Wednesday, April 29, 2009

My New Favorite Sonnet


When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver'd o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
- William Shakespeare

The last six lines just take my breath away. The line, "that thou among the wastes of time must go", captures the feeling and regret when one is realizes the power of time, moving inexorably. It is a rare beauty that summons such courage. Once more Shakespeare demonstrates his greatness.


He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.

- Raphael Sabatini, Scaramouche

Rafael Sabatini was born on this day in 1875; above, the opening lines of Scaramouche (1921), his best-selling novel of the French Revolution (the lines inscribed on his gravestone when he died in 1950). This is my favorite of Sabatini's novels, with its story of the young aristocrat who becomes involved with the politics and turbulence of the revolution.
It has precursors in the work of Dumas and you might compare Saramouche to Cyrano or the Scarlet Pimpernel, but he stands on his own as one of the great romantic heroes of historical literature. Sabatini's most famous works have been translated into the classic swashbuckling films Captain Blood and Scaramouche. However, these books represent a small fraction of Sabatini's work. A popular author during his lifetime, he produced 31 novels, 8 short novel/short story collections, 6 nonfiction books, numerous short stories, and a play. Sabatini's writing, usually fiction in a historic setting, explores political intrigue, religion, and the place of chivalry and honor, while entertaining with clever dialogue, deftly drawn characters and action sequences as vivid and thrilling as modern movies.

Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini. Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 1991 (1921)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Our Journey

More Poetry from
'Geography Lessons'


Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile.
- Albert Camus, The Plague

Hell hath no limits, nor is it circumscrib'd
In one self place, for where we are is hell, 
And where hell is , must we ever be.
- Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus*

Where dare we go when first we try to sing our tune?
It is a song we sing that allows some escape
From our sentence wrought by years of - it is ruin
That presses in upon our breast - our home of late.

Yes, the place is not an edifice of strength.
Rather it is a mirage melded from dreams
Full of lightning and fears , shattering mirrors,
Making us forget what we might become.

Our lives portray a pretty dismal scene. We cannot
See ourselves - our virtue is lost. Never more will
Scenes of summer ring true in the evening shade.
We grow old - withering as we reach our wintry grave.

Gravitudinal shifts in our being do not change our journey.
We dare to go (Yet every place the story is the same).
The boundaries of our self-imposed exile from Eden
Doom each of us to everlasting penury.

January, 1994 (2004) from Geography Lessons by James Henderson

* Marlowe's Faust signs a pact with Satan for 24 years of unlimited power and pleasure. At the end of the poem Faustus fears his fate in Hell and tries to find faith. Unfortunately, Faustus' faith in God is not strong enough to save him, and he is carried away to Hell by Satan.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Education and History

The History Boys
by Alan Bennett

It was with some trepidation that I walked down Broadway Avenue early this afternoon to attend the Chicago premiere of Alan Bennett's play The History Boys presented by the TimeLine Theatre Company.
More than two years ago I fell in love with the film version of the original production which had won awards in both London and New York. While I had not seen the stage version I had read the play and was impressed with Alan Bennett's original vision which had been severely abridged for the film adaptation. I should not have entertained any doubt for, based on previous experience with great plays and performances at TimeLine, I had nothing to worry about.

The History Boys as directed by Nick Bowling makes a vibrant, exciting and ultimately moving evening of theater.  The 
production, with the boys' living spaces highlighting one end of the theater space and a balcony at the other end, once again shows how imaginative the set designers at TimeLine can be in using their limited space, and how successful the company is in presenting the play. Best of all is the cast, from Donald Brearley's moving portrayal of Hector, Terry Hamilton's intense imagining of the Headmaster and Ann Wakefield's sincere realization of Mrs. Lintott; and, above all, the eight effervescent boys who each individually and together as a group convey the difficulties and joy of their preparation for entrance into Oxford and Cambridge. Among the boys, for me, the performances of Will Allan as Scripps and Joel Gross as Dakin stood out as particularly persuasive. Nick Bowling's direction allowed this very literary play to seem natural, balancing the constant dialogue with attention to dramatic silences and plenty of movement in just the right proportion. I must also mention both the effective use of period music during the intervals and the overhead video screens that aided the understanding of the play through timely visuals while providing a few moments of comic relief. The presence of comic relief helped take the edge off the building erotic tension that grew slowly out of the both the complexities of relationships among the main characters and the meaning of education explored in the play. Above all the camaraderie among the boys and their teachers was clearly present throughout the play making the emotions at the end even more effective. TimeLine Theatre Company has clearly taken this modern literary gem from the pen of Alan Bennett and made it their own. Chicagoans should attend, enjoy, and rejoice!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Among School Children

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way - the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

Thus begins one of the greatest among W. B. Yeats later poems and one of the best poems of the twentieth century. I still remember a University of Chicago First Friday lecture by Claudia Traudt several years ago when she recited and analyzed this poem. Before the end of the lecture the beauty of the poem (and her recitation) brought tears to my eyes.

I cannot begin to share all the ideas and resonances that are contained in this marvelous work of art. As with all great poetry you do not need to know all the layers of meaning, but they add to your enjoyment of it and the understanding permeates the feeling of the beauty. Just the beginning line, which situates you in a schoolroom, can suggest the literal schoolroom and the metaphorical schoolroom that is the world in which we live. Certainly Yeats was alive to both and his poetry inspires the continued learning for those who read and meditate upon its meaning.

After sharing six more stanzas of reflections on life and its meaning - the beauty of learning from dialogues of Plato to the spiritual reveries of religious thought - he closes with a final stanza of transcendent beauty:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Here is a great poetic soul musing about the nature of creativity. The lines linger in one's memory and like all great art remind one of the greatness of humanity. (The whole poem may be found on-line here)

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Scribner, 1956.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dorian Gray

Was it really true that one could never change? He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood-- his rose-white boyhood, as Lord Henry had once called it. He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame. But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him?

Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that.
- Oscar Wilde (p. 164, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde, was published in April 1891. The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is greatly impressed by Dorian's physical beauty and becomes strongly infatuated with him, believing that his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Talking in Basil's garden, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil's, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's world view. Espousing a new kind of hedonism, Lord Henry suggests that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and the fulfilment of the senses. And so Gray, it appears, becomes a sort of Faust, and that evening he goes to the opera with his Mephistopheles, Lord Henry. In the following days, Wotton indeed proves a “bad influence,” for Dorian begins following him in the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of pleasure. They engage in scandalous activities which erode Dorian’s innocence. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, expressing his desire to sell his soul to ensure that the portrait Basil has painted of him would age rather than himself. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, subsequently plunging him into a series of debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin being displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic example of the Victorian novel and one of those books that can effect the reader in a powerful and unique way. The idea of selling your soul to the devil, like Faust as related by Marlowe, Goethe and others is an image that intrigues. But there is in Wilde the focus on the purity of innocence (as seen in the passage quoted above) that is lost as one lives a life, whether filled with licentiousness or mere everyday experience. Wilde gives the story his own imprimatur with the artistic twist and thus adds to the evidence of his genius that includes the drama, stories, poetry and criticism that he created.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays. Perennial Library, 1989.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Vladimir Nabokov
was born on this day in 1899. Here is a passage from Speak, Memory:

I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness — in a landscape selected at random — is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

In a sense his prose is like a rare butterfly, but with a beauty that is eternal, not ephemeral. When I first read him I do not remember, but the vision of 'Lo' will always remain in my memory.


The Guide and I entered by that hidden road, to return into the bright world; and, without caring for any rest,
we mounted up, he first and I second, so far that I distinguished through a round opening the beauteous things which Heaven bears; and thence we issued out, again to see the Stars.

- The Inferno, Canto XXXIV, Dante

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, trans. by Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed. Vintage Books. 1959
The image above is Dante's Tomb in Ravenna

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oliver Twist

"'There are a good many books, are there not my boy?' said Mr. Brownlow"
"'A great number, sir,' replied Oliver; 'I never saw so many.'"
(p. 107)

I have returned to Dickens after a brief hiatus and find myself immersed in Oliver Twist, his second novel, but his first novel in the modern sense, since Pickwick Papers was more a group of picaresque adventures and related short tales than a novel. Once again there are famous characters, perhaps as familiar to people as any outside of A Christmas Carol; thus Mr. Bumble, the Beadle, the 'Artful Dodger', Fagin, Bill Sykes and Nancy as well as Oliver himself seem to be almost real historical figures rather than characters from a Victorian novel. Dickens style is still fairly simple, he has not matured as a novelist, and the book strikes this reader, who first read it as a teenager, to be a novel written for teens rather than adults. However if you read between the lines and meditate on the nature of some of the relationships you can find the 'adult' novel that is there as well. Interestingly, Dickens has the narrator speak directly to the reader from time to time, at one point claiming "I am his biographer," when commenting on Oliver's entrance into the Sowerberry undertaking establishment, and his unfortunate experience of Noah Claypole's "ill treatment" of him.

The novel is divided into three books and the first one introduces Oliver, the young innocent recalcitrant orphan who deigns to ask for "more" and thus finds the catalyst for his adventures into the world beyond the workhouse. From living with undertakers, and sleeping in a coffin, to discovering the world of the upper middle class and books with the Brownlows he is buffeted about, yet seems fated to find his home in the world of orphan boys under the leadership of Fagin. The first book ends with a bit of a cliff-hanger in the episode with Oliver abetting Syke's burglary escapade. But we all know that is not the end. . .

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (1837)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Two Monday Poems

Sonnet VIII.

Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly,
Or else receivest with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: 'thou single wilt prove none.'

- William Shakespeare

An Eternity

There is no dusk to be,
There is no dawn that was,
Only there's now, and now,
And the wind in the grass.

Days I remember of
Now in my heart, are now;
Days that I dream will bloom
White the peach bough.

Dying shall never be
Now in the windy grass;
Now under shooken leaves
Death never was.

- Archibald MacLeish (Who died on this day in 1982)

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Last night I attended a performance of Anton Bruckner's massive Symphony No. 8 in c with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. The performance was impressive.
It is exactly this sort of music for which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is well suited and justifiably famous.

I could write many paragraphs about the Symphony and Bruckner's struggles to get it performed. The result of those struggles is the existence of several different versions of the symphony, of which the Haitink chose the Nowak version. The exquisite length of the symphony has been compared to massive stateliness of a Gothic cathedral and this is an apt comparison given both Bruckner's personal piety and his life as a successful church organist.

The eighth symphony of Bruckner belongs to the world a transcendent works of art. It hearkens back to all that had preceded him in symphonic music, but to Wagner in particular whom Bruckner idolized. It is not hard to see the references to his idol, but the music is still uniquely Bruckner's own. It seems to appear as if from the ether with a sound that fills Symphony hall as if it has always been there. Rather than attempt to describe it further, for mere words seem insufficient for the purpose, let me just suggest that you need to listen to it to understand and appreciate it. And, if you do want to listen, I would recommend highly the interpretation of Gunter Wand conducting the Berlin Philharmoniker in a live recording (RCA Red Seal from BMG Classics). The experience yesterday evening was one of proverbial transport and reminded me why I enjoy the symphony.

Symphony No. 8 in c by Anton Bruckner. Gunter Wand, Berlin Philharmoniker. RCA Red Seal by BMG Classics. 2001.

Friday, April 17, 2009


One of the best statements about reading I have ever read comes in the last moments of the first act of Alan Bennett's play, The History Boys, when Hector says:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours. (p.56)

This is a powerful moment in the play and a striking observation about the reader and the act of reading. These moments are rare and worth looking for and remembering. One recent moment, for me, was near the end of Anthony Powell's A Question of Upbringing, when Jenkins realizes that his relationship with Stringham has changed permanently and that this sort of change is part of the natural process of living and growing. These moments are universal and the author that can capture them and share them with the reader has managed to portray the universal in the human experience.

The History Boys: A Play by Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber, New York. 2006 (2004)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Twentieth Century Master

Robert Musil

Today is the anniversary of the death of Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities, who died on this day in 1942. Yesterday was the last meeting of the Newberry Library class in which for the last nine weeks we read and discussed the first volume of that novel. It is coincidental that Robert Musil died in the midst of the Second World War and in the midst of working on the novel which he left unfinished. On rereading Musil I have come to a appreciation of why he may have found it so difficult to complete the project, for his protagonist, Ulrich - the man without qualities - was so definitely a man who considered the unlimited number of possibilities before acting. As Musil said, "What is seemingly solid in this system becomes a porous pretext for many possible meanings; . . . and man as the quintessence of his possibilities, potential man,"(p. 270); the task before him must have seemed daunting. The result - he left thousands of pages of manuscript unfinished, unedited, unpublished at his death.

At the end of the first volume of The Man Without Qualities Ulrich has just learned of his father's death and is seen heading for the train station to return home to attend to his duties. This is an ending of sorts, at least for this seven hundred page prelude to the remainder of the novel. It is a prelude that includes introductions to a roster of characters who, unlike Ulrich, portray characteristics that place them definitely in 1913 Vienna where we find most of them participating in a centennial celebration referred to as the 'Parallel Campaign'. Beside this campaign we also see glimmerings of the rise of the 'new' Germany that would emerge after the Great War which remains only, an unmentioned, possibility.

Through the whole of the first volume Ulrich both meditates internally and interacts with the other characters regarding the nature of this world and its activities and, most importantly, the possibilities facing him - the 'what if' or subjunctive nature of life. This can be summarized briefly as a discussion of the difference between the precise measurement of the modern scientific view of man and the imprecision of the artistic or more spiritual view. The society presented in the novel is particular, yet universal and in that society Ulrich is the most universal individual. As the first volume of this rather uneventful story edges toward its close suddenly several events erupt to bring some of the action into focus. These lead to a moment where Musil brings Ulrich and the reader face to face to contemplate "the narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings,". This mode of thought may give one the "impression that their life has a 'course' (that) is somehow their refuge from chaos." (p. 709) Or we may believe that it is not an impression, but a reality made through our creation of our own life through our actions and influences ("Man is not a teaching animal but one that lives, acts, and influences." - Goethe).

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

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Once again my early morning run has triggered thoughts. That thoughts might be coursing through my brain like so many electro-chemical reactions is not surprising, but that I am capable of considering them and wondering why still makes me pause to reflect.
One fundamental idea that underlays my being is that of eudaimonia. For some this may seem a strange word - it is a classical Greek word often translated as 'happiness'. Etymologically, it consists of the word "eu" ("good" or "well being") and "daimōn" ("spirit" or "minor deity", used by extension to mean one's lot or fortune). Although popular usage of the term happiness refers to a state of mind, related to joy or pleasure, eudaimonia rarely has such connotations, and the less subjective "human flourishing" is often preferred as a translation.

I mention that in the spirit of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics where he states, "every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly every action and purpose, may be said to aim at some good. Hence 'the good' has been well defined as that at which all things aim."(Book I, Chapter I) According to Aristotle, the hierarchy of human purposes aim at eudaimonia as the highest, most inclusive end. This is the end to which everyone in fact aims. Further, it is the only end towards which it is worth undertaking a means. Eudaimonia is constituted, according to Aristotle, not by honor, or wealth, or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life.

That is quite a goal for one, but worth pursuing if only because it is an ideal to be aimed at in evaluating your life activities. Elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book X, Chapter VII) he claims the greatest happiness is activity in conformity with the highest virtue, (i.e., with that which is the virtue of the best part of man). Intelligence is man's highest possession and the objects of intelligence are the highest objects within his grasp, thus it is clear that the life of contemplation and theoretical wisdom must be the greatest of human virtues and the highest form of happiness. I am not suggesting some ethereal spiritual activity but one more practical in the sense that it is integrated with the goal setting and seeking process in which thinking humans engage. This is rationality in action and the ideal is in its execution over time. Developing a habit as Aristotle or William James might say - developing a habit much like the habit of running in the park. Perhaps it is enough to consider one's thoughts and in so considering seek eudaimonia as the chief good to which you subordinate all other actions.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"guide to being free"

by Damon Young

"Grasp the exhaustless life that all men live! Each shares therein, though few may comprehend: Where'er you touch, there's interest without end."
Faust (Prelude on the Stage)

I subscribe to that view of Aristotle's that "all men by nature desire to know". In my personal search to know I have read many books and found some thinkers, like Aristotle, that help me make sense out of the world and develop a personal philosophy. Goethe, who defined modern man and his striving, is another of those for whom I see both affinities and challenges. My current rereading of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (and the first serious close study) is part of my personal search. It was my interest in Robert Musil that led me to an Australian philosopher and author, Damon Young, whose book Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free is just what the title suggests, and much more.

In reading through Distraction I have found confirmation that it is a "guide to being free" as stated in the subtitle of the book, but it is also an exploration of the nature of man in his search to explain the world around him. The discussion of distraction, what it is and what it means, leads in interesting and unexpected directions. The nature of and importance of freedom for individuals is explored through discussions of a wide variety of thinkers. These include philosophers from Aristotle to Marcuse, and literary artists including Henry James and Robert Musil. Some of my favorite thinkers are here, like Aristotle and William James, but also those with whom I disagree, like Nietzsche, Marx and Marcuse. Present as well are writers and artists with whose works I have little familiarity like Heidegger, Matisse and Foucault. I look forward to exploring some of their works.

That list of thinkers mentioned above suggests another aspect of Distraction, one which I find appealing, as a jumping off point for further discovery and expansion of knowledge. The final section of the book, a sort of annotated bibliography, called "Balancing the Books", is helpful in this regard. I appreciate authors who share their ideas for further reading with the reader. These brief comments only begin to touch on the wealth of ideas in Distraction, and I may make future comments based on the thoughts that it will have prompted in my reading and thinking. I only know that my search is spurred by reading Distraction as it raises more questions for me than it answers, and that is a very good thing.

Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free by Damon Young. Melbourne University Press, 2008.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Wilde & Betjeman

Oscar Wilde was arrested on this day in 1895 as he waited at the Cadogan Hotel, having made the decision to face trial rather than flee the country.

The following is the poem, "The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel," by Sir John Betjeman, who was born on this day in 1906:

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel
By John Betjeman

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand—
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie—where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s—
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices—
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered—and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

Collected Poems by John Betjeman. John Murray, London. 1995.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


I was fortunate today to attend one of the final performances of the play Modigliani, written by Dennis McIntyre, at The Artistic Home theater. The production, which ends next weekend, was directed by Kathy Scambiatterra, Artistic Director of The Artistic Home. The play is set in the Montparnasse section of Paris in the late Fall of 1916. By then Modigliani had been in Paris for ten years with limited success. He had strained relations with art dealers and agents, but he had become close friends with two fellow painters, Chaim Soutine and Maurice Utrillo Valadon, and he had fallen in love with Beatrice Hastings.
McIntyre's play focuses on these relationships with Modigliani at the center. The play has many comedic moments but ultimately dramatises the overriding and fundamental importance of the artist's personal vision. We see this in the final scene with Modigliani alone in his studio engaged in a self-portrait.

John Mossman was masterful in his portrayal of the many moods of Modigliani; whether leaping and falling athletically in the playful sprees with his friends, or engaging the audience with his introspective monologues which were the highlight of the show for me. Maria Stephens also stood out in the role of Beatrice as she attempted to share his love while encouraging his art (and performing a sometimes role of artistic model). The play was engaging for a full three acts (somewhat uncommon these days) and I was sad to leave these artists at the end of the afternoon. It was a moving depiction of the artist's life.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Dance Begins

It has been about a decade since I read Proust's In Search of Lost Time, but I still remember the power of the novel and the discussions I had with the small group that read it with me in our University of Chicago Basic Program class.
This memory was rekindled by my recent reading of A Question of Upbringing, the beginning section of A Dance to the Music of Time.
Written by Anthony Dymoke Powell, CH, CBE (December 21, 1905–March 28, 2000) who was an English novelist best known for this twelve-volume work, published between 1951 and 1975. Powell was regarded by such writers as Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis as one of the greatest British novelists of the 20th century, and has been called the English equivalent of Marcel Proust. Powell's major work has remained in print continuously, and has been the subject of TV and radio dramatizations. He apparently wrote his lengthy novel, or series of novels, with Proust in mind; however his approach to memory and time is more analytical and classical than Proust. He said the following in his memoirs, "I had been turning over in my mind the possibility of writing a novel composed of a fairly large number of volumes, just how many could not be decided at the outset. A long sequence seemed to offer all sorts of advantages, among them release from the re-engagement every year or so of the same actors and extras hanging about for employment at the stagedoor of one's fantasy." (To Keep the Ball Rolling: Faces in My Time (Heinemann, 1980))

The opening section of the Dance introduces the reader to four young men at Eton on the verge of setting out in life which for the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, and one other, Stringham - though only briefly, will mean going up to Oxford. The narrator's other two friends, Templer and Widmerpool, go in different directions but you never doubt that they will meet again over the course of this lengthy series of novels.
Powell succeeds in taking you back to a time and place, Britain and France in the 1920s, that no longer exists, describing a class structure and culture that is unfamiliar to this reader who grew up in the Midwest. He does this with a prose style and a structure that, through episodes in the lives of four boys on the verge of adulthood, slowly builds a story that seems very true to life. These episodes, many of which are somewhat comic, proceed in a way that has a cumulative effect building your familiarity with, and ultimately your interest in, the lives of these young men, their families and friends, and the impact of history on those lives. The evolving nature of the story line can easily be seen as representing the "dance" of the series title. By the time the narrator says goodbye to his Uncle Giles at the end of A Question of Upbringing you have become engaged with these individuals, their loves and dreams for the future.

A Dance to the Music of Time - First Movement by Anthony Powell. University of Chicago Press, 1995 (1951-5)

Images: 1) The Dance to the Music of Time by Nicholas Poussin. Wallace Collection, London.
2) Aerial view of Oxford.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Essays on Various Ideas

The Power of Ideas

Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM (6 June 1909 – 5 November 1997) was a philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century. He excelled as an essayist, lecturer and conversationalist; and as a brilliant speaker who delivered, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material, whether for a lecture series at Oxford University or as a broadcaster on the BBC Third Programme, usually without a script.
Isaiah Berlin wrote of one of his intellectual heroes, John Stuart Mill (in the fifth of his essays on liberty, in 1959), that "what he came to value most was neither rationality nor contentment, but diversity, versatility, fullness of life - the unaccountable leap of individual genius, the spontaneity and uniqueness of a man, a group, a civilisation. What he hated and feared was narrowness, uniformity, the crippling effect of persecution, the crushing of individuals by the weight of authority or of custom or of public opinion." It was that "fullness of life" that Berlin prized, which you can hear pulsing through his prose.

In 2000 Henry Hardy edited a collection of his shorter essays called The Power of Ideas from the following quotation:

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilisation. (Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958)

This collection demonstrates both the power and the breadth of Berlin's thought with essays covering topics in the nature and history of philosophy, Russian intellectual history, political philosophy, Zionism, and the history of ideas. Power is indeed present to both analyze and understand human thought and history. Berlin shares his admiration for the enlightenment while analyzing the meaning of those ideas. It is a book that will lead you to other books, both by Sir Isaiah himself and others. It may spur an interest in the literature of nineteenth century Russia, or encourage you to read Karl Marx's Das Kapital to find out why John Maynard Keynes did not like it. Berlin's writing style is elegant and always readable, even when the most difficult ideas are being discussed. Most of all the essays included in this collection demonstrate the strength of classical liberal thought and the fundamental humaneness of the mind of Sir Isaiah Berlin. I came to this collection with an appreciation for Berlin's thought that was only confirmed and augmented by my reading of this book.

The Power of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin. Henry Hardy, ed. Princeton University Press, 2002.