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Edged with Mist: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

I hope that the literary community will forgive me for not getting to Virginia Woolf and this book sooner.  I have always focused my reading on 19th century female British authors—Austen, Bronte, Gaskell, Eliot, etc.  But this year I have discovered Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, both of whom have given me a new appreciation for 20th century female British authors.  I realize I have a lot of catching up to do.

The Waves describes, in the most beautiful and poetic prose, the ebb and flow of the lives of six people, both as individuals and as members of their group, who attended boarding school together.  When they graduate from school they remain friends and even through middle age they maintain contact with one another.  Written in 1931, it is considered one of Woolf’s most experimental and difficult novels.  I have seen it described as a “stream-of-consciousness” narrative, but to me it read more like a prose poem and Woolf herself described it as “playpoem.”  The beginning of the book is the most difficult as the six characters are young and described their experiences attending a boarding school.  Their identities are tangled with one another and not yet distinct enough to grasp fully.  Woolf is very interested in identity and how we view ourselves through others, especially during the formative years.  We see this in a conversation between the young Susan and Bernard:

‘I love,’ said Susan, ‘and I hate.  I desire one thing only.  My eyes are hard.  Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights.  Rhonda’s are like those pale flowers to which moths come in the evening.  Yours grow full and brim and never break.  But I am already set on my pursuit.  I see insects in the grass.  Though my mother still knits white socks for me and hems pinafores and I am a child, I love and I hate.’

‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases.  We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.’

In just this short passage Woolf gives us so many vivid images to contemplate.  What struck me immediately was the “I love and I hate” which is a reference to Catullus Poem #85.*  Although Catullus is referring to the tumultuous relationship with his lover in this poem, the mix of emotions is very appropriate for Woolf’s characters.  They are trying to figure out their own, individual places in the world but still feel like they “melt” into each other and are “edged with mist.”

As they age and grow their individual temperaments slowly surface; Bernard is a storyteller, Louis is a business man who is self-conscious of his Australian origins, Jinny enjoys parties and has many lovers and admirers, Susan is a mother who enjoys her home in the country, Rhonda is constantly anxious and enjoys her solitude.  There is a seventh character who never speaks himself, we only hear about him through the others.  Percival is the “hero” of the group—everyone likes him and is devastated when he dies on a trip in India.  But even as their own, distinct personalities emerge, they are still drawn back to their identity as part of a group.  The seven friends get together in order to see Percival off on his trip to India and Louis comments:

‘It is Percival, said Louis, ‘sitting silent as he sate among the tickling grass when the breeze parted the clouds and they formed again, who makes us aware that these attempts to say, “I am this, I am that,” which we make, coming together, like separated parts of one body and soul, are false.  Something has been left out from fear.  Something has been altered, from vanity.  We have tried to accentuate differences.  From the desire to be separate we have laid stress upon our faults, and what is particular to us.  But there is a chain whirling round, round, in a steel-blue circle beneath.’

There are so many beautiful passages in this book and I must point out, in particular, the nine introductions to each section that Woolf writes describing the sun and its effect on the sea as it rises and sets in the sky.  The book is worth reading just for these gorgeous passages:

The sun, risen, no longer couched on a green mattress darting a fitful glance through watery jewels, bared its face and looked straight over the waves.  They fell with a regular thud.  They fell with the concussion of horses’ hooves on the turf.  Their spray rose like the tossing of lances and assegais over the riders’ heads.  They swept the beach with steel blue and diamond-tipped water.  They drew in and out with the energy, the muscularity of an engine which sweeps its force in and out again.

I’m curious to hear about readers’ favorite Woolf books. I was thinking about reading To the Lighthouse next.  Any other suggestions are most welcomed.

*For the extra curious, here is the Latin for Catullus Poem #85 and my translation:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love.  Perhaps you might ask why I do this.
I do not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

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Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love.  These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella.  Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures.  Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills.  Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.”  Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.

When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy.  As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture.  De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:

They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will.  They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something  better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan.  And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it.  To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.

The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.

The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model.  As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.”  In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years.  He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her.  Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.

Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan.  She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union.  He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:

Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on.  Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei.  By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.

The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon,  also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.

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The Labor of Sad Mortality: David Ferry’s Translation of The Aeneid

This is my review of David Ferry’s new translation of  The Aeneid (University of Chicago Press, Septemeber 2017) that  originally appeared in the September issue of Open Letters Monthly.

My first encounter with translating Vergil’s Aeneid was in my third year Latin course in high school. I was not very impressed. I distinctly remember thinking, how could anyone consider this work, which is a blatant plagiarizing of Homer, such a masterpiece? I mean, come on, the Roman poet even admits in the first two words of the epic—arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and a man)—that he is going to steal his material from the Ancient Greeks.

It wasn’t until I translated The Aeneid again, during my second year in college, that I began to understand fully and grasp the genius and beauty of the Latin hexameter, the poetic devices and the decidedly Roman characters that Vergil created. The Augustan Age poet, whose full name was Publius Vergilius Maro (making his name more correctly rendered in English as Vergil, and not the popularly used Virgil) composed over 10,000 lines of Latin verse, in 12 books, the first half of which deal with his hero, Aeneas, wandering around the Mediterranean Sea while being pursued by an angry goddess. This brave man, who is described in Homer’s Iliad as a valiant warrior, has escaped from his homeland of Troy as it is being looted and burned by the Greeks and he is looking for a new place to settle. Vergil’s poem, in telling the story of the aftermath of the Trojan War and how Aeneas’ settlement in Italy will lead to the founding of Rome, is a distinctly Roman contribution to the Homeric tradition. The first six books are Vergil’s nod to The Odyssey, the focus of which epic is also on the virum (man) who is trying against impossible odds to get home. Books VII-XII of The Aeneid focus on arma (warfare) and serve as Vergil’s attempt to compose a Roman Iliad as he tells the story of Aeneas’ landing in Italy and his battles against the Rutulians.

The classicist Anne Carson, in her book Nox which contains an English translation of a poem composed by the Roman poet Catullus, describes her experience with Latin translation: “But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translation as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch.” For centuries, scholars have been groping around in that dark room, searching for that evasive switch whereby they might shine a new light on Vergil’s epic. John Dryden, Richard Lattimore, Stanley Lombardo, Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles are just a few of the brave classicists who have attempted to render The Aeneid into fluid English that captures the poetry and brilliance of the original Latin. David Ferry, whose translation of The Aeneid was  published by the University of Chicago Press in September of 2017, is the latest scholar to add his name to this illustrious list of translators.

The language of the Ancient Romans is succinct and tight, oftentimes lacking grammatical structures that add to the complexity of a Germanic language like English. Latin contains no articles, has only six verb tenses, and has a much smaller vocabulary than most modern languages . Whereas word order is of the utmost importance in comprehending a sentence in English, Latin is inflected so that nouns, pronouns and adjectives are assigned different endings to indicate their case and use (subject, direct object, etc.) in a sentence. So how does a translator deal with these linguistic differences while at the same time taking into account the meter and figures of speech that are also contained within the lines of Vergil’s Aeneid?

In the Preface to his translation, Ferry cites a line in Aeneid XI that helps to elucidate the important and distinctly Roman themes and concerns in Vergil’s epic. When Aeneas and his men are preparing to collect and bury the dead heroes from the battlefield the scene begins:

Aurora interea miseris mortalibus almam
Extulerat lucem referens opera atque labores.

Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light,
And with it bringing back to sight the labor
Of sad mortality.

Ferry explains the significance of these lines:

This beautiful two-line sentence with which Vergil’s Latin introduces this passage from book 11 is definitive. It defines for us how we are to experience the telling of this heartbreaking scene; it is also, I believe, the definitive declaration of how to read the whole continuing enterprise of the poem, the accounting of what men have done and what has been done to them and what they must do to mourn, here and in every episode of the work.

When the epic begins, we are in medias res, in “the middle of things”, as Aeneas and his men are sailing the Mediterranean and Sicily is in sight. Aeneas is battle and sea weary and is looking forward to landing his ships when a vicious storm threatens to drown his entire crew. Despite the fact that he has suffered so many hardships, he continues to be subjected to the cruel whims of the gods and fate. This windstorm has been sent by the goddess Juno who is still angry that any Trojan might have escaped the burning of Troy, especially the very man who is fated to set in motion a series of events that will result in the founding of the city that will one day destroy her beloved Carthage. The force of the tempest and the wretched state of Aeneas and his men are fully captured in Ferry’s poetic rendition:

All winds together, Notus and Eurus and Africus, and
Southwest, East and South, teeming with tempests,
And vast tsunami roll toward helpless shores.
And then were heard the cries of terrified men,
And the shriek of the vessels’ cables; all light of day
Was suddenly ripped away from the Trojans’ eyes;
Black night upon the ocean waters, thunder
From pole to pole and sheets of shaking lightening
Tell of the mariners’ deaths now there at hand.

There are two aspects of Ferry’s delivery of these lines that are particularly noteworthy and that make his translation stand apart from others who have come before him. Ferry’s incorporation of poetic devices into these lines relate the immediacy and swiftness with which the storms swallow the ships. He uses polysyndeton, repeated use of the connective “and”, which punctuates the vast number of winds that are working against the fleet. Ferry further extends the polysyndeton into an anaphora, the repetition of the first word in a line, by repeating “and” once again, at the beginning of three consecutive verses that describe the ferocious winds and the reaction of the horrified men and their battered ships. One of the most disappointing features of modern versions of The Aeneid is that translators tend to leave out these poetic devices that are deliberately placed in the text and are so important to experiencing the tones and textures of the original Latin.

It is not surprising that Ferry is sensitive to using such figures of speech in his translation because of his background as a poet. Although his translations of Vergil’s Ecologues and Horace’s Odes have been widely praised, it is Ferry’s original poetry for which he has been more widely recognized. In 2012 he won the National Book Award for his collection of poems entitled Bewilderment. His discussion in the preface about his choice to use iambic pentameter for this translation of The Aeneid further underscores his talent as a poet who recognizes the importance of choosing an appropriate meter whether it be for an original piece of work or for a translation. Like generations of English translators of ancient epic that have come before him, Ferry agrees that this meter works best in the language in which he is working: “In my view, the forward-propulsive character of English speech favors iambic pentameter, in which iambic events naturally dominate, with anapestic events as naturally occurring.” The rhythm of unstressed and stressed syllables (x –) that the iambics provide are especially fitting for the rolling out of the winds as they descend over the ocean in the lines translated above

Ferry’s word choice of “tsunami” also stands out in his translation of this scene. The Latin phrase that Vergil chooses in the original to describe the sea that threatens to swallow Aeneas’ fleet is vastos fluctus. Fagles renders these words as “huge killer-breakers” and Fitzgerald goes with “high combers”. These previous attempts seem rather flat and archaic compared to Ferry’s use of “tsunami,” which word will cause a 21st century audience to conjure up images from the media of homes and villages destroyed by such a force of nature.

Books I-VI continue with Aeneas and his men suffering additional misfortunes brought on by fate. When Aeneas and what few men he has left finally reach shore, they find themselves in North Africa and are welcomed by a group of Phoenicians, having themselves recently been forced from their home as refugees, led by Queen Dido. Aeneas’ encounter with her and their tragic parting is one of the most poignant and heartrending instances of Vergil’s argument throughout his narrative that fate is destructive and cruel, especially when people try to resist the fortune that is laid out for them. In this epic poem when people stand in the way of fate they are destroyed, and Dido’s tragic death is symbolic of what will happen to her country when, later in their history, they challenge the Romans in war.

When Aeneas lands in Carthage he engages in a physical relationship with Dido and settles into a “marriage” of sorts that is fittingly blessed by the goddess of marriage, Juno, and the goddess of love, Venus. But not even these goddesses can stand in the way of fate. Jupiter sends his messenger, Mercury, down to Aeneas to force him to leave Carthage and set sail, once again, for Italy. As he tries to sneak away, Dido confronts him with a force of emotion that demonstrates the poet’s sympathy for her plight. Dido says to this hero whom she loved and trusted:

…O faithless! Did you think that you
Could hide this deed from me, and steal away?
Cannot our love keep you from doing this?
Cannot your plighted word keep you from this?
Cannot the thought of the death you would leave me to,
Keep you from this?…

By repeating “Cannot” in Dido’s anguished questions, Ferry demonstrates his acute awareness of the stirring and emotional poetry of these lines. When Aeneas is not deterred from his plans by Dido’s impassioned speech, she makes another attempt to persuade him, this time with words that are increasingly insulting and hurtful:

He did not look at me, he did not sigh, when I
Was weeping, and he did not weep himself,
In pity for me and for my love of him.
What shall I say? What is there for me to say?
Great Juno’s eyes do not look at this with injustice.
The eyes of Saturnian Jupiter do not.
There is nowhere where faith is kept; not anywhere.
He was stranded on the beach, a castaway,
With nothing. I made him welcome. Insanely, I
Gave him a place beside me on my throne.
I made his companions safe and saved his fleet—
The fire, oh, the fire rages around me!

Ferry successfully renders the full tension and force of Dido’s argument by emphasizing the third person with which she delivers her speech. Aeneas is not addressed by his name, or even in the second person as “you”, but instead becomes a “he” which is engendered in Ferry’s translation with vehement sarcasm and anger. Furthermore, the “fire” in Dido’s speech foreshadows her suicide and the flames that will pour forth from the funeral pyre that Aeneas will notice as he is sailing away.

Dido’s horrific death, as dramatic as it is, doesn’t even serve as the conclusion of the first six books of this epic. Aeneas also suffers greatly when he loses his father and makes a journey to the dreaded underworld to learn more about what fate has in store for him. There are many more labors and hardships yet to come for him.

The Death of Dido, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, mid-18th century.

When Aeneas lands in Italy, he begins building a fortress for his new settlement and he also attempts to make peace with the Latin tribes who have already built their homes there. The Rutulians, under the leadership of Turnus, vehemently oppose what they view as an invasion of foreigners in their land and, spurred on by Juno, bring about the deaths of many brave Trojans. Similar to the war scenes in The Iliad, fierce warriors, the female Camilla among them, are given their moment of valor on the battlefield.

Aeneas, however, is a distinctly Roman hero as Vergil’s emphasis of his pietas “duty”, reminds us that this isn’t Homer and we are no longer spending our time among the Greek heroes at Troy. Gone is the selfishness of the Homeric heroes who fight at Troy to win kleos “fame” or “glory” for themselves. The Greeks were never one, unified state, and although they were fighting against the Trojans as a group, each hero was fighting for his own glory and his own pride.

The Romans, however, who successfully conquered a vast amount of territory and placed it under the rule of a single leader, are fighting for the glory and the unity of a whole empire. Aeneas, whose epithet throughout the epic is pious Aeneas, is the ultimate example of pietas, which all Romans ought to follow. Bernard Knox, in his introduction to Fagles’ translation writes about this very important, Roman concept: “But pietas describes another loyalty and duty, besides that to the gods and the family. It is for the Roman, to Rome, and in Aeneas’ case, to his mission to found it in Hesperia, the western country, Italy.”

But, once again, sacrifices have to be made for this duty to be carried out and this time it will be Turnus whose life is cruelly taken in the course of his fateful encounter with Aeneas. The culminating scene in Book XII is the battle between these two warriors and, once again, Vergil is sympathetic to the vanquished:

Then Turnus saw his opportunity
And confidently raised his threatening sword—
The shouting around him of the Trojans and
His anxious Latins, both sides watch him holding
High his sword—-and then with all his body’s
Strength he struck—and the sword he struck with broke,
And it fell away, and Turnus was left defenseless,
The unfamiliar handle of the sword
Was gone, and there was nothing to do but run.

It is evident from this excerpt, one of the final scenes in the epic, that Ferry stays committed to weaving the poetic devices and figures of speech throughout his translation. His uses of anaphora and other forms of repetition, in particular, combined with the iambic pentameter serve to remind us that this is an epic poem, best read aloud regardless of the language into which it is translated. Ferry’s melodic and sensitive translation make it possible for any audience, whether first time readers or seasoned classicists, to appreciate Vergil’s message about the workings of fate. Although tragic sacrifices, like the deaths of Dido and Turnus, have to be made, something bigger and grander and stronger have the potential to emerge out of the ruins that befall us in this life.

Ferry’s rendition of The Aeneid has allowed me to look at this epic with fresh eyes and as a result has given me a new enthusiasm and excitement for The Aeneid which I never thought would be possible since I have translated it from the Latin on my own and have read various English versions of it so many times. It is astounding that in 2006, at the age of 82, Ferry undertook the most formidable and difficult work of his career by beginning his translation of The Aeneid. At an age when most literary and academic careers are winding down, Ferry has done his very best and most ambitious work.

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Autumn by Hölderlin

Autumn is my favorite season. Even though my profession allows me to have my summers free, I feel the most at peace and at ease during the autumn. I am sharing a lovely, simple poem from Hölderlin (translated by Michael Hamburger) that, for me, captures the contemplative spirit of the season:

Autumn

The legends that depart from land and sea,
Of spirit that once was here and will return,
These turn to men, and there is much we learn
From time that, self-devoured, moves speedily.

No image of the past is quite mislaid
By Nature; summer’s dog-days fade,
But back to earth at once will autumn fly;
The ghost of showers gathers in the sky.

In a short time how much has passed away!
The countryman observed behind his plough
Sees how the year meets a glad ending now;
Such images complete the human day.

The sphere of earth adorned with rocks revolves
Not like a cloud, which after dusk dissolves;
Within a gold day the earth appears,
And to perfection no complaint adheres.

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Two Lives…: The Novellas of Marguerite Yourcenar

Two Lives and a Dream, which includes three of Yourcenar’s novellas, was originally published in 1934 as La Mort conduit l’attelage (Death drives the cart).  The English version I read was translated by Walter Kaiser and published in 1987 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  The first two stories in the collection An Obscure Man and A Lovely Morning take place in mid 17th century Amsterdam and England and describe the rough and turbulent lives of a man named Nathanaël and his illegitimate son named Lazarus.  My first impression of Yourcenar’s writing is that she was a master storyteller, especially in the genre of historical fiction.

We are introcuded to the character of Nathanaël in An Obscure Man with a description of his childhood in Greenwich, England to which place his Dutch  parents have emigrated and live in a small community of expats.  Nathanaël was “weak chested and afflicted with a slight lameness” so he was not sent to work on the docks with his father and his brothers.  Instead he becomes an assistant to the town’s schoolmaster who educates him and teaches him Latin, which skill will come in very handy later in his life.  As a teenager, Nathanaël falls in love with Janet, an apprentice to a tapestry maker, whom he defends against the violent advances of a local drunk.  When Nathanaël fears that he has killed the intoxicated man he stows away on a ship bound for the Caribbean and later the primitive wilderness of Maine and Canada.  When the rest of his crew perishes in a shipwreck off the coast of Canada, Nathanaël is saved by an older couple and their daughter, Foy, with whom he falls in love.  Their life in the wilds of the New World is harsh as it is difficult to live such a primitive existence.  But his time in this wilderness, with its simplicity and his uncomplicated love for Foy, comprise some of the happiest moments in his life.

After spending two years in the New World, Nathanaël loses Foy to consumption so he decides to make his way back to England and then to Amsterdam where he works for his uncle as a proofreader in his printing business.  One night he meets a prostitute named Sarai in a local tavern and their sexual connection leads him to believe that he loves her.  But he learns that Sarai is a liar and a thief and when she becomes pregnant he wonders if the child, a boy named Lazarus, is really his. Nathanaël eventually loses contact with Sarai and his son and he becomes a valet in the home of a wealthy politician.  Throughout the story, Nathanaël’s health worsens as he is prone to fits of coughing and fever.  His master sends him to the Frisian islands in the hopes that Nathanaël will regain his strength, but instead he dies alone on this island among the waves of the sea and the nesting, peaceful birds.

Nathanaël’s life is always in flux as the story moves from one interesting episode in this obsure man’s life to the next in rapid succession.  One of the few constants in his life is death and loss.  Death Drives the Cart would certainly be a fitting title for this collection had Yourcenar chosen to keep it.  I don’t think I’ve ever read such a short book with so many death scenes.  But Yourcenar uses this theme to reflect on the value of life, which actually serves to make the book uplifting and even thought provoking.  Even though Nathanaël has endured the brutal hardships of an average, obscure man in the 17th century, every where he turns he encounters the kindness of others.  A dying Jesuit priest, Foy’s parents, a coworker, an employer all demonstrate to him that kindness is not hard to come by in this world.  And Nathanaël himself develops into a kind and compassionate man—he once saves a puppy from being fed to a lion which is a unique example of his good character.  A Lovely Morning, the very short sequel to Nathanaël’s story shows that this kindness is extended to his son who escapes the streets of Amsterdam by being invited by generous strangers to act in a traveling theater group.

As Nathanaël is dying on the Frisian island, he takes stock of his life and decides that overall he has been a good and decent man.  His tolerance for all people, regardless of race or religion, is a perfect example of how we all ought to live and is a timely message of tolerance that counters the violence and disgusting display of bigotry demonstrated by hate groups in my country this weekend.  I will end with an apt quote from Yourcenar that includes some of Nathanaël’s thoughts during the last few hours of his life:

People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth the wind has sown in it.  Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God.  Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer to one another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks and works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence.

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