Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Inevitable Decay


"See you not that even stones are conquered by time."

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

This fright, this night of mindless time
Will lead us on to endless flux,
When we see in nature solid rocks
Succumb to inevitable decay.

This lack of care, this unconcern, may
Seem to be unreal, but demonstration
Of nature's power, it is ruthless
Relentless motion at play.

This place, this fixed universe weights
Time and brings its flow
To a halt. We humans move onward
Making our own different way.

Geography Lessons, February, 1992 (rev. 2009)

Fourth style wall painting from the house of M. Lucretius Fronto, Pompeii. Courtesy of VROMA.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo was the greatest of the Venetian painters of the Rococo period and, indeed, all of the 18th century. His characteristic style displays numerous active figures in vivid pastel colors ranged across vast, airy spaces. Critic Robert Hughes described Tiepolo's work as "full of soaring and twisting space, transparency and delicious shot-silk color -- a place dedicated to the imagination and filled with idealized personages from history, myth and fable." Yet arts historian Paul Holberton observed that Tiepolo "could temper the graceful, operatic posturing typical of the Rococo school with an Olympian grandeur."

Tiepolo began his career as a student of Gregorio Lazzarini, but his elegant and sumptuous style was perhaps most heavily influenced by his study of the work of his predecessor more than 100 years earlier, Paolo Caliari [Veronese].

Tiepolo executed paintings and frescos throughout Venice and the Veneto, with excursions to Bergamo (Colleoni Chapel) and Milan (ceiling, Palazzzo Clerici). Among prominent installations of his work in Venice are the ceiling panels of the Scuola Grande dei Carmine (early 1740s). His earliest surviving frescos were created, 1734, for the then newly-rebuilt villa of Count Loschi at Brion de Monteviale near Vicenza. One of my favorites is the painting Allegory of the Power of Eloquence done as a model for the ceiling of the salone in the Palazzo Sandi, Venice (c. 1725) (above).

Tiepolo is buried in Venice in his parish church of Madonna dell'Orto, where he is represented by the giant canvas The Worship of the Golden Calf and by The Last Judgment. Tiepolo's reputation has seen ups and downs over the last century but the "distanced, self-aware theatrics of his style" are seen as precociously modern -- but with a virtuosity unique to Tiepolo himself.

Giambattista Tiepolo: His Life and Art by Michael Levey. Yale University Press (1987)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Reading Questionnaire

Reading Connections
& Time

I ran across the following questionnaire at kiss a cloud where it was placed in response to the original (I believe) at Savidge Reads. Connections can be found everywhere when pursuing reading blogs.
Anyway I agree with the assessment of today, with its gray skies and snow (in Chicago) as a good one for curling up with a good book. But before I get too settled on the couch I append my answers to the "timely" questions about reading and Time with thanks to Simon and Claire.

What time do you find the best time to read?

For me it is the first thing in the morning for about an hour.

What are you spending time reading right now?
I am entering the final stretch of the first volume of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. I am also reading A Question of Upbringing, the first volume in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. I have other books in process, notably Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson.

What’s the best book with time in the title you have read?
Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time would have to top the list even though it is not among my favorites.

What is your favourite time (as in era) to read novels based in?
The Victorian era with Bronte, Dickens, Eliot and Hardy among my favorites.

What book could your read time and time again?
Middlemarch by George Eliot.

What recently published book do you think deserves to become a classic in Time?
Two that might make the grade that I have read are Embers by Sandor Marai (1942 but rediscovered in 2002) and The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus (2003). The closest to a time theme for me would be Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990).

What book has been your biggest waste of time?
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai was a tremendous waste of a book filled with uninteresting characters and narrated in an unnecessarily convoluted manner. So many better books have been written about India (most recently The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga).

What’s your favourite read of all time?
This would be a tie between War & Peace and Atlas Shrugged.

Who is your favourite author of all time?
Robert Musil.

Left Hand Music

 Piano Concerto No. 4
by Sergei Prokofiev

"Prokofiev has made an immense, priceless contribution to the musical culture of Russia. A composer of genius, he has expanded the artistic heritage left to us by the great classical masters of Russian music -- Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov."  - Dmitri Shostakovich 

Of the five piano concertos written by Sergei Prokofiev, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26, has garnered the greatest popularity and critical acclaim. The concerto radiates a crisp vitality that testifies to Prokofiev's inventive prowess in punctuating lyrical passages with witty dissonances, while maintaining a balanced partnership between the soloist and orchestra. Prokofiev began work on the concerto as early as 1913 when he wrote a theme for variations which he then set aside. He revisited the sketches in 1916-17, but did not fully devote himself to the project until 1921 when he was spending the summer in Brittany. Prokofiev himself played the solo part at the premiere on 16 December 1921 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock. The work did not gain immediate popularity and had to wait until 1922 to be confirmed in the 20th century canon, after Serge Koussevitzky conducted a lavishly praised performance in Paris. Prokofiev himself also performed his two previous concertos in Chicago, as well as conducting the premiere of his opera, The Love for Three Oranges, with the Chicago Opera (predecessor of the Lyric Opera).

It was not until a decade later in 1931 that Prokofiev would return to this form when Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of Ludwig and seventh of nine children born to that wealthy Viennese family) commissioned the composition of a concerto for the left hand only. Wittgenstein would commission several concertos from composers including Ravel, Korngold, Britten and others. Prokofiev sent his concerto to Wittgenstein who rejected it and it remained unperformed for more than a quarter century until 1956 when it was performed by Siegfried Rapp.

Last night the pianist Dmitri Alexeev and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Daniele Gatti performed Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat for the Left Hand, Op. 53 for the first time in Symphony Center. It is a delightful, yet strange four movement piece, with two bright short toccata-like movements framing two larger, more serious inner movements. The overall effect is charming and the concerto would probably be heard more often if it was not so fiendishly difficult for the soloist to play. Nonetheless Dmitri Alexeev was up to the challenge last night and the CSO performed admirably in support of his efforts. The remainder of the concert was very traditional and well-suited to the CSO with the Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, "Italian" by Felix Mendelssohn and the Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55, "Eroica" by Beethoven as the beginning and end of a wonderful evening of classical music.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ferde Grofe

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Ferde Grofe in 1892. I have fond memories of listening to his Grand Canyon Suite, as it was one of the first recordings with which I began my collection of classical music. And it is classical in the grand romantic idiom with sweeping melodies that painted the vistas of the Canyon, sunrise, the pack animals and storms. It was a wonderful piece to listen to and I still sit back and enjoy it when it is played, as it was on WFMT this morning.

Born Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé, in New York City, Grofe came by his extensive musical interests naturally. Of French Huguenot extraction, his family had four generations of classical musicians.Grofé left home at age 14 and variously worked as a milkman, truck driver, usher, newsboy, elevator operator, helper in a book bindery, iron factory worker, and as a piano player in a bar for two dollars a night and as an accompanist. He continued studying piano and violin. When he was 15 he was performing with dance bands. He also played the alto horn in brass bands. He was 17 when he wrote his first commissioned work.

Beginning about 1920, he played the jazz piano with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. He served as Whiteman's chief arranger from 1920-1932. He made hundreds of arrangements of popular songs, Broadway show music, and tunes of all types for Whiteman. In addition to being an arranger, Grofé was also a serious composer in his own right. While still with Whiteman, in 1925, he wrote his Mississippi Suite, which Whiteman recorded in shortened format in 1927. He wrote a number of other pieces, including a theme for the New York World's Fair of 1939 and suites for Niagara Falls and the Hudson River. Possibly as a result of his World's Fair theme, 13 October 1940 was designated Ferde Grofé Day at the American pavilion of the World's Fair. Grofé conducted his Niagara Falls Suite as part of the ceremony marking the opening of the first stage of the Niagara Falls Power Generation project.

Today, Grofé remains most famous for his Grand Canyon Suite (1931) a work regarded highly enough to be recorded for RCA Victor with mastery by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony (in Carnegie Hall in 1945, with the composer present). The earlier Mississippi Suite is also occasionally performed and recorded. Grofé conducted the Grand Canyon Suite and his piano concerto (with pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá) for Everest Records in 1960.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Strange Books

I have not read any of the books pictured above, nor do I plan to do so. They represent the most recent finalists for an award given to what I call (very) strange books.
Since 1978, Bookseller magazine has awarded a prize to the book with the “oddest” title, the winner selected from titles submitted by librarians, publishers, booksellers and the magazine’s readers. The titles chosen for the prize are often unintentionally funny. Some of the previous winners include:

* Versailles: The View From Sweden
* How to Avoid Huge Ships
* Highlights in the History of Concrete
* Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers
* Bombproof Your Horse

I am unsure which of these may be fiction or non-fiction. Some sound potentially interesting, at least to me (eg. the Versailles book - I wonder if the view from Sweden is more objective than the view from France due to the distance). If you have an interest in the current contest you will find more about it in the Guardian article about this 'Outstandingly Strange Competition'.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tapestry of Life

Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools is a novel by Katherine Anne Porter. Her only novel, it was published in 1962 on April 1 (April Fools' Day). It is the tale of a group of disparate characters, from several different countries and backgrounds, who sail from Mexico to Germany aboard a mixed freighter and passenger ship. In her note prefacing the novel Porter writes :

When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new -- I am a passenger on that ship. (p. 1)

The ironic epigraph for the first section of the novel, from Baudelaire, is "Quand partons-nous vers le bonheur?". On the very first line of the novel, however, we see a truer sign of what is to come, as the port city of Veracruz is described as "a little purgatory'. Soon the ship that sails becomes just that for the passengers in this complex tale. The ship is populated with a grand complement of passengers (so many that the publisher thoughtfully included a listing of characters preceding the novel proper, xi - xiii). While the majority are Germans there are Americans, Swiss, Spaniards and others, including the masses in steerage.

Porter deftly weaves the stories of each of the several couples and individuals who can each be seen as on a journey into hell as their passions simmer during the voyage. Episodes are encapsulated within the frame of embarkation and disembarkation where characters are presented in their interactions with one another during the voyage, and histories and relationships of several dozen are explored extensively. It takes less than a month in the year of 1931, but the end of the decade and the war it will bring seems to be foreshadowed in some of the tensions that develop during the story.

While leavened with comic moments, it was the presence of love and death and, unfortunately, not a little inhumanity that impressed me the most. The pessimism sometimes seems to be overwhelming and her satire suggests the rise of Nazism and looks metaphorically at the progress of the world on its "voyage to eternity". The sum of the multiplicity of moments and personal details is a tapestry of life that results in a great novel.

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter. Little, Brown & Company, Boston. 1962.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Hunger by Knut Hamsun is a startling narrative told by a young journalist who is literally starving throughout the novel. Hamsun's technique, achieved in this first novel of his published in 1888, is to present a first person narrative that demonstrates a man subject to delusions and psychological stress that almost reaches the breaking point. This is not unusual for a contemporary author, but in the late nineteenth century it was very unusual.

Written after Hamsun's return from an ill-fated tour of America, Hunger is loosely based on the author's own impoverished life before his breakthrough in 1890. Set in fin-de-siecle Christiana, the novel recounts the adventures of a starving young man whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusional existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis. While he vainly tries to maintain an outer shell of respectability, his mental and physical decay are recounted in detail. His ordeal, enhanced by his inability or unwillingness to pursue a professional career, which he deems unfit for someone of his abilities, is pictured in a series of encounters which Hamsun himself described as 'a series of analyses.' In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of the underground man and Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun's main influences. Hunger encompasses two of Hamsun's literary and ideological leitmotifs: His insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature. His literary program, to describe 'the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow', is thoroughly manifest in Hunger; and, his depreciation of modern, urban civilization. In the famous opening lines of the novel, he ambiguously describes Christiana as "this strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him . . .." (p.3)

In Hamsun's story you have the unnamed narrator imagining actions of others, impersonating other people and living on the brink of an existence that seems surreal. In effective clear prose this rises to the level of a nightmare in print. The beauty and power of this book makes it a great read and one that I will not forget.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. Trans. by Robert Bly. The Noonday Press, New York. 1967.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Roman Patron of the Arts


Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70 – 8 BC) was a confidant and political advisor to Octavian (who was to become the Emperor of Rome as Caesar Augustus) as well as an important patron for the new generation of 'Augustan' poets.
His name has become a byword for a wealthy patron of the arts. Maecenas is most famous for his support of young poets, hence his name has become eponymous for a "patron of arts". He supported Virgil who wrote the Georgics in his honour. It was Virgil, impressed with examples of Horace's poetry, who introduced Horace to Maecenas. Indeed Horace begins the first poem of his Odes (I.i) by addressing his new patron.

Maecenas, you, descended from many kings,
O you who are my stay and my delight,
There is the man whose glory it is to be
So famous even the gods have heard the story

(p. 3, Ferry trans.)

Horace was given full financial support, as well as an estate in the Sabine mountains, by Maecenas. Propertius and the minor poets Varius Rufus, Plotius Tucca, Valgius Rufus and Domitius Marsus also were his protégés. Maecenas character as a munificent patron of literature - which has made his name a household word - is gratefully acknowledged by the recipients of it and attested by the regrets of the men of letters of a later age, expressed by Martial and Juvenal. His patronage was exercised, not from vanity or a mere dilettante love of letters, but with a view to the higher interest of the state. He recognized in the genius of the poets of that time, not only the truest ornament of the court, but a power of reconciling men's minds to the new order of things, and of investing the actual state of affairs with an ideal glory and majesty. The change in seriousness of purpose between the Eclogues and the Georgics of Virgil was in a great measure the result of the direction given by the statesman to the poet's genius. A similar change between the earlier odes of Horace, in which he declares his epicurean indifference to affairs of state, and the great national odes of the third book is to be ascribed to the same guidance.

Maecenas endeavoured also to divert the less masculine genius of Propertius from harping continually on his love to themes of public interest. But if the motive of his patronage had been merely politic it never could have inspired the affection which it did in its recipients. The great charm of Maecenas in his relation to the men of genius who formed his circle was his simplicity, cordiality and sincerity. Although not particular in the choice of some of the associates of his pleasures, he admitted none but men of worth to his intimacy, and when once admitted they were treated like equals. Much of the wisdom of Maecenas probably lives in the Satires and Epistles of Horace. It has fallen to the lot of no other patron of literature to have his name associated with works of such lasting interest as these and the Georgics of Virgil.

The Odes of Horace trans. by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1997.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Running, Camus and Musil

Sometimes the running I do seems like a Sisyphean task. The run out and back begins to feel like the movement up a hill and back down (although Chicago has few real 'hills'). But this morning as I surveyed the hazy dawn and the moon low in the Western sky I had an epiphany of sorts. My running, even when it seems like a repeated effort, the same as last time and the time before, is not that at all.
It is part of my continuing change and growth, and in that change it expands the possibilities of the next day and the next task before me. This is what I might call a 'Musil' moment in the sense that Robert Musil, in his magnificent novel, The Man Without Qualities, discusses the possibilities of life. The main character, Ulrich, is searching for the possibilities of life in the sense that there are many paths we may choose. He talks of the subjunctive case, the what if of possibility.
My moment let me realize the change that occurs from what we do, and what we do not do. Camus' Sisyphus may be facing an uphill task, but he does not have to be caught in a loop repeating the same task over and over. Each day is new. Each run is a new run by a different person, changed by his actions from the moment before. This is a just a part of running and being.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Conscientious Attorney

Perry Mason

 “You might be interested in his economic philosophy, Mr. Mason. He believed men attached too much importance to money as such. He believed a dollar represented a token of work performed, that men were given these tokens to hold until they needed the product of work performed by some other man, that anyone who tried to get a token without giving his best work in return was an economic counterfeiter. He felt that most of our depression troubles had been caused by a universal desire to get as many tokens as possible in return for as little work as possibly - that too many men were trying to get lost of tokens without doing any work. He said men should cease to think in terms of tokens and think, instead, only in terms of work performed as conscientiously as possible.” ― Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Perjured Parrot

Erle Stanley Gardner died on this day in 1970, after eighty-eight Perry Mason books (and many others) in forty years. I first encountered him through the television show in the 1950s. It was a favorite of our whole family, but as a reader I soon started reading my mother's copies of the crime stories by Gardner starring Perry and his cohorts Della Street and Paul Drake. I must have read dozens by the time I went to college.
Many titles also showed a weakness for alliteration: The Case of the … Careless Cupid, Worried Waitress, Beautiful Beggar, Daring Divorcee, Stepdaughter’s Secret, Amorous Aunt, Blond Bonanza, Spurious Spinster, Duplicate Daughter, Shapely Shadow, Terrified Typist, Singing Skirt, Demure Defendant, Restless Redhead, Negligent Nymph, Cautious Coquette, Vagabond Virgin, Borrowed Brunette. While they were somewhat formulaic, some were better than others and they all were entertaining. A guilty pleasure from my early years of reading.

Monday, March 09, 2009


Last night I attended a performance of the play Art by Yasmina Reza produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It was an invigorating evening of thoughtful dialogue on art, and humor abounded, albeit in sometimes sarcastic tones; but more importantly, the play demonstrated the nature of friendship and how differences among friends can strain their relationship.

The comedy, which raises questions about art and friendship, concerns three long-time friends, Serge, Marc, and Yvan; played respectively by John Procaccino, Francis Guinan and K. Todd Freeman*. Serge, indulging his penchant for modern art, buys a large, expensive, completely white painting. From the opening scene of the play Marc is horrified, and their relationship suffers considerable strain as a result of their differing opinions about what constitutes "art". Yvan, caught in the middle of the conflict, tries to please and mollify both of them (at least for a while until the strain of doing so becomes too great).

The play is not divided into acts and scenes in the traditional manner, but it does nevertheless fall into sections. Some of these are dialogues between two characters, several are monologues where one of the characters addresses the audience directly, and one is a conversation among all three. At the beginning and end of the play, and for most of the scenes set in Serge's flat, the large white painting is on prominent display.

I found the play to be stimulating and the overall contrast between the apparent simplicity of the white painting, magnified by the monotone shades of the set, best described as different shades of white, and the complexity of the relationships between the men were important themes. The vivid and biting dialogue was always laced with vigorous humor that leavened the more serious aesthetic and philosophical questions that were being discussed. The extremes displayed by the three characters combined to create a tension that was not eased until the coda of the play, and then it was questionable whether the actual ending was satisfactory or believable. But that is for the audience to determine for themselves. Overall it was a great evening of serious comedy.

*Please note that the cast will be changing for future performances. Marc will be played by Ian Barford from 4/7-6/7. Yvan will be played by Joe Dempsey from 3/14-6/7. Serge will be played by Francis Guinan (who is currently in the role of Marc) from 4/7-6/7.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Tao te Ching

The Tao te Ching is a book that cannot be read directly. Unfortunately, I have little experience reading books indirectly, so I found this a difficult book to read, end even more difficult to discern what was being said by the author.
A friend told me that he thought Heraclitus, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher, was somewhat like Lao Tzu. Heraclitus said "you can't step in the same river twice". He believed that reality was a flux composed of a unity of opposites.
I suppose it is possible to consider Lao Tzu's "the way" in this manner and see it as a unifying force. I liken it to the ancient Greek notion of substance that underlies all things but does not have a separate existence.

The Tao te Ching, or Daodejing, is widely considered to be the most influential Taoist text. It is a foundational scripture of central importance in Taoism and it has been used as a ritual text throughout the history of religious Taoism. However, the precise date that it was written is the subject of debate: there are those who put it anywhere from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC.

Taoist commentators have deeply considered the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching. They are widely discussed in both academic and mainstream literature. A common interpretation is similar to Alfred Korzybski's observation that "the map is not the territory". The opening lines, with literal and common translation, are:

道可道,非常道。 (Tao (way or path) can be said, not usual way)
"The Way that can be described is not the true Way."
名可名,非常名。 (names can be named, not usual names)
"The Name that can be named is not the constant Name."

Tao literally means "path" or "way" (and also means "say" or "be said"), and can figuratively mean "essential nature", "destiny", "principle", or "true path". The philosophical and religious "Tao" is infinite, without limitation. One view states that the paradoxical opening is intended to prepare the reader for teachings about the unteachable Tao. Tao is believed to be transcendent, indistinct and without form. Hence, it cannot be named or categorized. Even the word "Tao" can be considered a dangerous temptation to make Tao a limiting "name.

The Tao te Ching seems to suggest action is good, except when inaction is required; that it is good to experience things with an open mind, but do not become too attached to one way of looking at reality for it may suddenly be going in the other direction. In other words, it is difficult to determine exactly what this book is saying, especially when it suggests that words cannot describe the way; thus the way is not that which is called by that name (don't worry - I don't know what that means either).

The best thing about the Tao te Ching is that the act of reading it stirs your mind, gets you thinking about deep questions and others. That alone makes it worth the effort, even though it may take a lifetime to make some progress toward answers.

Perhaps it is appropriate to turn to a twentieth century poet and thinker for some Tao-like advice. Here is a stanza from "Burnt Norton"

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Trans. by D. C. Lau. Penguin Books, New York. 1963.
The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te ching of Lao Zi. Interpreted by Wang Bi. Trans. by Richard John Lynn. Columbia University Press, New York. 1999.
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot. Faber & Faber, London. 1968.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Inspiration of Reading

Reading and Books

The inspiration of reading and the books we read is close to my heart. Here is a poem that expresses some of what I feel:


You speak to me from your wall of silence
And the world you create for me is real.
I hear your words and the sense
I use lets me see what I cannot feel.

Entombed in this world of my fathers,
I find freedom in folios found
On the walls of my study, where matters
of the day have lost their sound.

Stories of great deeds and magic become
a source of delight. They lift me
into realms of dreams -- drawn from
Remembered sensations of each day as real.

The beauty pressed within your marbled
Endpapers lasts further than I can see.
Only when I dream of tomorrow do fabled
Lives become possibilities for me.

These dreams are what carry my life
Beyond each mundane demand and care.
Chronicles of summers spent in strife
Fade beneath the eternal truth you bear.

The wall still stands -- even in silence
Like the sphinx stood before the ancients who knew
It brings to us words with the power to enchant.
When we hear these words we make them our own.

From Preludes of the Mind, January 1993, James Henderson

Friday, March 06, 2009

Quote for Today

Atlas Shrugged

The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours. But to win it requires total dedication and a total break with the world of your past, with the doctrine that man is sacrificial animal who exists for the pleasure of others. Fight for the value of your person. Fight for the virtue of your pride. Fight for the essence, which is man, for his sovereign rational mind. Fight with the radiant certainty and the absolute rectitude of knowing that yours is the morality of life and yours is the battle for any achievement, any value, any grandeur, any goodness, any joy that has ever existed on this earth.

—from John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, who died on this day in 1982

Thursday, March 05, 2009


Reading Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (MwQ) can be a confusing and sometimes exasperating experience. But it is also a worthwhile experience that rewards the reader with some of the most interesting and unique prose of the Twentieth Century.
Musil was educated and well-versed in physics, yet he explored the psychology and studied the source of feeling and eroticism in the MwQ from the beginning of the novel. As Elias Canetti says about Musil in The Play of the Eyes (volume three of his memoirs), "He felt at home and seemed natural among scientists. A discussion, he felt, should start from something precise and aim at something precise." The notion of precision is pervasive in the MwQ and it is continually up against the less precise feelings of many of the characters creating episodes of exceptional quality.

There is throughout a feeling that time is on the move and there is a sense of possibility for the protagonist, Ulrich, if not for the other characters. Each character represents a different perspective: social, political, cultural and otherwise that creates a sort of medley of voices that goes under the microscope of the narrator. These characters , with Ulrich in the lead, allow the narrator to raise questions of identity: how do you understand who you are? The setting, in the final year preceding the Great War, provides a subtle foundation for apprehension of what will come in the future. But foremost, from the first pages of the novel, we encounter the play of ideas - and not dictates as to what ideas must prevail, but rather questions as to the nature of this world. Are our actions determined or not? What do we know about the world and how do we know it?

If this sounds weighty, it is, but there is also a lightness from the ironic attitude of the narrator and the often humorous episodes interspersed throughout the story. In one humorous moment Ulrich disagrees with a police official and is almost thrown in jail until they find out he is Secretary to Count Leinsdorf (an influential man) and is involved in an important project with Leinsdorf, "The Parallel Campaign". The way the police officials are portrayed is as humorous as any comic scene I've read. As I continue to reread this amazing novel I find myself learning new aspects of the characters and wondering with them if their future is inevitable.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1995 (1952).

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


years of anger following
hours that float idly down —
the blizzard
drifts its weight
deeper and deeper for three days
or sixty years, eh? Then
the sun! a clutter of
yellow and blue flakes —
Hairy looking trees stand out
in long alleys
over a wild solitude.
The man turns and there —
his solitary track stretched out
upon the world.

—“Blizzard,” by William Carlos Williams, who died on this day in 1963

I have not given up on Spring but thought this poem on this date is still appropriate. The sun and Spring will be here soon!

The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1: 1909-1939. New Directions. 1991.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley is not remembered as one of the great poets, when he is remembered at all. His poetry is not included in the Oxford Book of American Verse, nor is it in The Norton Anthology of Poetry or Harold Bloom's recent compilation of the greatest poems in English.
I had to search through several collections before I found four of his poems in a collection titled, America's Favorite Poems. Perhaps that is indicative of his standing as a poet. He is not considered great or even almost great by the critics and literary scholars, he is just loved by those Americans who enjoy beautiful poetry.

James Whitcomb Riley was a poet of the latter half of the nineteenth century, born on October 7, 1849 in Greenfield, Indiana and died in 1916 having not lived to see the end of The Great War. His childhood and home were great influences on him. His most famous poems were about people and situations from his real life. His poems, "The Raggedy Man," and "Little Orphant Annie," are about a hired hand and an orphan girl who helped on the family farm. The farmhand and Annie told the local children stories that Riley immortalized in his work. His poems, though of epic proportion in many senses, told of everyday things.

Riley, like many poets, published his first works in newspapers. At first he wrote under a pen name, "Benjamin F. Johnson of Boone." He often wrote in his own dialect, appealing to the majority of people with his common style and words. Garland held Riley alike to Mark Twain, for his ability to use natural dialect in his writing and speech, though also possessing the ability to speak in a more precise and standard English. After the success of his written work, Riley took to the road again, and traveled around the country to recite his poems in every city. This earned him great popularity, and people were fascinated by his dialect and use of the language, as well as his cheerful sense of humor. For he was a happy poet, cheerful in his lyrical praise of Midwestern life and America. He could be literary as well, as we see in this poem about Robert Burns:

As We Read Burns

Who is speaking? Who has spoken?
Whose voice ceasing thus has broken
The sweet pathos of our dreams?
Sweetest bard of sweetest themes,
Pouring in each poet-heart
Some rare essence of your art
Till it seems your singing lip
Kisses every pencil tip!
Far across the unknown lands --
Reach of heavenly isle and sea --
How we long to touch the hands
You outhold so lovingly!

In 1883, a collection of his poems was published, entitled "The Old Swimmin' Hole and 'Leven More Poems," followed by "Rhymes of Childhood" in 1890, "Poems Here at Home" in 1893, and "Knee Deep in June," in 1912. His most famous poems are "Little Orphant Annie," "The Raggedy Man," "When the Frost Is On the Punkin," and "The Runaway Boy." In Riley's later life, these volumes attracted both national and international readers, and he became the wealthiest writer of the time. He was honorably labeled as America's "Children's Poet," and as "The Hoosier Poet," in his home state. James Whitcomb Riley is a warm and gentle poet whose verse lightens the reader's day and night, any season of the reading year.

The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley. Indiana University Press. 1993.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Exile and Cosmopolitan

Notes from Hampstead
by Elias Canetti

"When you write down your life, every page should contain something no one has ever heard about."   - Elias Canetti 

Born in the port of Rustschuk on the lower Danube, Elias Canetti (1905-1994) went to England with his parents in 1911; after his father's sudden and premature death in 1913 the family moved to Vienna. Between the years 1916 and 1924, he attended schools in Zürich and Frankfurt-am-Main. He then studied science in Vienna, the result being a doctorate in chemistry in 1929. Ever since then he has devoted himself exclusively to writing. In 1938 he went to France; sometime later, he moved to London.

When surveyed, Elias Canetti's literary work may seem split up, comprising as it does of so many genres. His oeuvre consists of a novel, three plays, several volumes of notes and aphorisms, a profound examination of the origin, structures and effect of the mass movement, a travel book, portraits of authors, character studies, and memoirs; but these writings, pursued in such different directions, are held together by a most original and vigorously profiled personality.

The exiled and cosmopolitan author, Canetti has one native land, and that is the German language. He has never abandoned it, and he has often avowed his love of the highest manifestations of the classical German culture.

Notes from Hampstead is an amalgam of notes, thoughts, and aphorisms. Elias Canetti shares his thoughts on topics ranging from ancient mythology to the violent nature of the twentieth century. Most interesting to me are his musings on authors whom he loves, including Cervantes, Stendahl, Gogol, Musil and Kafka. His readings inspire thoughtful observations as this commentary on Herzen's life:

"Invention's quality of surprise, its advantage, can also be arbitrary. Later, in the context of our own lives, this arbitrariness is no longer possible. We must stay with that which our best understanding tells is is the truth. This truth is what matters, and it is on its account that we set down our life in writing." (p. 181)

His comments are sometimes inscrutable, but often delectable and definitely worth considering, especially if you have read and wondered over his novel, Auto da Fe. It is in this light that I find his thoughts about other writers fascinating. He speaks with humility and sincerity in moments like this:

"Kafka: I grovel in the dust before him; Proust: my fulfillment; Musil: my intellectual exercise." (p. 156)

As I am currently exercising my intellect with the writing of Robert Musil I can fully appreciate at least some of the spirit in which Elias Canetti shared his notes on writing and reading.

Notes from Hampstead: The Writer's Notes: 1954-1971 by Elias Canetti. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1998 (1994).