Friday, November 29, 2013

Monday Morning Poetry*

Two from "The Kingdom of Music"

Dear Gustave, Dear Adrian

"In the end naivete lies at the bottom of being, all being, even the most conscious and complicated."  -Thomas Mann,  Doctor Faustus

Spun in the seams of light
Parting the clouds of sight,
We see the vision of man
Decayed by his own destiny.

Just as we want to look
Past our own self to the book
We create, history stands astride
Our vision of all humanity.

Marking time in the closeness
Of all this academic business,
You live the passion of words,
I, the music of eternity.

Each of us frames our genius
In the light of those around us,
Spinning our artful inspirations
Outward with eternal creativity.

Grasping the slender threads
Of light that become mere beads,
We part from our original vision
As we reach for infinity.

Crushed by the weight of eons
We join the good Europeans,
Falling evermore downward while
Creating our world's modernity.

James Henderson, 1991 


A crowded room with friends, warmly
Filled with chatting, buzzing. While sharing
Current memories of friendly

Within the buzz sensations of new
offerings, perchance of future memories.
Each a  portent  or promise of friendlier

James Henderson, January, 2007

* Published on a Friday that seems like Monday.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Reads of 2013

“It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word”  ― William H. Gass

My list of favorite books read in 2013 includes many more than these books. But I thought I would try to limit the list to the top twelve (I couldn't stop at ten) that I read last year. So here they are in no particular order:

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti
This is a stunning modern novel about obsession and the madness of the twentieth century.  The nightmares of Peter Kien, the "Book Man", are those of the world he lives in and by which he is blinded.

Rules of Civility  by Amor Towles
A young woman on the way up meets a man who seems to be near the pinnacle for it's his birthright and only her aspiration. Amor Towles scintillating first novel encompasses this simple story arc and much more as it reveals the penultimate year of the thirties as it was for the young and restless in Manhattan.

East of Eden  by John Steinbeck 
This sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.  A philosophical allegory of good and evil.

The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard
A trilogy of plays about the birth of the Russian Intelligentsia in the nineteenth century.  The story spans from Moscow to Paris to England with characters as diverse as Alexander Herzen, Michael Bakunin, Vissarion Belinsky, and Ivan Turgenev.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne
His amazing stories only hint at some of the myriad emotions and strange occurrences of men and women in settings as disparate as Salem Massachusetts and Padua Italy.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
With "The Woman in White" Wilkie Collins added the element of sensationalism to the mystery.  He develops the story through multiple layers from a variety of narrators. Each tells a story filled with both appealing characters and equalling unappealing villains.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
This is a novel redolent of expressive moments. From the French countryside which one meets on the first page to the game of love played by the young duo - Philip Dean, the American, and Anne Marie, the French girl: 'la belle elle' - the reader is presented a world of existential transport. 

An Equal Music  by Vikram Seth
This is a beautiful love story and it is a musical tale.  Both fascinating and a deeply moving narrative that this reader found difficult to set aside.

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
In 1853 Melville submits his first story that can be considered not only great but even amazing; this is Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. The story amazes in many ways and on many levels, as do his other stories.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
The Tin Drum uses savage comedy and a stiff dose of magical realism to capture not only the madness of war, but also the black cancer at the heart of humanity that allows such degradations to occur.

The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery by George Johnson

The author is eloquent both in his telling analysis of the disease and in his personal memoir; he demonstrates an ability to convey scientific concepts lucidly enough for the layman to understand. These characteristics and the fascination that the author shares for scientific discovery make this a great book full of insights into the deep mysteries of some of the most complex areas of modern medicine. 

Sartoris (Flags in the Dust) by William Faulkner
Sartoris is the first novel Faulkner located in Yoknapatawpha County where he would go on to set fourteen more novels. In it he introduces the Sartoris family but the Snopes are also present in this early novel. He began to find his own voice in this novel.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Portrait of an Eccentric Noble

The Underground ManThe Underground Man 
by Mick Jackson

 "I have no idea how an apple tree works. The quiet machine beneath the bark is quite beyond my ken. But, like the next man along, I find Imagination always willing to leap to Ignorance's breach..."  --  Mick Jackson

Portrait of an eccentric -- The Underground Man is an extended vignette of an exceedingly interesting and wealthy British Duke, William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, fifth Duke of Portland, who is portrayed against a background dominated by his interest (obsession) with the contrasts between man and nature, order and disorder, and ultimately, the nature of the real versus the supernatural. He is a prodigious eccentric best known for the elaborate network of tunnels he built beneath his estate. The duke is portrayed as a repressed hypochondriac, an old man morbidly curious about the workings of his body and mind. During the months encompassed by the novel, he grows increasingly obsessed with the fleeting bits of memory that intrude upon his ruminations and hint at some horrific, long-buried secret. Above all there is his search for his own identity, haunted as he is by the specter of his alter ego. Whether the author succeeds or not depends upon his success in developing the Duke as a compelling and believable if complex character. I think he succeeds.
The Duke narrates almost the entire novel and is the only truly fully developed character. I found this character appealing and become engrossed in the Duke's search for a cure for his ills and an explanation for the wonder he found in the world about himself. Except for one trip to Edinburgh he spends the six months of the narrative in and about his massive estate. This does not limit his imagination and as the reader I was swept up in his journey of discovery and his attempts to explore the mysteries of man and nature.
The novel has no love story as a subplot, almost no female characters (only the housekeeper, Mrs. Pledger, and a couple of maids) and in this sense reminded me of some Victorian novels (think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). This vacancy did not deter the author from developing suspense and a sense of mystery concerning the Duke's own wonder at the nature of his identity and the meaning of his existence. Whether journeying to the lower depths of an ancient cavern (Hades?) with the local Vicar or visiting an expert on phrenology at the University of Edinburgh, the Duke was always exploring the wonders and mysteries of life as he saw them. It is this that I think, ultimately, the novel encourages in the reader -- to reflect on his own life.

View all my reviews

Historical Novels of Rome

Memoirs of HadrianMemoirs of Hadrian 
by Marguerite Yourcenar

“The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself; my first homelands have been books, and to a lesser degree schools.” 

“He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself.”   ― Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian

In 1951 Jules Romains, commenting on the most recent work by Marguerite Yourcenar, said that she had a writing style "of near constant perfection and felicity". He was referring to her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, and more than fifty years later all I can do is concur and add a few more superlatives to describe my reaction to Yourcenar's novel. This is an unique historical novel in the form of a memoir. It is the story of the traditions of Rome and how a great man - an historical figure and superior to many if not most of the leaders of Rome - led the empire in an era when it was near the beginning of its centuries-long decline.
She captures the spirit of one of the truly great Roman emperors. Hadrian was a builder, a dreamer and a spiritual man with a particular eye for youthful male beauty. The aesthetics of the all-powerful emperor are mirrored in Ms. Yourcenar's prose with felicitous results. She has a style that is at once aphoristic and philosophical. You are encouraged to think about the characters and their actions.
All this and more is expressed in the flawless prose of Ms. Yourcenar. With her other works, especially The Abyss, Alexis, Coup de Grace and Fires, she created an oeuvre that is a reader's delight. One of my favorite authors.

Quo VadisQuo Vadis 
by Henryk Sienkiewicz

"Life is a great treasure. I have taken the most precious jewels from that treasure, but in life there are many things which I cannot endure any longer. Do not suppose, I pray, that I am offended because thou didst kill thy mother, thy wife, and thy brother; that thou didst burn Eome and send to Erebus all the honest men in thy dominions. No, grandson of Chronos. Death is the inheritance of man; from thee other deeds could not have been expected. But to destroy one's ear for whole years with thy poetry, to see thy belly of a Domitius on slim legs whirled about in a Pyrrhic dance; to hear thy music, thy declamation, thy doggerel verses, wretched poet of the suburbs, — is a thing surpassing my power, and it has roused in me the wish to die."  ― Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis 

Near the end of Quo Vadis Petronius (Arbiter) writes a letter in reply to his nephew Vicinius who has fled Rome with his bride, Ligia. In the letter Petronius discusses his philosophy and his fate contrasting it with the Christian belief that Vicinius has accepted. He says:

"There are only two philosophers that I care about, Pyrrho and Anacreon. You know what they stand for. The rest, along with the new Greek schools and all the Roman Stoics, you can have for the price of beans. Truth lives somewhere so high that even the gods can't see it from Olympus."(QV, p. 566)

It is interesting to note that Pyrrho is noted for a philosophy of skepticism that claims the impossibility of knowledge. For him our own ignorance or doubt should induce us to withdraw into ourselves, avoiding the stress and emotion which belong to the contest of vain imaginings. This theory of the impossibility of knowledge suggests a sort of agnosticism and its ethical implications may be compared with the ideal tranquility of the Stoics and Epicureans (who were more popular among Romans). This certainly contrasts with the Christian spiritual view that emphasizes belief in the supernatural. It is a philosophy that, at least for Petronius, lets him face death unequivocally with a sort of stoicism that provides a potent example in opposition to the Christian view. It also is an example of the breadth of beliefs shown by Sienkiewicz in his portrayal of the culture and character of the Roman world.

This contrast of philosophies underlies the novel and made it more interesting to me than the simple love story that it also presents. In Quo Vadis we are presented with an historical novel of depth that shows us the corruption and depravity of Nero's Rome while it presents the worlds of aesthetics and skepticism represented by Petronius and that of the young Christian sect whose believers include Peter and Paul, of biblical fame, and Ligia, the barbarian princess who becomes the focus of young Vicinius' amour. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the nineteenth century had several writers (Bulwer-Lytton, Kingsley, and Wallace) including Sienkiewicz who reacted to the prevalence of anti-christian views among the romantics (Shelley, et. al.). This is seen in the pronounced admiration for the poor Christians and the sensational nature of the culmination of the story involving the Neronic destruction of many of the Christians in terrifically brutal games. In spite of this Sienkiewicz through vivid detail creates a believable historical setting for his love story; and overcoming his biased portrayal of the Christians and the contrast with the irrationality and evil of Nero, he succeeds in telling a moving and thoughtful portrayal of Rome in the first century A.D.

Goodreads Updates

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Two Plays

On the past two weekends I attended productions of two (Very Different) plays.  However, they both shared exceptional acting and production values.  These plays demonstrate the vitality of the medium and small theaters in Chicago and as an avid fan of the theater I truly appreciate that.

Great Expectations

Last night I attended an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations performed by the Strawdog Theatre Company.  The adaptation by Gale Childs Daly was directed by Jason Gerace and performed by six actors with one musical accompaniest.  The best aspect of the production was the ability of all six actors to take up multiple roles and convince the audience, at least this member of the audience who is very familiar with the story of Pip and his "great expectations", to believe in all of the many characters from the novel including, but not limited to, Mrs. Joe Gargery, Joe Gargery, Biddy, Mr. Pumblechook, Mr. Wopsle, Mr. Jaggers, Estella, Miss Havisham, Herbert Pocket, John Wemmick, and last but not least Abel Magwitch who unbeknownst to Pip is his benefactor.  The story was told in small scenes that captured the essence of the story.  One of Dickens great strengths as a novelist was his ability to create memorable characters and the success of these actors bringing them to the stage was a significant part of the success of the production.  If you know the story you will realize why, once the characters are established, this was an energetic, funny, and ultimately very human tale of one young man's moral and social development. 

The Normal Heart 

The previous weekend I attended an equally successful production of an historical drama presented by TimeLine Theatre Company.  It was Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart directed by Nick Bowling.  This is a somber story of the beginning of the health crisis known as the AIDS epidemic focusing on New York City and the founding of the Gay Men's Health Crisis group under the leadership of Kramer and some of his friends.  The play takes this moment in history using characters representing Kramer and some of the others involved in this to make a moral statement  about that moment in history as demonstrated throughout the lives of real people.  Again the production and acting were superb with David Cromer outstanding in the role of Ned Weeks who battles throughout the play with the politicians, bureaucrats, his brother and his friends in an attempt to get some attention paid to the growing health crisis and get some action to discover why suddenly in ever greater numbers gay men (and soon others) were dying, often from rare forms of cancer.  His battles  are told by a series of vignettes that highlight both his personal relations (his lover Felix was exquisitely portrayed by Patrick Andrews) and the political battlefront that was the background for the story.  While this was a more traditionally structured play in some ways it was also very modern in its staging and direction.  The result was another successful evening of theater which my friends and I thoroughly enjoyed.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Blinding

by Elias Canetti

"For what happens in that kind of book is not just a game, it is reality; one has to justify it, not only against criticism from outside but in one’s own eyes as well. Even if an immense fear has compelled one to write such things, one must still ask oneself whether in so doing one has not helped to bring about what one so vastly fears." - Elias Canetti, The Play of the Eyes

The author shakes you with the first scene in the book, one of the best openings of any novel that I've ever read. And he continues to challenge you with a riveting account of the travails of a fascinating scholar recluse, Peter Kien.  With the hermetic figure of Peter Kien, Canetti created an indelible image of a man with a library in his head. His only novel is both modern in conception and emotionally draining. It is also one of my favorites.

Auto da Fé is a 1935 novel by Elias Canetti; the title of the English translation refers to the burning of heretics by the Inquisition. However, a more literal translation of the German title would be "The Blinding". Not surprisingly, the book was banned by the Nazis. Thus it did not become widely known until after the worldwide success of his massive study Crowds and Power (1960).   It is both complicated and modernist in approach; it may be classed with the works of James Joyce, Robert Musil, and Hermann Broch. One may read it as a social satire depicting Europe on the brink of Fascism in the early 1930s. 

The protagonist is Peter Kien, a middle-aged philologist. 
"He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock." (p 11)
Kien is absorbed in his studies of Chinese and fears social and physical contacts, but he hires an ignorant housekeeper, Therese Krummholz.  The naive scholar is easily entrapped by her, leading him into a nightmare marriage and eventually propelling him out into the streets where he meets and is further victimized by a series of grotesque and colorful characters almost of a Dickensian or Balzac-like mode.
More important than the details of the plot are the ideas indicated metaphorically and the resonance with archetypal ideas of humanity.  For example, in the opening section of the novel Kien falls from a ladder while in his library and his wife finds him on her return home.  Thinking he is dead she summons a neighbor and upon their return they find him injured, but alive.  This moment, suggesting a death and rebirth (spiritual in the sense that Kien worships his books and the learning they represent), is a critical juncture in his journey through life  just as the mythical story of death and rebirth (cf. Lazarus, Joseph, et. al.) has become central to humanity since the beginning  of history. 
Kien's journey takes him through the depths of society and beyond as his brother tries in vain to cure him, while he moves inexorably towards an apocalyptic end.  

(This is an opening selection of notes on my reading of Auto da Fe and more commentary will be forthcoming.)

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti, trans. by C. V. Wedgwood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984 (1935)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Poetic and Pictorial Venice

No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of VeniceNo Vulgar Hotel: 
The Desire and Pursuit of Venice 
by Judith Martin

"This tendency to blather about Venice's beauty, using any excuse to pronounce the beloved name, is a hazard of being a Venetophile.  A greater hazard is holding conversation with a Venetophile.  But what lover ever failed to argue that beauty alone would not have been sufficient to ignite the noble fever?  Venice also has its domestic virtues.  Really."  -  Judith Martin, No Vulgar Hotel, p 27.

Over the years I have travelled a little, mostly for business and seldom for pleasure. Thus I have not travelled to many of the favorite locations for tourists and with books like this one I do not need to do so. Judith Martin (aka "Miss Manners") has travelled to Venice and written about that travel covering the history, aesthetics, and practical aspects of that lovely city by and on the sea.
I especially enjoyed her literary discussions in the sections entitled "Venice with Your Imaginary Friend" and "Venice Depicted". The references include Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and much more. She also discusses American expatriates including the fabulously wealthy longtime residents, the Curtis family.
I have always enjoyed the classical paintings of the artist known simply as Canaletto and Venice was one of his favorite subjects. But, I was unaware until I read Ms. Martin's book that he "was apt to rearrange buildings as if they were furniture, regularly distorting a view for balance . . ."(p 131) His desire to maintain classical balance in his paintings aside, his depictions of Venice are elegantly beautiful demonstrating his genius and the genius of his age. But there is more. From Browning's poems to Wagner's diaries the literary vision of Venice mirrors the inspiration that its' beauty expresses.  There is also the cinematic Venice of film whether portrayed as romantic comedy in David Lean's Summertime (David Lean is one of my favorite directors and one of the many reasons for this is his ability to capture the essence of foreign locations from London to Moscow to Burma to the Arabia of the hero Lawrence) or in more sinister films like Don't Look Now based on DuMaurier's novel or The Comfort of Strangers adapted by Harold Pinter from Ian McEwen's  novel.
The author clearly loves Venice. Doing so she does not write about it in a sense that expresses the vanguard of sophisticated opinion, for this is not a book that really breaks new ground. However it covers the old ground impeccably. It is a thoroughly delightful read for anyone even remotely interested in Venice.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Haunting Erotic Realism

A Sport and a PastimeA Sport and a Pastime 
by James Salter

"Green, bourgeoise France.  We are going at tremendous speed.  We cross bridges, the sound short and drumming.  The country is opening up.  We are on our way to towns where no one goes.  There are long, wheat-colored stretches and then green, level land, recumbent and rich.  The farms are built of stone.  The wisdom of generations knows that land is the only real wealth, a knowledge that need not question itself, need not change.  Open country flat as playing fields.  Stands of trees."( p 4)

This is a novel redolent of expressive moments. From the French countryside which one meets on the first page to the game of love played by the young duo - Philip Dean, the American, and Anne Marie, the French girl: 'la belle elle' - the reader is presented a world of existential transport. The unnamed narrator describes the passions of his friend Dean as they experience the culture of France and Dean experiences a breathless few months of carnal episodes.

It begins with a "luminous" September with still lengthy days and in a city filling with crowds after their August retreats suggesting that the unnamed narrator is making the right choice as he boards the train to depart the city. As he begins his train ride the sun hitting his face leads him to sleep. While he wakes as the train slows it is as if the scenes he shares are merely a continuation of his dreams. He admits: "None of this is true . . . I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh. It's a story of things that never existed although even the faintest doubt of that, the smallest possibility, plunges everything into darkness."(p 11) 
Reminiscent of Ford's The Good Soldier, our narrator is unreliable and his tale may be taken as a story that may not have happened or at least not happened quite exactly as depicted by the narrator.

Swiftly we meet the narrator's friend Dean and are introduced to the ingenue Ann Marie and the memories of the small French towns, the Summer evenings, speeding down the highway in Dean's borrowed roadster carry you forward while the many brief liaisons of Dean and Anne Marie acquire a status that they would never have if they occurred on the lower east side of Manhattan. Even at Yale, for Dean is an Eli, they would seem tawdry at best, but the ability of the narrator to portray the indescribable beauty of France elevates the story to a better place. However all is not so clear upon reflection for while Dean is no innocent, Anne Marie may not be either. One cloud that is always haunting Dean is the need for money to fuel his journey with Anne Marie. He is a poor English tutor (is there any other kind?) who depends upon his wealthy Father for funds and when his Father is not forthcoming he begs for loans from his friends. The days and nights, various towns and country lanes blend together as the story speeds toward a denouement that must be left for the reader to discover on his own.

In 1959, only eight years before the publication of A Sport and a Pastime, the Grove Press brought out their American edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The erotic realism of Salter's novel owes at least part of its heritage to the liberation made possible by that earlier milestone. Salter's prose is as beautiful as any I have read and with that beauty he transports you to a French land of dreams both light and dark. "The orchestras of the world beat softly" in the night as the lovers at midnight share their being.
This is a magnificent short novel that begs to be reread if only to share its haunting beauty and experience again the charms of its magic.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Metaphysical Science Fiction

The Unreasoning Mask

The Unreasoning Mask 
by Philip José Farmer

“Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.”  ― Philip José Farmer

While reading The Unreasoning Mask by Philip Jose Farmer I was reminded of a science fiction novel from the preceding century, Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In Verne's novel the powerful character of Captain Nemo and his mighty submarine, The Nautilus, develop a relationship that may have been inspiration for Captain Ramstan and his living space ship, al-Buraq. I have no evidence of this connection, but Farmer's vision in creating Ramstan is on a level worthy of the comparison. It is this vision that makes The Unreasoning Mask stand above most space operas; for in addition to the Captain and his ship there is a plot that literally encompasses the nature of our universe and others as well. In the future the fate of the universe rests upon this man's shoulder -- Ramstan, a thoughtful and moral man, who becomes a fascinated yet reluctant pawn in the hands of the strange forces which rise to fight the deadly destroyer. Ultimately Ramstan is the one man who, in a fearful race against time, can stop the destruction. But what price must he pay for becoming the savior of intelligent-kind?

In this exceptional race to save the Universe the protagonist is one Hud Ramstan, Muslin captain of an extraordinary space ship known as al-Buraq. The ship is a living entity capable of changing shape and seemingly embodying affection for its master as evidenced by walls that quiver with excitement. The connection between the Captain and his ship, with its special abilities which include an instantaneous drive called alaraf, is a key aspect of one of the most exciting action sequences in the plot of the novel. However, the main action of the book is on another scale--one that is metaphysical in nature with Ramstan dealing with god through an intermediary called the glyfa which is a sentient egg-shaped object that is older than the universe. Ramstan's dealings with the glyfa, are aided by three aliens called the Vwoordha that are almost stranger than the glyfa. The imaginative nature of this metaphysical plot is beyond my descriptive capabilities and I would not spoil the story even if I could, but the plot was able to keep this reader on edge with wonder at what mysterious complications would ensue next. The story was leavened with supporting characters whose relationship with Ramstan provided depth for both his character and the nature of the world in which he was living. One of these, a Dr. Toyce, commented, "You can't turn around in this world without bumping into a question."(p 222) This could be taken in both a serious and a light-hearted way, at least until the ultimate enemy, known simply as the Bolg, appeared.

Few novels this short (less than two-hundred-fifty pages) have as many intriguing ideas, complex discussions about the fate of universes, and fascinating alien entities. There is even a mystic named Benagur who is Ramstan's bete noir and who succeeds in making his trials even more difficult. The novel combines aspects of an archetypal heroic journey with the action of a metaphysical space opera.  In doing so The Unreasoning Mask becomes a masterpiece that provides both the serious and amateur interested in Science Fiction with an above average reading experience.

View all my reviews

Monday, November 11, 2013

Monday Morning Poetry

I Miss the Flag

to Stephen and Walter

On a summer morning I notice the empty balcony
above. I wonder at the forlorn bushes
Standing green against the grain of the sunny

Over in the window a wilted flower stands
bereft in its brownish deadness,
Reminder of the care once given by hands
that filled the room with life,
and flowers, but now are
gone away.

But most of all I miss the flag
That flew unfurled most every day,
A reminder of the loving couple inside
and their interesting care for each other
and the world.

The Uncut Page

"the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime."
-   Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Looking past the scene in the mirror,
I long for the past – my life of regret,
so filled with unreflected acts.   Yet sorrow seems
to have arisen from deep, unfulfilled dreams.

Where did my days go, deeds undone
falling with the leaves?   A life
stolen from the unconscious mist
of another world.

Now I try to lift the knife and discover
what remains within - uncut, undone deeds.
Not dreams of the future, but pale  
hints of the past.

As I recline in my study the page
slips through my open hand.
Lacking the deeds I cannot summon  
the will to face reality.

from  'Portraits'  by James Henderson, 2004, 2010

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Venetian Phoenix

The City of Falling AngelsThe City of Falling Angels 
by John Berendt

"…it occasionally felt like walking through a funhouse, especially at times when, twenty minutes after having set out on a course that I had thought was a straight line, I discovered I was right back where I started." - John Berendt

The myth of the Phoenix is famous as a metaphor of rebirth and regeneration. In Venice the opera house La Fenice is appropriately named as it as risen from the ashes more than once over its life of more than two centuries. Most recently it suffered a severe fire in 1996. John Berendt arrived three days after the fire. Intrigued by the rumors circulating among the Venetians as to the source and cause of the conflagration, he decided to stay for a while so he could listen to the stories and, experience the city without its usual herds of tourists. For several years thereafter, he followed the investigation. Was the fire arson, or negligence, or maybe an act of God? Or could there possibly be a more sinister explanation, one involving mafia ties?
It was this event that served as the catalyst for John Berendt's curious book about Venice, The City of Falling Angels. I call it curious because it is not easily categorized as a particular genre. It is certainly non-fiction, but within that broad category it has attributes of a detective story--about the fire that destroyed all but the facade of the opera house; but it also includes aspects of several varieties of history. In addition to the fascinating story of the arson that ultimately led to the convictions of two electricians there are also historical narratives about the specific literary, artistic, architectural, and political events in the history of Venice.
The result is a fascinating book for anyone interested in arcana about Venice or about some of the characters whose stories have become part of the Venice mythos. Both Henry James and Ezra Pound figure importantly in this regard. There are other stories of American ex-patriots like the fabulously wealth Curtis family, and several Venetian clans that are connected with the Fenice.
The stories can be spicy whether they are about the feud over the Ezra Pound papers or the boardroom battle over control of the Save Venice foundation. The battle over who will win the contract to restore the Fenice is yet another episode that combines architectural detail with Italian corporate politics. Ultimately La Fenice was rebuilt in 19th-century style on the basis of a design by architect Aldo Rossi.
The result of these stories is a book that is exceptionally interesting to read even though Venice the magnificent city sometimes fades into the background. Reading about the city that has been slowly sinking into the sea for centuries is ultimately an uplifting experience.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Beauty and Knowledge

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Seldom are beauty and knowledge found together on earth.  Rightly or wrongly, we are accustomed to imagine that erudition is ugly, and that charm lacks all intellect--indeed it is part of charm that it lacks intellect in all good conscience, since it not only has no need of letters, of intellect and wisdom, but in fact also runs the risk of being distorted or destroyed by them."(p 331)

HERMES is the name the Greeks gave to the messenger of the Gods.  He was the cleverest of the Olympian gods, and messenger to all the other gods.

Hermes is the son of Zeus and Maia. He is Zeus messenger. He is the fastest of the gods. He wears winged sandals, a winged hat, and carries a magic wand. He is the god of thieves and god of commerce. He is the guide for the dead to go to the underworld. 
Versatility and mutability are Hermes' most prominent characteristics. His specialties are eloquence and invention (he invented the lyre). He is the god of travel and the protector of sacrifices; he is also god of commerce and good luck. The common quality in all of these is again consciousness, the agile movement of mind that goes to and fro, joining humans and gods, assisting the exchange of ideas and commercial goods. Consciousness has a shadow side, however: Hermes is also noted for cunning and for fraud, perjury, and theft.
While Hermes is regarded as one of the earliest and most primitive gods of the Greeks, he enjoys so much subsequent prominence that he must be recognized as an archetype devoted to mediating between, and unifying, the opposites. This foreshadows his later role as master magician and alchemist, as he was regarded both in Egypt and in Renaissance Europe. His Egyptian name was Thoth which is the title Thomas Mann gave to the opening part of Young Joseph, the second novel in the tetralogy that comprises Joseph and His Brothers.  

Joseph is seventeen as the book opens and his beauty approaches perfection.  But what does that mean?  Our narrator tells us that "Beauty is magic worked upon the emotions--always half-illusionary, extremely precarious, and fragile in its very efficacy."(p 317)  He reminds us that beauty may be hidden in the dark, or the lack thereof as in the case of Jacob's bridal night with Leah.  It seems that "deception, Deceit, trickery, fraud"--these play a role in the "realm of beauty", and these bring us into the realm of Thoth (Hermes).  But there are more considerations such as the role of sexuality, love and desire in the realm of beauty.  He suggests that beauty lies in a realm suspended between masculinity and femininity.  With this thought he concludes that:
"A lad of seventeen is not beautiful in the sense of a purely impractical femininity--that would attract only a few.  But let us grant this much: Beauty as youthful charm always tend in both psychology and expression somewhat toward the feminine; that is part of its nature, which has its basis in its tender relationship with the world and of the world with it--it is painted in youth's smile.  At seventeen, it is true, someone can be more beautiful than woman or man, beautiful both as woman and man, beautiful from both sides and in every way, handsome and beautiful enough to set any woman, any man gawking, tumbling, head over heels in love."(p 318)  
Now that is an impressive picture of beauty!  But more important even than that for young Joseph is learning.  And for this he must sit under the tree of God to be tutored in the science of knowledge.  His tutor is Eliezer, Jacob's steward and oldest servant, mysterious man with a "divine vagueness" about his person.  Notably, Joseph alone among the sons of Jacob received this sort of education.  And in the tradition of Thoth (Hermes) it was one that was broad and deep ultimately initiating Joseph in "Secrets that made learning a great and flattering delight, precisely because they were secrets known to only a few tight-lipped and arch-clever men in temples and closed lodges, but not to the great masses."(p  327).  Thus Joseph is further set apart from his brothers and prepared with secret knowledge that would, unknown to him at the time, stand him in good stead in his future life.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

A Favorite Reverie - Redux

Bean-fields and Memories

Notes on Walden, III
"seeds of simplicity"

"A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again."
-  From “Return” by Robinson Jeffers

While reading the chapter of Walden entitled “The Bean-Field” my memories of summer days long ago that I spent in southern Wisconsin interrupted my reading. My personal experience with the slight cornucopia that our backyard garden produced came to mind. Specifically, it was the image of sitting in the back porch of our home with my grandmother that appeared to me;  a pail of just-picked string beans ripe from the garden between us as we snapped the ends off those beans. They would soon be part of dinner along with the leaf lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini and more from the garden. Fresh light fare that was our delight on a summer evening as the day began to cool. This is not a scene that I had thought of for many years but the image is in my mind as clear as if it happened last week – yet last week,  and again yesterday,  and today I was reading the thoughts of Thoreau about his bean-field and their meaning in his life. “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” (p 155) 
I was in the pre-Antaeus stage of my life as I snapped beans with my grandmother, but the memories of field, family, and community from those days are part of my inner being to this day. 
Thoreau's bean-field and other crops were of more import as he describes them becoming “the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields; as some states are civilized, and others half-civilized, and others savage or barbarous, so my field was, though not in a bad sense, a half-cultivated field.” (p 156)
Again, living where I did when I was too young to appreciate such things our flourishing vegetable garden, situated as it was in our backyard, that was the last vestige of civilization (little though we had in our small town) before the lines of trees and acres upon acres of country fields, sometimes ripe with corn, sometimes not.

Thoreau was determined to “know” his beans, I must confess I shared neither his desire nor his determination regarding the beans of my youth, and in knowing his beans Thoreau celebrates them as he does so much of his life at Walden Pond. Beyond the “Pythagorean” experience of cultivating and selling his surplus beans Thoreau expounds on the further, deeper, more lasting experience that he gained:

“I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops. Alas! I said this to myself ; but now another summer is gone, and another, and another, and I am obliged to say to you, Reader, that the seeds which I planted, if indeed they were the seeds of those virtues, were wormeaten or had lost their vitality, and so did not come up. Commonly men will only be brave as their fathers were brave, or timid." (pp 163-64)

Just as time was "but the stream I go a-fishing in", and his head "is an organ for burrowing," (p 98) his bean-field produced beans that "have results which are not harvested by me." (p 166).  We are still reaping these results and, while there are few huts set out beside ponds, there are many people who think about the meaning of a life that is lived with the benefits of Thoreau's seeds of simplicity and thoughtfulness.

"This rain which is now watering my beans and keeping me in the house waters me too.  I needed it as much.  And what if most are not hoed!  Those who send the rain, whom I chiefly respect, will pardon me." (Journal, July 6, 1845)

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. by Tim Hunt. Stanford University Press, 2001
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 2004 (1971)
The Journal, 1837-1861 by Henry David Thoreau, ed. by Damion Searls. New York Review Books. 2009

Monday, November 04, 2013

Monday Morning Poetry

Two Preludes

The Siren

"The comb she holds is golden,
She sings a song as well
Whose melody binds an enthralling
And overpowering spell."
- Heinrich Heine, "Lorelai"

Lost in the passion and purity of a moment of silence
I sit transfigured by the murmurs of my heart.
Wishing for the fountain of life, I sense before me
The riddle of the Earth--the beginning of desire.

To start with a note or a word--how do I create
The beginning of my work of art--my end?
What is the feeling which suddenly strikes
Deep within my soul?  Lacking awareness

I sit, trembling before the touch of his hand--
Merely the thought of it permeates my being.
Bound to the mast of desire I force
Myself to choose--to change.

We each speak from the core of our souls--drawing
on images created in moments of inspiration.
Our passion is informed by individual reasons.
Yet, do we really know of what we speak?

I sit, dumb within my solipsistic world--
A world dumb in its unreality, for
If it is dependent on will alone,
Whose will is it to be?

I sit, trembling at the faint remains 
Of ghostly images--selves forgotten.
I am no longer.  Who am I?  Where do I go?
How do I move my body without the desire for what is?

I will conquer the tempter with silence.
Even as my burgeoning boldness grows I find
Through choice-- the source of desire within me.
Joy is the result of the victory.


“Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime.” 
― Andrew Marvell

The sight of books wearing colored papers like party hats
Leads me to meditate on the distance between the books
And the stacks.  The time is spent in carrels, and that's
not inconsequential for the readers whose studious looks
are defeated by the the books piled on the sidelines -
The ones with the colorful favors  just beyond their spines.

Readers cherish the time spent perusing books in 
the Babylon of culture that houses folios. But is it sin
to while away the moments of your life in another world?
The Borgesian maze that is home to ideas that are furled
in books of all sizes and languages lures too often-times.
While entry fees are paid with the cost of missed deadlines.

- from Preludes of the Mind, 2012 (2007), James Henderson

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Running Haiku

Belmont Harbor 
in November



Cold comes as wind blows
Soon there will be winter snows
Lake shining with ice


From "The Kingdom of Music", 2013
James Henderson