Wednesday, February 28, 2007

David Copperfield

My reading of David Copperfield continues and last night I attended the first session of Tim Strzechowski's Dickens class at the Newberry Library. Our discussion focused on the first 12 chapters. The narrative voice was one issue and the notion of a "double vision" or "double voice" for David, the first person narrator. This was the first time Dickens made extended use of the first person but he was effective, particularly expressing both the innocence of youth and wonder of the young David while subtly signifying the older David's narrative voice as he looked back on the events.
I was impressed with the relationships David has developed, especially his friendship with Steerforth who is portrayed as a charismatic character with a portent of darkness in his demeanor. As a reader I am not as trusting as the narrator. We are also introduced to the Micawbers in this section of the novel, with Mr. Micawber's famous dictum on the nature of happiness and misery. What fun!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Last night we discussed Rilke's novel, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, at the Lincoln Park Library classic book group. The discussion focused on his dreamlike prose and how his novel seems to be a precursor of existentialist thought. After my first reading of this wonderful novel, I was inspired to write the following poem which captures, in part, Rilke's impact on me.

Childhood is Past

And if I insisted on believing that my childhood was past, then at that same moment the whole future had vanished too,
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Childhood is past
And with it the dreams
Of the dream seekers.

Memories that last
Are all that can lift
Us toward the future.

Childhood is past
And with it the fears
Of hidden dread.

The life that we made
Contains all our dreams
And fears we have conquered.

Dreamers and seekers,
We live to pursue a fading
Image of all that was there.

We listen to the stars
Within us, and their light
Will guide us forever.

Dreamers and seekers,
These are the children within –
The knowers and seers.

Childhood is past
But look, deep within,
And see what is real.

(From Music Lessons, 1992)

Monday, February 26, 2007


The barcarole in music is a boating song. It is from the Italian words, barca, "bark", and rollo, a "rower". The most famous operatic barcarole is undoubtedly in Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman; while Chopin and Mendelssohn wrote barcaroles for solo piano. But my favorite is the Barcarole from Gian Carlo Menotti's ballet, Sebastian (1944). This lyrical piece is an attractive melodie that has a simple appeal which cheers me whenever I listen to it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, has wonderful characters, including writers, eccentrics and a glamorous actress; but the character that imbues the novel as no other is London itself. London appears in many ways, here philosophically:

There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent.

But for Murdoch, in her novel, all of London is part of the story she weaves around her writer-hero, Jake Donaghue. It is an exciting beginning to what became a brilliant novelistic career.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Poetry of Cavafy


Memory is a magical thing, often elusive and sometimes cruel; yet the source of warm feeling when it takes on a nostalgic turn. The poet C. P. Cavafy captured the best side of memory in his poem Long Ago:

I'd like to speak of this memory,
but it's so faded now -- as though nothing's left --
because it was so long ago, in my adolescent years.

A skin as though of jasmine . . .
that August evening -- was it August? --
I can still recall the eyes: blue, I think they were . . .
Ah yes, blue: a sapphire blue.

And this is the way the best of memory may be; a glimpse of color, an aroma that recalls the world of yesterday, and innocence, and love.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Today is the anniversary of George Frideric Handel's birth. Another of my favorites, I have admired his music for many years and even wrote an essay, Der English Musik Maker, about him as a senior in high school. His music, from opera to oratorio to organ, is a delight to hear and play, as I also did in high school as a young oboist, learning his oboe sonatas. I still play his music for piano with my favorite, his famous variations known as The Harmonious Blacksmith. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy his music in concert halls and homes enriching our lives.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

David Copperfield

I am beginning to reread David Copperfield and I am once again impressed with Dicken's uncanny ability to bring such fully human characters to life on the page. As I continue on my journey reading this book I will make further comments upon David's journey, one of the great bildungromans of all literature. As of this date he has encountered evil personified in the countenances of Mr. Murdstone and his sister (and their dog). Even their names sound horrible and one wonders what hold Murdstone has over David's dear mother. Fortunately, as is the case with Dickens, he has already provided a counterbalance in the form of the nurse Pegotty and her warm and wonderful family of eccentrics, living in a ship by the side of the sea. As with most Dickens, it is hard to put this book down.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


I take a moment to celebrate this day and note the birth anniversary of W. H. Auden, a poet for all time. How appropriate to meditate then on Words, his poem of 1956, itself a meditation on words:

A sentence uttered makes a world appear
Where all things happen as it says they do;
We doubt the speaker, not the tongue we hear:
Words have no word for words that are not true.

This opening stanza in one sense is not true as we all know, but yet the truth of the objective reality in which we, along with everything else, exist may only be expressed in words. In fact, as the poet continues in his meditation we find ourselves immersed in "gossip" and "tales" and "fiction" and where in all this is truth as we are lost in words. These words were the tools of this great poet and his art is worth a bit of reflection on this day.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Lives of Others

I viewed this film yesterday and was moved by the excellence of the acting, directing and story. The Lives of Others bares the souls of its' characters and finds both good and evil. Ulrich Muhe in the role of Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi agent who spies on a leading writer and his mistress, is excellent in his growth from a soulless gray apparatchik into a human being who is willing to act on his belief in the goodness of others. Seldom have I seen such dramatic demonstration of the impact of actions upon the lives of individuals. I would recommend the movie as an opportunity to meditate on the source of meaning in our lives and what it means to be a good human being.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Six Moral Tales:
Ma nuit chez Maud

This cinematic gem from the French director Eric Rohmer provided me with a thoughtful evening. On the heels of a reading and discussion, earlier in the week, of William James' short essay, The Will to Believe, the title evening from this film took on added meaning. The intense discussion between Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Vidal (Antoine Vitez) prompts the sort of questioning in my mind that sharpens my own ideas about life and its meaning. This is good, and the film is well done in directing and acting. An inspired film for an evening journey into the realm of reason and belief.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Knowledge & Innocence

"To him who has knowledge, man himself is "the animal with red cheeks." How did this come about?"
(Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part II, On the Pitying, F. Nietzsche)

Thus chased from the garden due to the accession of knowledge of good and evil it is man, the culpable animal in Zarathustra's view. Following the inspiration of Claudia Traut , I would compare this view of the role of knowledge to that we see in Melville's Billy Budd or Shakespeare's Othello. We have lost innocence, but is it a reasonable price to pay for the access to knowledge of this world? Perhaps it is a recognition that we have moved beyond a reliance on the supernatural. God is dead. Knowledge lives.

Friday, February 16, 2007

E. B. White

The essays of E. B. White in his delightful collection, One Man's Meat, represent a style of writing that is very welcoming to the reader. I found myself laughing out loud at his subtle humor and, while some in our Thursday night book group found the book somewhat superficial, I found a connection that suggested deeper thoughts. Written in the late 30's and early 40s during the approach of and beginning of World War II, White's essays comment on the world around him and chronicle his life on a farm in Maine as he gradually comes to grips with country living. In many instances they seem very contemporary in spite of having been written more than fifty years ago. A long time contributor to The New Yorker, one recognizes the "New Yorker style" in White's writing. One of our group found a resemblance to Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel which we had read several years ago. Certainly this was a great read with my enjoyment augmented by both the down to earth meditations and wonderful style.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Varieties of Religious Experience

Undoubtedly William James most popular book, I found this to be, as it always is with James, a joy to read. His style kept me going when both the combination strange ideas and impenetrable prose of his cited examples retarded my progress. His focus on the individuality of experience was what struck me as central and certainly most important to me - the mature individualist that I am. While I was not convinced by the mysticism surveyed or the various rationalizations of religious pondering, I came away with a better sense of this type of thought. Unlike Santayana I was not bothered by the focus on "religious disease" or "sick souls", but my perspective, unlike his, is a bit more rational, if not more reasonable. On the whole a very good book about a subject that is spiritual in many ways.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Russian Thinkers
by Isaiah Berlin

Included in his excellent collection of essays, Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin has a fascinating essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In this essay Berlin uses the distinction found in a fragment of the poet Archilocus that argues that there are two types of thinkers: Hedgehogs, who know one big thing and foxes, who know many things. Berlin goes on to categorize the great thinkers of the ages into groups based on this distinction. Hedgehogs like Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal and Dostoevsky versus foxes like Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Goethe and Balzac. He goes on to attempt to classify Tolstoy and analyze his view of history. It is a worthy task and I will recommend to all that they read the essay and decide for themselves what Berlin succeeds in accomplishing with all his analysis. It is essays like this one that document the seriousness of the thought of Isaiah Berlin.

Monday, February 12, 2007


An die Musik is a paean to music, the effects of music and the ephemeral spirit of music.

You heart-space
grown out of us. The deepest space in us,

These are the words on music that convey the spirit of poetic beauty. These are the words of Rainer Maria Rilke on music. Soon we will turn to The Notebooks of Malt Laurids Brigge for more of Rilke's poetic prose.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


The similarities in the music of Johann Strauss, Jr. and Richard Strauss are not immediately obvious, but they exist and are heightened when the two composers are combined in one concert with Gyorgy Ligeti, a composer of more recent lineage whose unique sound is more brittle, seemingly a part of the frigid air that has recently blanketed the city. Last night the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of David Zinman, performed works by these three composers. I was mesmerized by the swaths of sound during the performance of Strauss, Jr.'s Blue Danube Waltz. The piece as played seemed more akin to a symphony rather than a simple waltz (which it is not). After obeisance to the twentieth century and a brief intermission, the orchestra performed an admirable rendition of Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30, by Richard Strauss. The latter piece, one of his signature tone poems, is more impressive in performance than on disk, and the exceptional performance of the CSO made it a lovely way to end the evening.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Decline and Fall

Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), is a delightful satiric comedy. I tremendously enjoyed the picaresque adventures of its hero, Paul Pennyfeather, as he encountered barely believable difficulties in "getting along". This was a book that is a joy to read even if you do not participate in all of Mr. Waugh's inside references. It is a worthy introduction to the novels of one of the finest authors of our century.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Jules Verne

It was on this date in 1828 that Jules Verne was born in Nantes, France. I remember enjoying his books as a young boy. I especially liked Around the World in Eighty Days, excited by the adventures of Phileas Fogg and his faithful French servant Passepartout. Following their journey around the world was a treat for a boy who was fascinated by geography (I still am). But my favorite Verne novel was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea with the amazing and wonderful Captain Nemo. It was the my first taste of the larger than life hero, a character type I would find that I admired in fiction over the years. Verne had the ability to write stories that appealed to both the young and the old; that is why I still consider him one of my favorite authors.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Isadora Duncan

Last night I attended "The Art and Life of Isadora Duncan", a presentation given at the Newberry Library. The highlight of the evening was brilliant and effervescent dancing performed by Lori Belilove from the Isadora Duncan Foundation for Contemporary Dance. Dancing to the music of Schubert, Chopin and Gluck she demonstrate the modern approach to the dance developed by Isadora Duncan at the beginning of the twentieth century. The dances ranged in emotion from spiritual to forceful, and one dance that was a lamentation for Duncan's children who died in a tragic car accident. The final dance, performed to the Dance of the Blessed Spirits by Gluck moved me to tears with its grace and beauty. In her presentation of Isadora's life Ms. Belilove shared many interesting details about the inspiration and spirit of Isadora Duncan, a true genius of the art of the dance. It is encouraging to know that this art is being preserved and performed by Lori and her company.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Poetry and Music

Music inspires my life, and poetry is one way to express that inspiration. But Siegfried Sassoon has said it better than I can in his early poem, Dead Musicians:

From you, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart,
The substance of my dreams took fire.
You built cathedrals in my heart,
And lit my pinnacled desire.

Unfortunately, the First World War swept away the musical inspiration, and the musicians became truly "dead". It was only later in life that Sassoon, writing under the inspiration of a fugue by Bach, could once again feel the musical momentum in the poem, From a Fugue by Bach, which he ends: "And the notes of the fugue that were voices from vastness divine". It is this vastness that still inspires my life and art.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Le Tombeau de Couperin

Maurice Ravel's suite of six pieces for piano, entitled Le Tombeau de Couperin, has held a special place near my heart for many years. The combination of clarity and elegance of the pieces echoes the music of an earlier time. Yet, I find the music exceptionally moving in a elegiac way. Ravel dedicated each piece to the memory of a fallen comrade from World War I. While he did not intend the work to be a specific homage to Francois Couperin, the third section, "Forlane", was modeled on a forlane by Couperin. Originally written for piano (the version that I prefer) it was transcribed for orchestra and mounted as a ballet. One of the true spiritual moments in music.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Robert Schumann

Last night I attended a concert where David Zinman led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Robert Schumann's Second Symphony. This is an uplifting work in the key of C major whose sunny brilliance belies the composer's emotional turmoil during the months immediately preceding its' completion. Schumann would complete two more symphonic masterworks, and this joins them in the pantheon of musical romanticism.

Smell of Burning Books

An Insubstantial Pageant

The smell of burning books permeates the air.
It hovers over us engaged in our daily activity,
Yielding a strange sense of bittersweet victory.

Folding in upon our self, attempting to escape the smoke
We see the result of harnessing nature -
The written word is our yoke to the world.

The word belongs in heaven with the angels.
Beauty lies below, corroded by our touch -
We have tarnished the tomes that remain.

Just as we turn to the spiritual for relief
We plead for support from the muses -
In vain, we seek what we have lost.

Simple supplication summons our spirits
Forth to the battle. Will there be future victories -
Rewarding our efforts to mold our minds?

Seeing the possibility of such victories
As the vapors overwhelm our souls,
We remain on this earth -
Players in the insubstantial pageant.

From Preludes of the Mind, 1996, James Henderson

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Untouchable

I enjoyed this book tremendously. John Banville has created in the character of Victor Maskell someone both complex and believable; the story is suspenseful, and his prose, as always, can only be described as both luminous and effortless.
He describes his voyage to France early in the war: "The night was preternaturally calm, and our troopship, a converted steamer which before the outbreak of war had ferried day trippers between Wales and the Isle of Man, glided intently as a knife through the milky, unreally moonlit sea."(p. 184)
The novel surveys the complications of leading multiple lives as husband, father, spy and closet homosexual. All this done with aplomb and wit, taste and style. Maskell has a love for the work of Nicolas Poussin that is evidenced by his devotion to his painting, The Death of Seneca. This plays an important role as Maskell's narration of his life as it winds onward through the book. Apparently the fictional character was loosely based on the real life of Anthony Blunt. John Banville has created another masterpiece of storytelling.

The Untouchable by John Banville. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1997.
Beauty in Art & Music

Perhaps there are meanings to be found in all art, even the most beautiful and transcendent. But I would be satisfied with the sheer enjoyment, the spiritual fulfillment in the experience of one moment of beauty. One such expression or suggestion from the pen of W. H. Auden goes:

But the beautiful are content with the sharp notes of the air;
The warmth is enough.

(from Orpheus, 1937)

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Consul

Gian Carlo Menotti died on Thursday at the age of 95. He is probably best known in the United States for his classic Christmas Opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors (premiered on NBC television in 1951). My favorite of his operas is The Consul, which premiered the previous year in Philadelphia and shortly thereafter moved to Broadway where it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Set in an anonymous European city in the present, the opera depicts a tragic drama of a doomed freedom-fighter and his wife. It is the wife who for much of the opera attempts to obtain a Visa from the Consul for her husbands passage out of the country. the action, as with most operas leads to a tragic ending. More complex than his previous operas, this masterpiece demonstrates Menotti's ability to balance tonality and atonality in his musical portrayal of the dramatic scenes of the opera.
Brief Encounter

I enjoy many of the films directed by David Lean, but near, if not at, the top of my list is the moving love story, Brief Encounter. This film from 1945 is a brilliantly-crafted, classic British masterpiece and one of the greatest romantic movies of all time. Lean's film is a simple but realistically-honest, unsentimental, self-told social melodrama of the quiet desperation involved in an illicit, extra-marital love affair between two married, middle-class individuals over seven weekly meetings, mostly against the backdrop of a railway station. The romantic couple includes a wife/mother and narrator (stage actress Celia Johnson) looking for escape from her humdrum life and sterile marriage, and a handsome doctor (Trevor Howard in his third film). Their brief affair builds to a suspenseful denouement that is one of the more memorable endings in film history. The film abounds in unglamorous locations, rain-slicked streets, dimly-lit interiors and dark train passageways in a tale of doomed, unfulfilled and frustrated love. The screenplay was adapted and based on playwright Noel Coward's 1935 short one-act (half-hour) stage play Still Life. David Lean would go on to direct other movies that I admire, including Lawrence of Arabia, Great Expectations, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago.