Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hope for Easter Sunday

Severus Alexander 222-235  SPES PUBLICA
More than two centuries before the last of the Severan dynasty, probably in the time we call Imperatorial (unless it was actually Augustan) a figure meant to embody Hope (Spes in Latin, Elpis in Greek) was created for Rome.  As a personification it ought not to be too naturalistic, especially in the Late Hellenistic / Late Republican period when Neo-Attic or downright Archaizing or Classicizing or Egyptianizing, especially after 30 BC, were fashionably meaningful in their own right.
It actually was based on the type of a Kore, a maiden statue, holding a flower as a modest offering, and holding her skirt to keep it from being soiled; a Kore was an adolescent girl, the adumbration of the young wife and mother soon to be.  Think of Iphigeneia.
By the time of Severus Alexander it still was true to type but had gone through many repetitions without reference to the whole of the original idea.  Often we see that the die-engraver was not quite certain what sort of flower she was meant to hold.
I was thinking of the literal Germanic meaning of Lent, and of Spring as re-birth, and of Hope as springing eternal.  I was remembering how, at the end of World War II, when I was eleven , the Charter of the UNO (as the UN was called at first) meant to me that the unthinkable horrors of the War were over, and Humanity was ready to establish institutions to guard against recurrence of Man's inhumanity to Man.  Still our ally, Russia's Dmitri Shostakovich had written a March for the United Nations,  easy to sing and sung by our whole school: United Nations on the march, with flags unfurled, Together fight for victory, a free new world (as I recall: it was shortly much less popular).  But they would rebuild Coventry Cathedral, we read, and many other things, though not the Eremitani Chapel.
Before I was quite sixteen, we were at war in Korea.  Before I was thirty, JFK had been shot.
But it has been only in the last two years, when I have had time to read works that one ought to have read earlier, that I realized how Thucydides really felt.  And it just happened that I was reading not only 19th-century political essays but the Federalist Papers and had to live with some simple truths of politics, always divisive, always compromised (in the worse sense of that word), always lying and calling it 'spinning'.  And that we are not alone.  There but for the grace of nous or God or the Name of your choice, if Nature can be named, there go all of us.
So here I am, right back where I was in my university student days, believing that to do good is to try to avoid doing harm, simply, and trusting only true artists and true scientists, and them only if they can't be bought.  We didn't think we were apathetic, but we knew we weren't True Believers, and we did not trust the Flower Children.  Yes, they were pretty.  But so is that Archaistic, reality-evading figure of Spes that the Roman Empire clung to.
And yet, before the Tetrarchy, Spes became rarer and rarer, and Apollo ceded to Sol, and (even when the same attributes were used) Diana ceded to Sol's sister, Luna.  We name things as we are comfortable naming them
Concordia was hammered home relentlessly, and Providentia was insisted upon...
I have been thinking, meditating you might say, and I think I can live and die happily without that sort of a Hope.  It is enough to look at things and collect a few things that I like.
Kalo Pascha.

P.S. The March we sang in school that year is different from the United Nations hymn.  It is by Shostakovich, but it was for the film "As Thousands Cheer".  You can find it on YouTube, either with Leopold Stokowski conducting or, very nice, sung by Igor Goren.  I went checking to make sure that our teacher, who told us it was by Shostakovich, was right.  It isn't the only simple thing that Shostakovich wrote, either.

Friday, April 22, 2011

On Good Friday

22 April 2011, 3 pm, purple and green
Occasionally one touches base with the sensibilities of the Middle Ages and remembers Huizinga's study and one's own experience of liturgical symbolism, such as purple for the dark days of the calendar.  While I was outdoors this afternoon recording the progress of my amaryllis blooms (especially for the friend who gave me this stupendous bulb, but those who live where they won't survive in the ground like it, too), I saw my neighbor's Holy Week colors, with dark purple for Good Friday.  Of course, I have no reason to think that my neighbor chose the handsome plant as a symbol, and usually I, too, would have seen it purely aesthetically, but today is, in fact, Good Friday, and ever since a cruel explosion damaged the whole neighborhood where I was living while in the evening on Good Friday I was peaceably reading my way through the fifth book of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and suddenly a back door was blown out, shards of a window fell on my record collection, the walls heaved and cracks opened in them (in sum, worse than any earthquake I'd ever known in California), I have never again felt quite the same about Good Friday.  I disliked violence enough before, and feared political craziness, too, but since then I have tended to regard the crucifixion of Jesus as an act of political violence.  Today's news broadcasts, of course, did nothing to make me regard the wages of fear and uncertainty any more equably.
So I thought that purple framed in green would be suitable self-indulgent posting for the coincidence of Earth Day with Good Friday.
P.S. If someone knows the name of the purple-leafed plant, please tell me.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More reading: on Susan Sontag

Although I was not giving it my full attention, I was just thinking about Alexander Hamilton and American history while a two-hour documentary about him was being broadcast.  I wonder whether one must become, like me, quite old in order simply to accept the mixed nature (and often what Freud called imperfect ego-formation) of every person.  I mean, it seems to affect even the way that men play golf games.  I know all are mixed, and that the fallibility of each of us will out, often when we least expect it, because I know it in myself: we are very complicated primates.
This realization, in any case, is very helpful.  I need not always agree with William Dean Howells or with Alexander Hamilton or with H. L. Mencken in order to enjoy them and find them worthwhile.  If I disagree, I can only expect that they might uncover my faults, too.  If I have disagreed with Susan Sontag (the more likely since we were almost exactly the same age), I can still admire her mind and the style of her hutzpah.  Of course, co-evally, we were on opposite sides of the continent.  I was astonished that she seemed to think that she was the author of camp, wrote as if it were her idea, when San Franciscans used the word confidently and exactly in the basically theatrical sense (quite old, actually), and she got it all balled up with aspects of post-modern Pop.  And I had to do battle with her very amateurish understanding of photography throughout  the fifteen years that I taught History of Photography.  I don’t think she’d ever tried photography herself.  She could be forgiven for mixing it up with some aspects of cinematography, perhaps, but not for treating a popular exhibit like “The Family of Man” (with quotations from Carl Sandburg, lord help us) just the same as twenty years of Aperture, so to speak.  Anyone should see that they aren’t comparable.  I mean, they both use lenses, but so do microscopes.  Similarly, one might admire Norman Rockwell, or not, but to assess him in the same way as William de Kooning or Joan MirĂ³ plainly would be a waste of ink.
Nevertheless, regrettable as she sometimes seemed to me, her personality and indomitable spirit remained admirable, right down to the last times I saw her interviewed on television.
So I am most grateful for the gift of Sigrid Nunez’s memoir Sempre Susan from a dear friend.  Since I avoid reading about authors when I haven’t read most of their work, or about visual artists whose actual work I have not yet studied, I had formed an idea of Susan Sontag from her essays, from some well known photographers' portraits of her, and from her persona on television—and therefore was interested in Nunez’s firsthand observations.
But the strongest (the indelible) impression I carried away was strangely remote, no matter how many facts I learned, except for the horrendous exposure of a younger and less experienced woman working for and dwelling with another, nearly two decades older and indomitable (not always nicely).  Unfortunately, Nunez spoiled her book by lapsing into what seems like an uncontrolled rant in the last third of it.  I couldn’t help but remember reading Patti Smith about Robert Mapplethorpe.  After the latter, I went and listened to a couple of her albums, too (though punk rock, even by a real poet, was not usually my dish), but after Sempre Susan I don’t think I could read any more Nunez.  Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’d rather re-read The Princess Casamassima, I think.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"...if Amy Lowell had it"

The hyperallergenic presumed Mountain Laurel
As I was photographing the hyperallergenic bush growing over the fence from my neighbor to the west, which I think is a mountain laurel (I'll check), whose blooming is dreaded by those prone to running eyes and aching sinuses, I remembered, as if the page were before me, a book of light verse that my grandfather had.  I think it was the summer, 1945, when we children were sent to visit them; I was eleven years old, if so. 
From the parodic verse, quite clever to this day, part of a set titled "Hay Fever" I learned that there was a poet named Amy Lowell, and if this parody was any good I might recognize its sources in her own work.  It was my first lesson in literary criticism.
But I'd forgotten the name of the clever parodist.  It was the charming versifier Christopher Morley, a man of letters well known at the time.  I knew him for one of my favorite verses in the anthology "Silver Pennies", on a child remembering having animal crackers and cocoa as a favorite treat.
Morley's verse taught me that children in other social classes and transoceanic societies had different mores from mine of the 1930s in California, and, of course, so did A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin and Robert Lewis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses".  My grandparents liked these themselves and gladly read them aloud to me, over and over, till I knew many by heart.  If you want to know one more way of raising literate and broadly imaginative children, read quantities of good children's verse to them, some of it neither up to date nor of your own community.  And, please, forbear explaining too much.  Let them wonder and gradually put it together.  The song of "Dark brown is the river, golden is the sand; It flows along forever with trees on either hand..." eventually elucidates much more than can be explained away.
I just checked Wikipedia s.v. Mountain Laurel, and I'm still not sure that my picture is that plant, which the map provided does not indicate for Louisiana.  Anyway, it's pretty, but I'm not about to eat it, any more than I'd suck on our Confederate Jasmine (below) to find out whether it's sweet, as honeysuckle is.  Bees do like it, though, and it is intensely fragrant, in bloom right now.
Confederate Jasmine
Confederate Jasmine, one warm day later

Monday, April 4, 2011

An orange cut in the Neapolitan manner

A delicate new rose from a cheap, rough stock

On the pleasures of William Dean Howells
Now that I've read his acknowledged masterpiece, I owe you a book report.
On the basis of two novels from the mid-1880s, I can summarize what I perceive as his virtues.
All of his major characters are handled with equal respect and insight; he is interested in them all.
As much as 9/10 of the text is dialogue, dialogue which may continue for pages or consist of only a word or two, giving us the persons gradually but fully.  He almost never tells us what the author thinks of a character, and he uses speech more than stream of consciousness, and to greater effect.
He has much to convey about the legacy of Puritanism but never preaches about it.
He has the detachment of an essayist rather than a sociologist.  His is a light touch.
Perhaps even more than he could have guessed, his novels are repositories of information, in this case on the 1880s in New England and on industry and finance, too, which he neither glorifies nor condemns.
When he does stop to say something in the author's voice, it is some delightfully well chosen tidbit: of Bromfield Corey at the breakfast table (out of a clear blue sky and without explanation), "He cut his orange in the Neapolitan manner, and ate it in quarters."
His mind and ear seem infallible, for example in the counsel that the Laphams receive from the Reverend Mr. Sewell.  It is simply wonderful.  His friend Henry James can't touch him in this department.
Doubtless, he will come as a surprise nearly a century and a half later, for the essayist's light touch serves an unflinching realist, but if you find Dreiser a little tiresome you will adore Howells.  Similarly, he never makes you feel that you have to be reading for style as such, though he is a consummate stylist.  I downloaded 15 books in a single file, and I can hardly wait till I come to one of the collections of essays.
The picture at the head of this post is the best I can do for an illustration.  That rambling rose from the open-air market, now more than five years in the ground, has done it again, as lovely as it is robust.