Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Music and Literature

Part One

Opera in Literature

“They played at hearts as other children might play at ball; only, as it was really their two hearts that they flung to and fro, they had to be very, very handy to catch them, each time, without hurting them.”   ― Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

I have always loved music as well as literature.  These two art forms intersect in many ways, two of which I would like to discuss.  First is the presence of music in novels.  A notable example  can be found in the opening pages of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Age of Innocence.  This is heralded by the first sentence of the novel:
"On an January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York."  This setting is used to introduce the protagonist of the novel, Newland Archer, and provides the narrator with a way to highlight his dilettantism since "thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization."   
Also important to the story is the Opera itself and the aria that is being sung which foreshadows themes that will be important as the novel develops.  It is this use of music, Gounod's opera in particular, that provides some of the depth of meaning for which, in this case, Edith Wharton is known.

This is merely one example of which many can be found.  Two of my favorite authors, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust, use music effectively in their novels.   In Mann's case his novel Doctor Faustus is imbued with and depends upon the immersion in music and its effect on Adrian Leverkuhn.  One of Proust's many characters  from In Search of Lost Time is Vinteuil, a composer and violinist of note whose famous sonata takes on the importance of a character unto itself.

The Age of Innocence  is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s.  It centers on the  impending marriage of an upper-class couple, Newland Archer and May Welland.  And the introduction of a woman, Ellen Olenska, plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s' New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth. Wharton's attention to the mores of the upper class includes details based on her own experience.  But her insights into the psychology of the characters, especial Newland and Ellen were what I found most interesting.  The attitudes of society towards Ellen and the regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.   The novel was lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize — the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I. The title may be read as an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations.  This is the best of her novels in my estimation, although the bittersweet The House of Mirth is my personal favorite.

(To be continued)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Story of a Prince

Father SergiusFather Sergius 
by Leo Tolstoy

"I lived for men on the pretext of living for God."  -  Leo Tolstoy, Father Sergius

This story is about a man with a problem. As the story opens you may not immediately realize what the problem is for he is described as "a handsome prince who everyone predicted would become aide-de-camp to the Emperor Nicholas I and have a brilliant career,". What could be better than that?  For young Prince Stepan Kasatsky apparently there was something better, for he "left the service, broke off his engagement to a beautiful maid of honor, a favorite of the Empress's, gave his small estate to his sister, and retired to a monastery to become a monk".

After a flashback to his youth and his success in all his efforts the narrator shares his decision to throw all of that over for the monastery. Yet, he did not change his personality and his primary motive of pride. For in becoming a Monk he was aiming to "be above those who considered themselves his superiors". Most of all he was consumed with "contempt with all that seemed most important to others and had seemed so to him while he was in the service". But is that really what the life of a monk is all about? He finds that it is not and his journey toward his own unique form of spirituality is just beginning at this point. It has a long way to go with many temptations for he has a great deal of difficulty dealing with his all-consuming pride and vanity.  Despite his being removed from the world, he is still remembered for having so remarkably transformed his life. One winter night, a group of merry-makers decide to visit him, and one of them, a divorced woman named Makovkina, spends the night in his cell, with the intention to seduce him.  She inflames Sergius to the point where he resorts to personal physical mutilation.  It is a painful and dramatic moment, but the effect wears off making the episode seem pointless in retrospect.

This tale, while differing in details from others from Tolstoy's pen, seems to adhere to a pattern of presenting a protagonist living a problem-filled life which ends in a miraculous reversal of character. For Sergius his ultimate conversion (some might say redemption) comes in a dream. But several pages before his dream he has a moment alone under an elm tree that seems to foreshadow his ultimate change. The narrator described the landscape at this moment at the cusp of the end of the day in terms of such natural beauty that it seemed to be touched with the ghost of St. Francis of Assisi.

One thing missing from Sergius's life is happiness. He first has worldly success followed by weariness, vanity, striving, and ultimately acceptance of what he claimed to be the feeling of god within him. He seemed to be fulfilling what was revealed to him to be god's plan, but some might question the nature of his revelation. Could it have been yet another form of the hubris that afflicted him his whole life? Possibly one might say, that once a Prince - always a Prince.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Virginia Woolf: An Introduction

Virginia Woolf ReaderThe Virginia Woolf Reader 
by Virginia Woolf , edited by Mitchell A. Leaska

"a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction;"(p 170)

This is a great introduction to the writings of Virginia Woolf. It spans her oeuvre with selected short stories and essays; there are also excerpts from several novels, her diary and letters, and her autobiographical writings. Especially welcome is a twenty-page long excerpt from her famous essay A Room of One's Own, but the selections from novels also demonstrate her mature fiction writing style.

The editor, Mitchell A. Leaska, provides a thoughtful preface detailing the choices he made in compiling these selections. The result is a representative collection of her writings that demonstrates with the breadth of her interests and her inimitable style of writing. Readers who are new to Virginia Woolf and those who are familiar with her works should welcome this anthology.

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Complicated Tale

The Death of Ivan Ilyich/Master and Man Master and Man 
by Leo Tolstoy

"He, like all people who live with nature and know want, was patient and could wait calmly for hours, even days, without feeling either alarm or vexation”  ― Leo Tolstoy, Master and Man

Reading the tale, Master and Man, seems appropriate in the midst of winter. Tolstoy wrote this tale about a decade after The Death of Ivan Ilych and Winter cold is so important in the story that it becomes yet another character by the end of this sophisticated parable. Snow and biting winds gust from its pages. Its climactic event, the transferal of heat from one body to another, has a resonance that cannot be denied, but my question would be: can it be believed?

The story begins just following the attendance of a merchant, Vasily Andreich Brekhunov, at the winter festival of St. Nicholas. Brekhunov immediately turns his attention to an opportunity to become richer. On a dark afternoon, despite the threat of a storm, he sets out to secure the purchase of a wood at a bargain price. He takes his "kind, pleasant" servant Nikita with him, a man Brekhunov values but insensitively exploits. He pays him half what he should, and then "mostly not in money but in high-priced goods from [his] shop."

The main arc of the story is the passage from life to death, one of Tolstoy's frequent concerns (as was dramatized in Ivan Ilych). There are plenty of symbols in the narrative and the tension almost immediately begins as Brekhunov and Nikita leave the village of Kresti ("The Crosses"). The narrator describes the breaking of limits in this passage:
"As soon as they passed the last [building], they noticed at once that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen...The fields were all in a whirl, and the limit where sky and earth met could not be seen."
Nikita drowses and they become lost, riding across bleak fields "with clumps of wormwood and straw sticking up from under the snow." They come to the village of Grishkino, receive directions and set off again. The snowstorm has intensified. Again Nikita drowses, again they get lost in "the slanting net of wind-driven snow". Night is falling. They travel in a circle. 
They come again to Grishkino.
This time they seek shelter at a wealthy household of the Taras family in the village. The contrast created between the cold loneliness of the wilderness and the cozy warmth of human habitation is striking. Nikita, icicles melting from his beard, drinks "glass after glass" of tea and feels "warmer and warmer, pleasanter and pleasanter". They could safely stay with the Taras family but Brekhunov again insists they must resume their journey.

They get lost a third time, in darkness this time, and the horse Mukhorty is too tired to carry on. Nikita prepares for a night outdoors, with Brekhunov in the sleigh and himself in a straw-lined hollow. Brekhunov smokes and thinks about "the sole aim, meaning, joy, and pride of his life – of how much money he had made and might still make". But these thoughts fade into the "whistling of the wind, the fluttering and snapping of the kerchief in the shafts, and the lashing of the falling snow against the bast of the sleigh."
Over the next few pages Tolstoy tracks Brekhunov's shift from discomfort and irritation to panic. He decides to take Mukhorty and abandon Nikita – "'it's all the same if he dies. What kind of life has he got!'" – who is losing his toes to frostbite, and realizes he is probably going to die. "This thought did not seem especially unpleasant to him, because his whole life was not a continuous feast, but, on the contrary, a ceaseless servitude, which was beginning to weary him."
On a floundering Mukhorty, Brekhunov travels in smaller circles across a hostile, almost alien landscape, coming twice to a clump of wormwood – "growing on a boundary … desperately tossing about under the pressure of the wind" – that appears to mark the grim border of existence. He "sees he is perishing in the middle of this dreadful snowy waste" and realizes the horse has brought him back to the sleigh (and to the one man whom the horse loves). Then, amazingly, he scrapes the snow from Nikita and lies on top of him. In the morning Nikita is alive and Brekhunov is dead, frozen as if crucified, "his open mouth...packed with snow."

There is something strange about Brekhunov's sudden and unlikely transformation from exploiter to saviour, which Tolstoy outlines but does not precisely describe. Brekhunov's thought that "'Nikita's alive, which means I'm alive, too,'" does not comport with the unmistakably Christian symbolism of the story. There are many instances of the number three in the story, but the most insistently repeated symbol is that of the circle. This is a traditional symbol of the unity of life and death, the Chain of Being. In spite of this the moment of transformation seems at best coincidental and more likely forced. Does it represent a new form of interconnection for Brekhunov that did not exist previously, or is it a form of redemption or absolution for a life of greed and insensitivity?

"Master and Man" is a complicated tale. Do we really know these two characters who are identified primarily by a couple of essential characteristics? To paraphrase a popular song: "Is that all there is, my friend?" Nikita is kind and pleasant, but he's also a drunk who chopped up his wife's most treasured clothes. Brekhunov is odious but he sees himself as a "benefactor" (although this may merely be relative to his forebears who owned Russian "souls"). In the end these two along with the horse Mukhorty are trapped in a hostile world in a bitter and blinding snowstorm. The story only becomes a classic with the stroke of Tolstoy's pen whose clarity and simplicity of style is peerless.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Honor's Duty

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington, #1)On Basilisk Station 
by David Weber

“My duty is not affected by what others may or may not do to discharge their own.”  -  Honor Harrington

The first novel in David Weber's Honor Harrington series, On Basilisk Station, follows Commander Honor Harrington and Her Majesty’s light cruiser Fearless during their assignment to the Basilisk system. Though Basilisk Station and the planet of Medusa have become a dumping ground for misfits and rejects from her home star system of Manticore, Honor is determined to discharge her duty regardless of the circumstances.

The story follows Honor and her crew as they deal with the responsibilities of their assignment. When their duty leads them to discover events that would lead to an invasion of Medusa, they have no choice but to act.
I was impressed with the details presented in this novel, although doing so made the first hundred or so pages slow-going. The action picks up as Commander Harrington demonstrates her skill and courage, first improving the organization of the station post and then preparing for more serious action against what turns out to be an attempted invasion of the planet Medusa.

The obvious intelligence of Commander Harrington made her both plausible and likable as a heroine.  She has a remarkable way of instilling confidence in her followers - leading by example.  The long introduction provided a good foundation for the later action.  There are political  maneuverings, tactics, battle strategies, fight scenes, and chase scenes which by the last section of the novel could be described a spectacular.  This is a bold space opera that delivers both setting and story in fine fashion.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Picaresque Social History

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil WarConfederates in the Attic: 
Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

by Tony Horwitz

“There are people one knows and people one doesn't. One shouldn't cheapen the former by feigning intimacy with the latter.”   ― Tony Horwitz

While I read this book more than a decade ago I still remember it vividly, if for no other reason than the cover art, which I consider to be one of the most hideous  of any book that I have read. 
Fortunately I did not let that stop me and inside I found a delicious mix of cultural history, personal reminiscence and odd, but true (I believe) miscellany about people who are fixated on the Civil War era.  One of the strangest episodes was the discussion of the fascination the Japanese have for Gone With the Wind. It borders on obsession such that it leads them to visit Atlanta, Georgia where they are known to inquire about the location of Tara, seeming to think there must be a real Tara behind the novel.  It is reminiscent of  Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures in that much of the book has a similar eccentricity.  Horwitz certainly seeks out some of the more peculiar and sometimes unsavory elements to interview including the crazy biker bar.  An enlightening interview with Shelby Foote was included, and I actually gained appreciation for a certain pro-south view (even if I disagree with it). The book may have lost something with time, since the memories of people interviewed are fading and times continue to change.

The book almost reads like a picaresque novel or collection of stories which makes it even more fun. You might consider it a snapshot of the zeitgeist of the 1990s in relation to the Civil War.  The Civil War re-enactors are truly a strange breed, but endlessly interesting in their passion for the era. It was a delight to read.

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Monday, February 09, 2015

Rhetoric as an Art

Persuasion, Seduction, and Con-jobs:
Rhetoric and Propaganda

a lecture by Michaelangelo Allocca

"The broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily," is chilling, even if you don't know that Hitler said it in Mein Kampf, about the efficacy of the "big lie."  Yet the nature of rhetoric as an art which sways audiences through emotional seduction, at least as much as through rational persuasion, has been recognized as far back as Socrates. (from the introduction to the lecture)

George Orwell wrote in 1944 that "Only a few exceptionally gifted speakers can achieve the simplicity and intelligibility which even the most tongue-tied person achieves in ordinary conversation." ("Propaganda and Demotic Speech").  While his point was that most speakers are unable to produce a speech in reasonably conversational English, his argument suggests to me a question:  what makes powerful speeches effective, above and beyond simplicity and intelligibility?

Last Friday Michaelangelo Allocca, Staff Chair and Instructor, Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults , the University of Chicago, presented a lecture that provided an answer to that question.  The lecturer opened with a quote from William Penn on the potential for misuse of rhetoric:  "There is a truth and beauty in rhetoric; but it oftener serves ill turns than good ones.”  Throughout the lecture he used references to thinkers from the age of Socrates and Aristotle to the present one, thus providing a tour guide to the basics of rhetoric and propaganda with examples from "a few exceptionally gifted speakers". 
The lecture continued with the quote from Hitler (above) and a definition of propaganda proposed by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian linguist, sociologist, and Marxist theoretician.  He equated propaganda with the world view of a power structure.  In Gramsci's terms use of the media as propaganda enable a certain world view.  A popular example provided in the lecture was the Super Bowl as a cultural event.  

We can trace the origins of speech and rhetoric back to Classical Greece with in the dialogues of Plato.  For example, in the Phaedrus he describes speech as a type of seduction, an instance of the power of Eros in human lives.( Phaedrus, 258d)  The discussion in this dialogue highlights the connection between speech making and love.  Plato's student Aristotle defined rhetoric based on his observations in his book entitled On Rhetoric.  Here Aristotle categorized rhetoric into three types of persuasion, namely:  those derived from the character (ethos) of the speaker, when speaking he shows himself fair minded and trustworthy;  those derived from emotion (pathos) aroused by a speaker in an audience;  and those derived from true or likely argument (logos).  Rhetoric is seen as a sort of offshoot of, or counterpart to, dialectic.    Further, Aristotle identified types of rhetoric by the purpose for which it was used.  There are also three of these:  parliamentary  or deliberative regarding an action in the future;  judicial regarding an action in the past;  and praise or blame without judgement of a past or future action (epideictic).  

The lecture continued with examples from literature and history.  In Shakespeare's drama Julius Caesar we see Brutus followed by Mark Antony both making effective speeches demonstrating these principles.  Yet, there are modern examples in the speeches of Adolf Hitler (as documented in the film Triumph of the Will and elsewhere) and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.  Perhaps the best examples of great rhetoric can be found in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.  This was an enlightening and rhetorically pleasing lecture that truly demonstrated its subject.

All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays,  George Orwell.  Harcourt, 2008.
On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse,  Aristotle, George A. Kennedy, trans.  Oxford University, 1991.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks,  Antonio Gramsci.  International Publishers, 1971.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Power of Music

The Kreutzer Sonata The Kreutzer Sonata 
by Leo Tolstoy

"music, at once, transports me directly into the inner state of the one who wrote the music.  I merge with him in my soul and, together with him, am transported from one state to another, but why I do that I don't know."  - Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata.

The opening of this novella takes place during a train ride. Passengers are discussing the news of the day, Pozdnyshev overhears a conversation concerning marriage, divorce and love. When one rider alludes to news about a man who killed his wife Pozdnyshev speaks up:
"'I'm Pozdnyshev, the one to whom that critical episode occurred which you alluded to, that episode in which he killed his wife,' he said, quickly glancing at each of us.

Pozdnyshev begins to tell his story, he asks "what is love?" and points out that, if understood as an exclusive preference for one person, it often passes quickly. Convention dictates that two married people stay together, and initial love can quickly turn into hatred. He then relates how he used to visit prostitutes when he was young, and complains that women's dresses are designed to arouse men's desires. He further states that women will never enjoy equal rights to men as long as men view them as objects of desire, but yet describes their situation as a form of power over men, mentioning how much of society is geared towards their pleasure and well-being and how much sway they have over men's actions. His commentary becomes both repetitive and disturbing.

After he meets and marries his wife, periods of passionate love and vicious fights alternate. She bears several children, and then receives contraceptives: "The last excuse for our swinish life -- children -- was then taken away, and life became viler than ever."
His wife takes a liking to a violinist, Trukhachevsky, whom Pozdnyshev immediately dislikes, but with whom he feels a strange connection that leads him to invite the violinist to perform with his wife, who had become the violinist's student. The two perform Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin, Op. 47) together. Pozdnyshev is overcome by the hypnotic effect of the music.  While he goes away for a few days when he returns and finds his wife "making music" with the violinist he loses control.  Taking a dagger from the wall above the sofa he kills his wife with it. The violinist escapes: "I wanted to run after him, but remembered that it is ridiculous to run after one's wife's lover in one's socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible."
Afterwards he rationalizes: "So he and his music were the cause of everything." His marriage as presented by Pozdnyshev was a shambles already, but beyond the surface Tolstoy uses this case as an argument against the goodness of beautiful art. Pozdnyshev questions the nature of the Good and what is moral echoing the divide between external Good and internal values that can be seen in the ideas of Rousseau and Kant.

Later acquitted of murder in light of his wife's apparent adultery, Pozdnyshev rides the trains seeking forgiveness from fellow passengers. After the work had been forbidden in Russia by the censors, a mimeographed version was widely circulated. It was eventually printed in Tolstoy's collected works. It is powerful even today for the questions it raises are still with us.

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Russian Poetry

The Selected Poems
The Selected Poems 
by Osip Mandelstam

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia: here, God himself decreed
Nations and kings to stop! As witness eyes
In words, your ancient cupola is indeed,
As if on a chain, suspended from the skies.

Across the centuries, Justinian’s example
Shines: Diana of Ephesus abets 
The theft of 107 columns in green marble
For the benefit of those alien gods.

In lofty thought, your magnanimous architect,
Noble of spirit, arranged the nave, exedrae,
Semi-domes, apses, pillars, et cetera,
Once he had indicated east and west.

The lovely temple is bathing in the world,
Its forty windows hold a triumph of light.
Under the dome, with sails of wings bedight,
The four archangels are the most beautiful.

This wise and spherical construction
Will outlive many a loud age and nation.
Echoes of choirs of cherubim weeping
Will fail to warp the darkened gilding.*

Osip Mandelstam was born in 1891.  After surviving the revolution in 1922 Mandelstam married Madezhda Iokovlevna Khazin, who accompanied him throughout his years of exile and imprisonment. In the 1920s Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating works by Upton Sinclair, Jules Romains, Charles de Coster and others. He did not compose poems from 1925 to 1930 but turned to prose. In 1930 he made a trip to Armenia. Mandelstam saw his role as an outsider and drew parallels with his fate and Pushkin's. The importance of preserving the cultural tradition became for the poet a central concern. The Soviet cultural authorities were rightly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolshevik rule. To escape his influential enemies Mandelstam traveled as a journalist in the distant provinces. Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia (1933) became his last major work published during his life time. 
'We live, deaf to the land beneath us, 
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches, 
But where there's so much as a half a conversation 
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.' 
(from 'Stalin' 1934) 
Mandelstam was arrested for 'counter-revolutionary' activities in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Interrogated by Nikolay Shivarov, he confessed that he had written a counter-revolutionary a poem which started with the lines: 'We live without sensing the country beneath us, At ten paces, our speech has no sound and when there's the will to half-open our mouths the Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.' 
In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938.His body was taken to a common grave.  

*Translated by Philip Nikolayev

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Snow in the City

Of Snowflakes and Perfect Lawns

“Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look at what they can do when they stick together." (author unknown)

The sun was just rising as I finished putting the final touches on my attempt to clean our front sidewalk of snow one morning earlier this week.  It was rather whitish stuff that had turned into a mushy muddled mess under the incessant trampling of many footsteps into a greyish cover over the concrete that is our front sidewalk.

As I laid down a layer of salt I thought back to my youth in southern Wisconsin.  My thoughts were not of the wintry whiteness  that we enjoyed but of summertime and the feelings of futility and, perhaps, a bit of resentment over the perfect lawn of our neighbors across the street.  They had a well-maintained bungalow and a small front lawn that was always kept in pristine, if not perfect, order.  While I struggled with our much larger lawn that stretched over the equivalent of at  least three city lots my neighbor's yard was always laying there, in its crisp, pristine, weed-free form, mocking all my feeble attempts to keep our lawn under control.  Forget about eliminating weeds -- as long as the ground was covered with green it did not matter what the source of that greenery was.  Did I mention that my neighbor was retired?  Thus he had most every day available to touch-up his lawn and make sure it was just right.  So, the battle was lost before it had begun and the perfect image of that lawn has grown in my mind into a memory that augments the lingering disgust I have for even the idea of mowing and trimming a lawn. 

Call me a Jeremiah for my memory of that time is surely Pirandellian and the feelings of futility were merely chimerical.  But, here I am in the seventh decade of my life making sure that the sidewalk in front of the six-flat in which I live is perfectly clear of snow (at least when the snowfall is somewhat less than the almost two feet we had yesterday).  What will the neighbors think?