set to “All This and Heaven Too”

 

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May 24, 2016

Metaphysical poetry as explained by Florence + the Machine (part 2/4)

paradiso(For the introduction to this series, see here)

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“And I had a dream/ about my old school”

Dante’s journey through hell and most of purgatory is guided by the great poet Virgil, who he credits as his mentor. When they first meet on the outskirts of hell in Inferno Canto 1:61-99, Dante proclaims the deep tutelary impact that Virgil has had on his career: “Are you then that Virgil, and that fountain, that pours out so great a river of speech?…You are my master, and my author: you alone are the one from whom I learnt the high style that has brought me honour.”

“And she was there all pink and gold and glittering/ I threw my arms around her legs/Came to weeping”

The other source of edification who leads Dante through the remainder of purgatory and finally into heaven is none other than Dante’s idolized muse, Beatrice. And while she is not described as gilded, pink, and glittering, she pretty much has some of the most fabulous entrances ever described in both The Divine Comedy and The New Life.

In Purgatorio Canto 20: 1-48 she takes over from Virgil, emerging in a cloud of flowers, carried by angels, dressed in “colours of living flame,” and crowned with a wreath of Minerva’s olive leaves set over a white veil. In response, Dante quakes in awe and turns to tell Virgil that “There is barely a drop of blood in me that does not tremble.”

Beatrice’s appearance in Dante’s vision in The New Life is equally as grand: an unknown figure identified as Dante’s master carries her as she eats Dante’s flaming heart while clad in nothing but a crimson cloth. It’s curious how Dante always seems to attire her in red when he claims to despise the colour in Inferno Canto 14 because it reminds him of Bulicame, a hot spring known as much for its trail of red clay as it was for its usage as a source of bath water for prostitutes.

“And I heard your voice/ As clear as day/ And you told me I should concentrate/ It was all so strange/ And so surreal/ That a ghost should be so practical”

Beatrice’s first words to Dante are unfortunately not tender ones. Although she is obscured by her veil, she speaks in a clear and severe voice, first telling him that he should not weep for Virgil’s disappearance because he should save his tears for what is about to happen next. She then admonishes him for being unaware of his unworthy placement in heaven:

“‘Look at me, truly: I truly am, I truly am Beatrice. How did you dare to approach the Mount? Did you not know that here Man is happy?’ My eyes dropped to the clear water, but seeing myself there, I looked back at the grass, so much shame bowed my forehead down. As the mother seems severe to her child, so she seemed to me: since the savour of sharp pity tastes of bitterness.”

“And my body was bruised and I was set alight/ But you came over me like some holy rite/ And although I was burning, you’re the only light”

As a mere mortal wandering through otherworldly places, Dante endures his fair share of emotional and physical discomfort throughout his journey towards heaven and Beatrice, who symbolizes the path to God. Luckily for him, his guides, along with other blessed creatures, ensure that he is not too badly affected. For instance, in the seventh circle of hell’s third ring, large flakes of fire fall from the heavens to burn the naked sinners below. To protect Dante, Virgil instructs him to walk along the edge of the sand, lest his feet be burned.

Even more uncomfortable is Dante’s crossing onto the shore of the Blessed. In Purgatorio Canto 31, the lady Matilda submerges and pulls him by his head along the river Lethe in such a way that sounds like drowning. He swallows water but is eventually fished out and declared cleansed to satisfaction.

“And the grass was so green against my new clothes”

When Dante asks Matilda where Beatrice is in Purgatorio Canto 32, she replies, “See her sitting under the new foliage at its root.” In fact, the entire expanse at which they stand at the foot of heaven’s door is a woodland covered in lush grass and greenery. It is there that Matilda draws Dante across the stream of forgetfulness and where he also drinks from the river Eunoë. These waters essentially prepare Dante to venture into heaven through their transformative powers, and he describes the experience as one that renders him anew in Canto 33:103-145: “I came back, from the most sacred waves, remade, as fresh plants are, refreshed, with fresh leaves: pure, and ready to climb to the stars.”

Although there is no specific mention of whether this transformation applies to his superficial trappings (i.e., clothes), Dante’s preparation runs parallel to the biblical allegory of the Church in its preparation as a bride for Christ. In that allegory, as described in the book of Revelation 19:7-8, the bride is given fine, bright linen to wear, thereby illustrating the biblical importance of cleanliness and newness vis-à-vis the ascent to paradise.

Next (part 3/4): Milton’s Paradise Lost as set to “Cosmic Love”

 

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May 3, 2016

Metaphysical Poetry as Explained by Florence + the Machine (part 1/4)

florence                                                       Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine

A few years ago, The Atlantic came out with an ingenious article by Matthew O’Brien on how Carly Rae Jepsen’s song, “Call Me Maybe” could explain the Euro crisis. By selecting certain lines from the song’s lyrics and linking them to the situations of various EU countries, O’Brien illustrated Jepsen’s accidental macroeconomic profundity as distilled in her catchy pop song.

It was such a good idea that I decided to steal it and apply it to my own interests here—more specifically, in relation to Florence + the Machine and how their song lyrics could be read as iterations of passages in metaphysical poetry. Through three of their songs, I hope to frame the attitudes presented by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), John Donne (1572-1631), and John Milton (1608-1674) toward the supernatural.

The reason why O’Brien’s approach is so brilliant is because it highlights an axiom of contemporary society—namely, that most song lyrics today are hardly scrutinized for the depth of their content. And while that stance is certainly valid, it wasn’t always that way. It’s largely due to our belief that there now exists a wide divergence between poetry and song, the latter of which is considered subordinate to the former.

This is a far cry from our attitude to the fact that the roots of literature were born in song, prayer, and legend. Verse always precedes prose in the creation of a national literature and, as such, early epic poems and ballads (which were often sung) are revered as the revolutionary texts that sanctioned a language’s right to acquire the status of literature. While it is true that not all songs have been respected equally throughout history, the rise of popular culture and ubiquitous pop music has been roughly concomitant with our decline in regard for song lyrics as a literary form.

But I’d like to think that every once in a while we can still find higher thoughts in the manifestations of popular music. And, through the lens of Florence Welch’s fascination with the occult and the sacred, I’d like to explore the extent to which her songs can find communion with the great metaphysical poets of yore.

Next (part 2/4): Dante’s journey through heaven, hell, and purgatory as set to “Only if for a Night”

 

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April 13, 2016

A history of the colour pink in Japan

image1{The Meguro River (目黒川) at 中目黒 in Tokyo}

After my recent visit to Japan, which felicitously coincided with the cherry blossom season, I thought I’d spend a little time covering the history of the colour pink in that country. Compared to other languages (such as certain ones in Europe), the colour pink in East Asia does not nearly have as long an etymological history as other colours in terms of being recognized as a distinct colour in its own right rather than as a derivative of ‘red.’

However, in the case of Japan, ‘pink’ has a rather long history—as is fitting for the country with a famously deep appreciation for cherry blossoms. As far back as the 8th century during the Nara period, ‘pink’ or「桃花褐」was found in Manyōshū (万葉集- Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest surviving compilation of poetry in Japanese. In it, the colour is used to analogously compare the impermanency of a pink stain to the shallow feelings of a woman:

「桃花褐(つきそめ)の浅らの衣浅らかに思ひて妹に逢はむものかも」

Here, the colour has been transliterated as ‘tsukisome,’ and while there are other variations on this word that involve the Chinese character for ‘peach’ (桃)*, they all denote the same colour: pink. In addition to the words for ‘pink’ that involve the character for ‘red’ (淡紅色、退紅), this raises the total number of possibilities to one that far outnumbers any imaginable counterpart sum in English.

Now, of course, the Anglicized pronunciation of ‘pink’ (ピンク- pinku) is most commonly used in spoken Japanese. And while the majority of other words for ‘pink’ are considered obsolete today, the range of ways in which this colour has been described indicates how much the concept of pink has been contemplated in Japanese thought throughout its literary history.

* 桃花褐(あらぞめ、つきそめ) 、桃染(つきそめ)、桃色(ももいろ)

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April 3, 2016

Book review: malala’s book from a TCK (third culture kid) point of view

malala

After years of putting it off, I finally got around to reading Malala Yousafzai’s book, which is every bit as inspiring as the reviews say. It exceeded my expectations in that I found it much more gripping than I anticipated, and I was surprised at how much the book documented her and her father’s journey of activism long before the Taliban targeted them.

I also didn’t expect the lengths to which she expressed her deep love for the Swat valley and her identification as a Pashtun first and foremost before as a Pakistani. Indeed, Malala reveals a great deal about the dual nature of Pashtun culture: on the one hand she describes her people as hospitable, generous, and fiercely loyal. For instance, they apparently seldom say manana (‘thank you’) because they believe that kindness can only truly be repaid with more kindness. However, the same principle holds true for offenses, because on the other hand, they have also been known to hold grudges for astounding amounts of time and see no expiry date on when one can exact his revenge. This sort of behaviour is responsible for many of the feuds that have pervaded Pashtun history.

With this notable concept in mind, I was initially thinking of writing a post that compared different cultures in which feudalism has played a key role in shaping normative behaviours. But instead, I’d like to reflect on Malala’s deep ties to her homeland of the Swat Valley from the perspective of someone who has never felt a strong sense of belonging to one particular place. As a third culture kid (see definition here) of mixed heritage who grew up between different cultures and countries, I’ve always been secretly a little envious of people who have a definitive place to call ‘home’ and find security in being bonded to it. And so passages like the ones below that convey Malala’s intense identification with her homeland and the homesickness that she feels while being away from it move yet do not relate to me:

“…when you are exiled from your homeland, where your fathers and forefathers were born and where you have centuries of history, it’s very painful.”

“…we might be the world’s best-treated refugees, in a nice house with everything we need, but we still yearn for our homeland.”

“No Pashtun leaves his land of his own sweet will…either he leaves from poverty of he leaves for love.”

Still, the fact that I find difficulty in empathizing with Malala’s longing for the Swat Valley doesn’t detract from my overall ability to imagine her pain. In fact, the entire book is full of details that are hard to relate to for many people, which is her whole point—namely, that basic rights such as education are still denied to many girls around the world.

Malala’s account certainly inspired me to be appreciative of what I have while striving to make the world better, and I highly recommend it!

 

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December 13, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 4/4)

 

GogolStaleyNikolai Gogol (1809-1852); Layne Staley (1967-2002)

 

Gogol’s relationship with the Russian language differed slightly from Lermontov’s and Pushkin’s in that he grew up in a household that spoke multiple Slavic languages: his mother was Polish and he was born and raised in a Ukrainian Cossack village that was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Consequently, scholars of both Russian and Ukrainian literature have long debated his literary identity. Alongside the likes of Pushkin, Prosper Mérimée (author of Carmen), and Edgar Allen Poe, Gogol is considered one of the first masters of the short story. The Nose, arguably his most famous work, was converted into an opera that is still widely enjoyed in theaters today.

Even from the beginning of his writing career in university, Gogol developed a secretive yet ambitious personality that was heavily punctuated by a painful degree of self-consciousness. His first, self-published poem about idyllic German life entitled, Hans Küchelgarten, was criticized by every magazine that he sent it to. As a result, he bought all of the remaining copies, destroyed them, and swore never to write poetry again. This chronic anxiety about how well his works were received would eventually be the death of him.

After his career took an upturn with the great success of The Government Inspector, a satire of Russian beaurocracy, his concomitant realization that satirical comedy was his literary forte led to his widespread fame and further acclaim. Dead Souls, The Nose, and The Overcoat are among his best works that exhibit his sardonic wit and insightful social commentary on issues pertaining especially to Russia under the rule of Czar Nicholas I.

Throughout his career, however, Gogol remained prey to the opinions of others, internalizing their criticisms and chastizing himself in harmful ways. In particular, the judgement of Matvey Konstantinovsky, a spiritual elder who Gogol constantly consulted during his last years, instilled such a strong sense of self-loathing in Gogol that it convinced him to despise the fantastical elements in his work as a mark of sinfulness. At the same time, Gogol was experiencing maddening writer’s block in trying to complete the second half of Dead Souls. Out of frustration, he burned many of his manuscripts containing its contents, blamed this act on the Devil possessing him temporarily, and fell into a deep depression. For nine days afterwards, his extreme ascetic practices led him to refuse all food in self-chastisement. Finally, he died in agony of starvation.

Staley also died in isolation after a long period of self-loathing, in large part brought on by his addiction to drugs. Having been discovered for his talent from when he was a teenager, Staley’s involvement with drugs went hand in hand with his rising star status in the Seattle grunge movement of the early 1990’s, which changed the face of rock music. Among hits such as “Man in the Box,” “Hate to Feel,” and “Angry Chair,” he wrote many of Alice in Chains’ most popular songs and imbued them with the distinct voice for which he was well known. On the tenth anniversary of Staley’s death in 2012, The Atlantic paid a tribute to him written by David de Sola, who noted that, “The Seattle grunge scene…produced four great voices, but the most distinct among them belonged to Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley…His ability to project power and vulnerability in his vocals… made for a style that would get copied for years after Alice in Chains became a household name.” Many of the lyrics in his songs aptly bring out the feelings of helplessness and depression that often accompany drug addiction.

One of the other three great voices referred to by Sola included Kurt Cobain, who was known as a friend and respected contemporary of Staley’s. In fact, a picture of the two of them was included in Alice in Chains’ music video for “Voices.” Similar to the way in which Gogol and Lermontov were affected by Pushkin’s death and compelled them to write Dead Souls and Death of a Poet, respectively, Staley was deeply saddened by Cobain’s death in 1994 and was jolted enough to make a surprising stage appearance shortly after the band had announced their intended hiatus—a decision due to Staley’s flailing functionality and need for drug rehabilitation. Although the concert was in May, Staley showed up in a ski mask, apparently to hide his sickly and deteriorating appearance.

The remaining years of Staley’s life became increasingly shrouded by his addiction, withdrawal from the rest of the world, and refusals to interact with even his fellow musicians. His slow decline in all abilities was noted by the few who did see him occasionally. From 1999 to 2002, Staley barely left his apartment and was finally discovered dead there by the police weeks after his actual death. According to the report, they found him with a syringe in his leg, a loaded syringe in his hand, and next to several bottles of spray paint, two crack pipes, and a stash of cocaine. At 6 feet tall (1.83m), he only weighed 86 pounds (39 kg) by the time he died, rendering him as emaciated as Gogol was after he starved himself to death. In an eerie coincidence of events, Staley also died on April 5, the same day of Cobain’s death.

Back (part 1/4): Introduction

 

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November 27, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 3/4)

 

russianw.

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011); Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)

 

Like Pushkin’s character, Lensky, Lermontov was also a romantic poet who died very young in a duel, in his case at the age of twenty-six. His career is as remarkable for its brevity as it is for the incredible literary contributions he made during his short life, which earned him both the title of “The Poet of the Caucasus” as well as his reputation as the greatest poet after Pushkin. Lermontov showed great promise from an early age; he composed poetry from the age of thirteen under the influence of Byron, who he greatly admired alongside Goethe and other members of the Sturm und Drang (‘Storm and Urge’) movement. Although he was a sickly youth and suffered from a permanent limp due to a horse-riding accident, the events leading up to his death had nothing to do with his physical afflictions and almost everything to do with the consequences of his intense personality.

His passionate behaviour included recuperating from his work with the same degree of intensity that characterized his work ethic itself. According to Lermontov’s biographer Alexander Skabichevsky, “In the mornings he was writing, but the more he worked, the more need he felt to unwind in the evenings…‘I feel I’m left with very little of my life,’ the poet confessed to his friend A.Merinsky on July 8, a week before his death.” During his years in the military especially, Lermontov not only gained a reputation for his whoring and drinking sprees but also a number of enemies due to his characteristic cruel wit and caustic humour. His lack of social pleasantries would eventually be the reason for the duel that killed him. In a letter dated to 1833, he admitted his impulsive proclivities: “Now I want material pleasures, happiness that I can touch, happiness that can be bought with gold, that one can carry it in one’s pocket as a snuff-box; happiness that beguiles only my senses while leaving my soul in peace and quiet.” Despite all of this energy expended on indulgent behaviour, however, Lermontov was extremely productive in writing and receiving publication.

Perhaps the act that best exemplifies his ability to create brilliant work under extreme duress was his creation of the poem dedicated to Pushkin that propelled him to fame, Death of a Poet. Following Pushkin’s death in 1837, Lermontov was severely distraught and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Yet despite his disfavour at court, impending exile, and fitful condition, he composed Death of a Poet, which enjoyed mass circulation among the Russian intelligentsia within only a few days. Its final part, in fact, was written impromptu within just a few minutes before being disseminated. Such was Lermontov’s gift.

Parallel to Lermontov, Amy Winehouse was also a young star prone to working and playing hard. In a 2007 interview, she remarked, “…Maybe I’m a bit resentful because all I do is work now. If I’m not working, I’ll be up for three weeks at a time, just like the old me.” In short, her idea of rest and relaxation was staying awake for three weeks in order to recover from working non-stop.

Only a year older than Lermontov was when he died, Winehouse was notorious not only for her involvement with drugs and alcohol but also for her disastrous love interests in a similar way that Lermontov’s personal life was remembered. It was in fact these tumultuous relationships that provided rich fodder for many of her song lyrics that mention being helplessly part of a toxic couple locked in a cycle of self-destruction. Lermontov’s romantic life was equally as chaotic. In his 1982 biography, author John Garrard mentioned that, “The symbolic relationship between love and suffering is of course a favourite Romantic paradox, but for Lermontov it was much more than a literary device. He was unlucky in love and believed he always would be: fate had ordained it.”

Fortunately, despite the frequent catastrophes that plagued them throughout their careers, both Lermontov and Winehouse at least lived to see the measure of their great success. Amy Winehouse, in a 2007 interview, remarked that although her greatest fear at one point was dying without being acknowledged for her contributions to music, her worldwide acclaim ultimately reassured her that “If I die…I would still feel fulfilled in a way.” By the time she died, Winehouse had received twenty-four awards from sixty-two nominations within a span of five years (2004-2009), including five Grammy awards in 2008. Her twenty-fifth and last award was a Grammy granted post-humously in 2012 for “Body and Soul,” her final recording done four months before her death.

Lermontov, by the end of his life, had earned the reputation as ‘Pushkin’s heir,’ not just for his admiration of Pushkin, but also as a brilliant novelist, poet, and founding father of Russian literature in his own right, alongside Pushkin. His interest in the culture and landscape of the Caucasus introduced new forms of literary thinking into the early development of his nation’s literature, and he invented the intonations of what was later termed ‘iron verse’ for its vigorous sounds and high energy of powerful expressions.

Next (part 4/4): Layne Staley and Nikolai Gogol

 

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November 23, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 2/4)

 

LDRvsPushkin    Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837);  Lana Del Rey (1985-)

 

Lana Del Rey’s attitude towards her own death and the association between ‘living fast’ and ‘dying young’ is well documented through both her song lyrics and personal interviews. In an interview with The Guardian in June 2014 she stated that, “I wish I was dead already,” and then confirmed that she thought of early death as glamourous. She somehow associated this foreboding feeling with her inextricable but stressed marriage to her career. “I do [wish I was dead]. I don’t want to have to keep doing this but I am,” she said. In short, Del Rey has intimated a view of early death within her future, largely in light of the empathy she feels toward other musicians who tragically died young. This dismal attitude is central to her personal brand and goes well with the lifestyle she advertises, which is all about paradoxically seeking freedom through self-destructive enslavement. And yet she finds inadequate release in the music she cannot help but make, thereby wishing for a greater extrication from reality through some aspect of the reckless lifestyle that she apparently leads, a type of lifestyle that also tends to accompany young, glamourised deaths.

Pushkin, in a way, also prophesied his own death in a textbook example of how ‘life imitates art.’ In Pushkin’s novel, Yevgeniy Onegin, Lensky, a romantic young poet, is killed in the duel that he challenges Yevgeniy to after Yevgeniy’s public flirtation with Lensky’s beloved Olga, a woman whose feelings run much shallower for Lensky than his for hers. Under eerily similar circumstances, Pushkin was also mortally wounded in a duel over his straying wife, Natalya Goncharova, a great beauty who became a figure of scandal due to her affair with her brother-in-law, Georges d’Anthès. Ridiculed by high society as a cuckold, Pushkin challenged Natalya’s lover to a duel, which he lost. In the aftermath, while Pushkin lay dying for two days, he reportedly recalled a premonition that he had about the number six in relation to his death: the tragic duel that bore so much resemblance to his own happened in chapter six of Yevgeniy Onegin. And while the tendency to conflate fact and fiction runs deep through the veins of Russian literary studies, of which self-mythology is a noted characteristic, the circumstances surrounding Lensky and Pushkin’s death are indeed uncannily alike, regardless of whether the report of Pushkin’s last words is true or not.

Next (part 3/4): Amy Winehouse and Mikhail Lermontov

 

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November 20, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 1/4)

 

Lana del Rey                            Lana Del Rey

 

What makes a martyr? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.” And while religious martyrs are perhaps the first kind that comes to mind when we think of this word, significant consideration can also be lent to artists of the past. These are the ones who have been famously labelled as tortured geniuses of practically mythic proportions, extraordinarily talented libertines fuelled by a greater cause, who suffered as a combined result of bearing the burden of their talent and the inability to save themselves from the destruction that their genius pulled them towards.

In the next three parts of this series, I’ll explore the various similarities between three Russian literary giants and three of who could be construed in some ways as their modern-day, musical counterparts: Lana Del Rey, Amy Winehouse, and lead singer Layne Staley from the band, Alice in Chains.

The three aforementioned writers are considered to be the founding fathers of Russian literature: Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837), Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), and Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). To understand how mentally fraught these writers were one must first understand the history of Russian literature. It’s remarkably brief. It only entered into its own national and global consciousness about two hundred years ago. Before that, Russian intellectuals wrote in French, German, English, or other European languages in large part because they were schooled in those languages, spoke several of them fluently, and could connect with other great thinkers of the Western world that way. However, after the expulsion of Napolean (1812-1815) and the concomitant emergence of Russia’s great poet, Pushkin, the rise of Russian literature was unprecedentedly rapid and intense.

The burden that therefore fell on the first writers of that new literary tradition was a heavy one. They somehow had to articulate that which distinguished their literary heritage as rooted in Russian songs, prayers, and folklore, and combine it with borrowings from their up-to-date knowledge of other European literary traditions, colloquial Russian, and Church Slavonic language. In short, they were responsible for creation of their national literature. The great weight of this immense undertaking, in conjunction with their intense personalities, gradually manifested itself in the personal struggles that Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol each faced, which eventually led to their demises: both Pushkin and Lermontov died in dramatic duels while Gogol starved himself to death.

The hauntingly strange part, however, is that the ways in which they died bear striking resemblances to the deaths and attitudes towards death of Del Rey, Winehouse, and Staley. And while the term ‘genius’ is a relative one that may not apply to all the figures discussed here, the duty of carrying on the sacred flame of literature or music is what unifies them and provides the lens through which we will conduct our examination.

Next (part 2/4): Lana Del Rey and Aleksander Pushkin

 

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November 11, 2015

Asianifying fall vegetables (part 2): kabocha & chicken stew

 

kabochachicken

 

Okay. This one is a bit of a cheat. In continuing my series, “Asianifying fall vegetables in the U.S.,” I should, in theory, be choosing vegetables that do not typically feature in Asian cuisines. However, this is not the case in today’s recipe, since kabocha is a type of small pumpkin that is used in a variety of East Asian culinary practices. The reason why I decided to try it was because of the interesting nature of the recipe book it came from. Nikkei Cuisine: Japanese Food the South American Way, by Luiz Hara, is an attempt to clarify and explain the legitimacy of Japanese cooking as interpreted by members of the Japanese diaspora. Hara is one such member, having grown up in Brazil before moving to London to become an influential food blogger (while working in finance) and, eventually, a chef.

That being said, this recipe is what I would classify as restaurant-level one, given that it took what seemed like an eternity to make and contains detailed instructions such as “caramelise [the] konbu strips to garnish” and “Bevel the edges of each [pumpkin] slice” (i.e. scrape the pumpkin skin off the edges.) Still, it made for a delicious soup erring on the unexpectedly sweet side, which was nicely off-set by the savoury chicken element. I would make it again, but next time I would break up the preparation in a way that wouldn’t require me to do everything in one session, since there is quite a bit of steeping  and waiting involved. My recommendation is to prepare the dashi and ensuing kabocha soup well-ahead of time. The chicken can be done shortly before serving. For this reason, I’ve taken the liberty of separating this recipe into steps so that you can do “Step 1” in advance, and save “Step 2” for later.

From Luiz Hara: One of the simplest meat recipes in this book, this is a delicate but flavoursome dish with three main components–chicken, dashi stock, and kabocha pumpkin. For this dish to work, all three should be fresh and of the highest quality. If the budget stretches, I recommend corn-fed, preferably free-range chicken, and the dashi should be primary, crystal-clear and freshly made. This is an elegant chicken dish that is sure to impress.

Serves 4

-1 litre (4 cups) Primary dashi

-1/2 small kabocha pumpkin

-100 ml (1/2 cup) mirin

-1 1/2 tbsp. caster (superfine) sugar

-5 cm (2 in.) piece of konbu

-5 tbsp. light soy sauce

-4 corn-fed chicken thighs, skin on, bone in

-1 tsp. sansho pepper, to garnish

-1 tsp. toasted white sesame seeds, to garnish

-2 tbsp. caramelised konbu seaweed, to garnish

[Step 1.]

Prepare the primary dashi; this dish is all about the quality of the dashi and the chicken.

Start by preparing the kabocha pumpkin. First, cut the kabocha in half and remove the seeds. Then cut each half in half again: the quarters will have a thicker top part and a thinner bottom part. Then cut each quarter in half again so that you have eight pieces of roughly the same weight and size, for even cooking. Bevel the edges of each slice using a potato peeler (I do this to stop the sharp edges from breaking off into the dashi and making it cloudy, which would also spoil the presentation.) Finally, tap the heel of the knife blade into the kabocha‘s skin to cut small nicks into it, so when the kabocha cooks and the flesh expands, the harder skin will be able to expand with it and the slice will not crumble.

Put the kabocha in a medium pan, skin side down. Add the dashi, mirin, sugar, and konbu piece. Bring to the boil over a medium heat. When the liquid boils, reduce the heat so the kabocha gently simmers. Cook until the kabocha is just cooked through but firm, about 7 minutes; test for doneness by sticking a toothpick through it. Do not overcook at this stage, as the kabocha will be cooked again. When the kabocha is ready, turn off the heat and add the soy sauce. Let the kabocha steep in its cooking liquor for at least 1 hour (more is fine, even a few hours but don’t refrigerate.)

[Step 2.]

Carefully remove the kabocha from its liquor, setting it aside but reserving the liquid in the pan.

Next, preheat a heavy griddle pan over a high heat. When the pan is very hot, add the chicken, skin side down, and brown for a minute or so. Turn the pieces of chicken over and brown the other side for 2 minutes. Transfer the chicken to the pan of cooking liquor and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, so the liquid simmers gently, and continue to cook for 12 minutes. When the chicken is done, remove it from the pan and keep it warm.

Now, return the kabocha pieces to the cooking liquid, bring to the boil then turn the heat down and simmer gently for a couple of minutes to heat the pumpkin through.

To plate, place one chicken thigh in a shallow serving bowl followed by two pieces of kabocha pumpkin alongside, then add a ladleful of the cooking broth. Finish off with a sprinkle of sansho pepper, the toasted sesame seeds and a few strands of caramelised konbu over the chicken. Serve immediately.

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