“And whoever saves a life it is as though he had saved the lives of all mankind” (5:32).
“Each [hu]man’s step forward is a step forward for all of [hu]mankind.” the great white* brotherhood
* “white” here is not a reference to race but to the Aura of White Light that surrounds the anointed ones, those who have arisen from every race, creed and walk of life to lead others to enlightenment.
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The White Cat and the Monk was a 2016 Christmas gift to me from my son and daughter-in-law. It’s a charmingly illustrated retelling of an old Irish poem, PangurBán, a lovely gift and a lovely addition to my bookshelves.
I wasn’t familiar with the poem, so the gift inspired – as such gifts are want to do – a few hours of pleasurable reading and research, an effort lightly akin to the endeavors of the anonymous but renown author of the poem. Pangur Bán was written by a 9th Century monk somewhere inside or in the vicinity of Reichenau Abby, which is on Reichenau Island in Lake Constance in the south of Germany.
The poet monk tells of a white cat who shares his work and living space. While the monk single-mindedly finds pleasure in scholarly pursuits, the white cat finds pleasure in single-mindedly chasing mice.
There are many translations of Pangur Bán, notably by W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney. The most famous translation – which turned out to be my favorite – is by Robin Flowler (1881-1946), an English poet and scholar, a Celticist, Anglo-Saxonist and translator of Gaelic.
The Scholar and His Cat, Pangur Bán
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
-translated from the Gaelic by Robin Flowler
THE SECRET OF THE KELLS
Featuring Pangur Bán, both cat and poem
In 2009 the Flatiron Film Company released an animated film, The Secret of Kells, which is inspired by a mix of history, Celtic mythology, magic and fantasy. One of the characters is a white cat, Pangur Bán, and during the credits Pangur Bán is read in modern Irish.
If you are viewing this by email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to view this video, the Pangur Bán Song from the film.
The Secret of the Kells is a relief from horrifying news and the overflow of often vapid and violent movie offerings. The pace of the film is relaxed. Unlike a lot of movies, it doesn’t yell at you. It does engage with story and beautiful animation reminiscent of traditional Irish art.
Though the story is a fiction, it is grounded in history: an Ireland besieged by Viking raids and a mythical mystical take on the production and preservation of The Book of Kells, an early illustrated (illuminated) New Testament. The Book of Kells is housed now at Trinity College Library in Dublin. The film incorporates the Irish poetic genre – aisling – developed in Irish poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries and in which Ireland appears in a poet’s dream as a woman – maiden, mother or crone – and bemoans the state of Ireland.
The White Cat and the Monk was written by JoEllen Bogart and illustrated by Sydney Smith. It was short-listed for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, Young People’s Literature (Illustrated Books). It was named New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book and listed on Brain Pickings’ Best Children’s Books of 2016.
The Secret of the Kellswas nominated for an Oscar and won several other film awards including the Audience Award of the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. It has an overall approval rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes where the consensus is “Beautifully drawn and refreshingly calm. The Secret of the Kells harkens back to animation’s gold age …”
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Jennifer Jason Leigh won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture (1994), the National Society of Film Critics Awards (U.S.) (1995) for best actress, and second place for best actress by New York Film Critics Circle Award (1994) for her portrayal of Dorothy Parker, poet, writer, screenwriter (A Star Is Born, among others), caustic wit and founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, the vicious circle. Parker is probably the only member of the Round Table still well-known and not just by those of us old enough to remember her. Witness: The Portable Dorothy Parker is one of three in the Portable series that remains continually in print. The other two are the Bible and William Shakespeare.
The Algonquin Round Table, named for the Algonquin Hotel in New York City, was a meeting place for a circle that included New York writers, critics, screenwriters and actors. During their daily luncheons the members engaged in clever and pithy witticisms and wordplay, shared across the U.S. by the columnists in the group.
“Ducking for apples – change one letter and it’s the story of my life.”
The movie is well-larded with Parker’s quips and short wry poems. It centers on the Algonquin years, circa 1919 through 1929, and her many glamorous but disappointing love affairs.
“I require three things in a man. He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.”
The movie gives us a peek in on the clever but often cruel bon mots shared by the likes of – among many others – Harold Ross, the famous (or sometimes infamous among writers) editor of the New Yorker, the humorist William Benchley (Parker’s best friend), critic and social commentator Alexander Woollcott, playwright and director George S. Kaufman, and author and playwright Robert E. Sherwood.
It’s rather fun that Peter Benchley, grandson of humorist Robert Benchley and Wallace Shawn, son of long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn, are among the cast that includes such lights as Campbell Scott, Jennifer Beale, Matthew Broderick, Martha Plimpton (distant cousin of George), Keith Carradin, Jon Favreau and Peter Gallagher.
“My land is bare of chattering folk; the clouds are low along the ridges, and sweet’s the air with curly smoke from all my burning bridges.”
Jennifer Jason Leigh is superb in the role of a complex woman who is at once smart and sexy, brittle and vulnerable. The cast is outstanding. The clothing and setting perfect. Both thumbs up on this one. I suspect those who are familiar with the background of the Table and its members will get the most out of the film but given Parker’s witticisms and Leigh’s performance I think all will enjoy Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle.
I must admit to mixed feelings on Sylvia, a film about the American poet Sylvia Plath. There’s not much of Path’s poetry included and no poems from her husband Ted Hughes. I understand that their daughter, the poet and painter Frieda Hughes, refused permission. She felt the producers were “voyeuristically raking over the ashes of her mother’s death.” What poetry is quoted includes: “Dying is an art … I do it exceptionally well …” from Ariel, which was read in voice over (as were any other bits of poetry) more than once. This perhaps speaks to Frieda Hughes’ concerns.
The producer (BBC) and director (Christine Jeffs) chose to focus on Plath’s clinical depression, her tumultuous relationship with Hughes, and her suicide.The sense of Plath as a poet is background to all that. One could argue that it should have been the other way around.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Plath and while she does bare some resemblance to Plath, she is rather wooden. If you’ve listened to recordings of Plath’s interviews, you know she was animated. Lively. A smoldering and sauterne Ted Hughes was played by Daniel Craig. Blyth Danner (Paltrow’s real-life mom) plays Plath’s stern, knowing and concerned mother, not a big part but well done.
I think what’s redeeming is that the interplay between Plath and Hughes illustrates the extraordinary challenge presented to their marriage by the depth and persistence of her depression. Neither excusing nor judging Hughes for his adultery, the film gives a nod tohis pain and the fact of his love despite all.
After Plath’s death, Hughes was vilified as someone tantamount to a murderer. He often still is even after the publication of Birthday Letters, which gives his side of the story.
“Nor did I know I was being auditioned For the male lead in your drama, Miming through the first easy movements As if with eyes closed, feeling for the role. As if a puppet were being tried on its strings, Or a dead frog’s legs touched by electrodes.”
Plath was deeply wounded by her father’s death when she was eight and saw in Hughes a replacement. The situation couldn’t have been easy for the man. And, after all, Plath’s depression predates her relationship with Hughes, as did her first attempt at suicide.
If I was using stars to rate Sylvia, I’d give it two out of five, mainly because it perpetuates the mythology that surrounds Plath over her poetry, which I find intrusive and ultimately disrespectful. If you’re a Plath fan and haven’t seen the movie, you might want to just because of your affinity for the poet and her poetry … and, of course, you might like it more than I do. If you have no particular affinity for Plath or know little about her, you might appreciate it as the story of a depressive.