Suffering and self-promotion: the Urdu ghazals of Mirza Ghalib

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, taken in 1868.

The only known photo of Mirza Ghalib, from 1868.

Mirza Ghalib was a 19th century poet who lived in India during the last years of the Mughal dynasty. He is best known today for his 234 ghazals in Urdu (a language similar to Hindi).

Ghazals originated in seventh-century Arabia. Originally, they celebrated wine, women and music, or anguish over lost love. By the eleventh century, however, the theme of lost love had acquired philosophical overtones. In Ghalib’s ghazals, separation and suffering are indistinguishable from life, and the beloved is often a metaphor for God.

Ghalib himself understood suffering all too well. He was born Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan to an aristocratic family descended from Seljuk Turks. His father died when he was a child. At the age of 13, he wed an 11-year old in an arranged marriage.

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The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 3 of 3: whatever happened to Voltaire’s brain?

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“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”

— Voltaire, from a letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville

In 1733, the 39-year old Voltaire began a relationship with the Madame du Châtelet, a married mother of three. The pair would spend the next 15 years studying the natural sciences and becoming the leading French proponents of the work of English mathematician Isaac Newton.

But on a visit to Paris in 1744, Voltaire embarked on a new affair. His new lover was his sister’s daughter, Marie Louise Mignot (a/k/a Madame Denis). For obvious reasons, Voltaire and Madame Denis never married, though they lived together as husband and wife and stayed together until Voltaire’s death over 40 years later.

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The absolutely, positively true adventures of Voltaire, Part 2 of 3

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The frontispiece to Voltaire’s book on the philosophy of Isaac Newton, featuring Émilie du Châtelet reflecting Newton’s heavenly insights to Voltaire.

“How I love the English boldness! How I love those who say what they think!”

When we left Voltaire in 1726, he had chosen voluntary exile to England over an indefinite sentence in the Bastille.

Voltaire arrived in England with almost no money and even less English. Yet in less than five months, he could not only converse in English, he could write it fluently. More impressively, he had developed friendships with some of the leading English literary figures of the day: Alexander Pope, John Gay (writer of The Beggars Opera) and Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels had just been published.

But the men with the biggest influences on Voltaire’s thinking were philosopher John Locke, scientist Isaac Newton, and William Shakespeare, whose plays Voltaire found both vulgar and compelling. Writing to a friend in Paris, Voltaire exclaimed:

 “If you had seen a whole play of Shakespeare’s, as I have, you would think that our love scenes were pretty feeble.”

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The Absolutely, Positively True Adventures of Voltaire, Part I

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“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” — Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet — aka Voltaire — was one of the leading figures of the French enlightenment. He advocated tolerance, equality, and separation of church and state, in a time when these were still radical ideas. In his best-known work — the satirical novel, Candide, ou l’Optimisme ( “Candide, or optimism”) – Voltaire challenged the assertion by German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz  that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

What is less known about Voltaire is that in his youth he was considered a royal pain in the ass. As a result, he was beaten on numerous occasions. He was exiled from France several times, and imprisoned for almost a year in the Bastille.

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Death and destiny: the Moirai a/k/a the Fates

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In Greek mythology, the Moirai – better known as the Fates – are the three goddesses who carry out a person’s destiny.  When someone is born, Clotho spins the thread of his or her life, while Lachesis measures the thread and Atropos it cuts with her shears when it is time for that person to die.

The Moirai acted more or less independently of the other Greek gods to ensure that everyone’s eternal fate proceeded without obstruction.  Even the gods had to submit to them — though some sources say that Zeus could interfere with someone’s fate when he really wanted to.

Ancient sources describe the Moirai as stern, old women who are ugly and, sometimes, lame, to boot.  Clotho is usually depicted with a spindle, while Lachesis holds a staff and Atropos a pair of shears. Continue reading

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Trench Fever and “The Hobbit”

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Generations of readers (and now moviegoers) have fallen in love with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  The novel — which is properly titled The Hobbit, or There and Back Again — tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, an unlikely hero uprooted from his home to fight a war in a desolate landscape.  What many people don’t know is that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (born in S. Africa in 1892), based at least some of the book on his experiences as a soldier in WWI’s Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme is famous due largely to the staggering number of casualties over its four-month course. 58,000 British troops died on the first day of the battle — July 1, 1916 — alone.  The engagement would eventually claim the lives of some 420,000 English, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German soliders.  Tolkien himself lost two of his closest friends during the conflict.

Tolkien enlisted in 1915 as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and spent four months in the trenches.  At that point he fell victim to the typhus-like condition known as “trench fever” and returned to England.  He spent the rest of the war in hospital or home service camps, where he eventually recovered sufficiently to be promoted to lieutenant. Continue reading

Cinderella and the Fur Slipper

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If you don’t think spelling matters, consider the centuries-old debate about whether Cinderella’s slipper was really made of fur rather than glass.

Charles Perrault’s classic 17th century tale makes three references to a pantoufle de verre – literally, a glass slipper.  But “verre” has a homophone in French:  “vair,” a fur (probably squirrel) frequently used during the 13th and 14th centuries for lining and trimming the clothing of the wealthy.

In the mid-19th century, the writer Honore de Balzac insisted that Perrault meant the slippers to be made of fur which, under French sumptuary laws, only the upper classes had the right to wear.  It’s a logical argument if we think of fur slippers as the Prada of their day – something a fairy godmother might give a girl so she would blend in with the other guests at the Prince’s swanky soirée.

On the other hand, sometimes a pipe is really a pipe, and even Snopes.com dismisses the mistranslation theory.

But, then again, sometimes a pipe represents something sexual.  Early 20th century child psychologist, Bruno Bettleheim, argued in his The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, that the glass slipper was meant to represent a vagina:  “Something that is brittle and must not be stretched because it would break reminds us of the hymen.”

Of course, fur would work equally well as a metaphor for the vagina.  But then again, sometimes a pipe really is just a pipe.  And a slipper is just a glass slipper, something ethereal and impossible.

Or maybe we’ve been getting everything all wrong, and Caesar actually had a beer at his funeral.