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.