Saturday, August 31, 2019

Saturday Poem

per il Mulatto Brischdauer
gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
………. ––Ludwig van Beethoven, 1803

The Bridgetower

If was at the Beginning. If
he had been older, if he hadn’t been
dark, brown eyes ablaze
in that remarkable face;
if he had not been so gifted, so young
a genius with no time to grow up;
if he hadn’t grown up, undistinguished,
to an obscure old age.
If the piece had actually been,
as Kreutzer exclaimed, unplayable––even after
our man had played it, and for years,
no one else was able to follow––
so that the composer’s fury would have raged
for naught, and wagging tongues
could keep alive the original dedication
from the title page he shredded.
Oh, if only Ludwig had been better-looking,
or cleaner, or a real aristocrat,
von instead of the unexceptional van
from some Dutch farmer; if his ears
had not already begun to squeal and whistle;
if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups,
if he could have found True Love. Then
the story would have held: In 1803
George Polgreen Bridgetower,
son of Friedrich Augustus the African Prince
and Maria Anna Sovinki of Biala in Poland,
traveled from London to Vienna,
where he met the Great Master
who would stop work on his Third Symphony
to write a sonata for his new friend
to premiere triumphantly on May 24th,
whereupon the composer himself
leapt up from the piano to embrace
his “lunatic mulatto.”
Who knows what would have followed?
They might have palled around some,
just a couple of wild and crazy guys
strutting the town like rock stars,
hitting the bars for a few beers, a few laughs . . .
instead of falling out over a girl
nobody remembers, nobody knows.
Then this bright-skinned papa’s boy
could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame
straight into the record books––where,
instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley
sprinkled here and there, we would find
rafts of black kids scratching out scales
on their matchbox violins so that some day
they might play the impossible:
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47,
also known as The Bridgetower.
by Rita Dove
from Sonata Mulattica,  W.W. Norton, 2009

Monday, August 26, 2019

Historian and Novelist

The Historian and the Story

In his narrative of the Mann Gulch fire, Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean meditates on the meaning of history and storytelling. In the paragraphs just following the moments when he has presented the heart of the disaster he comments:

"The historian, for a variety of reasons, can limit his account
to firsthand witnesses, although the shortage of firsthand 
witnesses probably does not explain completely why 
contemporary accounts of the Mann Gulch fire avert their eyes 
from the tragedy. If  a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling 
to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from 
the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, 
must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be 
able to accompany his characters even into smoke and fire, 
and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when 
they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch 
fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to 
the crosses with those who for the time being are blotted out 
by smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind 
them and need someone to remember them." (Young Men and
Fire, pp 101-102)

By contrast with the work of the historian, the storyteller James Fenimore Cooper, in his historical novel The Prairie, can hold the reader in suspense with the approach of a great prairie fire while the old trapper devises a method of using fire to fight fire and, in doing so, save the party of settlers. Here is the conclusion of the episode in Cooper's words:

"The experience of the trapper was in the right. As the fire gained
strength and heat, it began to spread on three sides, dying of itself
on the fourth, for want of aliment. As it increased, and the sullen
roaring announced its power, it cleared every thing before it, leaving
the black and smoking soil far more naked than if the scythe had swept
the place. The situation of the fugitives would have still been
hazardous had not the area enlarged as the flame encircled them. But
by advancing to the spot where the trapper had kindled the grass, they
avoided the heat, and in a very few moments the flames began to recede
in every quarter, leaving them enveloped in a cloud of smoke, but
perfectly safe from the torrent of fire that was still furiously
rolling onward.

"The spectators regarded the simple expedient of the trapper with that
species of wonder, with which the courtiers of Ferdinand are said to
have viewed the manner in which Columbus made his egg stand on its
end, though with feelings that were filled with gratitude instead of
envy."  (The Prairie, Chapter 23)

James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie. The Heritage Press, 1960 (1827).
Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire. The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Too Young to Count the Odds

Young Men and Fire: 
 A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire 

Young Men and Fire:  A True Story of the Mann Gulch Fire

“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.” 

― Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Catastrophes are only a part of the story of the crew of fifteen smoke jumpers who, in August 1949, stepped into the sky above the mountains of western Montana. Their story is the focal point of this fine narrative, but there is so much more that I have stopped in my read to share a brief quotation that both tells a tiny part of the story, but also provides a peek into the context that is as vast as the mountains themselves. The beauty of this book is not only in the story of those young men and the fire they leapt into, but also the way it is told by Norman Maclean.

"Yet we should also go on wondering if there is not some shape, form, design as of artistry in this universe we are entering that is composed of catastrophes and missing parts. Whether we are coming up or down the Gates of the Mountains, catastrophes everywhere enfold us as they do the river, and catastrophes may seem to be only the visible remains of defunct happenings of millions of years ago and the Rocky Mountains only the disintegrated explosions that darkened skies also millions of years ago and left behind the world dusted with gritty silicone. At least I should recognize this as much the same stuff as the little pieces of glass which in 1980 Mount St. Helens in Washington sprinkled over my cabin in Montana six hundred miles away, and anyone coming down the Gates of the Mountains can see that the laminations of ocean beds compressed in the cliffs on one side of the river match the laminations on the opposite cliffs, and, looking up, can see that an arch, now disappeared into sky, originally join both cliffs. There are also missing parts to the story of the lonely crosses ahead of us, almost invisible in deep grass near the top of a mountain. What if, by searching the earth and even the sky for these missing parts, we should find enough of them to see catastrophe change into the shape of remembered tragedy? Unless we are willing to escape into sentimentality or fantasy, often the best we can do with catastrophes, even our own, is to find out exactly what happened and restore some of the missing parts---hopefully, even the arch to the sky." (pp 46-47)

Monday, August 19, 2019

What is a Book?

Sesame and Lilies 

Sesame and Lilies

“All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hours, and the books of all Time.” 

― John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies


What is a book?

"A book is essentially not a talking thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence. The book of talk is printed only because its author cannot speak to thousands o people at once; if he could, he would---the volume is mere multiplication of his voice. You cannot talk to your friend in India; if you could, you would; you write instead: that is mere conveyance of voice. But a book is written, not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; ---this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything is worth your memory." That is his "writing"; it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a "Book."" (pp 32-33)

Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin, Deborah Epstein Nord, ed., Yale University Press, 2002 (1864).

Saturday, August 17, 2019

In Modern Berlin

Berlin Alexanderplatz 

Berlin Alexanderplatz

“He swore to all the world and to himself that he would remain decent. And as long as he had money, he remained decent. But then he ran out of money, which was a moment he had been waiting for, to show them all what he was made of.”   

― Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz

This novel was first published in October, 1929, two weeks before Black Friday and the Wall Street Crash. It put modern Berlin on the literary map and it remains a modernist classic favorably compared with the not too dissimilar novels like Dos Passos' USA Trilogy and Joyce's Ulysses. It tells the story of man who is as untied from any moorings as the world around him seemed to be. In fact, you might consider him the perfect anti-hero for the age.

The story opens as Franz Biberkopf is released from Tegel prison, where he served four years for killing his girlfriend in a drunken rage. Returning to Berlin, he decides to go straight. He begins to peddle bow ties on a street corner and drifts into selling other merchandise. At the same time, he starts an affair with Polish Lina and gets involved fleetingly with a bewildering series of political movements, ranging from homosexual rights to the Nazi Party. His wearing of the Nazi armband angers his worker friends, who expel him from his favorite pub. However, his real troubles begin after he enters into a partnership with Otto Lüders. After Lüders robs and assaults one of his customers, to whose apartment he gained access by using Franz’s name, Biberkopf is forced to flee to an obscure part of the city to avoid complications.

Much like a musical theme with variations, a few weeks later, Franz returns to his usual haunts taking a job as a newspaper vendor. He also begins to consort with a flashy miscreant named Reinhold who is adept at attracting women but cannot hold on to them. Each time Reinhold tires of a girlfriend, Franz throws off his current mistress and takes Reinhold’s latest castoff. When Franz becomes sincerely attached to Cissy, one of Reinhold’s rejects, he refuses to comply further. Indeed, he tells Reinhold’s girlfriend how things stand. This infuriates Reinhold, though he pretends to acquiesce in Franz’s attempt to reform him.

Yet another misadventure has Franz recruited by Fatty Pums, head of a criminal gang, which includes Reinhold. The gang is closely pursued as they drive away from a robbery, and Reinhold, given to psychotic rages and remembering Franz’s interference with his social life, pushes him from the speeding automobile. Franz is run over by the chasing car.

He awakens in a hospital, missing one arm. Bedridden, he is taken in by friends from his criminal days. Once Franz feels better further adventures ensue involving prostitutes and the usual suspect criminal element (you get the idea). At one point Franz ends up abetting his old friend Reinhold in a murder. Franz manages to continue his criminal enterprise alone, but is caught by the police. All of these events are told in a realistic and sometimes comic style.

Franz learns of Meize’s death and the hunt for him through the newspapers. Disguised with a false arm, he sets off to track down Reinhold. Eventually, tired and confused, Franz wanders into a nightclub that is in the process of being raided by the police. He is arrested. Reinhold, who got himself jailed under an assumed name, thinking prison is an ideal hiding place, is betrayed by a young man he befriended. 

Above all else, the work’s narrative evokes the crowded and chaotic nature of Berlin in the Jazz age. Something of the rhythm and melodies of jazz music is conveyed through the frequent interspersing of the narrative with newspaper clippings, weather reports and political slogans, not to mention through its various diversions on topics as varied as astronomy, theology, and cooking. Döblin’s inclusion of the work’s principle setting as part of its title necessitates that the setting adopt a central role. There are a few fantastic episodes, meetings with angels and ultimately, after Frans has been confined in a mental asylum, a confrontation with Death, who recalls to Franz his misdeeds and charges him to start a new life. When he comes out of his stupor, he is changed. After he is released, he quietly becomes a gatekeeper, refuses to incriminate Reinhold at the killer’s trial, and avoids any bad associations. From then on, he is known by the new name Franz Karl Biberkopf, for he is a remade man.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Humane Literature

The Periodic Table 

The Periodic Table

“If it is true that there is no greater sorrow than to remember a happy time in a state of misery, it is just as true that calling up a moment of anguish in a tranquil mood, seated quietly at one's desk, is a source of profound satisfaction.”   ― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

The following is a review of a rereading of The Periodic Table:

Thomas Mann began his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, with this sentence: "Very deep is the well of the past." Primo Levi's memoir demonstrates this metaphor in a much smaller, compact space. The lives of Levi and his Piedmont ancestors are explored through stories that illuminate the nature of the past and the source of those people's and our own humanity. This is done through vignettes that demonstrate Levi's love of chemistry and literature, his relations and relationships, while exploring his own attitude and thoughts.

Some of his thoughts are about reading and its meaning for his life. This is a topic that I especially love to explore and learn about; I will take it up in this introductory commentary on his memoir. His reading is based on his love for great literature particularly his appreciation for the writings of Thomas Mann, whom he holds in the highest esteem.
Early in the narrative during his sojourn as a chemistry student he meets Rita, a fellow student, and is attracted to her although, due to his shyness, he does not know how to approach her. He reaches a point where "I thought myself condemned to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman's smile forever". Yet one day he found beside her, peeking out of her bag, a book. It was The Magic Mountain. He relates, "it was my sustenance during those months, the timeless story of Hans Castorp in enchanted exile on the magic mountain. I asked Rita about it, on tenterhooks to hear her opinion, as if I had written the book: and soon enough I had to realize that she was reading the novel in an entirely different way. As a novel, in fact: she was very interested in finding out exactly how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped the fascinating (for me) political, theological, and metaphysical discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha." (p 38)
We all may have had a similar experience more than once: finding someone (whether drawn to them by Eros or not) reading a book we love, but not reading the same book.

Levi's love for Mann's writing also provided him solace while working on a demanding project during the war. He was sequestered in a laboratory next to a nickel mine and forced to work long hours. He dared not venture far from the mine, so "Sometimes I stayed in the lab past quitting time or went back there after dinner to study, or to meditate on the problem of nickel. At other times I shut myself in to read Mann's Joseph stories in my monastic cell in the submarine. On nights when the moon was up I often took long solitary walks through the wild countryside around the mine". (p 79)
One can picture Levi pondering while walking by the light of the Tuscan moon finding comfort as did Jacob in Mann's novel when he walked in the moonlight. It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrored for Jacob the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--". ("The Tales of Jacob")

Each chapter of the memoir is named for a chemical element, explores Levi’s work in the laboratory, and relates that work to his personal, social, and political experience. It is a cliché to speak of human chemistry when discussing human nature. The virtue of Levi’s book is that he refreshes the cliché and shows the profound connections between chemical elements and the elements of human behavior. The chapters can be read as a discrete piece of work, concentrating on some episode or period in Levi’s life. Nevertheless, the chapters are also unified by the author’s growth in perception. As he learns more about specific chemical elements and about the procedures required to study those elements, so he also discovers life in more depth, encountering unusual characters who teach him about the meaning of their lives and about existence as a whole. The form of The Periodic Table can be roughly characterized as a chronology; however there are chapters which are difficult to date and some that are fictions in part or in whole. While his experience in Auschwitz is almost entirely avoided (he had written a separate book about this, If This is a Man), he does include a brief episode in the chapter "Cerium" that highlights his friendship with a young man named Alberto who buoyed his spirits.

By titling his memoir The Periodic Table, Levi suggests that there is a structure to his writing about experience that is analogous to the way elements are analyzed in chemistry. Like the various substances the chemist tests in his laboratory, the author’s experiences have different degrees of purity, different weights, and different reactions, depending on what he uses to stimulate them. Human character in the memoir, in other words, has certain properties from the beginning, but it can be transformed in a number of ways given the changing nature of environments.

Throughout his memoir Primo Levi shares other literature and experiences as he narrates the lives of his friends, family, and ancestors. Just as he is inspired by reading Thomas Mann and the moonlight that inspired Jacob so many centuries ago he is imbued with the life of the people around him. Yes, The Periodic Table is deep, and one wonders at the lives narrated by this brilliant Jewish Italian chemist and humanist.

There are lessons to be learned in the humanity of people, but also in their frailties and foibles. Ultimately this is one of the most humane works of literature that this reader has encountered. With a unique style and appreciation for the importance of both science and literature for humanity The Periodic Table stands as a twentieth-century classic that I would recommend to all readers.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Notes on Kant

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals/On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns

“....Happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination, resting solely on empirical grounds, and it is vain to expect that these should define an action by which one could attain the totality of a series of consequences which is really endless.”   
― Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals

To determine(develop) a foundation for a Metaphysics of Morals. Kant proposes that the proper foundation for a metaphysics of morals must be a critical examination of pure practical reason. This is because Moral Laws and their principles are different from practical cognition based on the difference between analytical and empirical thought. Moral philosophy rests on a priori (pure) laws.
Such laws require a power of judgment based on experience.

A metaphysics of such morals is necessary to avoid corruption: i.e. the moral good must not only conform to the moral law but it must also be done for the sake of that law. The metaphysics of morals must investigate the idea and principles of a possible “pure will” - not the actions of human volition.

The method of the work should be an analytical approach that progresses from ordinary knowledge to a supreme principle followed by an analysis and examination of this principle.

In spite of the logic of Kant's argument is it capable of being put into actual practice?
Or, in other words, can there be adherence to a moral law that is done solely for the sake of that law.