Wednesday, February 29, 2012
A Primer of the Daily Round
A peels an apple, while B kneels to God,
C telephones to D, who has a hand
On E's knee, F coughs, G turns up the sod
For H's grave, I do not understand
But J is bringing one clay pigeon down
While K brings down a nightstick on L's head,
And M takes mustard, N drives into town,
O goes to bed with P, and Q drops dead,
R lies to S, but happens to be heard
By T, who tells U not to fire V
For having to give W the word
That X is now deceiving Y with Z,
Who happens just now to remember A
Peeling an apple somewhere far away.
- Howard Nemerov
Howard Nemerov was born on this day in 1920. Counting by fours, he turned fifteen in 1980;
thus, “The Author to His Body on Their Fifteenth Birthday, 29 ii 80”:
Dear old equivocal and closest friend,
Grand Vizier to a weak bewildered king,
Now we approach The Ecclesiastean Age
Where the heart is like to go off inside your chest
Like a party favor, or the brain blow a fuse
And the comic-book light-bulb of Idea black out
Forever, the idiot balloon of speech
Go blank, and we shall know, if it be knowing,
The world as it was before language once again….
- Howard Nemerov
Collected Poems by Howard Nemerov. University of Chicago Press, 1978
Monday, February 27, 2012
The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World
Yet, when we look for observable effects and practical consequences that might serve to distinguish the two worlds in question, the discrepancies seem to evaporate upon inspection." (pp 291-2)
Matthew Stewart has created an entertaining history of ideas with The Courtier and the Heretic. In it the author elegantly depicts the contrast between Baruch de Spinoza and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in both their lifestyles and their philosophies. He does so in an entertaining way and, while presenting a certain amount of speculation about the interaction between them, provides a lucid presentation of the portion of their lives and philosophies relevant to his project.
Some of the details were particularly fascinating to me, such as the connection between Leibniz and a young George Frideric Handel who was Kapellmeister for George, the Elector of Hanover, when Liebniz was present at the same court. This brought into focus the Baroque culture that surrounded Leibniz. The philosophical comparisons were also compelling as Stewart discusses major issues including the two philosophers' views of immortality, happiness, mind, necessity, substance, and god. I'm not sure I was convinced by all his speculation, but the book was a good introduction to controversies surrounding the development of modern philosophy in the wake of Descartes and it was a great read as well.
An updated review of
The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart. W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 2006
Reading Lolita in Tehran:
A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
“I told them this novel was an American classic, in many ways the quintessential American novel. There were other contenders: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter. Some cite its subject matter, the American Dream, to justify this distinction. We in ancient countries have our past--we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” ― Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
I read this memoir almost nine years ago with our Lincoln Park book group and it was one of our favorites the year it was published. While we normally wait until books are available in paperback we made an exception for Nafisi's memoir.
Nafisi does an excellent job of interweaving her memoir with the Western fiction she is discussing with her students, first at the university and then in secret, at home, with her select students. The book is divided into four sections, Lolita, Gatsby, Henry James, and Jane Austen. She touches on many other authors and novels as well and in such a way that made me want to read the works I hadn't already and reread some of the ones I had. Her analysis of Jane Austen's writing and other works is fascinating. The "party-line" Iranian objection to The Great Gatsby as a typical Western book of decadence that promotes adultery prompted me to think what I usually do when dubious objections are raised to writers' works. Did they read/see the same thing I read/saw (indeed, did they read/see it at all?), and if they did, did they get it?
As interesting as the literary aspect of the book is, the real story is what life was like in Iran during her time there. There was some humor, even though the story was mainly serious and included some things that amazed me: that there were snowstorms in Tehran, that Perry Mason, of all characters, seemed to be known by everyone, that the official movie censor was nearly blind!
The narrative relates a very personal story of Nafisi's life and students and the literature that they read during years of tumultuous change in Tehran. The story is moving for a reader who has always had the freedom to read and discuss any book that he chose. In a country where intolerant rulers limit freedom the liberating effect of literature on the students of Ms. Nafisi was inspirational.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Random House, 2003.
Friday, February 24, 2012
Bernard Foy's Third Castling
“The fantastic in literature doesn't exist as a challenge to what is probable, but only there where it can be increased to a challenge of reason itself: the fantastic in literature consists, when all has been said, essentially in showing the world as opaque, as inaccessible to reason on principle. This happens when Piranesi in his imagined prisons depicts a world peopled by other beings than those for which it was created. ("On the Fantastic in Literature")” ― Lars Gustafsson
I remember being mesmerized by the unique fictional world(s)of this novel. the author manages to narrate three disparate lives, all belonging to characters with the same name, done with a voice reminiscent of my favorite nineteenth century novels. At the same time it is a philosophical tour de force in three long sections from Swedish writer who also wrote The Death of a Beekeeper (The Tennis Players; Funeral Music for Freemasons; etc.). This was my introduction to his work and it was an astounding discovery. At its best, it is intellectually challenging in the tradition of Borges or Calvino.
The title is an obvious metaphorical reference to the game of chess, but the novel's complexity goes beyond that of mere characters moved about on a chessboard. Bernard Foy is alternatively an American rabbi who gets caught up in an episode of international intrigue, an 83-year-old poet unable to finish his memoirs because he's lost his memory, and a gifted juvenile delinquent who is writing a novel that contains poetry, vanishing with Baudelaire's poems into a bog. Though self-indulgent at times, the book is witty and engaging, and Gustafsson has it both ways: in a ruminative 19th-century voice, he's written a brilliantly contemporary novel, a playful chess game that cancels itself out.
It is truly indescribable and must be experienced; it can be frustrating, but it is a brilliant conception. Gustafsson is the rare writer who seems equally adept at writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. He has a philosophy background, and often deals with complex concepts, but effectively and -- more importantly -- unobtrusively integrates theory and ideas into his work. His books are filled with linguistic, moral, and other philosophical concerns, but these never crowd out actual story. Amazingly, he's able to tie invention and philosophy together in a way that often enhances the stories.
Bernard Foy's Third Castling by Lars Gustafsson. New Directions, 1988 (1986)
The Life of the Mind:
On the Joys and Travails of Thinking
Johnson: "Sir, be as wise as you can; let a man be aliis laetus, sapiens sibi. You may be wise in your study in the morning, and gay in company at a tavern in the evening. Every man is to take of his own wisdom and his own virtue, without minding too much what others think." - Boswell, Life of Johnson
THIS is one of those unique books that you can return to again and again and always learn something new. The genius of the book is the way it approaches the gaining of wisdom from different perspectives. Thinking, walking, reading, and meditating come to mind as ideas essayed in this small book that is large in its wealth of ideas. In what perhaps could be considered the signature essay of the book, "On Taking Care of One's Own Wisdom" we learn about the importance of understanding ourselves and the world. The title is a reference to Samuel Johnson who, Schall explains, argues that each individual is "ultimately responsible for [their] own learning of what is true." He says further, "It is only by the activity of our won minds, whereby we intentionally possess the universe, that wisdom may become ours."
The essays in this book do not give or provide wisdom, but do show the ways each of us may educate ourselves. The book leans heavily on the classic authors from Aristotle to Arendt and, yes, most of them are dead, but their thoughts are still worthwhile for our edification. There are many aspects of the book that recommend it from the chapter epigraphs to the appendices and bibliography. If the essays have not stirred your mind enough Schall provides a list of twenty books "That Awaken the Mind". This is a gem of a book for readers who delight in the opportunity to engage in the search for wisdom.
The Life of the Mind by James V. Schall. ISI Books, 2008 (2006).
Thursday, February 23, 2012
an intimate Tempest
co-created and co-directed by Jessica Thebus
and Frank Maugeri
an adaptation by Jessica Thebus based on the play
by William Shakespeare
A dream-like setting was the space for The Feast, a play produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in association with Redmoon. Reduced to three actors, plus puppets and one invisible puppeteer, this adaption of Shakespeare's The Tempest captured the spirit and some of the wit and wordplay of the original while providing an engaging and entertaining afternoon of theater. The outlines of the original were present with the characters of Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban augmented by masks of Miranda and Ferdinand while puppets were used to represent other characters. The Feast, as described by the co-creators, was "one of ideas and images and possibilities" that resulted from a presentation of Prospero's manipulation of Ariel and Caliban that limned the original and tempted the audience with some familiar moments while telling a much condensed version of the original play. While the philosopher Colin McGinn (Shakespeare's Philosophy) argues that The Tempest "is concerned above all with the power of language" - much of which was missing in this adaptation - the power of imagination was not ignored by Shakespeare in the original and it could be considered nearly as important - and made more so in The Feast.
The result could be called "Prospero's Children" or "Prospero's Dream" in the way it displayed the actions and interactions of the characters as dreamt of by Prospero. It was an intimate theater experience with the company providing great performances and the production challenging our imaginations while honoring the original material.
Here is another, very different, inspiration:
An Insubstantial Pageant
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. “ - Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1, 148-158
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
In the vapors enveloping our souls,
We remain on this earth -
Players in the insubstantial pageant.
(James Henderson, Preludes of the Mind, 1996)
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
“Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime.”
― Andrew Marvell
The sight of books wearing colored papers like party hats
Led me to meditate on the distance between the books
And the stacks. The time is spent in carrels, and that's
not inconsequential for the readers whose studious looks
are defeated by the the books piled on the sidelines -
The ones with the colorful favors just beyond their spines.
Readers cherish the time spent perusing books in
the Babylon of culture that houses folios. But is it sin
to while away the moments of your life in another world?
The Borgesian maze that is home to ideas that are furled
in books of all sizes and languages lures too often-times.
While entry fees are paid with the cost of missed deadlines.
- from Preludes of the Mind (2012), James Henderson
Friday, February 17, 2012
When Gravity Fails
"He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world . . . . He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks--that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness." - Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder"
In the 1980's a new sub genre of Science Fiction called "Cyberpunk" emerged. The name is derived from melding the words Cybernetics and punk, and it focuses on the effects on society and individuals of advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence, and bionic implants in an increasingly global culture, especially as seen in the struggles of streetwise, disaffected characters. George Alec Effinger produced one of the best novels of this type with When Gravity Fails. In it he combined elements of the noir detective mystery set in an indeterminate future somewhere in North Africa. With the addition of an elegant depiction of the widespread use of bionic implants he produced an intelligent and intriguing novel.
The culture of drugs is pervasive in the story - reminiscent of Huxley and his descendants, but it is the use of personality modules - "moddies" - and data modules - "daddies" - as bionic amplifications of individuals' brains - a sort of applied autonetics - that distinguishes the world imagined by the author. With this as the setting the protagonist detective Marid Audran, who has an independent and refreshingly honest personal code of justice, faces his greatest challenge when a string of bloody killings disrupt his urban habitat even to the extent of endangering his friends. The community in which he dwells is as iridescently colorful as it is decadent in a street-wise fashion whose futuristic setting is adumbrated by its resemblance to that of previous centuries. It is populated by eccentric characters; but it is his independence and rough-hewn charisma that makes Audran both a fascinating and likeable hero in spite of his major drug habit.
The author brings the culture of the futuristic "Budayeen" community to life with a vibrancy that hums and even crackles at times as the pressure to identify the source of the mysterious killings builds along with the homolgous danger to Audran's own life. The resulting suspense is exciting, but the story is deepened and made more significant by the moral choices and decisions that Audran must make, by himself, in order to solve the mystery behind the killings. The result is an exciting book that well deserves the accolades it received from the moment of its original publication.
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger. Orb Books, 2005 (1987)
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The Double Flame:
Love and Eroticism
by Octavio Paz
"The second way out is through love: the satisfaction and acceptance .. Freedom of the person beloved. Is it madness or illusion? Perhaps, but only door out of the prison of jealousy. Many years ago I wrote: love without sacrifice, virtue, and today I say: Love foolish bet for freedom, not for my freedom, but freedom of the other. "
The Double Flame by Octavio Paz is an extended discussion and analysis describing an extensive journey through the history of love in the West. On this journey Paz visits ancient Greece - his discussion of Plato's Symposium is enlightening, but also Alexandria, and Rome. He emphasizes the importance of Arabic culture during the so-called Dark Ages, and chronicles the rise and fall of Provencal culture and poetry in the Middle Ages. He finishes his analysis in the modern era, with special praise for Surrealism’s emphasis on exclusive love. He examines the literary and philosophical traditions of each era, sometimes analyzing specific poems in the context of love and eroticism. His survey makes clear the centrality of women’s position in society; as Paz writes, “the history of love is inseparable from the history of the freedom of women.” If a culture prohibited women from being active agents in love, then genuine love could not flourish.
Paz is not merely a cultural historian; he is also a literary and a cultural critic. His impression of contemporary culture is fairly bleak. Because he believes there can be no love without a reverence for both the body and the soul, he finds the current situation pitiful: Capitalism has desacralized the body and transformed it into a marketing tool, while the soul (or psyche) has been suppressed or ignored. Without a soulful regard for the body, and an acceptance of the reality of the soul—what gives each person his or her individuality—there can be no love. Paz concludes with a call for a dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and artists that will lead to a renewed sense of love’s importance to human culture. This view of Eros and its history is both an entertaining and educational journey for the reader.
The Double Flame by Octavio Paz.
Happiness: A History
The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life. I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good. - Bertrand Russell
If you are looking for answers to the questions of how or where to find happiness this is not the book for you. However, if you want an expansive discussion and history of the idea of happiness in many, if not all, of its forms then this is the book for you. The author catalogues many of the most interesting interpretations of this elusive subject, while he avoids concluding precisely what it should be. This is a good place to look for beginnings to the search for answers rather than the answers themselves. One example from the Symposium of Plato links happiness with Eros (for another perspective on Eros see my review of The Double Flame by Octavio Paz):
"Agathon, in a grand rhetorical flourish befitting a poet, concludes [the early portion of the discussion by saying] that though all the gods are happy, Eros is 'the most happy, since he is the most beautiful and the best."
The author is a professor of history at Florida State University and he can't avoid some subjectivity, but the success of the book is founded on its encyclopedic and accessible presentation of this most evasive idea.
Here is an excerpt from the book regarding Plato's Symposium. Symposia were the private banquets of the elite in ancient Athens. They were often drunken and debauched parties, with male-only guests. Some as in Plato's were (not so) sober affairs with rarified discussions of ideas by sophisticated guests; the subject of which was the nature of Eros, the great god of desire. It is worth noting how esteemed homosexuality was at this time:
"Agathon, in a grand rhetorical flourish befitting a poet, concludes [the early portion of the discussion by saying] that though all the gods are happy, Eros is 'the most happy, since he is the most beautiful and the best.'
"To this much, all the participants save the still-silent Socrates agree. But beyond Eros's power and proximity to happiness, there is little else on which the guests can establish common ground. One speaker, Pausanias, refuses to see Eros as a single entity, claiming that he must be divided in two as Common Eros and Heavenly Eros - the one, a seedy creature drawn by sexual appetite and so depraved that he will even sleep with women; the other, a more transcendent being attracted by mind as well as beauty, who finds his consummate expression in the higher love between boys and older men. Eryximachus, on the other hand, views Eros as a pantheistic force found not only in the hearts of gods and humans but 'also in nature - in the physical life of all animals, in plants that grow in the ground, and in virtually all living organisms.'
"Finally, Aristophanes maintains in a celebrated fable that human beings were originally joined two at a time to form complete wholes. Overly powerful, these four-legged creatures provoked the suspicion of the gods, who had them sundered to reduce their strength; now each half walks the earth in search of its other. The fable explains our sexual orientation, for men originally joined to men will seek their complement in the same sex, while those originally joined to women will seek their other half accordingly. It also explains our sense of longing and loss, as we wander the earth in search of the one who will make us whole. '[W]here happiness for the human races lies,' Aristophanes concludes, is 'in the successful pursuit of love.' Eros is the great benefactor who will '[return] us to our original condition, healing us, and making us blessed and perfectly happy.'
"A pantheistic force animating the world; a schizophrenic deity both plebeian and patrician; a guide who leads us only to ourselves: Eros, clearly, is no simple god. He is, Socrates contends, no god at all. Drawing together the strands of these various reflections, Socrates maintains that Eros is, rather, a 'great spirit' who is 'midway between what is divine and what is human,' his ambiguous nature owing to the strange circumstances of his conception. Sired at the birthday party of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, Eros is the child of Poverty, who came to the festivities uninvited as a beggar, and the god Plenty, a welcome guest who passed out there drunk. How Plenty is able to perform in such a state, we are not told (presumably, a feat of the gods), but perform he does, producing a son who is neither 'mortal nor immortal.' Now fully grown, Eros takes after his mother. Constantly in need, he is 'hard, unkempt, barefoot, homeless.' But, like his father, he is 'brave, enterprising, and determined.' Having inherited 'an eye for beauty and the good,' Eros continually searches for these two qualities through love, as befits one conceived in the presence of Aphrodite.
"Straddling the human and the divine, Eros is an emissary, conducting 'all association and communication, waking or sleeping,' between the gods and men. His twofold nature explains his defining characteristic - desire itself. For what is desire but the human acknowledgment that one is in need, that one is lacking? As Socrates explains, 'the man who desires something desires what is not available to him, and what he doesn't already have in his possession.' "
from: Happiness: A History by Darrin M. McMahon . Atlantic Monthly Press. 2006 (Pages: 32-34)
Monday, February 13, 2012
Some Hope: A Trilogy
"The Proposition I want to make," said David, "is that education should be something of which a child can later say: If I survived that, I can survive anything." (p 92)
This trilogy of novellas presents the Melrose family in which David Melrose and his son Patrick play leading roles. It is the story of a man’s abusive father and the effects of a decadent upper class. Patrick Melrose, as a boy in “Never Mind” experiences the attention of his sadistic father David, who makes his wife eat like a dog just to verify his power, and holds his son up by the ears to teach him to make important decisions for himself. In fact, one of David's personal mottoes is " to break even the smallest rules." David certainly is unconcerned with society's rules when meting out his ritual humiliations. Patrick is on the receiving end of much of this behavior as he thinks to himself, “He did not know who this man was, it could not be his father who was crushing him like this.”
The second volume, “Bad News”, finds an older Patrick with residual personal issues, not the least of which is a drug addiction, spending at least $5K/week on heroine or cocaine: “How could he ever hope to give up drugs? They filled him with such intense emotion.” Also, father David has just died. We follow Patrick as he visits the funeral home abroad to gloat over the body, then allows himself to indulge in the best smack in the world, fending off the voices that are the evidence of his trauma: “Every thought or hint of a thought took on a personality stronger than his own.” Patrick heads back to England, after bemoaning his own lot in life with bon mots like: " God, imagine having and opposite number instead of always being one's own opposite number". He seems to have missed out on experiencing either satisfying spite or legitimate grief. Finally, in “Some Hope,” set eight years later, Patrick has dropped the drugs but is still haunted by the memory of his father. His life is not improving enough to convince you, dear reader, that he has any more than some hope -- and little at that. St. Aubyn has a wonderful style filled with intelligent metaphors and a lucid understanding of British upper-class life. The Trilogy reminded me a bit of Evelyn Waugh without the brightness or sparkle.
Some Hope: A Trilogy by Edward St. Aubyn. Open City Books, New York. 2003 (1998)
Sunday, February 12, 2012
"It is upon us to begin the work. It is not upon us to complete it."-Talmud.*
The Oppermanns is a beautifully written and touching novel that was included in my reading for a class in the University of Chicago Basic Program where we studied "Degenerate Art" during the Third Reich. Feuchtwanger's novel is a moving story of a Jewish families in 1930s Germany who are divided in their views about how to respond to both the actual physical and economic threats from the rising National Socialist movement. The family members represented the varying views of changes that were occurring in Germany of the nineteen-thirties with some taking a more benign view and others showing more concern by moving to Paris and elsewhere. As the book begins the Nazis were gaining more political control and the cultural and economic environment was beginning to change in Germany because of it. For the first time in its history, the Oppermann’s furniture business was forced to take on an approved Aryan partner in order to keep it running. This is a move that contributes to their eventually losing it altogether. The family must endure ever more personal tragedies as the worst becomes a reality. Those family members who departed from Germany were proven to be more prescient in their caution as the ones who stayed too long found not just upheaval in their lives but real danger from the increasing limits placed on Jewish families and other "undesirables".
Most of all this historical novel captured the cultural and political changes that made possible the burning of books and display of "degenerate art". As such I would recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the history of Germany in that era.
*Epigraph to the third part of the novel.
The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger. Carroll & Graf, 2001 (1933).
Thursday, February 09, 2012
The Literary Blog Hop is sponsored by The Blue Bookcase . Here's the question this week:
In the epilogue for Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman writes:
"It's always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they're really just writing about themselves."
Do you agree?
I disagree with Klosterman's claim that "criticism is really just veiled autobiography". When I review a book I try to make explicit any personal connections to the work or my reading experience. However, I also engage in formal Literary criticism. By this I mean the evaluation, analysis, description, or interpretation of a literary work. My short essays are thus a mix of both formal criticism and my personal reaction to the book. Sometimes the personal aspect is minimal or non-existent. I always try to make it clear. That there are other readings of a literary text is certainly true. As Robert Alter discusses in his lively book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, "There are many precise readings of a given text (even, paradoxically, conflicting ones), depending on what aspects of the text you are looking at, what questions you are asking, what issues beyond the text you mean to address." (p 208). This does not mean that the critics opinion is necessarily merely his autobiographical take on the work in question.
When I read professional critics I expect this approach and believe that good criticism is not merely "veiled autobiography". My favorite literary critics -- for example, Michael Dirda or James Wood -- are good examples of criticism that I respect and that exemplifies this sort of professionalism. I believe that Klosterman's comment about criticism tells us more about his philosophical outlook than it does about criticism. And his is a subjective view of the world that I reject.
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
"a new order"
One thing is plain for all men of common sense and common conscience, that here, here in America, is the home of man. After all the deductions which are to be made for our pitiful politics, which stake every gravest national question on the silly die, whether James or whether Jonathan shall sit in the chair and hold the purse; after all the deduction is made for our frivolities and insanities, there still remains an organic simplicity and liberty, which, when it loses its balance, redresses itself presently, which offers opportunity to the human mind not known in any other region….
Here stars, here woods, here hills, here animals, here men abound, and the vast tendencies concur of a new order. If only the men are employed in conspiring with the designs of the Spirit who led us hither, and is leading us still, we shall quickly enough advance out of all hearing of other's censures, out of all regrets of our own, into a new and more excellent social state than history has recorded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Young American
Sunday, February 05, 2012
The World of Yesterday
by Stefan Zweig
“We who have been hunted through the rapids of life, torn from our former roots, always driven to the end and obliged to begin again, victims and yet also the willing servants of unknown mysterious powers, we for whom comfort has become an old legend and security, a childish dream, have felt tension from pole to pole of our being, the terror of something always new in every fibre. Every hour of our years was linked to the fate of the world. In sorrow and in joy we have lived through time and history far beyond our own small lives, while they knew nothing beyond themselves. Every one of us, therefore, even the least of the human race, knows a thousand times more about reality today than the wisest of our forebears. But nothing was given to us freely; we paid the price in full.” ― Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
Zweig lived a life of the mind and a life of letters - one that was at odds with the new world. Unfortunately, the last years of his life were spent as an exile from his homeland and in the year after finishing this memoir he and his wife committed suicide together.
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. University of Nebraska Press, 1964 (1943)
Saturday, February 04, 2012
A Country of Vast Designs:
James K. Polk and the
Conquest of the American
Robert Merry's biography of President Polk provides a good introduction to the era of "Manifest Destiny" and the controversies he faced including those surrounding the Mexican-American War. While the book provides a narrative of Polk's political life from Congress through the Presidency I was impressed with several specific aspects it presented and historical moments that were revelatory.
Merry is excellent in providing portraits of the important political figures in Polk's life, his mentor Andrew Jackson and other famous men like Van Buren, Henry Clay, John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, and others. The author's ability to maintain a consistent level of detail about the events of Polk's life sometimes led to passages that I could have done without, perhaps those interested in the minutae of politics would find these more interesting.
However, a few historical moments stand out for me: including the depiction of the 1844 Democratic Presidential Convention in Baltimore where James K. Polk became the first political "dark horse" candidate; the congressional battle over funding the Mexican war where the Wilmot Proviso first appeared and provided one of the signals of the beginning of the end of the era of slavery (although war was averted for a decade and a half); and the amazing successes of Stephen Kearney, John C. Fremont, and Robert Stockton in the expansion of United States territories. These and a few other high points made the book a lively and entertaining work of historical biography, expanding my knowledge of the man and the era.
A Country of Vast Designs by Robert W. Merry. Simon & Schuster, 2010 (2009)
Friday, February 03, 2012
"Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God." -- Felix Mendelssohn
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn. Regarded by classical music aficionados and critics alike, as one of the most prolific and gifted composers the world has ever known, his first name, Felix, is from the Latin word meaning "happy". This is a felicitous choice of a name for the composer of the lilting Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and the even more famous "Wedding March" from the same group of incidental pieces. Whether he was born with his incredible talent or was the product of an artistically and intellectually-inclined family will remain a mystery, but like all prodigies, Mendelssohn showed signs of true genius from childhood.
My own favorites among the works of Mendelssohn include Overtures, Symphonies, Choral Works, Chamber Music, works for solo Piano and a concerto for violin and orchestra. My first experience with his music was when, in my teens, I played the oboe in our high school band. We played a transcription of the Hebrides Overture and this Romantic gem immediately became one of my favorites. Mendelssohn wrote the concert Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave) in 1830, inspired by visits he made to Scotland around the end of the 1820s. He visited Fingal's Cave, on the Hebridean isle of Staffa, as part of his Grand Tour of Europe, and was so impressed that he scribbled the opening theme of the overture on the spot, including it in a letter he wrote home the same evening.
Throughout his career he wrote a number of other concert overtures. My favorite is the overture to Ruy Blas, commissioned for a charity performance of Victor Hugo's drama. In addition to the literary works of Hugo , Mendelssohn found inspiration in both the works of German poet Wilhelm von Goethe and English playwright William Shakespeare. At the age of seventeen, he composed the overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream Opus 21", based on the Bard's comedic play. The piece featured lush orchestration, and is considered one of the most beautiful works of the Romantic period of Classical music.
I consider Mendelssohn to be an early Romantic composer as did Pablo Casals, who called him, " A romantic who felt at ease within the mould of classicism." (quoted in J M Corredor, Conversations with Casals (1954)). Regarded by some critics as the 19th century equivalent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and yet others as a great composer who's contribution would have been greater, had his life been marred with more hardships. I believe everyone can agree that he deserves his place amongst the best, and most influential of all composers.
Thursday, February 02, 2012
A Study of the Play-Element in Culture
“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” - Johann Huizinga
Homo Ludens or "Man the Player", written in 1938 by Dutch historian, cultural theorist and professor, Johan Huizinga, discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Huizinga uses the term "Play Theory" within the book to define the conceptual space in which play occurs.
One of the most significant (human and cultural) aspects of play is that it is fun. Huizinga suggests that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture. In his discussion of this Huizinga has much to say about the words for play in different languages. Perhaps the most extraordinary remark concerns the Latin language. “It is remarkable that ludus, as the general term for play, has not only not passed into the Romance languages but has left hardly any traces there, so far as I can see". The cultural aspects of play range widely over law, war, poetry and philosophy. While ludus is seen as fundamental for human civilization and even myth-making it is the beginnings of play in the observation of the activity of animals that impressed me. Huizinga makes it clear that animals played first - this along with his other observations make the book a fascinating take on an essential aspect of human activity.
Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Beacon Press, Boston. 1971 (1938)
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
The Hills of Switzerland
“I can be candid here.”
- Thomas M. Disch, Camp Concentration
The air is bitter, yet the story is bold
and a tale that I not once before have told.
Yet the stories have floated in my head
in days past, only to disappear, seemingly dead.
Where was I going when first I heard
of the stories that fired me with the word
and image? Young enough was I to know, but
too busy with other things – I guess I forgot.
It's a tale of distant places like Switzerland, yes
the land of mountains and mists and less.
Less than one might remember - something
long before – was an age before the beginning.
- James Henderson, February, 2012
by Lord Byron
From the introduction to The Corsair by Lord Byron:
Lord Byron ended the year of 1813 in its penultimate month, and in less than three weeks (December 18, 1813) Byron began the Corsair, and completed the fair copy of the first draft by the last day of the year. The Corsair in all but its final shape, together with the sixth edition of the Bride of Abydos, the seventh of Childe Harold, and the ninth of the Giaour, was issued on this day, the first of February, 1814.
A letter from John Murray to Lord Byron, dated February 3, 1814 (Memoir of John Murray, 1891, i. 223), presents a vivid picture of a great literary triumph—
"My Lord,—I have been unwilling to write until I had something to say.... I am most happy to tell you that your last poem is—what Mr. Southey's is called—a Carmen Triumphale. Never in my recollection has any work ... excited such a ferment ... I sold on the day of publication—a thing perfectly unprecedented—10,000 copies.... Mr. Moore says it is masterly—a wonderful performance. Mr. Hammond, Mr. Heber, D'Israeli, every one who comes ... declare their unlimited approbation. Mr. Ward was here with Mr. Gifford yesterday, and mingled his admiration with the rest ... and Gifford did, what I never knew him do before—he repeated several stanzas from memory, particularly the closing stanza—
"'His death yet dubious, deeds too widely known.'
"I have the highest encomiums in letters from Croker and Mr. Hay; but I rest most upon the warm feeling it has created in Gifford's critic heart.... You have no notion of the sensation which the publication has occasioned; and my only regret is that you were not present to witness it."
For some time before and after the poem appeared, Byron was, as he told Leigh Hunt (February 9, 1814; Letters, 1899, iii. 27), "snow-bound and thaw-swamped in 'the valley of the shadow' of Newstead Abbey," and it was not till he had returned to town that he resumed his journal, and bethought him of placing on record some dark sayings with regard to the story of the Corsair and the personality of Conrad. Under date February 18, 1814, he writes—
"The Corsair has been conceived, written, published, etc., since I last took up this journal [?last day but one]. They tell me it has great success; it was written con amore [i.e. during the reign of Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster], and much from existence."
And again, Journal, March 10 (Letters, 1898, ii. 399),
"He [Hobhouse] told me an odd report,—that I am the actual Conrad, the veritable Corsair, and that part of my travels are supposed to have passed in privacy [sic;?piracy]. Um! people sometimes hit near the truth; but never the whole truth. H. don't know what I was about the year after he left the Levant; nor does any one—nor—nor—nor—however, it is a lie—but, 'I doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth.'"
Very little weight can be attached to these "I could an I would" pronouncements, deliberately framed to provoke curiosity, and destined, no doubt, sooner or later to see the light; but the fact remains that Conrad is not a mere presentation of Byron in a fresh disguise, or "The Pirate's Tale" altogether a "painting of the imagination."
That the Corsair is founded upon fact is argued at some length by the author (an "English Gentleman in the Greek Military Service") of the Life, Writings, Opinions, and Times of the R. H. George Gordon Noel Byron, which was published in 1825. The point of the story (i. 197-201), is that Byron, on leaving Constantinople and reaching the island of Zea (July, 1810), visited ["strolled about"] the islands of the Archipelago, in company with a Venetian gentleman who had turned buccaneer malgré lui, and whose history and adventures, amatory and piratical, prefigured and inspired the "gestes" of Conrad. How far Byron may have drawn on personal experience for his picture of a pirate chez lui, it is impossible to say; but during the year 1809-11, when he was travelling in Greece, the exploits of Lambros Katzones and other Greek pirates sailing under the Russian flag must have been within the remembrance and on the lips of the islanders and the "patriots" of the mainland. The "Pirate's Island," from which "Ariadne's isle" (line 444) was visible, may be intended for Paros or Anti-Paros.
The opening stanza of CANTO THE FIRST follows:
"——nessun maggior dolore,
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Dante, Inferno, v. 121.*
"O'er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire, and behold our home!
These are our realms, no limits to their sway—
Our flag the sceptre all who meet obey.
Ours the wild life in tumult still to range
From toil to rest, and joy in every change.
Oh, who can tell? not thou, luxurious slave!
Whose soul would sicken o'er the heaving wave; 10
Not thou, vain lord of Wantonness and Ease!
Whom Slumber soothes not—Pleasure cannot please—
Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,
And danced in triumph o'er the waters wide,
The exulting sense—the pulse's maddening play,
That thrills the wanderer of that trackless way?
That for itself can woo the approaching fight,
And turn what some deem danger to delight;
That seeks what cravens shun with more than zeal,
And where the feebler faint can only feel— 20
Feel—to the rising bosom's inmost core,
Its hope awaken and its spirit soar?
No dread of Death—if with us die our foes—
Save that it seems even duller than repose;
Come when it will—we snatch the life of Life—
When lost—what recks it by disease or strife?
Let him who crawls, enamoured of decay,
Cling to his couch, and sicken years away;[hk]
Heave his thick breath, and shake his palsied head;
Ours the fresh turf, and not the feverish bed,— 30
While gasp by gasp he falters forth his soul,
Ours with one pang—one bound—escapes control.
His corse may boast its urn and narrow cave,
And they who loathed his life may gild his grave:
Ours are the tears, though few, sincerely shed,
When Ocean shrouds and sepulchres our dead.
For us, even banquets fond regret supply
In the red cup that crowns our memory;
And the brief epitaph in Danger's day,
When those who win at length divide the prey, 40
And cry, Remembrance saddening o'er each brow,
How had the brave who fell exulted now!"
*trans. "There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time when one is in misery."
Illustration above is "Episode from The Corsair by Lord Byron" - Eugene Delacroix @ wikipaintings.org
The Corsair is available online at Project Gutenberg