Monday, December 28, 2009

All Past is Obsolete

A Single Man

by Christopher Isherwood

"But now isn't simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until -- later of sooner -- perhaps -- no, not perhaps -- quite certainly: it will come."
- A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood, p299

One day in the life of a man is the basis for Christopher Isherwood's penultimate and what many consider his best novel, A Single Man. Written from in the first person the protagonist, George, is reflecting on his life and friends as he lives through an ordinary day in the shadow of the sudden death of his partner, Jim. Using meditative prose Isherwood manages to express both the inner being of George and his memories of the past. But the present, through episodes with his former lover Charley, before his years with Jim, and his students, especially Kenny Potter, is intertwined with the memories to make this an exceptional read. George is an Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is also an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. 
Isherwood's fine short novel is also an honest look at his life by a man who accepts his being as a homosexual and reveres the life he had for many years with his partner Jim. He succeeds in bringing George's life alive even as both the day and his life wind down with a not unexpected quiet confidence.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996 (1964)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Walt Whitman

from "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.

O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere!
Pierce the woods, the earth,
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.

Shake out carols! Note
Solitary here, the night's carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death's carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols.
But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois'd sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


All sorts of stories were circulating about him in town.
- Mysteries, Knut Hamsun, p. 302

I was introduced to the author Knut Hamsun by reading his first novel, Hunger. It is a Dostoevskian tale of a young journalist who is literally starving to death. His story is about trying to write and live while not even being able to afford a scrap of food, pawning his vest to be able to survive a few more days. It is a searing story that one does not forget. I had reread that book about a year ago, but still had not tackled any of Hamsun's other works before I had picked this book. My expectations were high, as he is a Nobel Laureate, but I was not sure if he would equal, much less surpass, his earlier novel. Now I look forward to reading more of his works.

I was drawn to Mysteries because of a reference in Henry Miller's The Colossus of Maroussi where he said of Mysteries that it "is closer to me than any other book I have read." High praise from a writer that I respect and whose Colossus I loved.

Mysteries is not exactly thrilling, but it is an adventure into the unknown. It does not rely on a traditional plot, rather it starts under mysterious circumstances where a strange young man named Johan Nagel without any past appears in a small coastal town where a person has been recently killed. However, playing against expectations the book doesn't delve in to the suspense of the murder, rather all the mysteries lie in Nagel's relations with the townspeople and in discovering the duality of human mind. The duality that confuses us more than the bystander why we are what we are. How can we be so selfish while performing a selfless act? Why do we care about so much about something whose absence doesn't matter in long run? Why we love someone who doesn't love us back? I found moments in the book left me feeling that I was sharing a dream with the characters - an eerie feeling indeed but more puzzling than frightening. Did I mention - there is a dwarf (midget) in the book? If you have ever read The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist you would know that any book with a dwarf is a good book.

Sven Birkerts has said that Hamsun has created " works of desperate lyrical romanticism". But Hamsun is also a precursor to and in some ways participant in modernism, writing works that span the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This book is compelling with challenging arguments that you think and perhaps question your beliefs, especially the arguments on societal interpretation of the genius. Birkerts, in his introduction, goes on to say that Mysteries is "compelling in its fans a depth of devotion that owes less to narrative, character development, or evocative prose than to something more elemental, more . . . mysterious." (p. x)
It is thus to me and a novel of ideas that I can truly enjoy.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. The Noonday Press, New York. 1967 (1890).
Mysteries: a novel by Knut Hamsun. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1999 (1892).

Young Orson Welles

"Me and Orson Welles"

Everybody denies I am a genius - but nobody ever called me one!

- Orson Welles

I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Linklater's new film "Me and Orson Welles" at the Webster Place 11 Theaters. It brought to life the young Orson Welles during the week before his exciting premiere of "Julius Caesar" at the newly formed Mercury Theater in New York City. He was already well-known as a radio personality but this is well before his triumph at RKO with Citizen Kane and other films (there is a neat moment of foreshadowing his future film interests when he reads from Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons to young Richard Samuels while riding in a cab). The film time is set in post depression era New York where the young student Richard (Zac Efron) goes to New York to get a start in the theater and bluffs his way into Welles' (Christian McKay) Mercury Theater, getting the role of Brutus' slave Lucius. During this week Richard will find romance with a worldly older woman, become immersed in a creative experience few are afforded and learn the downside of crossing the imperious, brilliant Welles. The film only hints at the multi-talented character of the man who created the grand-daddy of media hoaxes, directed films that re-directed the path of world cinema and was a fantastic magician, but Christian McKay's portrayal energizes the film as he becomes Welles. The other members of Welles' Mercury Theatre, Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Norman Lloyd And John Houseman were all present in this lovely film. Ben Chaplin's performance as George Colouris was particularly good as he almost has a nervous breakdown moments before going on stage as Mark Antony. Of course, Welles and his whole troupe share an immense triumph on the evening of the premiere, but the show really belongs to Orson Welles alone, while young Richard learns some lessons in life and love in the process. This was a lovely entertaining film that I heartily recommend to all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Poems for the Season


The wind has a chill -
It is now solstice time.
So let us have our fill
Of a good winter wine!

- James Henderson, 2009

"Christmas Greeting" Christmas-tide comes round,
They remember it again -
Echo still the joyful sound
Peace on earth, good-will to men!
Thus, forgetting tricks and play
For a moment, Lady dear,
We would wish you, if we may,
Merry Christmas, Glad New Year!

- Lewis Carroll

Traversing the Eons of Time

The Man Who Folded Himself

by David Gerrold

What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? . . . What then is time?

- Confessions, Augustine, p. 230

Ever since Augustine's meditation on the nature of time in Book XI of his Confessions writers have attempted to analyze the nature of time. Over the last century and a half Science Fiction writers have used the theme of travel through time to consider some aspects of this concept. Perhaps the most famous example is that of H. G. Wells whose novel, The Time Machine, used time travel as a means for advancing some of Wells' social criticism. Written in 1895 it still has a sense of mystery and wonder. It was great fun too, and I enjoyed reading the novel and viewing the excellent film when I was younger.
A more recent example of time travel was the very popular novel by Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife. I read that book for a book group discussion which was the only reason I bothered to finish what I considered a flawed novel. The best part of Niffenegger's book was her unique gimmick of presenting time travel as a disease, beyond that the book left me yawning as the characterization seemed flat.

I recently read a much better presentation of this theme by David Gerrold in his novel, The Man Who Folded Himself. Gerrold's novel is not recent - it was published more than thirty years ago - but a friend recommended it to me (it is one of his favorites) and I finally read it. Like Wells' novel it is slight, less than 150 pages, but in that thin novel Gerrold packs a striking picture of the nature of time travel. In his view there exist multiple universes all populated with different versions on one's original self created through the process of travelling forward and backward in time. He makes an impressive case and touches upon many of the seeming limitless possibilities for time travel creation. While the novel was not particularly suspenseful since I guessed the ending early on, Gerrold does not spoil the book by going on for too long (unlike some authors - see Niffenegger above). His prose is simple but clear and using almost epigrammatic form he manages to provide the story of the life of Daniel Eakins (and some of his alter egos). The book is not without flaws for the lack of other characters was disappointing, aside from his own multiple personae there were few other characters in the book. But that did not prevent me from enjoying this imaginative journey into the realm of time and traversing its eons.

Confessions by Saint Augustine. Oxford University Press, 1991.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Signet Classics, New York. 1984 (1895).
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Harcourt, New York. 2003.
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. Random House, New York. 1973.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Iliad and Latin Class

Assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit
- Cicero

I am currently rereading the Iliad for discussion with our Lincoln Park Sunday morning discussion group. The reading has reminded me of the my first encounter with the Iliad when I was in high school studying Latin.
I had two years of Latin study which has served me well over the years as a foundation for my English skills, such as they are, but this Latin class was not just studying a dry dead language but rather it was discovering a living culture that extended from the early age of Mycenae to the fall of Rome. The source of this was our Latin teacher, Mrs. Helen Daggett, who was perpetually invigorating with regard to all things Latin and classical. The result was an exciting class that found that Rome and Greece were interesting and sometimes exciting places about which to learn. The Latin Club was one of the largest in the high school and the annual "slave" sale was one of the high points of the school year.
But, you may ask, what does this have to do with Homer's Iliad? After all, didn't Homer write in Greek, and ancient not classic Greek? Yes but this Latin class, as I mentioned, was about more than just Latin, but also the culture of Rome and Greece before it. So it was there that I encountered the Iliad, but not directly from Homer. I learned about Heinrich Schliemann from reading Robert Payne's The Gold of Troy. It was Schliemann's adventurous and romantic life (more recently chronicled in an excellent biography of him by David Traill, Schliemann of Troy) that first introduced me to Troy and Mycenae and the story behind the story of The Iliad. It was due to his persistent belief that the city of Troy in the Iliad really existed and that it could be found that led me to the story of The Iliad. I still remember admiring the mask of Agamemnon from my days in Latin class. However, in reading and rereading The Iliad that mask pales in comparison to the "Shield of Achilles" described in Book XVIII. I have read many of the classical Greek and Latin authors since those days I spent in Latin class discovering Latin and Greek culture. And my love for the classics I owe in no little part to that class.

The Gold of Troy by Robert Payne. Funk & Wagnalls Co., New York. 1959
Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit by David A. Traill. St. Martin's Press, New York. 1995

Friday, December 18, 2009

What 'profound abysm'?


Your love and pity doth the impression fill
Which vulgar scandal stamp'd upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?
You are my all the world, and I must strive
To know my shames and praises from your tongue:
None else to me, nor I to none alive,
That my steel'd sense or changes right or wrong.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of others' voices, that my adder's sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.
Mark how with my neglect I do dispense:
You are so strongly in my purpose bred
That all the world besides methinks are dead.

- William Shakespeare, Sonnet #112

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thirteen Cellos

I love music for the cello, but before last night I had always thought that meant cello solos, various chamber works, concertos or the wonderful solo moments for cello in works for Symphony Orchestra like Von Suppe's famous Poet and Peasant Overture. Last night I had a new cello experience - 'Thirteen Cellos' playing as a group. I have to thank my friend Jim Edminster for inviting me to join him and some friends at a concert given by the Oakley Street Cello Ensemble. It was a cold winter night but the location, the Viaduct Theater, was both warm and convenient as a site for a wonderful concert that blended some of my favorite pieces (in new arrangements) with some that were new to me. Two of those new pieces were among the best of the evening, Hoy Mondongo by Michael O'Brien and DMO by Shirl Jae Atwell. The familiar tunes ranged from Leroy Anderson and Maurice Ravel to Simon & Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair. I enjoyed the arrangements of several of the pieces by Michael Yannell, who was also one of the cellists. The group acquiesced to the crowds' delight with an encore pizzicato version of Jingle Bells. It was a night which will linger in my memory as thirteen cellos and their melodic strains reverberate in my dreams.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Master Harold" and the boys

Sam. Should we try again, Hally?

Hally. Try what?

Sam. Fly another kite, I suppose. It worked once, and this time I need it as much as you do.

Hally. It's still raining, Sam. You can't fly kites on rainy days, remember.

Sam. So what do we do? Hope for better weather tomorrow?

Hally. (Helpless gesture) I don't know. I don't know anything anymore.
- "Master Harold" and the boys, p. 59

"Master Harold" and the boys is a short play that has an immense impact upon first reading. The playwright Athol Fugard manages to imagine a relationship between a boy and two Black servants in early 1950s in South Africa and make it become a universal experience that continues to resonate with readers in the Twenty-first century. I was impressed with the economy of words that were used to express multiple levels of feeling and meaning throughout the play. The culture of England, long the colonial power in this country, is also ever present in language and simple things such the names of towns.

The basic story is a simple tale of a boy, Hal, on the verge of manhood struggling with his education and his relationship both with his friends, the Black servants Sam and Willie, and his father who is nearing the end of what must have been a tyrannical patriarchy. Hal, who is "Master Harold" to Willie and plain Hally to Sam and everyone else, struggles through the issues of his relationships and what they mean until the difficulties with his father overtake him and he lashes out at the Black servants, reminding the reader that this is the era of apartheid and this is South Africa. One of the most powerful metaphors is that of the dance that is used from the opening of the play and culminates in a beautiful moment as the linchpin for transcendent beauty and the meaning of art. The day ends with tentative attempts at reconciliation, but we are left wondering whether the next day will bring a new level of maturity and hope for the master and his boys or more of the same tensions that make compassionate friendship crumble in this moving drama.

"Master Harold" and the boys by Athol Fugard. Vintage International, New York. 2009 (1982)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Alternative Reality

One had to blame the Germans for the situation. Tendency to bite off more than they could chew. After all, they had barely managed to win the war, and at once they had gone off to conquer the solar system, while at home they had passed edicts which . . .
- The Man in the High Castle, p. 24

I have enjoyed reading novels of ideas immensely over the years and The Man in the High Castle is one of the best I have read in a long time. My favorites include works by Mann, Musil, Dostoevsky and Orwell and among others -- now Philip K. Dick.

In his novel the author, Philip K. Dick, has created an alternative world and then tops that by having his title character author a book within the novel that imagines the world as it really is. What if the allies had lost World War II? That is the premise, and Dick's ability to build a believable alternative reality based on that premise is the foundation of this exciting, suspenseful and enjoyable book.
The characters, German spy, Jewish businessman, Japanese trade representative, Italian war veteran, and others, are each given individual fates that, woven together through a plot that creates suspense and wonder, inhabit a world that is scarily believable. Beyond them all lives "the man in the high castle" -- the author of the book about an alternative reality, a book that is banned throughout most of the world, inspiring even greater readership and fear. Honestly, I had previously viewed alternate reality fiction as more "gimmickry" than literature. Philip K. Dick, however, has written a novel that truly makes you think about the nature of fate (the I Ching is also an important element in the plot) and the small changes that could change history. An award-winning work of literature, it is a book that recreates the universe.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Vintage Books, New York. 1992 (1962).

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #108


What's in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What's new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must, each day say o'er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallow'd thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love's fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Poem in October

This poem by Dylan Thomas is one of my favorites among the many wonderful poems by this amazing poet. While it is already December it is never too late or early to share this poem.
I was reminded of it earlier today while attending a lecture entitled "Proust and Weather" by Joel Rich, an Instructor in The Basic Program of Liberal Education at The University of Chicago. While Joel shared the beauty and commented on the turns of meaning in Proust's prose about the weather I was reminded of this poem which also turns on the weather. Proust's narrator for In Search of Lost Time said, "A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves anew." I hope you will find similar thoughts expressed by Dylan Thomas in his Poem in October.


        It was my thirtieth year to heaven
     Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
        And the mussel pooled and the heron
                Priested shore
           The morning beckon
     With water praying and call of seagull and rook
     And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
           Myself to set foot
                That second
        In the still sleeping town and set forth.

        My birthday began with the water-
     Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
        Above the farms and the white horses
                And I rose
            In a rainy autumn
     And walked abroad in shower of all my days
     High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
            Over the border
                And the gates
        Of the town closed as the town awoke.

        A springful of larks in a rolling
     Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
        Blackbirds and the sun of October
            On the hill's shoulder,
     Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
     Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
            To the rain wringing
                Wind blow cold
        In the wood faraway under me.

        Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
     And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
        With its horns through mist and the castle
                Brown as owls
             But all the gardens
     Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
     Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
             There could I marvel
                My birthday
        Away but the weather turned around.

        It turned away from the blithe country
     And down the other air and the blue altered sky
        Streamed again a wonder of summer
                With apples
             Pears and red currants
     And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
             Through the parables
                Of sunlight
        And the legends of the green chapels

        And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
        These were the woods the river and the sea
                Where a boy
             In the listening
     Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
     To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
             And the mystery
                Sang alive
        Still in the water and singing birds.

        And there could I marvel my birthday
     Away but the weather turned around. And the true
        Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                In the sun.
             It was my thirtieth
        Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
        Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
             O may my heart's truth
                Still be sung        On this high hill in a year's turning.

Selected Poems 1934-1952 by Dylan Thomas. New Directions, New York. 1953.

Island Dystopia

The Island of Dr. Moreau

by H. G. Wells

Wells was in the main a true prophet. In physical details his vision of the new world has been fulfilled to a surprising extent.  - George Orwell

Over the period of a decade beginning with The Time Machine in 1895, H. G. Wells created some of his most popular fictions in the form of scientific romance novels. These books have captured the imagination of readers ever since and are arguably as popular today as they were more than one hundred years ago. Among these perhaps the strangest and best is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Undoubtedly influenced by Robinson Crusoe, but also by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island which was published only thirteen years earlier, this book goes far beyond those deserted island tales and looks forward to the twenty-first century and beyond. In its day it was considered blasphemous, but in the age of cloning its depiction of vivisection takes on new meaning while the blasphemy recedes into the background. Above all this is a good story with suspense that holds even after the first breathless reading that it usually inspires. The story is of such a suspenseful nature that I am reluctant to share any plot details for fear of spoiling the experience for the reader.

As with all great books the levels of meaning and reference in this book are many and the structure, a lost narrative found only after the author's death (reminiscent of Poe among others) is a nod to the era of the unreliable narrator for before his death Edward Pendrick, the narrator, claims to have no memory of the events which it described. Peter Straub, in his "Foreword" to the Modern Library edition, commented:

Given its infusion of the adventure tale with deep, pervasive doubt, Dr. Moreau can be seen as a unique and compelling alliance of Treasure Island and Joseph Conrad. (p. xvi)

I certainly agree with this assessment and believe that Wells, who was a good friend of Conrad as well as Henry James, Stephen Crane and Ford Madox Ford, might also agree with it. Like the best of Conrad reading this book was an exhilarating experience due both to its narrative and its deep meaning.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells. The Modern Library, New York. 1996 (1896).

Monday, November 30, 2009

Epidemic in London

The Ghost Map
by Steven Johnson

But however secure and well-regulated civilized life may become, bacteria, Protozoa, viruses, infected fleas, lice, ticks, mosquitoes, and bedbugs will always lurk in the shadows ready to pounce when neglect, poverty, famine, or war lets down the defenses.
- Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice & History

Where do you find the conjunction of epidemiology, mathematics, anthropology, and Victorian history? You do in this enlightening book, The Ghost Map, subtitled "The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World". The subtitle is not an overstatement for this is one of the best books about the history of science that I have read. Steven Johnson provides the details of an episode in the improvement of scientific understanding that makes you wonder that such improvement ever occurs. Just as important as the scientific story are the connections the author makes between it and the history of the growth of cities with the impact of disease and its control on the possibilities for further growth.

"Cities are tremendous engines of wealth creation and culture, but the political stereotype is that they're leeching off the mainstream and the countryside," Johnson said. "Actually, the opposite is true."

The background of certain key contributors, both medical and political, along with such contextual information as the history and literature of the times, 1850's London, adds to the wealth of information that makes the story of this Cholera epidemic worth reading. I enjoyed each chapter as I learned about an important chapter in the history of science.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, New York. 2006.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #103


Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O, blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more, than in my verse can sit
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Moons of Jupiter

On Thanksgiving eve I had the opportunity to view the moons of Jupiter. Ed, my brother-in-law, set up his high powered astronomical binoculars on the deck of the house that he and my Sister, Robbie, built here in Spring Creek, Nevada. With the aid of these binoculars we were able to view Jupiter in the southeastern sky along with its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. The view was stunning as was the view of the half-moon presence of Earth's own moon, with detail of craters galore on its surface. These images have stayed in my mind over the days since we viewed them along with other objects in the night sky, including the "Seven Sisters" and Orion's "belt" which was just above the horizon to the northeast on that early evening.
The juxtaposition of seeing the moons first identified by Galileo with the recent anniversary of Darwin's great work, The Origin of Species, reminded me of the importance of scientific accomplishments for our lives today. This was reinforced yesterday as we ate our Thanksgiving meal and watched a football game on the wide screen high-definition television. We continue to evolve and explore the reach of our minds as humans. It is a wonder both to behold and to be part of.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pastoral Poem


Il Penseroso is a pastoral poem by John Milton published in 1645. Invoking "divinest Melancholy", the poem is in praise of the contemplative, withdrawn life of study, philosophy, thought and meditation, and is a counterpiece to L'Allegro, which praises the more cheerful sides of life and literature. Both pieces detail the passing of a day in the countryside according to both philosophies.

Il Penseroso

Hence vain deluding joyes,
The brood of folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
Dwell in som idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train.

But hail thou Goddes, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose Saintly visage is too bright
To hit the Sense of human sight;
And therfore to our weaker view,
Ore laid with black staid Wisdoms hue.
Black, but such as in esteem,
Prince Memnons sister might beseem,
Or that Starr'd Ethiope Queen that strove
To set her beauties praise above
The Sea Nymphs, and their powers offended.
Yet thou art higher far descended,
Thee bright- hair'd Vesta long of yore,
To solitary Saturn bore;
His daughter she (in Saturns raign,
Such mixture was not held a stain).
Oft in glimmering Bowres, and glades
He met her, and in secret shades
Of woody Ida's inmost grove,
While yet there was no fear of Jove.
Com pensive Nun, devout and pure,
Sober, stedfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestick train,
And sable stole of Cipres Lawn,
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
Com, but keep thy wonted state,
With eev'n step, and musing gate,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes:
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thy self to Marble, till
With a sad Leaden downward cast,
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.
And joyn with thee calm Peace, and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring,
Ay round about Joves Altar sing.
And adde to these retired leasure,
That in trim Gardens takes his pleasure;
But first, and chiefest, with thee bring,
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The Cherub Contemplation,
And the mute Silence hist along,
'Less Philomel will daign a Song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o're th' accustom'd Oke;
Sweet Bird that shunn'st the noise of folly,
Most musicall, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among,
I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
Like one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav'ns wide pathles way;
And oft, as if her head she bow'd,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
Oft on a Plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,
Over som wide-water'd shoar,
Swinging slow with sullen roar;
Or if the Ayr will not permit,
Som still removed place will fit,
Where glowing Embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom,
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the Cricket on the hearth,
Or the Belmans drousie charm,
To bless the dores from nightly harm:
Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in som high lonely Towr,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear
The spirit of Plato to unfold
What Worlds, or what vast Regions hold
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook:
And of those Dæmons that are found
In fire, air, flood, or under ground,
Whose power hath a true consent
With Planet, or with Element.
Som time let Gorgeous Tragedy
In Scepter'd Pall com sweeping by,
Presenting Thebs, or Pelops line,
Or the tale of Troy divine.
Or what (though rare) of later age,
Ennobled hath the Buskind stage.
But, O sad Virgin, that thy power
Might raise Musæus from his bower,
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as warbled to the string,
Drew Iron tears down Pluto's cheek,
And made Hell grant what Love did seek.
Or call up him that left half told
The story of Cambuscan bold,
Of Camball, and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to wife,
That own'd the vertuous Ring and Glass,
And of the wondrous Hors of Brass,
On which the Tartar King did ride;
And if ought els, great Bards beside,
In sage and solemn tunes have sung,
Of Turneys and of Trophies hung;
Of Forests, and inchantments drear,
Where more is meant then meets the ear.
Thus night oft see me in thy pale career,
Till civil-suited Morn appeer,
Not trickt and frounc't as she was wont,
With the Attick Boy to hunt,
But Cherchef't in a comly Cloud,
While rocking Winds are Piping loud,
Or usher'd with a shower still,
When the gust hath blown his fill,
Ending on the russling Leaves,
With minute drops from off the Eaves.
And when the Sun begins to fling
His flaring beams, me Goddes bring
To arched walks of twilight groves,
And shadows brown that Sylvan loves
Of Pine, or monumental Oake,
Where the rude Ax with heaved stroke,
Was never heard the Nymphs to daunt,
Or fright them from their hallow'd haunt.
There in close covert by som Brook,
Where no profaner eye may look,
Hide me from Day's garish eie,
While the Bee with Honied thie,
That at her flowry work doth sing,
And the Waters murmuring
With such consort as they keep,
Entice the dewy-feather'd Sleep;
And let som strange mysterious dream,
Wave at his Wings in Airy stream,
Of lively portrature display'd,
Softly on my eye-lids laid.
And as I wake, sweet musick breath
Above, about, or underneath,
Sent by som spirit to mortals good,
Or th' unseen Genius of the Wood.
But let my due feet never fail,
To walk the studious Cloysters pale,
And love the high embowed Roof,
With antick Pillars massy proof,
And storied Windows richly dight,
Casting a dimm religious light.
There let the pealing Organ blow,
To the full voic'd Quire below,
In Service high, and Anthems cleer,
As may with sweetnes, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into extasies,
And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peacefull hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell,
Of every Star that Heav'n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To somthing like Prophetic strain.
These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #102


My love is strengthen'd, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear:
That love is merchandized whose rich esteeming
The owner's tongue doth publish every where.
Our love was new and then but in the spring
When I was wont to greet it with my lays,
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
Therefore like her I sometime hold my tongue,
Because I would not dull you with my song.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


“Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue.”
- Charles Darwin

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published on this day in 1859 (and this year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth). Intensely aware of its implications, Darwin prefaced his book with two quotations which suggested that God was part of, and friendly towards, good science. One quotation was by William Whewell, a noted contemporary scientist, and the other was by Sir Francis Bacon:

To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both. (The Advancement of Learning, 1605)

After studying, somewhat erratically, to be a medical doctor Darwin had settled on a career in religion and received a degree from Cambridge University. This played a role in getting Darwin on the Beagle in the first place. Faced with his father’s reluctance to let him go, Darwin appealed to his Uncle Josiah Wedgewood (of the china company) for support. Prominent on Wedgewood’s list of persuasions was his belief that “the pursuit of Natural very suitable to a clergyman” — the career which Darwin, before going, envisioned for himself.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Victorian Mystery

Beauty deprived of its proper foils and adjuncts ceases to be enjoyed as beauty, just as light deprived of all shadows ceases to be enjoyed as light.
- John Ruskin

Charles Finch's novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, is a well-researched debut novel. A mystery, it is set in mid-Victorian London, and introduces gentleman detective Charles Lennox, whose ambitious travel plans are continually disrupted by crimes in need of investigation. I enjoyed the portrayal of this somewhat laid back and congenial detective and appreciated his fondness for books and relaxation with literary tomes. With the addition of friend Lady Jane Grey he investigates the murder of her former former maid, now working for a director of the Royal Mint. We find that the crime is more complicated than it initially seems and is further complicated by the author with the addition of a second murder. The solution to the murders and how they are connected fills the novel with suspense while avoiding the unnecessary gore often associated with novels about crime. Both the period detail and cast of secondary characters, especially Charles' relationship with his butler, enhanced this reader's enjoyment. This was an intricate and well-written Victorian mystery novel that gave me reason to explore more stories of literary detective Lennox from the pen of Charles Finch.

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch. St. Martin's Griffin Edition. 2008

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #101


O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
For thy neglect of truth in beauty dyed?
Both truth and beauty on my love depends;
So dost thou too, and therein dignified.
Make answer, Muse: wilt thou not haply say
'Truth needs no colour, with his colour fix'd;
Beauty no pencil, beauty's truth to lay;
But best is best, if never intermix'd?'
Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?
Excuse not silence so; for't lies in thee
To make him much outlive a gilded tomb,
And to be praised of ages yet to be.
Then do thy office, Muse; I teach thee how
To make him seem long hence as he shows now.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #100


Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget'st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time's spoils despised every where.
Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #99


The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair:
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both
And to his robbery had annex'd thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
But sweet or colour it had stol'n from thee.

In Search of Lost Time

Sodom and Gomorrah, the Final Chapter

I absolutely must -- and let's settle the matter at once, because I'm quite clear about it now, because I won't change my mind again, because I couldn't live without it -- I absolutely must marry Albertine. (p. 724)

With these words of the narrator Marcel Proust ends the final chapter of Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume in his monumental In Search of Lost Time. Whether the narrator is sincere or not, any lack of sincerity is more than supplanted by his passion, if not love, for Albertine. Throughout this volume and especially in the final chapters the narrator has had a tempestuous relationship with Albertine both in his mind and in his life in Balbec and its environs.

Last night we discussed this aspect of the novel along with other themes while engaging in a sumptuous repast at Bistro Zinc, a delightful French restaurant (which I would highly recommend to all readers who venture out into the near north side of Chicago) not far from our normal class location at The Newberry Library.

Some of the other themes that are prominent in the final sections of this volume are the passion of both Baron Charlus and the Prince for young 'Charlie' Morel. Morel, a reprobate and a cad who is made somewhat appealing (at least for this reader) by virtue of being a talented pianist, plays with both men without the other knowing about his liaisons much as a mouse plays with a cat. The ruling word throughout for both the narrator and other characters is passion, if not lust, in the erotic sense which pervades several relationships. The issue of the Dreyfus case is also prominent and Proust is able to convey the complicated views of both sides through the seeming necessity that most prominent characters be identified as either "Dreyfusards" or not. The overall feeling I retain from this reading is one of the cumulative effect of the layers of themes, many of which have appeared in the previous three volumes and will, undoubtedly, appear again in the final volumes of In Search of Lost Time. To some extent this is due to the influence of Wagner and the use of literary "liet motifs" by Proust and the technique of the search, in this case the search for love. That the search for love seems to devolve into an impasse of passion for the sake of sanity if not love itself is a wonder -- one of the many wonders of this continuously engaging novel.

In search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York. 2003 (1922)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Play Reading

A Picasso
by Jeffrey Hatcher

Last night I attended a reading of the play A Picasso by Jeffrey Hatcher at Timeline Theatre. This was the first in a series of three play readings as part of the current play reading series by Timeline entitled "Timepieces". If the others (later in the Spring of 2010) are as good as this one we are all in for a great treat; for the reading last night was a riveting piece of theater that blended history and art in a brief one-act play.

This 2003 award-winning play from the author of "Tuesdays with Morrie" is set in Paris during the height of the German Occupation. Pablo Picasso is interrogated by the beautiful and mysterious Miss Fischer who has been hired by the Gestapo. In this cat-and-mouse game of intrigue, Picasso is forced to authenticate three paintings, each assumed to be "a Picasso." In this timeless collision between art and politics, an enticing tension begins to mount with art, sex, and the lure of power at its core. David Parkes played the role of Picasso and Kathy Logelin was Miss Fischer, during the play the dialogue develops several high points of tension as the discussion goes back and forth, presumable with Nazi soldiers in a room nearby. The play builds to a clever twist of an ending - and ending which occurs quite suddenly as a relief to the tension of the evening. The direction by Rachel Walshe was excellent and the evening was ended with a brief discussion led by P. J. Powers, Timeline Artistic Director, and included the cast, director and the dramaturg, Joshua Altman. It was an delightful evening of theater, art and learning for us all.

L'enfance du Christ

The last section of Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time Part IV) has a passing reference to L'enfance du Christ (English: The Childhood of Christ). This is the Opus 25, an oratorio (choral work) by Hector Berlioz, based on the story of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. Berlioz wrote his own words for the piece. Most of it was composed in 1853 and 1854, but it also incorporates an earlier work La fuite en Egypte (1850). It was first performed at the Salle Herz, Paris on 10 December 1855, with Berlioz conducting and soloists from the Opéra-Comique.

Berlioz described L'enfance as a sacred trilogy. The first of its three sections depicts King Herod ordering the massacre of all newborn children in Judaea; the second shows the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus setting out for Egypt to avoid the slaughter, having been warned by angels; and the final section portrays their arrival in the Egyptian town of Sais where they are given refuge by a family of Ishmaelites. It's worth noting that Berlioz himself was by no means a religious believer, though he was a great admirer of Catholic church music.

The idea for L'enfance went back to 1850 when Berlioz composed an organ piece for his friend Joseph-Louis Duc, called L'adieu des bergers (The Shepherds' Farewell). He soon turned it into a choral movement for the shepherds saying goodbye to the baby Jesus as he leaves Bethlehem for Egypt. He then added a piece for tenor, Le repos de la sainte famille (The Repose of the Holy Family) and preceded both movements with an overture to form a work he called La fuite en Egypte. It was published in 1852 and first performed in Leipzig in December, 1853. The premiere was so successful, Berlioz's friends urged him to expand the piece and he added a new section, L'arrivée à Sais (The Arrival at Sais), which included parts for Mary and Joseph. Berlioz, perhaps feeling the result was still unbalanced, then composed a third section to precede the other two, Le songe d'Hérode (Herod's Dream).

Even though today we view Berlioz's music as the epitome of Romanticism, it was typically received with hostility by Parisian audiences and critics, usually accusing it of being bizarre and discordant. Yet L'enfance du Christ was an immediate success and was praised by all but two critics in the Paris newspapers. Some attributed its favourable reception to a new, gentler style, a claim Berlioz vigorously rejected:

In that work many people imagined they could detect a radical change in my style and manner. This opinion is entirely without foundation. The subject naturally lent itself to a gentle and simple style of music, and for that reason alone was more in accordance with their taste and intelligence. Time would probably have developed these qualities, but I should have written L'enfance du Christ in the same manner twenty years ago. (Hector Berlioz, Memoirs)

The work has maintained its popularity - it is often performed around Christmas.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Today's Shakespeare

Sonnet #98

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem'd it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play:

Isadora Duncan

When She Danced

by Martin Sherman

Nick Bowling has achieved another directing triumph with the TimeLine Theatre Company production of Martin Sherman's play, When She Danced, about one day in the later life of Isadora Duncan. The entire production was outstanding from the Belle Epoque set and exquisite musical selections to the cast and, of course, the direction.
The play is set over the course of a single day and as it opens Isadora (played by Jennifer Engstrom) is on the couch with her Russian husband Sergei Esenin (Patrick Mulvey). Throughout the play we are entertained by a large palette of different languages including Russian, Greek, Italian, and French in addition to English. This does not seem to make the play difficult to understand as it is very visual and the physical action is choreographed so well that it is always clear what is happening. Director Nick Bowling has crafted an immensely watchable and lavishly beautiful production. We meet Isadora in her 40s. She claims to be past her prime, but in Engstrom’s both regal and sensual performance, Duncan is every inch magnificent. Her Paris flat is in a state of exuberant and sophisticated chaos. Among the larger-than-life personalities coming and going: Duncan’s much younger Russian husband Sergei (who it seems knows only two languages, Russian and Love); Alexandros Eliopolos, an adoring 19-year-old Greek prodigy pianist (Alejandro Cordoba, a major talent who delivers a concert-level Chopin etude midway through the production); and Miss Hanna Belzer (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a Russian translator whose underwritten role nonetheless becomes an emotional cornerstone thanks to Brooks’ quietly galvanizing performance. The languages – Greek, Russian, English French and Italian – fly fast and thick with several in the ensemble never speaking a word of English. Bowling succeeds in making dialogue flow like music. And it’s to the cast’s great credit that even when the words are foreign, the meaning within them shines through. Miss Brooks is outstanding in her role as Miss Belzer who, in addition to providing translation and some of the comic relief, stands in as it were for the audience with her marvelous reactions to some of the activities with which she is surrounded. This play is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of communicating art, dance in particular, but you do get some perspective on what it meant for Isadora even though she does not dance a single step. Once again TimeLine Theatre Company has brought history and great art to the Chicago theater stage.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Proust and Music

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”
- Walter H. Pater

Last night I attended a lecture at The Art Institute of Chicago, "The Vinteuil Sonata: Where Music and Literature Collide", given by John Adams. John Adams is particularly qualified to lecture on this subject as he is one of the most respected of contemporary composers having written several operas including Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, as well as important symphonic works including On The Transmigration of Souls for which he was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music and three Grammys. In his lecture he discussed the ability of authors to describe both music and the act of listening to music.

Beginning with Walter Pater's idea regarding the musicalization of literature, Mr. Adams discussed the impact of music on the novels of Thomas Mann through his use of thematic integration and adaptation of Wagner's emphasis on leitmotifs. For Mann this culminated in his magisterial novel Doctor Faustus where his protagonist, Adrian Leverkuhn, was a composer who sold his soul to Mephistopheles just as Faust does in Goethe's drama. Moving on to Proust's discussion of artists he focused on the examples of Bergotte (the author), Elstir (the painter), and above all Vinteuil (the composer). With Vinteuil we see the height of Proust's ability to express in words the impact of music through his "aesthetic sensibility". For Proust, an author with little or no formal training in music, this is impressive and another example of Proust's genius. We find Proust, in Swann's Way, describing a particularly moving passage from the Vinteuil Violin sonata as the "essence of emotion" in its musical expression. John Adams commented that Swann was an "active listener" and through Proust's ability to describe the effect of music upon him we as readers have an example of the listening process. Overall the lecture was a beautiful portrayal of Proust's art and a great introduction to one aspect of his literary accomplishment.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.
- Stendahl, The Charterhouse of Parma

Orhan Pamuk' s novel is set in the winter of 1992 in the city of Kars in the north-eastern part of Turkey.
The story is narrated by Pamuk himself as he tells of the poet journalist Kerim Alakusoglu, known as Ka, who has traveled to this remote town to write about the events surrounding a group of young women who are committing suicide rather than give up their headscarves. This is a very contemporary story of the clash between devout Islamists and the secular state that controls Turkey. Isolating the action in the snowbound town of Kars we learn of the tensions through Ka's interviews with various citizens. Pamuk's narrative style presents a pastiche of events that blend together to form the story with both love and politics coming to the fore. The many surprises and shocks of the story kept me interested and I found new fascination for the contemporary history of Turkey. The translation by Maureen Freely, who has translated several of Pamuk's novels, is excellent.

Snow: a novel by Orhan Pamuk. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2005 (2002)

Sinclair Lewis

"What Mr. Lewis has done for myself and thousands of others is to lodge a piece of a continent in our imagination."
- E. M. Forster

Sinclair Lewis is perhaps best known for his many novels: including Main Street, Babbit, Arrowsmith and others. But he wrote many stories throughout his career of which he personally selected his favorites for the collection: Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis. Some of these stories mirror the themes that inhabit his novels. They are all vivid with colorful and concrete detail that reminds this Midwestern boy of his roots. The stories range widely from a satiric piece about a boy movie star that reminds me of Twain's The Prince and the Pauper to romantic trysts and tales of isolation and loneliness. All the stories are fun to read and remind me of the best of Lewis.

Selected Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis by Sinclair Lewis. Ivan R. Dee, Chicago. 1990 (1935)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wilhelm Tell

When on Alpine heights
The beacons all are kindled and shine forth
And tyrants' strongholds fall in smoking ruins,
Then shall the Switzers to your cottage come
And bear the joyous tidings to your ear:
So, bright in your dark night, shall freedom dawn.
- Wilhelm Tell, Schiller (lines 745-750)

Seldom does a play include fewer scenes or lines for the title character, yet Wilhelm Tell is in few scenes and has relatively little to say in this great play, the last completed, by Friedrich Schiller. Yes, there is the famous scene where Tell refuses to bow to the "hat", the symbol of repressive Habsburg power, and is in turn forced to shoot the apple off his son's head. And there is the ultimate act which makes him a patriotic hero when he kills the Governor Gessler, the imperial representative hated by Tell's fellow countrymen and women. Beyond that the scenes in this play demonstrate the importance of those countrymen and their closeness to the land and traditions of their forefathers. This is a powerful romantic drama about the desire for freedom, but it is also an Arcadian idyll that presents the best of nature. It seems almost Rousseauian in the opening scenes that are set in a seeming "state of nature". Eden like as the country may be it is also beset by tyranny from the dreaded imperial Hapsburg empire. We see the attraction this life has for Ulrich von Rudenz, the nephew of Baron von Attinghausen. While Attinghausen is a patriot his nephew is attracted to the other side and is brought back to support his countrymen only through the intervention of his love for young Berta. The importance of Berta and Lady Gertrud in their influence over the men closest to them is worth noting. Schiller's play, the culmination of his dramatic art, is a joy to read. Over the years it, along with other plays by Schiller, has found its way to the operatic stage, in this case through the pen of Rossini, while Verdi was attracted to other of Schiller's works. While the large cast and number of different scenic locations make this a difficult work to stage I could not help thinking that we are overdue for a cinematic traversal of this tremendous literary resource.

Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller. William Mainland, trans. University of Chicago Press. 1972 (1792)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Panoply of Themes

In Search of Lost Time

by Marcel Proust

For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say to myself: "I'm falling asleep." (Swann's Way, p. 3)

The search goes on and with it the panoply of themes that Proust weaves together like threads of a giant quilt or comforter. One of these themes, sleep, is the catalyst for one of Proust's wonderful meditations as Chapter Three of Part Two of Sodom and Gomorrah begins. On his return from the Verdurins he is "very sleepy". Suddenly his life is fading into sleep just as the "daylight when night falls" and the fire when the blaze dies.

I entered the realm of sleep, which is like a second dwelling into which we move for that one purpose. It has noises of its own, ...It has servants, its special visitors who call to take us out, so that we are ready to get up when we are compelled to realise, by our almost immediate transmigration into the other dwelling, our waking one, that the room is empty, that nobody has called. (p. 516)

For Proust sleep is inextricably linked with memory and with the all-encompassing passage of life and death, but a death that is conquered as we are awakened and reborn. From the opening lines of Swann's Way where we are introduced to the narrator sleep is preeminent of the many self-reflexive experiences that trigger the author's meditative passages. It is passages like these that I find moving and memorable. The literary art of Proust surpasses that of almost all others placing him in a heavenly realm, beyond sleep.

In Search of Lost Time, Vol IV: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York. 1993 (1921).