Monday, December 27, 2010

"It's how you tell their stories that matters"

Works of biography and history, that are more than biography, for me began with John Rewald's History of Impressionism and History of Post-Impressionism, respectively 1946 and 1957, though I read the second one first.  He brought me nearly daily life of the artists themselves, their life as artists.  Several years later, when the book was no longer new but a friend sent it to me, I thought that Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in Love, 1957, might have been written for me.  Both of these, while focused on their subjects and carefully researched, brought the authors themselves, their minds, to the reader.  And there have occasionally been other works, though I often have been disappointed in highly regarded books on Virginia Woolf as increasingly concerned with the authors' agenda, since, as for Proust, except for Tadié's Life, I really like to simply re-read the author himself (though never playing a roman à clef game, which would spoil them; they are like Genji in that respect).
This year another friend sent me, in Kindle format, another book that might have been written just for me, considering the above.  Besides, I have spent my life largely concentrating on pottery, primarily Greek vases, but my second area of concentration in studying art history was China and Japan, so as I traveled I never omitted the pleasure of other ceramics as well as Greek, not excluding, either, Meissen, et al.  I am an impenitent dilettante.  I also love bronze, above all other metals.  Luckily, museums that have rich collections of any of these usually have the others, too.  Besides, for me, any history includes all the arts, everything that the artists and the amateurs had inextricably as coherent parts of their cultural lives—intellectual and aesthetic.  One of my oldest and dearest friends, Claude, inducted me (so far as possible) into his experience in MacArthur's post-war Japan, which shaped much of his life.  And as for Paris, it is essential to my own, almost as much as Athens.

My new Christmas book, uniting and enriching all my travel experience and art historical and archaeological and imaginative life, much of it shared with my oldest and dearest friends, is, as you may have guessed, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.  Part I opens on the Rue de Monceau, Paris, VIIIme.  Now, Paris is not just the Louvre, and besides the Musée Guimet I just had to see the Musée Cernuschi.  Taking the Metro to Monceau, I found myself in a quite different Paris, and the museum was wonderful:  all I knew was that it had Shang bronzes I wanted to see.*  So de Waal's book opens in the part of Paris that I recall from one of my pleasantest days there.  And soon all these familiar names were knit together by his history, in a way that Tadié, exhaustive as he is, does not even attempt, and I was back wandering around these streets that I had discovered by accident, without knowing why three formerly private museum collections, inter alia, were concentrated there.  De Waal's book is a perfect complement to Rewald, too, since it is with Charles Ephrussi, the editor, then owner of the Gazette des Beaux Arts,  that Part I is mostly concerned.  And so it goes, too, for Vienna, where, though I was professionally interested in some of the Greek pottery in the Kunsthistorisches Musum I twice spent most of my time in the Vienna of Olbricht and Loos and simply walking.  One year there was a very large Sezession exhibit.  I tried to go to all the museums, but above all I was happy just to study the city.  A couple of years ago, simply because I can read modern Greek, I tried to be helpful to a former colleague who was interested in Greek expatriates in Bulgaria who had connections with Paris, and I remembered the insight into the Ottoman world where, before Greek Independence, scholarly Greeks lived in Orthodox Bulgaria, Greek expatriates all over the place, I learned, and when I read the final section of de Waal's book, that familiarity helped me to understand Odessa.  I have never been to Odessa, and I was very glad for an author who realized it for me, putting the Potemkin steps, which were all I knew of Odessa, in perspective in the city of which they are a part.
You see, practically all my rich but partial imaginative life based on recollections of everything I've visited and become attracted to or read about (and that lovely portrait by Renoir of the little girls, just to name one specific thing) is brought together and made sense of and made coherent by this wonderful biography-memoir of Edmund de Waal.  I like his ceramics, too, and I also added his volume on 20th Century ceramics to my long shelfful of World of Art paperbacks.  He is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the great museums for everything delightful and interesting, in London.  How many authors can be artists and fine writers and cultivated Jews and Anglicans all at once?  And own 264 of the finest netsuke imaginable.  My friends who have some netsuke have later and commoner ones.

I don't want to tell too much about this book, lest I spoil it.  I bring a lot of baggage of my own and all my 76 years to reading it, but others who have enjoyed it equally are young and not so burdened.  I even, myself, refrained from reading the account from the Guardian of his lecture shortly after the book was published, less than a year ago.  I also refrained from learning how he happened to have Anglican parents, until at the end of the book he made it plain himself.  Besides, using Wikipedia you have to look out for the all-Dutch (so to speak), Dutch Reformed and/or anthropological de Waals.  So far as I have been able to ascertain they aren't even related (Waal is a toponym) or so remotely as to make no difference.

I took the title of this Post from de Waal's response to a person in England who told him, Shouldn't the netsuke go back to Japan?  (Questions like that are really accusations).  As a person who collects bronze coins with a view to gathering ones that go together, whose study can contribute to their understanding (since they came to me already devoid of context and are not of truly "collectable" quality as regards condition), I fully appreciate what he said:
"No, I answer.  Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost.  People have always given gifts.  It is how you tell their stories that matters."

* There has always been a question about the caption in Sherman Lee's History of Far Eastern Art, that the Yu in the shape of a bear (or feline) is in the Sumitomo collection (which is in Kyoto).  The Cernuschi acquired it in 1920, and, clever as Japanese craftsmen are, I am quite sure that there aren't two of these, of which one would be a replica.  I bought a poster, but I can't find it.  When I do, I'll scan and post that image.  Meanwhile, the photo above, which is probably older than I am and perhaps out of copyright, should be regarded as for 'fair use' only.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Greetings, just in case the new post is delayed

Here are the Cat and that chair of mine to wish all the unknown persons who show up on my stats Greetings on this holiday.  I may or may not get the substantial new post up immediately.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Only what I remember: the 20c Zeitwende

Summer, 1963 at 2237 Haste apartment.  It was necessary to pose and hold still doing portraits hand-held and without flash with a pre-digital camera.  And this was the Contaflex Alpha, too
Keep in mind, anyone who reads this, that I have no point to make, and, above all, have no opinion of what is better or worse.  The reason that Damasio's book pleased me so much was his making so clear exactly why, given the physiology of memory, and the way that one's mind makes a memory available, the sole bias of this blog is to explore and try to isolate just what one does actually remember: no "as told to Oprah" about it, no explaining what it might or might not mean.
Now, while also I've been reading Robert Dallek's "The Lost Peace", whose sole purpose is to put together what did actually happen in the decade after World War II, and, so, here we are, without any pleading or point making or ideologizing, I look back and I see that, yes, I do remember what I saw in newspapers and in the news between features at movies.  I was reasonably well informed, for an adolescent, about facts, and quite worried about Berlin and about the Korean war.  But I also remember hurriedly glancing away from newspapers (it was the Oakland Tribune, usually) when they had headlines and pictures about investigations of atomic scientists or about spying (the Rosenbergs) and the HUAC.  No one told me to avoid those subjects.  It feels as if 1945 was still too recent for my handling them.  Certainly, I didn't know enough to form opinions of my own.  As I tried to put between the lines of my enthusiastic review of the revival of "South Pacific", this was my adolescence, and I had everything else, everything else, to put in order.  I am most grateful for Dallek's book.  So it wasn't as though one leader or another could, in medias res, make things right again; the world had made its bed and had to lie in it.  It always had done so.  So I wasn't "apathetic" (the Time-Life epithet for my generation); perhaps I even sensed truly that the news we were given wouldn't hang together.
But the cultural turn, the Zeitwende, of the 20th century, as I remember, began to be noticeable a bit later.  In the year just before I got my degree and went to Oregon to teach, I remember a spate of social evenings when we took all sorts of old magazines and cut them up and in an almost feverish free association reassembled parts of pictures of all kinds and pasted them into collages.  Not collages like political posters.  Collages, rather, of free association.  Then they were pinned to the wall (we knew the building we were in was scheduled for demolition, anyway) and we leaned back and laughed and talked about them, in some cases seeing that they were shocking—considered psychiatrically.  A decade later, in textbooks (on art appreciation, of all things), we saw the birth of Pop Art in England traced back to this sort of thing, though not, perhaps, done as a party game, a game of lingering adolescence.
Anyway, in the visual arts (what I knew) it began with acceptance of the stuff we may have liked but had never given an elevated status: color-lithograph labels, End of the Trail kind of statues, billboards, toothpaste ads, you name it.  I can report feeling that it came of rejecting and yet exalting the kind of imagery that had been used for propaganda, but I cannot say that that feeling was true or adequate.  Yet it was sweeping through highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow society alike.  And Russell Lynes' article, then book, had come out in the 'fifties, too.  To mock Clement Greenberg was significant.  Gradually, even essentially culturally conservative persons (meaning those who liked what they'd been taught) realized that the time was as critical, as crucial, as that preceding World War I.  All Modern criteria were being reexamined; not that the Modern art wasn't great, but the premises on which it judged other art might not be sound.
Jazz was no longer automatically exalted, either, any more than the atonal.  Above all, and gradually the confusion hit us (or hit me, at any rate) that came from respecting pictures that told stories or presented points of view (as in Latino NYC; the African-American artists, for the time being, were still shielded by the modernism that prevailed in the Harlem Renaissance), or pleaded causes, instead of saying something purely visual, however powerful (Arshile Gorky, for instance), without limiting the idea with icons of the verbal world, meant that works of art were no longer sullied by preaching or seducing or tempting.  One had been taught to the contrary.  So we were free to size up things for ourselves.  It seemed plain that representing something nice, like an angel, did not make a great angel, but it did mean that some Hellenistic masterpieces (for instance, if one was in Greek art), such as the "Barberini Faun" could be regarded as awesome (and not only for its Parts!).  Yes, it became plain that it was not only familiarity that endeared the Campbell Soup can to us.  It was a very heady era, with the boundary between commercial and pure breached, with the requirement for a rigorous defense of the work eliminated.  Quickly, though, it began to dawn that new criteria, such as sincerity (which began to look like Hollywood hero sincerity, if the writer or speaker didn't know any better) might not be any better, per se, than the old criteria.
At the same time, there began to be more money—or should I say liquidity?  It looked as if post-war children, as they grew up, could go out on their own and test themselves in their own way, and not die of it.  They had been brought up tenderly, and they were very likable.  They looked out for one another.  They were lovely to look at on our Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  They sold pins from a cardtable at Sather Gate saying Frodo Died for You.  Of course, they didn't think that pipeweed was tobacco, but for months those of us who were nearly thirty did not know what-all besides was available.  We had never heard of LSD, and we thought that heroin was for NYC, for James Baldwin's Antother Country.  I mean, I knew that my mother had ruined herself with barbiturates and synthetic morphines by prescription, but I didn't know the half of it.  It was months before the loveliness was darkened by "flying", Peter Pan fashion, out of upper-storey windows.  The hippie children were mostly very heterosexual and they actually liked religions.  We, their elders, were sexually careful (there was no AIDS, of course, at that time, but every ancient STD was still prevalent and dreaded, and pregnancy was feared as well, just as Mary MacCarthy remembered in The Group, 1962—Enovid was new, hard to get, and already had some bad press).  But the lovely children got the grubby STDs, all over again.
Communes, again, were a lovely idea and, again, out of my mother's generation, there was Mary McCarthy's chilling send-up.  And Randall Jarrell.  Only, the children, now growing a little older, didn't read them, but they did read Evergreen Review, and they (or their spokespersons) did see to D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (not to mention Ulysses) being published without expurgation—and why not, when children were reading William Burroughs, whom I found appalling.  I say 'children'...why?  Well, they were very young, but also they were more heedless than any children of my own past had been: there ought not to be consequences, ergo there were no consequences; it wouldn't be fair, and "no fair" sounded like Grade 7 in school to me.  As for Evergreen Review, I haven't seen them since, but there was a rather beautiful set of photos of a black model and a white model (both female) making out, in such beautiful compositions that I couldn't fault them, but what would my friends think if I bought it and took it home?  Why, today I expect to see it on Antiques Roadshow.  Well, maybe not quite.
You can see that I envied the hippie children, in some ways.  Of course, in a commune you had no privacy or solitude.  Of course, I still do subscribe to the formal basis of visual arts, even though critics who put on airs were becoming tiresome.  Of course, the discipline of studying Greek and Latin, and the privilege of being a member of and studying in the American School in Athens, and everything else that I cherished were their own reward, and they were what gave me the intellectual freedom to admire the Sixties in Berkeley.  At 30 or so I didn't want to be one of them, but I did wonder whether I had not missed something of Youth.  On the other hand, some of them later had a complete turnabout, a revulsion, from  their youth, whereas I have had only some slightly jealous regrets.  And my generation did not go scot-free; I say that in memoriam to the gay men of my own 1930s cohort who were among the first to die of AIDS.  Some were among my dearest friends.
Anyhow (and I haven't finished reading his book), I know that Robert Dallek would agree that the 20th century after its Zeitwende and into the 21st century was, as what we did and what we thought piled up was, a foregone conclusion, and I daresay that it is, and so is all human history.
In other words, as I wrote privately to someone else, the joyous wit of the Beatles had to be, but Lennon didn't need to be killed.  John Lennon, one feels, would understand this post's ambivalence, despite my being merely a wishy-washy liberal.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Style is the Man Himself

Just a short post while I try to organize in my mind how to put my actual memories of the 1960s into perspective.
Today on BookTV there was an interview from a decade ago by Brian Lamb with a Harvard sociologist named Putnam; the book was called Bowling Alone.  It was the one that spent some time deploring kids with their own TVs in their own bedrooms; we were spared his deploring video games or Facebook.
A quarter century ago I bought a house just big enough to hold a lot of books and records (CDs were just beginning) and me, one of hundreds built when Humble, which became Exxon, opened its Baton Rouge refinery, which came on a railway flat car pre-cut and complete with windows and doors, in two lengths, 40' and 60'.  Now found from here to Missouri, at least, these are called modified double shotguns, and they are now about 80 years old.  They account for about half of what was here the town's first subdivision, which now is practically downtown: it is near the Capitol, the central high school, then new, the LSU campus, then nearly new, and downtown itself, full of lawyers' offices and the like.  Today it is full of LSU employees, young lawyers, paralegals, dental assistants (dentists live in subdivisions), school teachers, social workers, and such.  It has trees, sidewalks (with grass parkways separating them from the curbs and gutters and pavement), alleys; the lots are small, except on the corners where the large houses were built (see attached above).  It is well loved.  I came here because I like such houses, I could afford one of them and pay off the mortgage promptly, and because I trust my neighbors more than I trust Nature.  Though a couple of hurricanes blew down most of the pecan and red oak trees and even some of the crêpe myrtles, the oldest ones, we know that this neighborhood has never flooded, not even in 1927, and we like having our neighbors within hailing distance for easy sharing of flashlights, candles, matches, and more sometimes, in case of a storm; we don't mind hearing that half the block is having a party after (for example) a winning football game.  When the house next door has children we actually like hearing their play indoors when it's raining and regard the sound of screen doors closed by a spring as urban music.  Yet we are well enough separated that we have privacy as well.  Some of my academic colleagues regarded my choice of housing as unworthy of a professor, but I was a professor without a partner, paying my own way, and, as I said, while admitting the convenience of what This Old House on PBS does to an old house, I like a house that I can do as I please with.  So do most of my neighbors, evidently; this is a far from depressed neighborhood, but I wouldn't call it slick.
So how can I object to Mr. Putnam who wrote Bowling Alone?  Because he preached at Brian Lamb for a whole hour in his Social Studies dialect and all unleavened by humor of even the gentlest kind (it was OK for Fred Rogers to preach).  Here we are on the outskirts of downtown Baton Rouge, taking for granted and unself-consciously practicing all sorts of nice things, like watching out for one another without being nosy.  And here's Mr. Putnam wanting to make a program out of simple decency.  I mean, if one of my neighbors had to send one of her boys to Boys' Town, I don't think, and if I did think it I wouldn't have said so or hinted at saying so, that it's her own fault for letting him have a TV in his own bedroom, or anything like that.  Nor would she to me.
I mean, we're awfully middle-class here, in fact we're salt of the earth (but it's not nice to brag about it).
Anything we join, we join just because we want to.
And as for solitude: let us remember that in the 1950s articles were written bemoaning our children's having too little time by themselves, to learn to furnish their own minds, as we saw English children, for example, doing and as Victorian versifiers celebrated, sitting with a fishing line on a stick without expecting actually to catch anything, Robert Louis Stevenson fashion.  Already in 2010, Mr. Putnam begins to sound dated, but he was a boring thinker to begin with (IMHO).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day, just done

I truly enjoy solitude and the freedom to read or listen or photograph all day long and into the night.  My dread of holidays, therefore, is not that they pass, for the most part, like other days.  For the most part.  That is, the ordinary offerings on the air and the ordinary services available on weekdays are disrupted, and I am rudely (not that anyone means to be rude) exposed to pleasures and sentiments that I cannot share, and incompatibles that I cannot, and will not, reconcile.  Unfortunately, I do not have enough Attitude, enough chutzpah, to be like Fran Lebowitz, whom I just heard interviewed.  Yes, I am thankful for many things, but no more on this day than any other.
The problem really must be with me: as I said in this space recently, there are lots of places worse than Louisiana to end up in.  I dreaded holidays from the time when at the university the facilities that I relied on, whether for a new typewriter ribbon or access to the library stacks when I needed to consult some rare book or to the cafeteria to eat cheaply in a clean, well lighted place, and short of going to San Luis Obispo, when all my friends had gone home for the holiday (or gone skiing, maybe), I couldn't.  By now I know no one there, either.  Perhaps for many Americans 'family' really is the ultimate eff-word, and as one grows ineluctably older, and the friends whom Life hasn't taken elsewhere, everyone one has known is either dead or unavailable to be invited to dinner.  Certainly, other invitations would be more fun than mine.  It really doesn't work, either, to join something just to get a place to contribute on these dread days.
The trouble is, strains of long standing get stressed, and one's clumsy efforts to link to one's family by long distance, for example, lead to laying bare the absence of a pleasure being a shared one and causing as well as feeling pain.
And folks wonder why the internet is so popular.  The pain of alienation and the helplessness of efforts to bridge it can be avoided in writing a nice e-mail.  No one wants to be uncivil, and the wrong thing can be deleted before sending.  The telephone, though, is truly the devil's invention.
Anyway, these feast days in the calendar do irritate scar tissue, whatever the cause of that may have been.  But for St. Patrick's Day, Lent would be perfect.
No wonder a Seventh Grade teacher told me I wasn't well adjusted.  I never understood that, but knew it was a reproach, an unacknowledged reproach.
My old cat is maladjusted, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teegee meets Damasio

Last week, on NPR's Science Friday, one guest was Antonio Damasio.  I liked what I heard, so I went to Amazon, found that the book, Self Comes to Mind, was just out but was already available for Kindle.  I wanted to read the book before I read any reviews of it, so I got both.  Now I want to post, again before anything else intervenes, though this post will be half-baked for my having just 10 minutes ago finished reading it, my reason for such avid behavior.  (I was going to get a Kindle as well as an iPad, anyhow, but I didn't want to wait for the book, which the local BN did not have).
As just today I told a friend, I began this blog with no intent but to write.  I had other venues for writing about coins and about ancient art.  I did not intend, and I still cannot confront, tracing my career in university teaching and research.  I did not want to write about personal relationships, let alone discuss my friends, because they wouldn't like it.  I did not want to write about Causes.
Intuition told me that I should sort out and write about the things that I actually remember, no matter how mundane, no matter how disconnected.  Writing a script or a scenario can be a good thing, but usually it's pure daytime TV unless one is a genius.  I wanted to write what is actually my own, and I knew that that had to be my actual memories, because I wanted to find out why remembering is so important to me.  Within a month I had most of the parameters.
I quickly realized that being faithful to that intuition was very difficult.  There was that awful temptation to tattle and confess!  But consulting with my sister by telephone we learned that my memories were largely unimportant to her and hers to me, though we are only 30 months apart in age.  I told her that I couldn't report hers, she should do her own (but one difference between us is that I felt that I must, and she doesn't want to).
By the time that I approached the end of the 20th century, I knew why I'd done it and I knew that I was practically done.  For every sentence, for every description that I included I had gone through, lived through, practically, many more.  It's not that I deliberately edited, but I did write just from one sentence to the next until, for each Post, I thought I had enough that was a sort of package.  But so much that I remember is exact colors and textures and sensory feelings, such as how it felt to lie on the dish-draining board to have my hair shampooed in the sink.  I remembered so much, and most of it had never been taken out and processed until now.  And I had answered the big personal question: why did I write a blog like this one?  What is the blog about?  In the convent we'd have called what I did inwardly in writing it a series of meditations with the end being self knowledge.  I also was trying very hard (and I think I succeeded, even perhaps too well) not to get "literary", meaning not to write like the opening pages of V. Woolf's The Waves or Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.  For somewhat similar reasons, I have devoted the last five days to reading the book: I don't want to know what other neuroscientists say or how other people feel about it on, say, BookTV until I have committed myself in this Post.
I don't know how many people like to use their brains for thinking about their brains and their subjective consciousness for trying to heed it or use introspection to try to separate it from self-scenarios.  But that is how I am, and very visual to boot and very fond of music (and so is Damasio, and so I trust him).  The most remarkable things can happen unexpectedly.  This afternoon when the Kindle said I was only 3/4 through the book I wrote to a friend:
But funny things happen as one is reading about the self regarding the self in the brain.  At the same time I had the TV on, and the face of the senior senator of Kentucky triggered, evidently, the recall of a very politically incorrect face of an Irish man in a 19th-century "Punch" cartoon, which looked like Mr. McConnell.  Some years back I had to read a dissertation on Punch cartoons.  OK.  It wasn't about what he was saying, anyway.  I suddenly remembered, beginning with its noisy orchestral introduction, one of my grandfather's 10" records, sung by Colin O'Moore, "It's the Hat my dear old Father wore upon St. Patrick's Day".  It's a New York Irish-American song.  Gramps liked those.  And I joined in and sang right along with my memory. All of two verses and the chorus.  And I hadn't heard or thought of that album of 10" records for at least twenty years!  Now, wouldn't Mitch McConnell be surprised at THAT?
Well, I really am very tired.  I also downloaded for Kindle all of Sherlock Holmes, free, gratis.  Maybe one of those stories will be good bedtime reading.
But to anyone who might be interested in how the brain does it all, I will say that, even through whole chapters of neuroscience which are dense with more parts of the brain than I'd ever known of, Damasio is worth it, in my opinion.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Better thoughts: If only I were younger

Old comedies may do to help with boredom, but tonight I have thoughts more important to me.
Drew Faust and Susan Hockfield, respectively Presidents of Harvard and MIT, appeared together this evening on Charlie Rose.  A new interview with Felix Rohatyn completed the program.
It is so easy to get caught up in the Battle of the Congress, in the eruption of volcanoes, in the plethora of negative trash in the News (not to mention the dreadful miscarriage of justice reported tonight on Frontline) and in sympathy for young scholars in the humanities whose disciplines are daily disparaged, even trashed, and the first to have their funds cut, for whom their finest hopes seem to have vanished.  And, old and retired without a glorious legacy, either, all I can do is offer good advice, sure at least that it is good: when you have to abandon your progress to a doctorate (it is hard enough to believe that its attainment will allow you to support a young family!), the important thing is to keep learning, learning systematically, so that when things change you haven't died as a scholar.  It is bound to be good advice, because learning will keep you mentally and spiritually alive, no matter what happens.
Faust and Hockfield made me want to go back and start again, get back into things in this great age—yes, great in many respects; at least, I shall try to keep up with computers for classicists and art historians.  If I were 25 years younger again, I swear I WOULD go back, do anything if only I could devote myself wholly to creative learning.  I can't.  My healthy old body demands, meaning that willy-nilly it takes, a midday nap, and my joints aren't worth much anymore.  As it is, I can do what I can to stay mentally alive in Baton Rouge: believe me, there are worse places to have ended up in.  But an MIT which understands the importance of humanities (it always did, really) is so damned appealing.  And a Harvard that wants to teach compassion as well as impart a passion for the pursuit that is one's attrait is so comforting to hear.  You say, but all university presidents talk that way.  Maybe.  And not all, to tell the truth.  But these two were giving the ideals a concrete context  such as alone makes them credible, and they also made clear the inseparability of advanced teaching and advanced research.  No cute formulas for backbenchers.  Sometimes people still repeat, did we ever expect to see a person of color as president?  And I would retort, maybe not, but I certainly didn't expect for the presidents of both Harvard and MIT to be women.
As for Mr. Rohatyn, I'd been reading him for years and admiring him.  All the time that my colleagues on campus told me that my complaints about Wall Street (and I didn't even know then about Europe's participation, though history should have told me), as no more than a Las Vegas, only proved that I was economically superannuated, I knew that such as Felix Rohatyn were on my side.  When he urges an investment bank for infrastructure, I'm all with him; and the idea that comprehensive new infrastructure is NOT just more crippling debt, but just the opposite, makes very good sense to me.  I am old enough to remember what electrification and (yes) dams—the actually important ones—did in my childhood and what the Interstate did in my adolescence, and Mr. Rohatyn is six years my senior.  Industry and business flourished along the Interstate, rapidly, too.  It isn't only that building things makes real jobs and develops real skills (obviously I don't mean only road and rail building and airport improvement but the power grid and IT, etc., too), but the new skills and new optimism are good for the IRS and, if anything can help to fund the VA and Social Security and other necessary entitlements to make sure that in case of emergency we have a healthy nation, it will be to have new skills in new industries producing new goods that we clever Americans born on so many continents will create.  Of course, we might start by cobbling at least some of our own shoes...
Susan Hockfield is right, too, that we must show the rest of the world, as it develops, that a democratic capitalism is still the best in the 21st century, not to be abused by making it a casino and turning Iceland into (as one wit said) a hedge fund with geysers (no, I didn't say that...).
In any case, it is good to know that one is not too old to be inspired.
One last apology.  It's only a decade that I realized how important and interesting economics is.  I never took a single course in Econ in college, even.  But I've been working on the vocabulary and the workings of it ever since Enron showed that I ought.  I really do believe that, for me at least, it is besides the arts only economics that can make things intelligible.  Theoretical physics is too difficult for me: I can't read math.  I'm a pre-Sputnik baby, after all.

Monday, November 8, 2010

In passing...

Old TV situation comedies from Great Britain.  It is not that all Americans like them all, but, like Carl Davis' score for Pride and Prejudice, they are on the whole much more fun than our own.  We won't even speak of America's addiction to Are You Being Served?, but if I started watching very old episodes of Last of the Summer Wine as well, it was because Frank Thornton was in it, and when I gave Doc Martin a try it was because we had just been deprived of the second run-through of Waiting for God, and here Stephanie Cole was again; Cornwall is pretty, too, but I don't know whether I can face much of this one.  Differently, I often find that Patricia Routledge in Keeping Up Appearances is so close to the bone that I can't quite bear it (another with her wasn't so good, where she was supposed to be a detective).  I just saw on the second band of our PBS a later episode of Last of the Summer Wine; it is interesting to see them try to update the streets nnd interiors a little, but even this one was more than 10 years old.  I just read that they are ending the series after 30 years.  Odd, how we like UK better than our own.  Ours, though, have no 'edge' at all, unless of outright ugliness, and even some of the English ones have tended to ride the topics of the day.  That MI5 thing is awful, and I don't like Hellen Mirren on TV at all.
Oh, well.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Human Imagination

This evening, on the PBS news, the newly appointed poet laureate (U.S.) to the Library of Congress, W. S. Merwin, in the course of a completely appropriate interview mentioned the uniquely human urge "to be completely involved" in the act of imagination, in creating something.  True, he did seem to define imagination as being able to feel with the endangered humpback whale, with the starving of Dafur, and so forth, what they are experiencing, and to me that is empathy, which of course is excellent and human, which does require some imagination.  In the whole list he gave, however, he mentioned only things that involve being one with suffering.  Whatever happened to the Lark, to the host of Daffodils, to the laughter of children, to creating a Galatea?  Yet I have no right to ask a very estimable poet to share my own list.  Surely he is right, that total involvement of mind, body, and soul in imagining, in making (not in any particular medium, he was quick to explain) something just because it wants to be made by oneself (not for oneself, not for anyone else in particular) is the uniquely human urge.  Sometimes art for art's sake is sneered at, but probably only because those who do not, or do not yet, understand it are a little frightened by the idea.
An hour later, Pierre Boulez led the Chicago Symphony in Mahler's 7th Symphony.  I thought I knew all the Mahler symphonies, but, though of course one would recognize the composer, I did not know this one. And all the strengths of the Chicago orchestra were in great form.  It was a wonderful occasion in my life of music-listening, and if there is a repeat performance I shall stay up late to hear it.  This could become my favorite Mahler.   Between the great composer-conductor, Boulez, and Mahler, and that great orchestra, here indeed was what Merwin must mean.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Serendipitous Discovery: Beatles and Penguins

One summer, I think it was 1965, I went from Oregon to Berkeley to use my beloved library for eight or ten weeks.  Yes, I think it was also the summer that I learned to drive.  My friends F. & S. had by then two boys, the elder, R., four years old, and I volunteered to take care of them at their house while they were away.  Some children are a joy to spend a weekend with.  These were a joy.  R. could show me where notes were on the piano, and he knew all the rules of the household (and played no tricks).  He also had his own little phonograph and his own records.  So when R. said, Please, play me Yellow Submarine, I answered, Well, you can play that, thinking of the stack of mostly yellow plastic 7" records.  But R. said, No, it was his father's record and he couldn't play it on his own phonograph.  Show me, I said, and there it was: an LP with pen-and-ink drawings on its sleeve, and one of the bands was Yellow Submarine.  I had barely heard of the Beatles, but from my neighbors in Oregon I'd had my fill of Hard Day's Night and Help  .  So I duly dusted the record, just as F. and S. would do, and I would do to my own, and there, oh joy, out of the main speakers, came "We all live in a Yellow Submarine".  Reading the album notes, also, behold, the successor to the late Dennis Brain was playing a horn obbligato with the Beatles.  So I asked R. if we could listen to the whole record, and we did.  I ended up owning quite a lot of Beatles LPs.  Recently, shortly before her death, I learned from his mother that R. is now a cellist with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra.
I came even more tardily to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.  The other evening our late-night TV stream  feed played, with the heading Chamber Music,  a piece by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.  It was the one with a found harmonium.  I didn't know it was from the 80s, when I was newly out  of the convent and still without more than a 3-channel B&W TV set and, in a word, clueless.  I just watched "Mash" and "Barney Miller" and "Jeffersons" re-runs on the projection TV while I ate my supper in the LSU cafeteria.  That was pre-Penguin, even pre-AIDS.  They still sold keg beer in the LSU Union.  When I got this house in 1986, our art librarian gave me that little TV aforementioned.  I did not hesitate now to get the DVD including the delectable "Still Life at the Penguin Cafe" ballet and a full hour of other cuts and extremely amiable interviews, and it did not disappoint.  It has genius and Attitude, all the right joyous attitude.  Alas, just as the union of all those supposedly disparate musical genres were being made one with classical music traditions (just listen to those elements of Harold in Italy on the viola!), and he wasn't just patching together but really understanding, Simon Estes died.
Now I have to stop and reflect on what it means in one's life to discover new pleasures when others may have forgotten them (or not have been born yet).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How I Consider Religion

Atheos Ego

I was going to use the numerology in Medieval architecture as a sort of lead-in to this subject, but it became a long paragraph, a separate post in Opera Nobilia, q.v.

It is no wonder that others ask someone like me who obviously is not devout now but who has been a nun for eight years of her life why she really likes St. Paul and really likes Christopher Hitchens.  I thought I’d better write something to follow up that old essay, now nearly fifteen years old, that hinged on Paul and on Brahms’ setting of I Corinthians 13.  That was originally written with awareness that devout friends might read it, whose feelings should not be hurt.
Long ago, when I was young and had sloughed my childhood religious instruction, as a mid-century student I knew almost no one who was a believer.  Berkeley had, and has, plenty of assorted churches, but I knew almost no one who attended them.  Over mulled wine or the like we would sit around and discuss, though, whether it was better to be ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheistic’.  It was then that I began to realize that knowing some Greek made all the difference to me.  Agnostic is a philosophical position, acknowledging that, unless you wanted to be a Gnostic or a Cathar, knowing is intrinsically impossible; I thought, and still ask, what is the pistis that Paul talks about in the letter to the Romans if it is not trust, by grace, as distinct from something that can be proven, either by experience or in a syllogism?  To be atheos, however, is a theological position, being the belief that there is no god.  Nous, you say?  Yet one did sense, as with mind being different from brain, but brain being its precondition, that nous, even to a Stoic, needed to be the nous of a Being, but ‘being’ is the most abstract of abstract nouns, so not much help.  Now over our mulled wine some would insist that they really were atheists, and others might feel that they protested too much and might be insecure about it; some would insist that agnosticism was the only thing to profess, as more philosophically respectable, and others might feel that they were being stuffy, or prigs, or unwilling to decide.  Need I say that one learned simply to be polite, because not everybody has a taste for considering Ultimate Questions philologically.  Eventually it became obvious to me that, if one is to use words, when words have been forged in daily use and worked hard by those who argue and have axes to grind, the words do have to be chosen quite strictly, and historically as well.  The other day I was reading a quote from Macrobius: if I’m going to read Macrobius and try to see what he was getting at, I must work my way back to his mentality.  I needn’t agree with him, but I can’t decide whether I agree or not, in part or in whole, unless I can get at his mind.
It is no wonder, then, that I like Christopher Hitchens.  He is perfectly atheos and perfectly nice about it; in fact, he is an adorable person, even if he does drink more than I’d dare to do.  He understands that the use of religion to justify and even motivate most of the ghastliest sins (sins being wickedness perpetrated out of terrible neuroses—yes, I like Lionel Trilling, too, and large patches of Freud, but I don’t mind not agreeing with everything they think) doesn’t really have much to do with reverence, and reverence is not dependent on belief in gods.  He is like Lucretius.
Last weekend Sam Harris was on TV with his new book.  He is younger, he has a way to go, he might become subtler and more profound, but he isn’t yet.  He has a humanistic ideal, but Hitchens has a far better humanistic education, far better digested.  Harris still campaigns.  He doesn’t understand much about the Greek gods; Homer is not a Bible like that of the religions of the Book.
In the 1950s we thought that almost everybody knew the difference between scientific theories and working hypotheses and harebrained fantasies or wishful thinking.  A universe of time-space with more dimensions than our senses are evolved to realize directly was a wonderful possibility to solve the greatest puzzlements: Elizabeth Ann said to her Nan, How and ever did God began?—that and all the rest.  The inner workings of atoms, not that you expected to see them, was similarly comforting.  Who ever expected the moon, once landed on, to be other than it is: not at all loony?  Those who were theistic thought of Michelangelo’s God the Father as a wonderful expression, or realization, of humanity’s feelings about itself, in our culture.  We atheoi accept it as happily as we do the Greek myths, or some of the other myths, Asian or Native American, for example.  But I never have known a believer, in the convent in particular, who thought of a God so anthropomorphic (so Greek!) as Michelangelo’s.  It would be in Dante and in some visionary saints that we would seek an adumbration of seeing god.  A mythos is not a falsehood; it is an account, something one can tell, and, in Latin, so is a fabula.  All such things are the jewel box of our imaginative existence.
What we need to free ourselves from, and it is difficult in a world of spinning and manipulating, prostituting language, is cliché.  For example, faith (trust) is not always blind, but it is the proper attitude to the truth, that the human brain that can learn and imagine and theorize so much can never know even itself perfectly, which is no reason why neuroscience should give up its proper endeavors.  What we really need to slough is needy craving for proofs and certainties, to free ourselves to learn and understand what is to our good, what is really wonderful, whether it is great art or great astronomy (the Hubble and its successors!) or, just look here, great telecommunications.  How blessed I am to live in the age of quarks and googles.
Perhaps that is enough for now.
If anyone’s interested, perhaps I’ll share some more of it later. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Psychology of Limitations

One needn't go far to see a photograph to take
When I was about ten and my grandparents began to beg off some more strenuous activities with us, when I noticed how swollen my other grandmother's legs were in photos, I wondered how it would be if anything like that ever happened to me.  Would I, too, look like Nana looked in the bath?  Could I, too, ever have a vein break in my ankle, as Gramps had?  It seemed an unendurable thing to envisage, almost impossible to imagine.
Now that my little sister must use a walker, and I have myself taken the precaution of carrying a cheap aluminum cane, because sometimes a sharp twinge in a joint can threaten my balance, especially on stairs, and my single state recommends preventing accidents such as might threaten my prized life style, I am grateful that I sleep well, digest what I eat, and walk well, though not uphill and downhill and not all day, as I used to do in Rome or Athens.  I am doubly grateful for tolerable eyesight and good hearing.  I make sure to eat wisely, nothing to excess and almost no junk food.  I would not be the slave of my body, but neither would I abuse it.  Being retired means that I can put off till tomorrow what I cannot easily do today: compulsions and luxuries are unhealthy.  Nothing to excess, and know thyself.
At the same time, with half the time on media given over to attempts to frighten everybody with everything, in order to sell whatever possible, I turn it off most of the time.  Three scare-them ads in a row for "new" maladies reduced to initial letters is too nauseating.  Seven recorded phone calls per day, presuming that everyone on Medicare also can be sold more, when I pay for the telephone only in case my sister wanted to call me, and they use it to bully me, is not my America.  Abuses that were not perpetrated in the 1930s or even much later are inexcusable now.  Public assistance when needed or a new sort of WPA is, in a word, needed, but meretricious make-work (paying a young lady to telephone the elderly with scams) is not.
Back to the main idea, though.
I thought I'd like to tell the generation coming after me, that of my nieces and nephews and former students, that the limitations, duly acknowledged and not exaggerated, do not make one depressed or even much deprived.  One is glad each day to write, to read, to listen to music, to look at pictures, to study this and that as an amateur, to do the necessary household chores but not feel obliged personally to keep the do-it-yourself home-improvement industry in business.  One wants to stay on good terms with the man who comes twice a month to mow and edge the grass.  One thinks twice about long trips and stops for a motel without considering whether one has done a full day's mileage or not.
It is almost automatic.  One more and more enjoys the real delights that one still has.  It is actually a relief not to have them interrupted by unbidden sexual impulses, anymore than by a lust for over-rich foods, let alone Petronian feasts.  This is not the season for them, but neither is it the winter of my discontent.  That is not to say that occasionally I can't put Brie cheese on my whole-grain crackers.  And, not having seen them for more than two years, when the family with the four lovely children come to visit, on that day I certainly will eat whatever they want with them; it is for that that I am ordinarily fairly abstemious.  Where they are going, maybe they can taste pemican and tell me whether they like it.
I have enjoyed more adventures and pleasures of a rewarding kind that I value than I might have hoped as a child in the 1930s and 1940s in a moderately low-income family.  Now I have the rewards of my adult youth and middle age to cherish in a smaller compass.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Elia Kazan in his films

The generational thing, again: Elia Kazan was born in the same year as my father, and at just the age when it would impress me his early Hollywood film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, reached one of the main movie houses of Alameda, California. I had already read the book, though I knew few Irish Catholics and I had never been to Brooklyn. The combination of emotional intensity and absence of sentimentality and great photography impressed me permanently: this was no Bing Crosby movie! But I still knew nothing of directors, and I never have become a real movie buff. Actually, I never have seen either Gentleman's Agreement or On the Waterfront, though it is so easy to get things now that I resolve to see them soon, having been much impressed by Martin Scorsese's "Letter to Elia" two evenings ago on PBS. I saw A Streetcar Named Desire only when it had long been a classic, some time in the 1980s, still paying no attention to the director's name. Only on American Movie Classics did I see Baby Doll, again after I moved to Louisiana in 1981 and, likewise in the heyday of AMC, I saw A Face in the Crowd on television. By then I paid more attention to the credits and knew that they were Kazan's, and I added them to my list of unforgettable films. AMC also brought Wild River to my attention; at a time when I was interested in the TVA, but it was on account of Mongomery Clift, whom I remembered from The Heiress (which I saw unforgettably as an adolescent when it first appeared), that I made sure that I saw it broadcast. It is a beautiful film, but by 1960 not for Clift; I ought to see it again.
Actually, the next one that I saw in a large theater, first run, was East of Eden, and as an avid Steinbeck reader, and a Californian whose maternal family was partly settled up and down the Salinas Valley, in 1955 (I have seen it repeatedly since). Though the novel is not Steinbeck's greatest, the film is, in my opinion, perfect. It is so beautiful, and it is as if Kazan had got more out of Steinbeck than the latter himself had known was there. (The same is true of Baby Doll, compared with its Tennessee Williams original).
Finally, in Eugene, Oregon, I saw America America first run at the best downtown movie house, and it is the Kazan that I have seen repeatedly, most often. It is unlike Aiolikê Gê by Venezês; it is not idyllic in any part. When I go to it from a Google search I find descriptions that to me fall far short of the unflinching but all-forgiving truthfulness in this great film. The uncle, on whose experience it is based, was from Kayseri, south of Ankara, and I have wondered whether they actually photographed Mt. Argaeus, the sacred mountain of Caesareia (its ancient name), since I have never been there (there are plenty of volcanic peaks in California that he might have used), but it is only since I began to study ancient coins, where the mountain figures on the reverse of many of them, that such a detail could even occur to me. Kazan himself was brought from Constantinople as a small child, but he has put all his mind and insight into the sequence in Constantinople. And then, the photography and editing are so great; he makes everything both true and iconic. "Style is the man himself." Its other truth is to his realization of his uncle's self, and doubtless his own. This is no exhibitionistic vehicle like Zorba. One can watch this film any number of times; the more, with time, one brings to it, the more there is. Even more than East of Eden, it is the film that has haunted me.
Now I think better of Martin Scorsese, too (not that I ever denigrated him), for understanding Kazan. And the way we talk about this or that person before the HUAC, when we have never been in their skin, should make us ashamed of ourselves.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Concerning Paul and Brahms"

I thought I had lost two essays I wrote in the pre-blog era; they must have been on the PowerMac 7600 that I abandoned in my old office. I find that the one called Apomnemeumata (Reccollections), which was indeed the inspiration for my beginning a blog, has been substantially recapitulated in my first dozen or so postings.
I want to post the second one, very strictly verbatim, now. It goes with and in some senses validates some recent ones: it is almost exclusively questions that have occupied me for many years that I break out with here, and the language is fundamentally the same, although the earlier essays (there are only two) were carefully written and revised, and the blog posts are not.
The reference to a then new CD by contralto Nathalie Stutzmann means that it dates to Autumn 1996, at a time when I was buying her recordings as soon as issued. It is not that hers are the only Brahms that I love. At that time I had never collected a single coin and had not read Christopher Hitchens (just to name one). My mind-set on ultimate questions, however, even then was not new.
So here it is.
If Saint Paul heard the Brahms setting in the "Four Serious Songs" of I Corinthians 13, even granting him the gift of tongues for its language, he could hardly understand its spirituality or its music, and on the evidence of his epistles he would be shocked to hear a female voice proclaiming his message, let alone one so eloquent and rich as Nathalie Stutzmann's. Brahms was no traditional churchman. After a century, however, those who know the song will contend that only he, of all those who have set it, has enhanced the depth and exaltation of Paul's most memorable text, most memorable in Greek, in Latin, in Luther's German, which Brahms set, or in English. Two millennia of western musical and intellectual culture separate us from Paul, and nearly as much Brahms. Remarkably we take Paul's epistle as something of our own (we learned it as children), forgetting that there is nearly nothing truly ours that Paul could grasp or come to terms with. Leave aside technology, from motors and plumbing to telecommunications and compact disks; in one life I have lived through innovations enough to know how quickly assimilated they are. Paul could adjust to television as easily as any Papuan. Our cosmology rather than our space shuttles would undo him, our voluminous and promiscuous reading more than our semi-nudity, our aesthetics, finding profound meaning in a few dozen bars of Webern or Le Corbusier's Villa Savoie, not to mention conceptual art, more than our cellular telephones. Even admitting that Hellenistic philosophers and poets (considering the literary sophistication of their contributions to the Greek Anthology) would fare better among us than Paul of Tarsus, the mental gulf between the Zeitwende and the present is enormous.

It is not that we have changed much more, except technologically, in the last century than in previous ones. Consider the gulf between the best spiritual thought of ca. 2,000 BC and that of Paul. Even in Egypt and Akkad there was no real literature but cosmogonies so early as that. Two millennia, some 60 generations, seem to amount to almost unimaginable intellectual and aesthetic change in the history of mankind in the northern hemisphere (and perhaps in the southern as well, had we comparable records). From the end of Early Bronze to Paul, from Paul to ourselves, some four millennia encompass nearly everything by which we identify ourselves, perhaps most particularly our interest in identifying and formally defining ourselves. Paul's concern to do so may be read between the lines of all his epistles; compared with what we fancy we know of the mid-set of Ur Nammu or of Mentuhotop I, he seems rather like us after all, as if civilized mentality had changed more profoundly in the generations between Abraham and him than in those between him and Ms. Stutzmann's magisterial interpretation of Brahms.

The point is, what we think of as human history (for history, as distinct from tradition in general, is verbal and hardly survives unless recorded) is a very brief episode in the tale of humankind. Still briefer, whether in China or the West, are the whole of literary writing, of music to be listened to rather than danced to, of visual objects existing in their own right rather than to adorn rulers or objects of communal worship, and of human spirituality considered as such (cultivated by ourselves), as Brahms did, rather than as a spiritus inspired by grace.

Further, however trite these reflections may seem, they are consistent with my own life-long mentality, which persists in marveling at ordinary and universal things. I do not simply despise gawking at miracles; miracles seem to me cheap simplifications of infinitely intricate commonplace existence. The marvelous commonplace naturally includes Nature, from stars of the nth magnitude to biological reproduction, but even as a child I never made nature poets my own, holding in contempt one teacher for reciting Joyce Kilmer to the class, another for proclaiming (chin out, eyes turned upward) how very small man was relative to Everything. That was in the 7th grade, when children normally start feeling contemptuous. Yet I still have no evidence of Half Dome (in Yosemite) pondering the meaning of all nature other than itself or of ancient trees in any way like Tolkien's Ents, or, for that matter, of a sentient creature other than my own species making imaginative works out of primal fears. I need not subscribe to the religion underlying Tolkien's work to hold his work in awe, regarding philological and imaginative work as one in the human mentality that I adore. When the Hobbits turn cute and sentimental enough to embarrass the Disney Studio, they still aren't so vapidly silly as pantheists ranting. All the faults real or imputed of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle are nothing compared with a man's devoting all his creative intelligence and most of his energy to bring it to completion. And condemnation for evil done in the name of such Romantic interpretations of ethnic myths or legends is misplaced. Corruptio optimi pessima covers the perversion of the best that inheres in 19th-century Romanticism; that all Romanticism is unsound, so far as soundness goes, and its worst aspects terribly attractive to unsound minds, is also arguable; that limiting emotional and intellectual expression to what is reasonably safe limits art and thought to the reasonably banal is obvious. Saint Paul, for example, remote as he is from the mental world of Romanticism, like Wagner has potently enthralled minds prone to enthrallment and could be deemed equally unsafe. His is the only many-sided, complex, tormented, fully human mind in the whole Book; once grasped his is forever with us as a real person, as surely as Dante or Hugo or Wagner or Woolf. It is the authenticity apparent in the expression of their consciousness that makes them enduringly valuable to the rest of us, at least to as many as want them, rather than the congeries of sentiments, illusions, information and misinformation, passions and repressions that, as fallible as each of us, each was subject to. An important artist or thinker, then, may be one of the rare psersons who can find the formal means to transmit to us his or her whole uniqueness, not the persona but the real actor who wears it. Paul was one such, Brahms was another, but it is the privilege of the later man to richly understand (not to fully understand, of course) the earlier. So I see why I feel that it is not being free of faults and vices that makes one worthwhile, any more than having vices enhances one's real interest, but the capability of imparting one unique humanity to other unique human consciousnesses. It may be humanity's one reliable solace, being able to know another's authenticity.

Years ago, it seemed to me certain that Henri Bremond's asserting the identity of poetry and prayer must be radically true. Bremond did not write of visual or musical poiesis in these terms, but I would. I would assert, too, that the pursuit of such authenticity is the mark of, and justifies the concept of, high culture in any civilization. Considering how recently it has emerged, and how much antagonism it has aroused, suggests that the maintenance of this pursuit is difficult, and it is as fragile as it is precious.

I cannot write winged words. I can dream of what and how I would write, but when I do my best the result is plainest prose. To hope to write anything that matters even to myself, I must simply take pains to be accurate and true, without regard to whether my thoughts are original or trite, intelligent or stupid. In writing memories, all I can do is try to write only what I think that I actually remember, with no scenario. No writer can do more. A gifted writer forges magical-seeming formal means that awaken in a reader the latter's own inchoate authenticity, just as the sculptor of Riace Warrior A (whether or not he was Pheidias) makes one understand that bodily beauty is not limited to natural pulchritude, and the Brahms setting is more than, perhaps other than, Paul's intent in addressing the church at Corinth. Because Paul was a great writer, if nothing else, his words themselves transcend the theological points they convey, awakening more in serious meditation on them than almost any of the famous commentaries on that chapter. Yet authenticity, truth to one's own inner consciousness, is not necessarily easier for the gifted writer than for me or anyone else, nor for the gifted visual artist or musical composer or interpreter. Indeed, possessing spiritual gifts, however defined, may not facilitate authentic prayer. And in writing, or in any other art, the primary value is always in genuine endeavor, as with prayer: not only Augustine or Proust or Jane Austen, but every writer must write because Bremond's insight is true.

Though tempted to change a word here and there, I promise that I have keyboarded this scrupulously as I found it this afternoon. I think I needed an extra word in the last line, but you'll have to guess what it might have been, if so.
As for who Natalie Stutzmann is, however, here is the Wikipedia address:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Half heard on FM last week: philotimia or what?

I was doing chores, but they were talking about the social psychology of crimes of 'honor' and practices such as Chinese footbinding, searching for a unifying factor.
By crimes of honor were meant such as killing the man who has dishonored your sister (and in some cases the sister, too). I might have added murdering the persons who have profaned the graves of your family or profaning their graves in return and assorted crimes of compound blackmail.
Their discussion, however, was focused more on male crimes in the cases of dishonored sisters or mothers, and somehow they wanted to bring footbinding under the same heading.
In the first place, let us regard them all as anthropological, in the sense that more technologically advanced retaliations are now available in urban societies.
In pre-modern societies, where all families knew everybody else's business and were expert in assessing how much honor they would accord to other families, and where daughters with dowries had to be intact, literally, to be married into another family of similar property, honor killing on account of one's sister's being violated was due not only to its being grievous but in terms of property. For example, a dowry could include some land, and a family's sons depended in part on family honor to, themselves, win a wife with a good dowry. It was not merely to ensure that one's heirs were one's own. A family that had philotimia, a strong sense of honor, and whose family affairs were evidence of it, could marry well and forge the ties of good marriages. But philotimia therefore included the ability to manage one's household so that its daughters could marry intact.
Yes, I know that sounds like Xenophon's Oikonomika, and for an urban and educated Greek, Xenophon was indeed among the most socially conservative of his time.
And of course girls from ill-tended homes often, then as now, "got in trouble" instead of being properly marriageable. Am I blaming them? Who is anyone to blame girls who, aged 12 to 16, say, had to go to symposia and less elegant parties just to get something to eat? Why, I remember when social workers had to nab a 13-year-old in Eugene, OR, who was being fed, and used, by two fraternities in turn. She was homeless and clueless, and her mother was an addict.
Now the link, logically, is that only daughters of propertied Chinese families had their feet bound. It proved, heaven help us, that they'd never worked or gone out without servants to guard them. I suppose that foot binding had originated in a similar concern for the status in society of a family.
Now, when I said 'anthropologically', I wasn't using the adverb in an exact or scientific sense. I was thinking of E. R. Dodds' The Greeks and the Irrational, the wonderful Sather Classical Lectures (1951), which is still, in PB, in print and still so widely read that a large supply of used copies is available, too. This was where I made the acquaintance of the distinction between "shame" and "guilt" cultures, Homer being still largely a "shame" culture. That is the fundamental reason for Achilles' sulking in his tent. Of course, mafiosi of the 20th century are often represented as thinking similarly, but, developmentally, it still seems, shame does pre-date guilt.
Maybe that's too commonplace to bother about, but from time to time down the decades, and especially when I heard of a very nice young woman in a village who had become unmarriageable because she'd been taken advantage of, and everyone knew it, I was deeply troubled. That was itself half a century ago, but I cannot forget her.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Another debate with Christopher Hitchens

Even years and years ago when I disagreed with him, I liked Christopher Hitchens. And now he is very ill, and people keep making him argue with fools. I always have liked his friend Martin Amis, too, and I still do, and I cannot understand animus towards Martin Amis (though I'm not specially fond of his father's work and never was).
When I think of the waste and cruelty of putting him to School Debates (as today on BookTV, at a place called Fixed Point Foundation), after initial irritation I must think that perhaps he prefers such activity rather than none. And then, you can't do whole hours with Charlie Rose all the time. I would prefer debating to doing nothing but thinking of my next doctor's appointment.
Anyway, today on BookTV he had to debate with the inane platitudes against atheism (from a man who would not discuss what Hitchens means by the word) from the superficially clever and very mean-minded David Berlinski, whom I hadn't been exposed to before. I had to think of what someone on NPR had said about Pope Benedict XVI, that he speaks courteously and softly and nicely but does not relax his position. Mr. Berlinski, however, is not a pope, nor is he as sharp as the late William Buckley. Mr. Berlinski made me sick. He deliberately mixed all kinds of categories (of the Aristotelian kind) and evaded difficult questions shamelessly. Hitchens deserves better.
Well, I am a shameless admirer of Hitchens. He loves Lucretius, my favorite ancient author. I am sure that he really understands Epicurean doctrine. He said more than once that uncertainty is the only comfort. That atheism is not an -ism in the sense of being a Faith. That is just where I am, and he is a great comfort to me. I see that Hitchens does not confuse reverence with belief. At least, I think he doesn't. I think that only freedom from certainties is compatible with real reverence and true awe.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Vive l'Oiseau-Lyre

My first L'Oiseau-Lyre LP, a 10-inch vinyl, a birthday gift in 1955
Whenever I see one of the Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett, I wonder whether that dubbing mixer is the same
John Whitworth.
When my friend Denise, who is an artist but works for the Atlanta Journal-Consitution, comes home here (as over the Labor Day weekend), her visit with me, apart from simple but well considered dinner, consists largely of serious music listening, unless there are new art books to consider. Even Atlanta is hardly the museum or music center of the nation. And there may be a backlog of DVDs, of opera or ballet, which I like to share with someone. Collecting recorded performances, as well as works and composers, is the habit of persons otherwise hardly in touch, and it runs in my family, among a few of us in each generation. And now we no longer can get WQXR with George Jellinek, for example, and somehow it just isn't the same to listen on line (I'm working on the crossover, though). So I have many hundreds of recordings covering a full century. It takes work just to maintain the means of playing them all properly, and right now the main CD player has died, as they have a way of doing.
Every so often, even now, one can regret an impulse purchase. Verbal data on line are not enough. Zurich is a cultivated city. Cecilia Bartoli is a wonderful singer. Handel's Semele, technically an oratorio, for performance during Lent, is dramatically and vocally an opera and a delectable one. Swiss performances do not always have familiar names for the whole cast, some of whom in 2007 might not yet have made their mark. The conductor, William Christie, not my personal favorite, still is an old hand (anyhow, it didn't matter, the miking being so poor that you had to know the score just to pretend to judge him). And, let it be admitted, a live performance is not like a thoroughly processed, even over-processed, studio recording. I admit that, but I regularly hear better recording out of the the uinversity's School of Music done for local FM broadcast, and Louisiana Public Broadcasting did the job of audio and video very well for a promotional broadcast called "Opera Louisiane".
I was appalled by Zurich's, released worldwide by Decca, too. And Bartoli seemed to be even more unhappy than I was. Of course, she sang well, so far as the recording allowed one to relish her voice. The director managed to insult her just as he did Ovid and Congreve and Handel. Worse than having Ariadne act like Zerbinetta.
I must stop to insist that I do not object to new stagings of any kind, as such. I admit, too, that I hadn't considered how important native English, and even, by choice, mostly British, singers are. The tenor, who also can sing, Charles Workman, is the only singer with an apparently English name, but unfortunately he, too, was ridiculously directed to accentuate all his liabilities: plainly stated, even in silver gilt armor, he just couldn't be Jupiter. Jupin, in Orpheus in Hades, even would be too Jovian. And it didn't help that the director seemed to think that Semele was one of those 1927 romps. Mr. Workman is an earnest singer and actor; "stand and deliver" like Carlo Bergonzi (not that he's a Bergonzi, of course, who himself probably would be a poor choice for Semele's Jupiter) would have been best for him. After all, Semele was meant to be only semi-staged.
An experimental staging need not be definitive, but it needs to be internally consistent and not pointless: an example that I think was worth doing was the Don Giovanni set in modern Spanish Harlem with those twin African-American bass-baritones. Wagner can be done in non-mythological costumes and on a set made of geometric sloping surfaces; some of these are well worth considering, even if I am fond of 19th-century Romantic sets. You don't have to have an elaborate set for one of the Gluck operas, any more than for a Greek drama itself; just don't get silly. Somehow the 1980s Orfeo for Janet Baker on the small Glyndebourne stage was blissfully perfect, but Berlin's Komische Oper production for Jochen Kowalski, mixing Gluck with an electric guitar (as a visual prop only!) also, against all expectation, worked in its own terms, memorably (their La Boheme updated to the time of Charpentier's Louise, much closer to Puccini's music, was utter perfection). I never have seen, or heard of, Semele all done as Glyndebourne's Orfeo was, all purely Poussin (those hats are so useful). Period pictures show mixed sources, but neo-Classical might be fun. Just nice costumes on a plain stage would be fine. Above all, the chorus, which serves like an ancient Greek chorus, must not be obtrusive unless called upon (as dancers) at the end, to celebrate (by allusion) the birth of Dionysos. If so, Sir Peter Hall's example, based on Renaissance and Baroque precedents, is a model. That needn't be expensive, either. If you take a Samian coin that shows their venerable Hera, for the sacrifice scene at the beginning of Semele, and make her of mixed media like some of the BVMs in California missions (I'm thinking of La Soledad), paper maché and second-hand garments from Salvation Army would be all the raw materials, except for poster paint for the face, that you'd have to buy. I once saw, in Berkeley, CA, a university Semele for which they'd made an enormously enlarged Cycladic figure: not ideal, but it worked. Among the many silly and pointless things at Zurich a balloon moon (lamp inside) that the chorus passed from hand to hand evidently to show the passage of a long night of love-making. But Handel took care of the night, musically, and Congreve left no adult in doubt as to the content of this interlude. That moon balloon reminded me of nothing so much as a beach balloon photo by Martin Munkacsi for the cover of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung for July 29, 1929. This reference is quite forgivable, because they also, whenever they thought the audience especially dense, held up prepared newspapers with headlines on the order of JUPITER ARRIVES! That was all right for the Berliner Ensemble in its heyday. I suppose that the chorus was made up of members of several choral societies, because they did seem to be enjoying wearing somewhat retro semi-formal dress, which did remind us that Zurich is a banking and insurance city.
Now, of course, none of that would matter, except that it didn't add up to anything, much less anything to do with Handel's masterpiece or the Congreve libretto that Winton Dean (I think it was) called perhaps the best of all time.
Bartoli was made to say lines as if they were unintentionally funny. Now, Ovid knows how to make passion both real and playful, and he probably didn't know that in the 20th-century H. J. Rose would allow that Semele, Dionysos's mother, was an ancient Thracian goddess, Zemelo. No matter. He and Congreve and Handel (and Peter Hall, too) all understood that the structure and staging of an opera came out of the publication of Greek drama and the excitement its understanding engendered, when publication in print became the rule. If you don't understand that, you oughtn't to try to use a chorus. Just as recitative is not usually what is spoken in 'real life', but is a musing, and an aria likewise is not what a character is saying out loud to the world but the representation of his or her state of mind, so the chorus enunciates what the community's impression and opinion are. Although antiquity, the Renaissance, the 18th century, even, were not ashamed of sex (though well aware that it could be dangerous), they make it obvious (because everyone knows that it's obvious) by the key the aria is set in, by the style it's sung in, and so on. Poor Cecilia Bartoli; give her an accompanist or an orchestra who knows what the music means, and she can handle it all by herself, but the person who directed the Zurich Semele wouldn't let her; no wonder she looked embarrassed and unhappy! Great Scott! In Mahagonny Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht (1930) in their own way still implicitly respected the genesis of staged drama and of opera.
So my friend Denise and I could bear no more. We put away the DVD and decided that the great Semele under Sir Anthony Lewis, with the St. Anthony Chorus, with continuo by the very great Thurston Dart, with Jennifer Vyvyan (whom you may know as the Governess of Britten's Turn of the Screw), William Herbert as Jupiter, John Whitworth (see caption at head of this blog) as Athamas, and Helen Watts as Ino (to name those still well known today) would soothe our musical souls. Though the LPs are half a century old, they always have been kept clean and always played with the best pickup available, so they remain perfectly enjoyable. Let me say that Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Gardiner's choice for Jupiter, is really wonderful, too. The most relevant fact, perhaps, about the coterie that did so much Purcell, Handel, and Rameau, is that they are musicologists as well as performers, though L'Oiseau-Lyre recordings came with less ample documentation than the Archiv recordings contemporary with them. What documentation there is, however, is very good. Though the 3-LP recording of Semele is edited, it is not just a selection of arias, and the continuo of Thurston Dart unifies everything. These musicians, closely linked to the Royal College of Music, are more eminent than many guess. Dart, for example, not only taught George Malcolm but as a conductor taught John Eliot Gardiner and many others. One needs only to read the relevant Wiki and put them together. It is the pre-stereo ones that are hard to get.
These performances are historically informed, and it doesn't matter what kind of bows they use. Only the recorders and Dart's Thomas Gof harpsichord are in any sense period instruments. But period instruments without informed and sensitive and joyous knowledge of the music of the period are useless. And the continuo, which is so important, needs a great keyboard artist, yes, but the pleasure in scholarship and knowledge of the composer's intentions of a Thurston Dart make all the difference.
I have looked and looked; I cannot believe that these great performances of Handel (and even that joy of our youth, Alfred Deller and John Whitworth singing "Sound the Trumpets" in "Come Ye Sons of Art") are no longer available at all. It may be that they and much else, not that newer ones aren't good, too, have been dismissed as monophonic—but even Gardiner's Semele is no longer available as originally issued by Erato. But keep an eye out; MP3 and iDisc may come to the rescue.
Denise and I went on to listen through the L'Oiseau-Lyre Acis and Galatea and L'Allegro ed il Penseroso, too. Peter Pears in his prime sings on those.
Well, I know I can't give you the music here, alas. But don't let anyone hand you a bunch of Calvinist inverse sexism for the story of Zeus and Semele. It's something far deeper and more basic and almost divine.
On the lyre bird in nature, the BBC David Attenborough are best:
The tribute delivered for John Whitworth on the bestowal of an honorary degree is so much more delightful than anything that I could have imagined that I have provided a link to it where, above, his name occurs!

Friday, August 27, 2010

No music too familiar...

I'd like to make a brief post while it is still on my mind.
Some music is played so often that one thinks one can never hear it as new. Young Bizet's Suites Arlésiennes surely are among these. Some of Handel's Water Music, too, especially if one is old enough to have heard the Hamilton Harty arrangements on 78rpm. Since the introduction of LP, the Brandenburg concertos of J. S. Bach, in innumerable performances.
I happened to have heard today, having the radio on, the first L'Arlésienne suite (but unfortunately did not get the announcement) played as if it was new. All it takes is for a gifted conductor to have studied it afresh, to learn how Bizet composed it and perhaps divine why. Such a pleasure. Such a pity that he died so young.
This morning, on "Performance Today", they played the BBC's broadcast recording from a week ago at the Promenade concerts of John Eliot Gardiner's interpretation of the First Brandenburg Concerto, giving free rein to the pair of unvalved French horns. There was also a bit of interview. Gardiner likes to teach, and he is a very good teacher. In any case, he is my favorite conductor, and, since he is only nine years my junior, if I hear nothing by him or about him for a while, I may hope that he is well and all.
All those concertos tend to puzzle scholars and performers: some don't like clarino trumpets, others dislike recorders, but the unruly horns (and the English Baroque Soloists manage them uncommonly well) even played perfectly are certainly obtrusive. Gardiner is not worried (there are dozens of performances both live and recorded that allow the engineers to keep the horns in the background), and it was interesting and, yes, for the aspects of the structure of the composition that they emphasized, very pleasurable to hear him lead them in this way. As I listened I thought that it made that concerto sound rather more akin to Handel's Water Music than it usually does. Though Bach surely was experimenting with scoring, I wondered whether he wasn't providing the margrave with proofs of his ability to provide music especially for festive performance outdoors. If he knew the Handel, it would have been the Water Music, since the Royal Fireworks is much later. Of course, it is not as if no one else composed such music, including brass, in the early 18th century.
Here we only get bits of Proms, but I wonder if the concert included all six of them.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"South Pacific", "Bound for Glory", and Kodachrome

In 1949 I would turn 15 and was just old enough to read, and begin to understand, Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”. I had been listening to the Texaco (of beloved memory) broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera since 1945, the same year as we also had broadcasts of the San Francisco Opera. Besides the tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini, I had a terrific crush on the voice of Ezio Pinza. That is to say, the first post-WW II decade was the time when I began to grow up, when I saw that a wartime mentality was not the only kind, when I listened on the radio to broadcasts about the founding of the United Nations, and read about it in Life and Time, when we could even order European recordings direct from overseas if we wanted them enough.
And then the musical “South Pacific” opened.
Of course, I didn’t actually see it, but between war movies and the Movietone News and Life I could imagine the Pacific Theater of War perfectly well. We knew, among our friends and neighbors, ex-sailors and ex-nurses. We still venerated our still-living Admiral Nimitz, too, where I lived. We had had as a childhood treat going down to the Naval Air Station to watch the pontoon planes landing on the Bay.
For more than sixty years I’ve known all the words to all the songs in “South Pacific” (and those in “Kiss Me Kate” for nearly as long). I didn’t like the movie, which I didn’t even see until AMC broadcast it. Too much real landscape.
How could I like it without Pinza and Martin? The semi-staged version from Carnegie Hall broadcast on PBS, settled the problem so far as Mary Martin was concerned; Reba McEntire was perfect. The rest were merely all right (well, Alec Baldwin was excellent), and it wasn’t complete. It had been years since I’d read Michener, too.
The great thing about being retired and having PBS HD is that I can, if I wish, stay up almost all night and watch Live from Lincoln Center as much as four times over. It took me most of the initial viewing to accept Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush, though she really can sing and she sang just right. And Paulo Szot is wonderful. Not Pinza, but just the right kind of voice, and a great Emile. The second and third time, concentrating also on details, I noticed the costuming: Bloody Mary dressed like New Caledonia and looking like a real Tonkinoise. The chorus of nurses coiffed just right and dancing what didn’t even look like choreography (viz, was really good choreography), a casual-seeming mixture of jitterbug and movie-version Rockettes and bits of half learned Charleston and simple tap dance from when they would have been about ten years old. The Seabees basically doing ordinary guys’ jitterbug. And the clothes! Nellie’s are just what a nice young woman in middle America would wear (with a girdle!) even overseas, stationed in New Caledonia or perhaps the New Hebrides: those are the islands where French is spoken, and Lieut. Cable has been flown in from Guadacanal, where it isn’t. Clothes that had to be starched and ironed (linen, or for the stage a linen-look-alike). And everybody walking and moving “period”, too. Szot even can sing “This Nearly Was Mine”, a killer song written for a unique lyric bass, all in the part of the voice hardest to support and control.
I am sure that, though the audience evidently loved it, too, this musical has special comfort and special importance for persons just my age, for whom Petty girls (see the opening of Act II) were current pin-up types.
And then, something that at first seems different, yesterday I received in the mail a picture book I had ordered, hardly daring to hope that Abrams and the Library of Congress would have succeeded in getting the color right. But they did. Kodachrome I, ASA 10, and of the first generation, was quite different from not only digital color (which I admit is the truest, now) but from the direct positive color films both from Kodak and from competitors that almost any shop could process. Kodachrome I was extremely dense. In very strong light, it was intense and produced what we used to deplore as Mexican-blue skies. Its shadows ranged from dark to utterly opaque. I have one taken in late afternoon in 1959 on Mykonos and another near Sparta, and I processed them very carefully after scanning the slides with the special Kodachrome setting on a Nikon 4000 scanner. Since old Kodachrome has excellent drawer life, but rather poor life with exposure to ultraviolet light (or to heat in projectors), these are among my best preserved ones; even so they are 17 years younger than the latest ones (1943) in my beautiful new book, Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939–1943, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress. Fully 20 years ago, as I recall, LOC on its web page with FSA photography, had included some by Marion Post Wolcott Kodachrome up by Lake Providence, LA, and elsewhere in the south. Although the on-line images at that time were rather sad, I downloaded several just because they were taken in Louisiana, where I was teaching. That is why, when someone in an interview mentioned the book, I made haste to order it. I rejoice to report to anyone that loves this photography that the book is revelatory. Fully half of the government agency photographers, including some of the all-round best, such as Lee and Delano, accepted the new film and mastered it, and the LOC has kept splendid care of these 35mm slides from an era that probably has lost most of them (Autochrome, for all its relative difficulties—no good in a Leica, for example—was fairly permanent).
Now, here is why “South Pacific” and Bound for Glory are complementary for me; they both record the America that is still, for me, the normal America, the normal children’s clothes, the normal roads and streets and downtowns, the normal barns, even after 1941 the normal war. They both record a life that looks quite poor nowadays. Of course, early FSA did record appalling poverty, but it is worth remembering that by 1939 even Dorothea Lange had to hunt for subjects that really needed both compassion and attention: I know; I remember; I knew Nipomo as well as she did, though I was never taken out into the fields; my fellow kindergartners of 1939 and I had hand-me-downs which were still good, but we weren’t hungry or without shelter, not any of us. Ordinary cotton-wash dresses most often sewn from Simplicity patterns were the norm, and why not?
Also, the editor who wrote the introduction to this book, Paul Hendrickson, assumes (just as my students of 1989–2005 did in History of Photography) that the Depression was a world of grayscale, of black-and-white. Because it is important to understand what is inherently black-and-white photography, and not all of the FSA is, I tried to tell them what the colors were like, the colors that I remembered perfectly well, but I don’t think most of them could manage ‘mental colorization’ (perhaps knowing how bad the colorization of movies was, how obscenely unreal and unjust to the photographers in Hollywood), and I know, too, that I am one of those persons who remember colors quite exactly, and remember subtle differences of hue. In any case, to me the world of FSA photography, fond of the art of gelatin-silver photography as I am, was not a grayscale world, only my world rendered permanent in grayscale. And in his interview with Alan Alda, Bartlett Sher (born 1959) said that he had never seen “South Pacific” on stage, that he started with the printed play (or was it with Michener himself?), and worked from there. Think of that! Someone who hasn’t had “South Pacific” all his life. He and his colleagues certainly have made a very good new job of it, faithful to everything that wants fidelity, and without any bleeping of Seabee talk, and without any fussing about its point of view.
They have made me very, very happy these last two days, and so has my new book. Perhaps after all people born after I was grown up can see their way into my world. Sometimes I stop and think: today and the end of the War between the States, in 1865, is 145 years, and at the end of World War II, in 1945, was 80 years since 1865, which seemed very long ago to me then. Yet from 1949 to 2009 is 60 years. I think: perhaps photography and sound recording and radio/television and now the machines that permit blogs and all make all the difference. They do, provided that my juniors avail themselves of it all, and fully, but youth is a time (as “South Pacific” keeps saying) when living takes precedence over remembering. I must use my imagination to see this world as they live it, for my part.