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sábado, 4 de marzo de 2017

Poemas y sonetos - Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Rating: 
27/02/17

Women and books are not every man’s best friends

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Sister Joan Agnes of the
Cross. The Tenth Muse. The illegitimate child. The self-taught scholar. She was born in San Miguel Nepantla, near Mexico City, which was part of the Spanish Empire, in 1651. Having learned how to read and write at age 3, she devoured every book she found in her grandfather’s library. Books both appropriate and forbidden, according to the wisdom of a Church composed of fallible men. By virtue of her brilliant mind, she harvested admiration and envy. And the strength of the latter, naturally, resonated across her body, her spirit, her legacy. Much has been said, much has been hidden. A fascinating and controversial figure brimming with beauty and the rare charms of wit. I was instantly captivated by her life and poetry, which echoes the lyrical nature of a restless soul. Her verses disclose the desire for knowledge, the delights of a good argument, the sensuous beauty of the flesh, the chants to the divine, the impulse of a free spirit and a constrained body. Truths essentially secular, revelations intrinsically sacred. Breathtaking complexity. Confusion and longing.
The unbearable heaviness of being.

Este amoroso tormento
Este amoroso tormento
que en mi corazón se ve,
sé que lo siento, y no sé
la causa por qué lo siento.

Siento una grave agonía
por lograr un devaneo
que empieza como deseo
y para en melancolía.
Siento mal del mismo bien
con receloso temor,
y me obliga el mismo amor
tal vez a mostrar desdén.
*
This amorous torment
This amorous torment
which in my heart can be seen
I know I feel it yet don’t know
the reason of this feeling.

I feel a strong agony
at having a dalliance,
that begins as desire
and ends in melancholy.
...
I feel bad for good itself
with suspicious fear
and obliged by the same love
perhaps to show disdain.


The young Juana Inés couldn’t even touch the threshold of the university, not even while wearing men’s clothes, as she once naively contrived, so she decided to wear a religious habit in order to assuage her thirst for knowledge. An activity which wouldn’t interfere with her studies, and probably would save her from her condition of illegitimacy, as stated by some sources. A bold decision that not always lived up to her expectations, for being married to God meant prayers and penitence, cooking, needlework, cleaning, more penitence. Her spiritual marriage didn’t involve reading and writing about worldly matters. It didn’t involve philosophy, theology, logic nor passion. It didn’t involve thinking. Nonetheless, Juana Inés, now Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, had other plans which obeyed the talents that God, her creator, for some reason gave her.

Insinúa su aversión a los vicios
¿En perseguirme, mundo, qué interesas?
¿En qué te ofendo, cuando sólo intento
poner bellezas en mi entendimiento
y no mi entendimiento en las bellezas?
*
Suggesting her aversion to vice
O World, why do you wish to persecute me?
How do I offend you, when I intend
only to fix beauty in my intellect,
and never my intellect fix on beauty?


After some years, and particularly since 1690 (the year when she dared to question the theological views of one celebrated Portuguese Jesuit preacher), a nun and her wondrous quill became an ecclesiastic insult. An inexcusable transgression. An unpardonable song of rebellion in a world where some women truly believed the small fate imposed by men, while others nodded in despairing acquiescence.

Finjamos que soy feliz
Finjamos que soy feliz,
triste pensamiento, un rato;
quizá prodréis persuadirme,
aunque yo sé lo contrario...
Si es mío mi entendimiento,
¿por qué siempre he de encontrarlo
tan torpe para el alivio,
tan agudo para el daño?
*
Let us pretend that I'm happy
Let us pretend that I'm happy,
sad thought, for a while;
you may actually persuade me
but I know otherwise
...
If it's mine my understanding,
Why always must it be
So dull and slow to pleasure,
So keen for injury?


After watching a biopic, a series on Netflix, and reading a brief biography, I thought it was time to get acquainted with this brilliant woman's work (otherwise, I confess, I wouldn't have paid her much attention). A person who defended women's right to gain knowledge like any other man, in a time when a woman was considered an inferior being and the source of all sin; a time when reading Copernicus was the safest path to the diverse punishments inflicted by the Inquisition.
It was an interesting social experiment to compare a protest I witnessed a couple of weeks ago, where women decided to protect her rights by going topless (watch out, Wollstonecraft) with a woman who, amid the ignorance and misogyny of a harsh 17th century, decided to defend those same rights with her mind. A religious woman whose quill didn’t shiver and once wrote to foolish men, who accuse/Women without good reason/You are the cause of what you blame/Yours the guilt you deny...

By 1693, Sor Juana Inés relegated her literary creativity. She, the worst of all women, was forced to repent by the pressure of the Church, embodied by Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, Archbishop of Mexico, for being a vain spirit too attached to earthly matters, for neglecting her duties as a nun, for daring to think like a man. Her books, her musical instruments, her scientific tools – everything was sold or confiscated, depending on the source. Her intellectual force couldn’t resist the clerical opposition which not only would affect her, but her Sisters as well. In that context, her words were no longer published; she immersed herself in the activities of the convent. She died in 1695 during a plague, while taking care of other stricken nuns.
According to some documents, after Sor Juana Inés' death, several writings – sacred and profane – were found in her room. She never published a word in the eyes of the Church again, but she never stopped writing either.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The heavens and the earth tried to conquer her beautiful mind.

Dime vencedor rapaz
En dos partes dividida
tengo el alma en confusión:
una, esclava a la pasión,
y otra, a la razón medida.
Guerra civil, encendida,
aflige el pecho importuna:
quiere vencer cada una,
y entre fortunas tan varias,
morirán ambas contrarias
pero vencerá ninguna.
pues podré decir, al verme
expirar sin entregarme,
que conseguiste matarme
mas no pudiste vencerme.
*
Ascendent raptor speak
My soul is cleft
confusedly in twain.
Half - a thrall to passion,
the other - reason's slave.
Civil war, inflamed, importunate
afflicts this breast:
each strives to overwhelm his counterpart;
but amidst such mutinous counterstorms,
both helmsmen must perish,
neither, return to port.
since it will be said - to see me fall
yet not surrender -
that you managed to kill
but failed to conquer.


The mind that saw no obstacle in gender or time. That put common citizens, sensible clergymen and viceroys under her intellectual spell. That gained her inveterate enemies but also kind-hearted friends who remained admiring her work during the worst of times, and after her death. That transcended the limits of her body. For being enamored with the mind of another human being is the most long-lasting connection to which anyone may aspire.






* 4.5 stars. I wasn’t exactly thrilled by this edition. I noticed that there were one or two incomplete versions of poems and no indication - vexing. If you know Spanish, you may want to look for another collection.


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domingo, 26 de febrero de 2017

Un Signo en tu Sombra - Alejandra Pizarnik

Rating: 
22/02/17

Buenos Aires, 1955.
The romanticism of youth? The sentimental noise, the affectionate supplication. A woman desperately, constantly asking for something, waiting.
One’s voice is not enough.

Buenos Aires, 2017.
A poem redolent of untamed ardor made my pride feel awkward. Words from which desperation emanates.
No, nothing will be begged.

Uncertainty over beseechment. Existential silence over the cloying response of rejection. A muffled scream over a visible earthquake.
No, nothing will be seen.

Yes, everything has been forgotten, except

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*

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* Translation by Yvette Siegert


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On the Heights of Despair - Emil Cioran

Rating: 
18/02/17

How does one become a pessimist?

By reading your book, pal. You made Schopenhauer look like one of the Teletubbies. It was a I still can’t rate it I think a 3-star rating is a good compromise. Many quotes that pulled on my heartstrings, and many chapters I already forgot, out of immunity to certain thoughts and dislike of overly melodramatic prose. Things that belong to the plane of ideas, naturally, since the kind of life that has been portrayed at times is literally impossible, and impracticable ideas which try to convey intellectual depth and are repeated by others, clinging to such pose as hard as they can because "happy people are all stupid and morality is a disgrace and I want to be consumed by fire and I long for the destruction of the world," too exhausting... And I can't shake off a sense of artificiality.
fortunate thing that I didn’t read this during my impressionable adolescence.
True, if you read this, you're not much of an optimistic, but still. I wholeheartedly agree with the third line of this review.
That being said, these few lines will be engulfed by the beauty of flames and will witness their own amoral destruction from which a proper review will absurdly blossom amid beautiful darkness echoing nothingness...! After restoring my soul with many reruns of Seinfeld.




* Pre-review. Or final review if I forget...
** I'll read The Trouble with Being Born anyway; a more mature work, surely.


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miércoles, 15 de febrero de 2017

Patriotism - Yukio Mishima, Geoffrey W. Sargent (Translator)

Rating: 
02/02/17

On -isms
It seems that I had some issues with this novella. And the reasons, as usual, are completely personal and thus, irrelevant to your reading experience.
Beyond tradition, beliefs, fear and indignation at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops, I can't find a story breathtakingly infused with romanticism. I can't relate to the concept of patriotism. To a sort of world citizen, the attachment to a portion of land is somewhat feeble. Why I came here, I know not; where I shall go it is useless to inquire, says Lord Byron in his Letters and Journals; something about this made me think of that quote. My connections (abstractions to which I aspire, at least) are with people, not with theories involving nationality, and I'm against any kind of generalization that such notion engenders. Certain values and beliefs, the religion I was raised in – the first origin, a matter of geography. I still can’t feel pride for the doings of chance or let's say even fate, juggling with the concept of a plan designed by someone else.
The degeneration of patriotism is a debate for another time, so I will refrain from expanding on nationalism and such, a reality that it is being forced on many of us, now more than ever.
In any case, patriotism might be foreign language. I dislike most terms which end in the suffix -ism that don't involve my favorite writers.


On licking blades and finding it remotely erotic
Another issue – the real theme in this novella – which prevented me from greatly enjoying this story was the excessive fascination for the concept of death, the morbid enchantment by the blade which was juxtaposed to a sense of beauty and sensuality; elements that when combined, I usually fail to identify with. The leitmotifs of this story, and of its creator’s life. I watched a part of a documentary a couple of days ago where the narrator explained how Mishima’s last actions in the form of a coup might have been, above all, an excuse to achieve the aesthetic death he always dreamed of. The last artistic manifestation of will.

It struck him as incredible that, amidst this terrible agony, things which could be seen could still be seen, and existing things existed still.

On writing
A brief yet tough read. Despite the lack of connection between the story and me, the beauty of Mishima's prose remained intact. I’m more and more impressed by the care with which he described the remarkable, the inconsequential, by means of his contemplative and delectable writing. The scenes of love between husband and wife were beautifully portrayed. Regardless of my thoughts on the subject, with the precision of a surgeon, the author associated the concepts of patriotism and death with a sense of eroticism, until they were one single reality. The beauty of skin. The brutality of blood. The rite of love and death.
I failed again.

Thus, so far from seeing any inconsistency or conflict between the urges of his flesh and the sincerity of his patriotism, the lieutenant was even able to regard the two as parts of the same thing.

On myths
The red string bringing these characters together.¹ At one point, one is honestly thinking how the sublimity of love actually feels, the act of giving oneself fully. Unreservedly. Sharing perspectives on life. Breathing somebody else’s air. Thinking about words to express feelings. Voicing those words. Not knowing what to do at the thought of the absence of such words. Following the fate of those words. And then, the fear. He who gives himself up like a prisoner of war must give up his weapons as well.² And deprived of any defense, not convinced by the fusion of words, voices and individuality, the fracture of self, the fear of loss, the constant feeling of being another one’s burden, one stops thinking about it, until the next day. I imagine it might be simpler to make decisions when people return their gaze and silence is no longer a wall.


On random thoughts
This novella became even more vivid once I watched Yūkoku, a 1966 short film “produced, directed, acted and written by Yukio Mishima.” I watched it at night. A sleepless night. The night the bell jar broke.³

With regard to Mishima’s works, nothing is ever certain. This is the third book I read by him – apart from two short stories. Fortunately, I don’t know what to expect, but I already look forward to the wonders of the second volume of his tetralogy. I long for another deep contemplation of my reactions to every one of his words.






1. Allusion to a review of Anna Karenina
2. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Part Three: Words Misunderstood
3. I wrote this the same night I wrote something about The Bell Jar
4. Oh, who's going to read this far.


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jueves, 9 de febrero de 2017

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

Rating: 
02/02/17

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? ...we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
— Franz Kafka; January 27, 1904

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was... (Chapter 7)

There is a lulling silence engulfing this entire book, and if it weren’t for the darkening clouds approaching, an infinite palette brimming with all the shades of creation, one may never guess that it is the calm before the storm. Amid the impending commotion, the ancient state of confusion hovering over this land, a tree has already started to sense the chaos. A fig tree is losing its branches, one by one, as the storm unleashes its fury and time passes us by. The house does no longer provides shelter; its white walls won’t stop the cold, we see the ceiling yet we’ll feel the rain. Crystals are besieging us. The captives in the world of glass feel it all.

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My first encounter with Sylvia Plath’s work was Ariel. It was a good read but it didn’t leave me memorable impressions. Later I understood how excruciatingly personal her poetry was, thus missing a plethora of subtle vocals, strong undertones, harrowing melodies. After reading about her life and watching a biopic, the connection was absolutely different regarding, for instance, the same two poems I had read months ago. There may be a lack of lyrical substance, of the mellifluous quality in language worthy of all praises, but to me, the beauty of her verse lies on her honest display of emotions through complex and raw imagery. I find that openness refreshing. How unsafe it is to be on the brink of vulnerability, with a bunch of emotions for one person or a whole world to see. And yet, how brave; giving free expression to such feelings, turning them into creative energy. How invigorating. Even when no one is listening to anyone. Not even the ones who complain about how deaf the world is.

Under these circumstances, I decided to revisit her poetry someday. The thing that triggered this series of fortunate events was a review by a friend, which made me want to give Plath’s writing another try, because I had sensed many times that she was an author I would certainly love – inexplicable hunches. Therefore, I dived into her only novel, The Bell Jar, first published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” and under her name in 1967. It tells the story of Esther Greenwood, the young heiress of several of Plath’s life experiences.
The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.

I dreaded this review; I knew that from this novel would emerge a personal journal barely touching upon the merits of the book. I postponed the process many times since I didn’t want to deal with it, the easiest path evoking an infantile self-preservation, considering the world as an enormous rug where one can hide every unpleasant feeling, all the mirrors whose reflections we don’t dare to acknowledge.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.


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In this novel, I found indecision under the apposite metaphor of a fig tree; undying portions of time where absence is a unilateral reality, and the inability to fit the standards to which a woman is supposed to belong – a perpetual rift between professional development and motherhood. The disparities between the world of a man and the encapsulated universe of a woman in mid-20th-century America. Or any place, any time.
I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.

Such differences constitute a theme that is deeply explored in this book, and from all perspectives, such as work and sexuality.
Whether she knew it or not, Philomena Guinea was buying my freedom. “What I hate is the thought of being under a man’s thumb,” I had told Doctor Nolan. “A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.”

While fighting against her demons, we find in Esther a powerful and perceptive character, full of conviction and harboring a strong yearning for independence, a situation that naturally didn’t involve the oppressive presence of a man absorbing her individuality like an unwavering sponge. However, the way her mind worked was much more profound than a trendy dislike composed of empty words. It was a search for identity in a society ruled by men and in which she felt inadequate most of the time. Through the character’s reflections, we witness her longing for liberation from the ties of the expected.
The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.

It is certainly striking that this novel, which deals with complex themes under such a stifling atmosphere, could also make me smile. Esther has a unique sense of humor and some of her comments regarding a vast array of things were rather amusing. Under the night that never seemed to end, trying to illuminate the long corridors of her mind, accompanied by voices, electricity and despair, she made me her confident and brought me smiles to pass the time.

The Bell Jar is an ambitious work, as I read before, but it’s not a perfect novel. There are some fissures that should prevent me from giving it a 5-star rating. Nevertheless, I changed my first rating from four to five stars; it is on my “favorites” shelf, another favorite axe, and it has rekindled my feelings for Plath. I am grateful for the story she shared. And for the fate she forged for her character. I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am. Despite the darkness in which this book is immersed, a sense of hope still lingers even after finishing this somber journey. Fig trees are on solid ground, awaiting for courage, a leap of faith, life-changing decisions – meaning, beauty, uniqueness. The silence, a limpid layer which allows to admire the now splendid azure sky, is no longer an ominous sign. As a small stone is thrown into a pond, causing violent ripples that soon vanish while the former serenity is restored, such silence is interrupted briefly by the sound of glass breaking. In the midst of too much consciousness, those small shivers are a vital part of the ritual for being born twice—patched, retreaded and approved for the road.

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miércoles, 1 de febrero de 2017

The Madman - Kahlil Gibran

Rating: 
29/01/17
“Good morrow to thee, brother prisoner.”
— Kahlil Gibran, "The Two Cages"

Another stop during this more diverse literary journey I decided to embark on this year. I chose the highly acclaimed prose of Kahlil Gibran, a man to whose land I'm connected through blood - half Lebanese, half Italian; nothing to do with my innocuous obsession with Russian and Japanese literature, but well, who can control those things anyway?

Before I immerse myself in the depths of the universe Gibran created in The Prophet, I decided to get acquainted with his writing and views by reading another book not as widely known. I chose The Madman because I found it somewhat amusing that it wasn't the first time I read a madman's words:

Diary of a Madman (to read soon)

I won't expand on the cliché of a madman's words being more truthful and reasonable than the speech of any other human being considered sane by ordinary standards. I will just say that this collection includes a variety of profound and intriguing parables that constitute a faithful portrait of humanity. The following is one of my favorites.

The Seven Selves
In the stillest hour of the night, as I lay half asleep, my seven selves sat together and thus conversed in whisper:

First Self: Here, in this madman, I have dwelt all these years, with naught to do but renew his pain by day and recreate his sorrow by night. I can bear my fate no longer, and now I rebel.

Second Self: Yours is a better lot than mine, brother, for it is given to me to be this madman’s joyous self. I laugh his laughter and sing his happy hours, and with thrice winged feet I dance his brighter thoughts. It is I that would rebel against my weary existence.

Third Self: And what of me, the love-ridden self, the flaming brand of wild passion and fantastic desires? It is I the love-sick self who would rebel against this madman.

Fourth Self: I, amongst you all, am the most miserable, for naught was given me but odious hatred and destructive loathing. It is I, the tempest-like self, the one born in the black caves of Hell, who would protest against serving this madman.

Fifth Self: Nay, it is I, the thinking self, the fanciful self, the self of hunger and thirst, the one doomed to wander without rest in search of unknown things and things not yet created; it is I, not you, who would rebel.

Sixth Self: And I, the working self, the pitiful labourer, who, with patient hands, and longing eyes, fashion the days into images and give the formless elements new and eternal forms—it is I, the solitary one, who would rebel against this restless madman.

Seventh Self: How strange that you all would rebel against this man, because each and every one of you has a preordained fate to fulfil. Ah! could I but be like one of you, a self with a determined lot! But I have none, I am the do-nothing self, the one who sits in the dumb, empty nowhere and nowhen, while you are busy re-creating life. Is it you or I, neighbours, who should rebel?

When the seventh self thus spake the other six selves looked with pity upon him but said nothing more; and as the night grew deeper one after the other went to sleep enfolded with a new and happy submission.

But the seventh self remained watching and gazing at nothingness, which is behind all things. 


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jueves, 26 de enero de 2017

The Luminous Landscape: Chinese Art and Poetry - Richard Lewis (Editor)

Rating: 
22/01/17
Autumn is beginning, the weather is turning chill.
Crickets move in to sing under my bed.
A thousand things surge into my mind
And grieve my heart.
A thousand tales search for words;
But to whom will they be told?
Ruan Ji (210–263)


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Shen Quan, "Birds and Flowers - Dragonfly on Wisteria"


This is a short yet fine collection of Chinese art and poetry that, regardless of the period, gracefully conveys the profound bond between nature and the human perception of it; the relationship between the essence of every element that constitutes a landscape and human nature.

The mountain moon shines on a cloudless sky.
Deep in the night the wind rises among the pines.
I wish to weave my thoughts into a song for my jade lute,
But the pine wind never ceases blowing.
Zhu Yi-zun (1629–1709)


This book introduces us to the work of numerous Chinese poets who captured the spirit of every one of the elements mentioned above and transformed them into evocative poems capable of portraying the countless shades of our nature, which usually involves a sense of longing that only sees infinity.

I must endure the sorrow of leaving these
green mountains,
But can I forget their blue streams?
Wang Wei (701- 761)


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Mu Xi, "Eight Views of Hsiao Hsiang."


The contemplation of an ethereal scenery as our own introspection evolves in complete harmony. The subtle and vehement nuances of our mood. The affection for solitude personified by the imposing mountains engulfed by diaphanous clouds. The need to hear another sound beyond the echo of our own voice that barely disrupts the splendor of a pond. Someone to tell how sublime the lake whitened by the moon is. Yes, all the essentials and principles that are part of us.

For Three Days I Traveled Through Mountains;
When the Mountains Came to an End I Was Deeply Moved


Before my eyes, green mountains –
I have truly loved them.
Why not have their craggy heights before me every day?
But this morning, the curtain fell,
the mountains were swept away,
and I felt unhappy, as if I were saying goodbye
to a friend.
Yuan Zhongdao (1570–1624)


Those contrasting realities and other aspects of human life are also depicted through painting, and this collection includes several beauteous creations of Chinese artists that are exquisitely combined with the referred poems. As the editor states, art and poetry were often one entity, to the point of poems being inscribed on the paintings themselves. He summarizes that fact quite eloquently by quoting an old Chinese proverb: “A picture is a voiceless poem, a poem is a vocal picture.”

This collection wasn’t the one I intended to read, but since I still can’t find the book I wanted, I gave this one a try. And I’m glad I did. I found many voiceless poems interspersed with vocal pictures that transport the reader to the beautiful simplicity of nature, despite mountains made of concrete. A relaxing read to hold on to when one has to return to civilization.

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...haze, mist, and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks, and yet can rarely find.
Guo Xi (1020–1090)





* The last painting is not from the book; artist unknown.
** Update Jan 26, 17: I found the book I was looking for.


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