“Hovannes Toumanian: Selected Works”

There are few writers who are at once extraordinarily powerful and yet somehow also not well known beyond the scope of a few wise readers. Hovannes Toumanian is among these. A poet born more than 150 years ago, living in Tsarist Armenia – it is said he only once left his native land, and then only to answer to the Tsar in St. Petersburg for the charge of “anti-Tsarist writing”. Toumanian is from Lori, a province in the high north of Armenia, beautiful and cold and wild – forested with hills and rivers and dotted with the ancient monasteries that attest to the heritage of that land.

Toumanian is a beautiful writer. I stumbled across one of his books in a used bookstore in one of the old lands; “Selected Works”, full of charming poetry and short stories that could be taken from the Brothers Grimm; replete with wisdom and understanding and the morals of people who before have lived closer to the land, and with that the fate which comes from mistakes more existential because the doer lives closer to nature and has no cushion to protect him from error.

The book is an English language copy, translated and printed by Progress Publishers, Moscow in the USSR during the silent days of communism. That the communists would translate an extraordinary Armenian poet into English and publish his “Short Stories” will have to be put down as one of the great mysteries which I will never understand. But it does go to show you, great writing – great literature stays and finds a way. How else could a wayward wanderer from Africa, an erstwhile writer and also himself a King of Lost Places have found this lost treasure; and had I not, how would you who are reading me come to learn that such an extraordinary man was born, lived and died in the ancient silent forests of the Caucuses. And that even as he did, he also left us with something timeless and beautiful that has lived on long after he has left us.


Posted in Book Review, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Review of “Dreams of the Defeated”

Below is a new review of my first play, “Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts”

“Joel D. Hirst fathers the genius creation titled Dreams of The Defeated, a two-act play that extends from the pages and into our lives. Written in the form of a play, Dreams of the Defeated by Joel Hirst completes the checklist of what makes a good dystopian story. A hero who is fighting the status quo, a society that has been controlled by propaganda and devoid of independent thought, and the brazen boldness to call society out. Read it before it becomes a movie.”

Read the full review here.

Posted in Book Review, Liberty, Literature, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Dubliners – By James Joyce

There is something quiet and comforting to be found down the alleyways and in the pubs of old Europe. Life, life that is our life – from where so many of us came, as much a part of who we still are as the sweeping frozen hills that are nestled in our collective imaginations. Life, the problems from which we were fleeing that led us here, to America. Poverty, crippling and blinding and maddening. Strife, brought on by so great a past which went before leading to the edge of a chasm; a chasm with no way to cross. Abuse; because we are an abusive lot, humanity is and the Lord up on high must just shake His head disheartened by His creation’s inability find their way – even after so long a time, so great a cloud of witnesses and the collective instruction of generations.

This is what “Dubliners” by James Joyce is about. Short stories of Irishmen and women before and perhaps during the great migration to America; illustrating it in all its panic and frustration and desperation for those of us who only know the Ireland of today as a place of rolling greens and quaint dells, safeguarded as it is these days carefully nestled in the bosom of a united Europe at peace. In these fraught days of the European Union’s angst – and I take no position here related to that experiment – it is easy to forget why the project was begun in the first place. It is easy for the new generation to ignore the desperation and poverty and war which for millennia accompanied the European story.

To them, I say re-read Joyce – and Evelyn Waugh and Emily Bronte and finish up with W. Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece, “Of Human Bondage”. Remember from whence Europe has come, and the poverty which is so much a part of the Irish story as is the whisky with which the disaffected sought to forget. Be gentle and thoughtful, be disciplined and kind; for our prosperity is delicate as an Irish spring Bluebell and our behavior not so greatly improved from that characterized in James Joyce’s “Dubliners”.

Posted in Book Review, Literature, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

On Student Debt, the Albatross and the Year of Jubilee

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung

So goes a stanza from the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The albatross, that grand bird which to the sailor of old meant the approaching of blessed land. A sign of good luck; but in the poem killed by a seafarer – who was afterward forced to wear the carcass around his neck by his fellow mariners, as a sign of shame and stupidity and arrogance as an evil fate befalls the ship and the sailor’s recklessness is shared with all his peers.

But what has this olden rhyme to do with now? We no longer sail ships, we no longer lust for land as the water turns brackish in the barrels and the hardtack begins to crawl with weevils. An allegory – a way of knowing that which we are losing as a civilization, unable to interpret the lessons from those at once wiser and also perhaps more fallen than we, but were they…? the hints of a knowledge as-yet undeveloped, do we eschew them? And if we do, how then do we consider the issues we are facing – for they are not new, as Ecclesiastes has said “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The albatross – I can think of no greater a metaphor for our student loan fiasco. The bird, a sign of great joy, of luck emerging from a perilous journey and a promise of future become instead a public display of stupidity, rotten and stinking to show for the world the ignorance and arrogance of youth. But is it their fault, is it really? For we, those of us with children, know that the reality is more complicated – that decision-making and the weighing of consequences is not fully gestated in the minds of boys until five and twenty years; how then are they asked to make such monumental decisions as to involve the killing – or not – of that olden albatross?

Of course, Whose fault is it? is a facile and unhelpful discussion – should these youths have committed murder in their delicate years, they would still be jailed. Should they be called, they will go to war; they can drink intoxicating spirits and vote upon the future of our great nation and operate motor-vehicles of all shapes and sizes; why not then accrue debt…? – mortgage their futures, if they wish, it is their right, their decision. Except that it is not, oh that albatross hangs heavy and stinking upon the necks of all of us now: $1,500,000,000,000 stone which we must consider.

Emerging recently into the minds of the know-nothings are solutions – a jubilee say most; naturally believing they are devising something new, something bold and innovative. Enter stage left Wayne Messam, Mayor of Miramar in Florida, competing amongst the madding horde to be our highest servant, “Americans are not going to have the same opportunity to achieve the American dream; this crippling student loan debt that 44 million Americans are dealing with [is] slowing down our economy. The U.S. Department of Education owns about 95 percent of America’s student loan debt making the mechanics of complete debt cancellation for the majority of the loans relatively straightforward.”

A jubilee!!

Except that in fact the jubilee is among the oldest of ideas, passed down to the people from God through Moses as he sat atop Mount Sinai. “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.” Leviticus 25:10


Moses and the 10 Commandments

It is about justice – justice for the individual, because life is hard. But justice also for the society, for we must live together – and theft is, after all, still theft. Freedom from oppression, “Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 25:17. Not social justice, for that is simply a bait-and-switch, replacing ideas of law with “ancient prejudices and our legendary tolerance for injustice”, with the oppression of the minority by the majority flipped to that of the majority by the minority. The albatross or the jubilee – two stark choices, neither of them giving us freedom from oppression.

I have oft been accused of commentary without solution; criticism without rebuttals. To that end, and in deference to that critique I offer a simple resolution. Since those who seek my money for their mistakes offer Leviticus as an unknowing justification; fairness as their last best defense;  “I don’t think it’s fair that the student and the parent has to bear all of this risk when it’s benefiting the entire economy” as is so communistically put by Mayor Wayne Messam, and responding to their positivist replacement of God for the State – let me too offer my policy from the Bible, from Genesis in fact: “’Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.” Genesis 14: 19-20.

A tithe, let us have a tithe of 10% which will be wiped out in the manner of Leviticus 25:4 “But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.” Let them who graduate indebted and who so choose give back 10% of their income for seven years – and all will be wiped clean. And who knows, if Mayor Wayne Messam is correct – and they become millionaires and give back far more than they borrowed, then they truly will have been a benefit to the entire economy.

Author’s note – this is my policy recommendation, arising as it does from a man who has accumulated and paid all his own educational debt; but yet who nevertheless also has a small son, and wishes not that he have that ugly albatross stinking up his future long before he even begins it.

Posted in America, Liberty, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Issa Valley – A Book Review

There is a valley tucked away deep between the hooded hills of Lithuania beside an olden river called the Issa where devils live. Devils of the past, of mistakes and errors and a violence not uncommon to village men and tragedy not unknown to the women in that misty place between superstition and faith, between the hard lines cold and secure of Christianity and the dark fog of paganism old but still reassuring when the new forms are tried and found wanting.

This place is the Issa Valley, about which Czeslaw Milosz writes one of his two novels (for Milosz is, of course, a poet). The novel speaks somehow to the auto-biographical, for the Issa does not exist – but might be the real-life Nevezis River where Milosz spent his own childhood. The novel churns with life and with a poet’s love of imagery and of the power of words to find in each of us what ails us and that for which we yearn to both at once extirpate and complete.

The Issa Valley is so extraordinary because there is nothing special or grand about it. The backdrop is not set against great wars or epic deprivation; the story is not one of struggle against the odds or valor unto heroism. It is the story of Thomas, a boy growing up in a lost corner of the Soviet Union, along a river shadowed by the east. A story about the mistress of a village priest who finds only one final solution as a response to her sin; about a madman whose violence is not uncommon; and about jealousy and rage and the simple needs of peasantry which is also somehow poetic because it is human – and we are all human after all.

The Issa Valley is a coming of age story which reminds us of where we came from, we who are so often busy and have the cacophony of modern life ringing in our ears and chasing away the quiet of the valleys and dales from which we also originate and which we would do well to remember, if only we could find the courage.


Posted in Book Review, Literature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Wave Held

The children over the walls and the concertina wire are in school. The chattering of recess which belies the poverty, reminding we who live in Elysium that all people are the same; the same, equality – that wicked word, harsh as a desert sun and unforgiving as the winds that whip around the sands of the Sahara. Equality of outcomes, some like to say; until they perish in quiet desperation in the middle of a bread line; equality of opportunities, except this is nonsensical, for we all are unique and different and special and cursed. Equality of nature – that is the only true equality I suppose; in the image of God Genesis says, though from that image our paths stray as we travel the trails of opportunity and folly.

School, which will leave the little children ill-prepared, in a place of no work, no opportunity – clinging to humanity is difficult when the pangs of hunger twist one’s face, contorting the images. But the children don’t know this; they scream as they chase each other around the dusty fields, climbing a mango tree for the ripened fruit – the mango rains have come again to West Africa, and as always they bring hope amidst the madness. And at the end, hope is what we are left with.

More than three years ago I wrote about a wave – a wave I was to catch, my wars in Africa which were set to extend. A post filled with the anguish of uncertainty and unknowing juxtaposed against the specter of death and destruction. Three years ago, “I cannot help but wonder if my luck will hold. Will the wave support me just a little longer? Or will the tide crashing around transform me into another victim of the madness – like so many I have known?”

waveBut the wave held. Yes, the wave held – and as I silently slide from its funnel and let the power surge over me, I look up to see the rainbow above which represents that most ancient of promises, and I am happy. Oh, it has not been easy; riding this wave. There have been bumps and twists, I have slipped on more than one occasion to find my footing thanks only to a kindly hand in a moment of darkness. But the wave held – and as I see it power off in front of me, leaving me on the board seated in the sun with the water lapping gently against my knees I can only feel grateful. The wave held – and there is nothing more to say.

To be sure, the wars go on. Was this my last war in Africa? Only time will tell; did I make any difference? Perhaps when I reach the pearly gates St. Peter will have a list of my accounts. Friends I have made and trophies for my wall secured; glory sought and achieved through some victories and some valiant fights, futile perhaps but nevertheless noble. I do know that six years of war in Africa has left its mark; it makes us humble, more sure of ourselves but also less sure of the world around us and the confidence we have that we too will be forever-protected. More wary at those who say that safety requires no effort; that bad ideas demand no challenge.

My little boy is African – though he is not, of course. His Africa was so different than those of the little voices that scream in peals of joy from the mango trees. But Africa it was, too, at the end – it is what he knows and will forever be a part of him; how to account for that?

And to the future and what it holds?… only God or fate control – and that is OK. As for me, today, I can only be thankful that the wave held.

Posted in Liberty, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged

“Island” by Aldous Huxley

I just finished reading “Island” by Aldous Huxley. Huxley is (of course) the author of “A Brave New World” – and “Island” continues along that tradition — sort of…

“Island” was Aldous Huxley’s final novel, and according to him his most important. I suppose a famous writer (I won’t say great, those are not the same thing) at the end of his life lets his guard down as to how the reader feels about his work. Perhaps he has been convinced everything that flows from his pen onto paper is the work of the golden gods and need not respond to any sort of form. Why should it? Guaranteed a publisher, content in his position, and assured readership – he can finally dispense with the niceties of sweat and blood in trying to tell a good story and – if you are a political writer – you can just write out your opinions.

That’s what Huxley did in “Island”. The setting for this book is a lost pacific island where the master-planners of society have built their utopia; how they try (and ultimately fail) in keeping it pristine and isolated from the rest of the world; and how Will Faranby – a journalist – experiences this.

The plot of the story, after perfunctorily placing Will on the island of Pala, basically consists of Will walking around getting endless lectures on how the Palanese organized their society. Children are shared around; religion is not banned but not encouraged; Buddhist ideas are preferred; a special drug called makshe which is basically some kind of mushroom hallucinogen keeps folks calm; sex is encouraged, etc. The book is replete with extensive diatribes about western consumerism, carbon economy, rapacious corporatism, and any other bugbear that might inspire adolescent reactionary fervor: Leninist Marxism without the conflict; Stalinism without the Gulag. (Incidentally the story could have been made slightly better if it had become literary fiction, delving deeply into the thoughts of Will as he was challenged in his thinking. That would have been conflict which might have added depth to the tale and character to what is in fact a colorless cardboard cutout of a protagonist. Alternatively it could have had epic descriptions of the Island’s beauty, which would have made it exotic. Didn’t have those either…)

This book was unreadable.

The book was as unreadable as Huxley’s Palanese society was unlivable. Because it was a society in which there was no wonder; nor was there any glory (principles which are also missing from communist utopianism, a project which Huxley was said to have hated but after reading “Island” I’m not so sure he did. This book could have been written by Hugo Chavez). The search for wonder and glory, the hallmarks of western civilization – of progress and advancement and philosophy and science. Universal basic incomes, parents who share their children, societies where there is no competition (and hence no good conflict — yes there is good conflict) and in which the embers of significance die out not in a bloody gulag but tired in that overweight way, sitting quiet in a La-Z-Boy – none of these do greatness inspire.

Platform pieces are rarely any good. When the ulterior motive of the author is to manipulate you into reading what you hope is a story which will make your heart sing and you find yourself hooked to the nozzle of a fire hose while you rapidly expand with half-baked ideas and hardly-thought-out recipes for utopia, you know you’ve got a bad one. “Island” is a bad one.

I would be more forgiving of Huxley if this was his first book, not his last.

Posted in Book Review, Literature, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment