Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Josh and Jasper and the Tale of Snoozefoxie

The snoozefoxie, a hedgehog-like creature, comes out of a six-year-old boy's nose to spark a love connection between him and another boy. The picture book is written in Dutch, by Oliver Robert. I found an English translation by S. Boone and J. Lagast on Google Books. According to The Advocate, where I read the story, the picture book has become a favorite with Belgian educators, and now 50, 000 elementary students ages 6 to 9 read about Josh and Jasper's gay crush each year. 

The same issue also covers the coming tenth anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard. On Wednesday, October 7, 1998, the young man was found tied to a fence on the Wyoming prairie, barely alive, his skull fractured and his brain stem crushed. He died in a hospital five days later. He was 21. The state of Wyoming still has not passed the hate crime legislation put together in the wake of Shepard's death; neither has the U.S. government passed the federal version of that bill. Obama has promised to sign the bill if he is elected president.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Jessica Gaynor Dance

Yesterday, I sat in the Triskelion Arts Studio, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to watch a work choreographed by a colleague, Jessica Gaynor. The work was an excerpt from a full-length dance to be premiered in the same space in November 13-15. Titled "Enlarged to Show Texture," the dance meditated on the ways individuality arises from communal routines. The soundtrack stitched together original music (by Brian Harnetty) and recordings from the Berea Appalachian Sound Archives, forming a patchwork of soundscapes. After seeing the excerpt, I am keen to see the entire piece.

The excerpt began with a quartet of dancers sitting round on chairs, and tapping a foot. Soon, three of them moved to a far corner, leaving the odd one out doing her thing. This formation, and then breaking, of pattern informed the rest of the piece. By the canny use of different combinations--pairs, trios, quartets and quintets--the work achieved variety but also maintained its coherence. The movements and gestures were powerful, yet lyrical, often rocking on an internal rhythm. The dancers, all women, looked like graceful sprites, but danced with muscular control and abandon.

The other works in the program that afternoon were far less compelling. The thread that ran through them was the body's intransigency. The theme felt both outdated and inward-looking, while the dancing often looked sophomoric. The choreographers should get other people to dance their creations, instead of themselves (one work that did just that was also slightly better than the others). In that way, the dancemakers would discover whether they could get someone other than themselves to commit to their navel-gazing.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Reading "The Iliad" Books 1 and 2

With a group of colleagues, I am reading The Iliad, translated by Richmond Lattimore. Not having made any close comparisons, I think the Fagles translation is more direct and muscular, whereas the Lattimore is more fluid. Lattimore also uses a longer verse line than Fagles does. Lattimore opens with these lines:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus' son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

"Hurled" in line three is a main verb, but I read it first as a participle modifying Achaians; that confusion does not seem productive, and I wonder if the ambiguity is in Homer. Lines 4 and 5 do not reproduce Homer's chiasmic "spoils for dogs, for birds feast"; the preposition "of" in "feasting/ of dogs, of all birds" is also a pale substitution for the more forceful "for."

Anger, the note struck in the first line, resounds in Book One, in, first, Apollo's wrath against the Achaians, then, in the human realm, in the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, and, finally, in the realm of the gods, in the unhappiness between Zeus and Hera.

The theme, with its alien ideas about honor codes, moves me less than some incidental details of that world. Odysseus is charged with returning Chryseis to her father, together with a hecatomb (100 cows to be sacrificed to Apollo).

These when they were inside the many-hollowed harbour
took down and gathered together the sails and stowed them in the black
let down mast by the forestays, and settled it into the mast crutch
easily, and rowed her in with oars to the mooring.
They threw over the anchor stones and made fast the stern cables
and themselves stepped out on to the break of the sea beach,
and led forth the hecatomb to the archer Apollo,
and Chryseis herself stepped forth from the sea-going vessel.

I find these lines tremendously poignant. The step-by-step narration of ordinary actions brings back a world lost irretrievably. After I have forgotten what insults Achilles and Agamemnon hurl at the other, I remember those anchor stones and stern cables. Perhaps I am influenced in this by Melville's Moby Dick, which I am reading at the same time. I love the way Homer presents at the end of the sequence of actions Chryseis, the reason for this voyage, who is the more anxious to reunite with her father, the more she is delayed.

The sacrifice is also described with loving detail.

So he spoke in prayer and Phoibos Apollo heard him.
And when all had made prayer and flung down the scattering barley
first they drew back the victims' heads and slaughtered hem and skinned
and cut away the meat from the thighs and wrapped them in fat,
making a double fold, and laid shreds of flesh upon them.
The old man burned these on a cleft stick and poured the gleaming
wine over, while the young men with forks in their hands stood about
But when they had burned the thigh pieces and tasted the vitals,
they cut all the remainder into pieces and spitted them
and roasted all carefully and took off the pieces.
Then after they had finished the work and got the feast ready
they feasted, nor was any man's hunger denied a fair portion.
But when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking,
the young men filled the mixing bowls with pure wine, passing
a portion to all, when they had offered drink in the goblets.
All day long they propitiated the god with singing,
chanting a splendid hymn to Apollo, these young Achaians,
singing to the one who works from afar, who listened in gladness.

This holy feasting contrasts sharply with the "delicate" feasting of the dogs and birds in the Book's beginning, and with the luxurious banqueting of the gods in the Book's conclusion; its structural and thematic significance is clear. What touches the heart, perhaps even before the mind is touched, is the human detail. The wrapping of the thigh meat in a double fold of fat.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Battling Fusion and Bored with Heterosex

from Michael Gorra's review (TLS Sep 2008) of Amit Chaudhuri's Clearing A Space: Reflections on India, literature and culture:

Too often "the Eastern and Western elements in fusion have a designated static quality that they do not in their own contexts". So Chaudhuri speaks on behalf of dialectic, not fusion; on behalf of quarrel and assimilation, and not the kind of multi-culti celebration that often winds up confirming our "unexamined beliefs about identity and where we come from".


In another essay on Rushdie--"Huge Baggy Monster", first published in the TLS in 1999--he takes up the question of the imitative fallacy, the sense that a large sprawling country requires large sprawling novels . . .


from Gordon Bowker's review (TLS Sep 2008) of The Creator as Critic: And other writings by E. M. Forster, and The BBC Talks of E. M. Forster, 1929-1960:

. . . his interest in he evolving personality inspired by reading Walter Pater and Samuel Butler, especially The Way of All Flesh. It was Butler, he reveals, from whom he took his humanistic outlook, and who, with Jane Austen and Proust, influenced him most as a writer.


His biographer P. N. Furbank tells how he grew bored writing about heterosexual relationships, wanting instead to explore homosexual life and feelings, which the climate of the time forbade. . . . After 1924, he confined himself to writing short "indecent" stories for private circulation, one of which, "Dr Woolacott", he considered "the best thing I've ever done and also unlike anyone else's work".

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Poem: Albuquerque 7

Albuquerque 7
after Richard Diebenkorn

There is a figure in a landscape with no figure,
if only because we look for him behind the elm,
above the snow line, or along the marshy creek,
or on the white sand polished by sapphire seas,

if only because we look at it, and see the spur
steering the mountain’s floating hulk a whaler’s helm,
and see the fleeting torso of a marbled Greek
in the cloud hurling the discus sun into our eyes,

and wide in its deliberate curvature, the river
bend its bow till the ends clap, palm to shining palm,
despite the thunderstorm, despite the cracked and bleak
stumps, clap in blue applause manifest destiny.

And you, love, turning fifty as around a corner,
watching the vanishing point of every painted realm,
you’re thinking of your fading father, as we speak
of early hardships, breakthroughs, late discoveries.

Paint, like its painter, must fade, but between the fir,
cached in the middle of an unattended calm,
there is a lake that looks nothing like a lake—
no boats, no water, no shore, no concavity.

We know it for a lake only because we were
there, briefly, and the bodies we lugged breathed a psalm,
know it is wet, deep, because finding what we seek
we hurled our bodies in, and there was jubilee.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yefim Bronfman plays Rachmaninoff

It has been too long since I attended a concert, and last night's outing to hear the NY Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall was pleasure regained. 

According to the playbill, Yefim Bronfman was born in Tashkent, in the Soviet Union, in 1958, and immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 15. He made his international debut two years later, at the age of 17, with Zubin Mehta and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Since then he has been appearing regularly with North American orchestras. 

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 has a special connection with the NYP. The composer unveiled the work in 1909, playing the solo part himself, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony, which merged with the NYP. The playbill claims that Rachmaninoff only got round to practicing his part during the Atlantic crossing, when he rigged up a mute piano keyboard for that purpose. 

I came to Rachmaninoff through Scott Hicks's 1996 film "Shine," a biopic about the Australian pianist David Helfgott. The Wiki entry on Helfgott focuses on the controversy over the movie's supposedly inaccurate portrayal of Papa Helfgott. I was completely unaware of the hullabaloo; despite what critics say about Helfgott's playing, I was enraptured by Rachmaninoff's music. I would listen over and over again to No. 3 played by Tzimon Barto, with Christoph Eschebach conducting the London Philharmonic. I also own, on one disc, No. 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, played by Artur Rubinstein, with Ritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as Symphony No. 2, with Mariss Jansons conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, on a cheap Chandos recording bought in Taiwan where I was training for national service.

Bronfman's playing took Rachmaninov seriously. The flamboyance was always held in check by a firm sense of dignity. The beginning was restrained, almost cool, but the playing soon escalated to percussive thunder. No histrionics in the performance, though Bronfman did leap up, a few times,  from his stool to crash on the keyboard. Is it my imagination that the concerto is darker than it appeared last night? It was grand, but, like a good guest-of-honor, did not brood. 

Introducing aptly the Rachmaninov, Steven Stucky's Rhapsodies for Orchestra had its U. S. premiere. The programming after the intermission was a little strange. After Piano Concerto No. 3,  Ravel's Suite from Mother Goose, and Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin felt like afterthoughts. Many in the audience left during the intermission. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Poem: Soft Depths


At first he went to Cairo for the lads,
whom he saw from his hotel window
passing through the market stalls
like unacknowledged gods.
Then he found himself
passing for a local, winning
the confidence of the black-toothed elders,
uttering an automatic
prayer when the minaret floated
its call. He knew
he could never be a Muslim,
but he loved the religion’s seriousness,
the gravity
in the brown eyes of his lover
who stepped out of a starry robe
to climb under his covers.


He liked sun-tanning on Christopher Street pier
where other sun-tanners slept on the grass
like so many fish. He liked the idea
they were happy out of
their element.
The grass blades bristled, the ants
with their busy jaws scavenged
what the summer gas had poisoned.
But the sun-tanners were not dead yet,
they were dreaming
of limbs and lungs,
and the unaccustomed sun of mammal sex.


He washed carefully,
glad to be out of the cold
that was reducing his gang at the pier.
He almost gave himself up to the Shelter
but remembered its ranks of army cots.
The stranger looked sane,
and he could hear him in the bedroom,
rattling down the blinds.
He dried himself with the thick, white towel.
The towels at home were washed to frayed white,
dirty with disappearing colors.
Here, with some luck,
he could do as he pleased, and the stranger
would not hit him
after they jizzed his sheets.


His own snoring woke him.
One moment he was lost to himself,
the next a black light flicked on.
Swimming up towards that light,
his mind strained with an accumulated effort
that grew less
as the water gave way.
When he broke the surface, he saw
Kelvin curled up against him,
the position he—his boyfriend!—liked best,
his face mild as milk.


After his workout, he took off
his shirt, and admired the man—
thickening shoulders, deepening chest—
the mirror returned to him.
He was so close to his reappearance
he could hug him
with his muscular arms.


He had a runner’s build but hated running.
He rooted
his toes
into the public park
and grew from his fingers
rose bushes.
He would not run, would not
ignite his lungs
and raze the flower’s thorn and leaf,
but let decay
take its slow, stationary course.


When he was down he sank so deep
into his bed he could not get up
from its soft depths
no handhold in the hours no step
in the stairwell of his breathing no
Pierre to drag him up
by the neck
with the hempen rope of his voice.


When the fog of blood cleared,
he found his right limbs
and then his left. The leg
had fallen like a walking stick.
The arm was screwed to him
like a door handle
he could not reach
to leave the relentless ward.


Though he wore the body of a woman,
he knew he was a man. He didn’t care
to assume public privileges nor assert
private virtues. The knowledge
was not political, not moral, but tricky
like déjà vu,
flickering like memory,
and, sometimes, descending
like understanding.
Some of the men he spoke with
said that was how they knew it too.


He estimated the cab fare
from sugar to quietus,
and carried the metal sum in his mouth
when he took his first trick home.
He still remembered the man
had excellent teeth, and how sweet
the stirring, and then
the disappearing.


His spiritual home was a beach hotel
in winter, where,
past the doors of the departed,
the reception desk
with its idle key hooks,
the cane armchairs on the verandah
cradling their own
dead tree,
he walked out to the sea
and called his name over and over.


He had been thrashing for so long
that when the divorce came, like a ship,
he had no strength to hail it
but watched it pass, and bobbed
in its wake.


Finally there was the dancing on the roof
he danced to satisfy
himself, sometimes
with another wriggling soul,
sometimes with a
rapturous hip, sometimes all alone
above the drumming columns of a beat,
dancing and dying on his feet.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Wang Hui at the Met

This exhibition is the first time the Met focuses on a single Chinese painter, here, the virtuosic 17th century landscape painter, Wang Hui (1632-1717). It is a great opportunity to study the artistic evolution of a significant Chinese painter. The first three galleries display the Tang, Song and Yuan styles of painting that inspired Wang Hui. The rest of the galleries are devoted to his works, gathered here from the Taipei and Beijing Palace Museums, the Shanghai Museum, North American collections, as well as the Met's permanent collection.

Roberta Smith, in The New York Times, reviews the exhibition in glowing, if somewhat uncritical, terms. Along the way she takes swipes at excessive laments about the harmful effects of the art market, and at rigid distinctions between creating a personal style, and copying the Old Masters. The art market is not a modern, let alone contemporary, phenomenon. Wang Hui, by synthesizing the styles of mentors and Old Masters, does create an individual vision of his own. His mentor's mentor, Dong Qichang, advocates a spiritual communion with the classical painters through copying them, and not a mechanical reproduction of their techniques.

The works Wang Hui produced in his thirties already showed his compositional skills. In the hanging scrolls, mountain crags lead the eye up a line--described as a "dragon vein"--to the imposing peak at the top, often slightly off center. The "hemp-rope" brushstrokes on the mountains give his painting terrific kinetic energy, imitating the qi that suffuses the universe. He broadened his repertoire of techniques later by adding ink washes and dots in his mature period. His paintings have an archaic charm, and a contemporary knowingness.

"I must use the brush and ink of the Yüan to move the peaks and valleys of the Sung, and infuse them with the breath-resonance of the T'ang. I shall then have a work of the Great Synthesis" (Wang Hui, quoted in Images of the Mind by Wen C. Fong). The long handrolls display best, it seems to me, his Great Synthesis of Northern and South styles, of Tang and Song pictorial elements, and Yuan calligraphic forms. In that format, the variety of styles diverts and pleases as the eye travels along the unrolling landscape; difference becomes not a clash, but a modulation. A thousand peaks and myriad ravines, as one title of a painting has it.

The exhibition climaxes with Wang Hui's one royal commission, a pictorial record of the Kangxi Emperor's second inspection tour of southern China in 1698. Two of the twelve handscrolls are on display, one depicting the royal journey through the mountainous region of Shandong to Mount Tai, where the Emperor performed religious rites to Heaven, the other following the Grand Canal from the city of Wuxi to the great metropolis of Suzhou. Those paintings, evidence of Wang Hui's public success, are rich in human, architectural and natural detail. However, they move me less than some of the earlier, more private works.

Exhibitionism, Keats's Champion, Sex, Lolcat, and Snowclone

from Paula Marantz Cohen's review (TLS Sep 5 2008) of books on Alfred Hitchcock:

[Hitchcock] was flamboyantly modest or, perhaps better, a self-deprecating exhibitionist. His understated preening is evident in his famous interview with Truffaut and in the cameo appearances he insisted on making in all his films.


He had an unerring grasp of the cinematic--on the technical level of understanding lenses and camera angles, and on the conceptual level of visual storytelling. He was able to make suspense into a metaphor for life and to use the theme of mistaken identity as a source of rich existential meaning. He understood the popular audience, was a master of studio politics and a genius at publicity, and yet he managed to hold on to his own vision.


from Richard Marggraf Turley's Commentary piece (TLS Sep 5 2008) on "Barry Cornwall" (the pseudonym of Bryan Waller Procter) and Keats:

. . . we reject Cornwall for not offering the layered complexities our long admiration for Keats has conditioned us to expect. Yet Cornwall's poems offer more than just fine phrase-making, and form a vital context to Keats's poetic evolution and reception. Early drafts show that Keats was seduced on various occasions by Cornwall's commercial style. To be sure, Keats is most canonically "Keatsian" at moments of strategic retreat from Cornwall's populist aesthetic; but, by the same tokem, Cornwall achieves his most durable successes, seen through a modern lens, when he eschews voguish cliche tom reproduce the hallmarks of Keats's own poetry, poetry lived at a pitch.


from Toby Lichtig's review (TLS Sep 5 2008) of John Berger's novel From A to X:

The Marxist in Berger has always sat side by side with the aesthete. G. (1972), forexample, which won him the Booker, is both a powerful political novel and a sensual feast in which Berger was able to write about desire with great beauty and utilitarian precision. "Why does writing about sexual experience reveal so strikingly what may be a general limitation of literature in relation to aspects of all experience?", he asks, before inserting into the text a crude pornographic sketch to show that language strips away the quality of "firstness" in the way other more immediate petitions to the senses do not, binding an experience up in "an exterior system of categories".


Some of her [A'ida in From A to X] temporal dictums are vintage Berger: "love adores repetition because they defy time". Similarly provoking is A'ida's insistence on creative reconstruction as a means of escaping incarceration. "The past is the one thing we are not prisoners of", she reassures her man, before offering different readings of their previous encounters ("Agree to this version?").


The best prison literature--from Dostoevsky to Jean Genet to Tahar ben Jelloun--has drawn on the importance of the imagination to create a happier reality, and this is exactly what A'ida finds herself doing: "Every night I put you together--bone by delicate bone". "Thought and extension are parts of the same stuff", she writes, reassuring herself as much as him.


Berger deals well with the solipsism of desire. If, as Hegel argued, the self is formed through desire then these letters are certainly building A'ida a lot of character. But Xavier's absence remains a tangible presence, an affirmation of a political project that is bound up with their love. This is love as plenitude: personal and political.


from Cherie K. Woodworth's review of Aleksandra Shatskikh's Vitebsk: The life of art:

In 1900, as it had been for the past four centuries, Vitebsk was a gateway from Russia to the West, diverse in its population (in the late nineteenth century, 60 per cent of the population was Jewish) and cultural influences (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox; Polish and White Russian; urban and rural, commercial and industrial).


Its golden years were short: 1917-22. During that short half-decade, Vitebsk gave birth not only to the paintings of Chagall, but also those of El Lissitsky and Kazimir Malevich, the Unovis art school; and to the essays of Mikhail Bakhtin.


The artists of Vitebsk were proudly and self-consciously the Red Army of Creativity. . . .


from Jonathan Hope's review (TLS Sep 5 2008) of two books on how the internet is changing language:

Ultimately, both books make the mistake of treating language change as something out of the ordinary, and of misreading the direction of cause and effect. Social changes produces language change, not the other way round. Language change is neither good nor bad: it is inevitable. It is also very often, despite what the doom-mongers want to believe, superficial and transient. If you do not like the current set of changes, my advice is to wait a while: another set will be along soon.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Turning Torso and Ceruse Poisoning

from Rebecca Mead's essay (TNY, Sep 1, 2008) on Santiago Calatrava:

The first completed Calatrava skyscraper, the Turning Torso tower, in Malmo, Sweden, which is fifty-four stories high and twists through ninety degrees, was derived from a sculpture that Calatrava first made in 1985, and this, in turn was prompted by his sketches of the human spine. . . . Calatrava's bridges, for which he initially earned his fame, often evoke the shapes of lithe human forms, bending or lunging with Olympian vigor.


More recently, he built a library for the University of Zurich's law school--an ovoid structure topped with a glass oculus--that fits snugly within the courtyard of the school's existing hundred-year-old building. A visitor standing inside the splendid skylit atrium will see no books or students; the workspaces are hidden behind five levels of pearwood-clad balconies, as if the library were a beehive in which all honey-producing activity had been cunningly concealed. The oculus is equipped with a brise-soleil that silently opens and closes according to the available daylight, and the library is so popular that even students not enrolled in the law school have taken to working there.


Movement, he argues, is an essential part of the natural world and of human life, and is profoundly related to our experience of time. "Even if people want to do monuments that are timeless, like the pyramids of Egypt--well, they are moving," he says. "We don't see that, because they move very slowly, but they are shorter than when they were built. The stones are falling down. Everything in our universe moves."


It is no accident that a station might evoke the atmosphere of a temple, Calatrava says. "The word 'religion' comes from the Latin religare, meaning 'creating links,'" he explained. "Physically, what a station does is to create links with the rest of the world, as do bridges. Look at the George Washington Bridge in the middle of the landscape: it is like a priest opening his hands."


from John Updike's essay (TNY Sep 1, 2008) on Max Factor:

In the slim and frivolously titled "Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick," by Meg Cohen Ragas and Karen Kozlowski (1998), we learn that an ancient Egyptian papyrus shows a woman applying lip rouge. "Inventing Beauty," by Teresa Riordan (2004), points out that as photography became, from 1870 to 1900, more popular so, too, did cosmetics, and that "as the depression deepened, cosmetics sales climbed steadily," and that, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the proliferation of synthetic compounds freed cosmetics from the drawbacks of naturally viscid and odorous oils and solvents.


Even as Gascoigne wrote, his monarch, Elizabeth I, was poisoning her complexion with ceruse, a lead-based skin whitener used in ancient Rome and revived in the Renaissance. Ceruse persisted into the eighteenth century in potent "washballs," long after many a woman of fashion had died of such toxins.


(in Kansas in 1915 a law was proposed making it illegal for women under the age of forty-four to wear cosmetics "for the purpose of creating a false impression")

Saturday, September 06, 2008

To Live Aesthetically Or To Live Ethically

from "Why So Serious?" Alex Ross's review (TNY Sep 8, 2008) of Kenneth Hamilton's After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, and William Weber's The Great Transformation of Musical Taste" Concert Programming from Haydn to Brahms:

With the aristocracy declining in the wake of the French Revolution and subsequent upheavals, the bourgeoisie increasingly took control of musical life, imposing a new conception of how concerts should unfold: programs favored composers of the past over those of the present, popular fare was banished, progrm notes provided orientation to the uninitiated, and the practice of milling about, talking, and applauding during the music subsided. To some extent, these changes can be explained in anthropological terms: by applauding here and not applauding there, the bourgeois were signalling their membership in a social and culturel elite. As Johnson points out, they felt obliged to reconfirm that status from year to year, since, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they lived in fear of going back down the ladder. "The bourgeoisie isn't a class, it's a position, " the Journal des Debats advised. "You acquire it, you lose it." Attending concerts became a kind of performance in itself, a dance of decorum.

Yet the "great transformation," as Weber calls it, wasn't simply an exercise in making concerts as stuffy as possible. Many latter-day analysts have lamented what is often called the "sacralization" of classical music, but Weber defends, to a degree, the much maligned middle classes. He observes that the new mentality pointedly rejected aristocratic values, which relegated serious artistic strivings to the background. To program an entire Beethoven symphony was in many ways an idealistic act, even a subversive one; musicians were striking a blow on behalf of the rights of the "self-willed individual," in Weber's words, with Beethoven heroically representing all those who yearned for basic human liberties. And the music itself demanded a change. When Beethoven began his Ninth Symphony with ten bars of otherwordly pianissimo, he was defying the norms of his time, essentially imagining a new world in which the audience would await the music in an expectant hush. Soon enough, that world came into being.


from Adam Kirsch's review (TLS July 18 2008) of Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings:

"One either has to live aesthetically, or one has to live ethically", Kierkegaard insists in Either/Or . . . .

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Julian Barnes's "Arthur & George"

I have a deep affection for Julian Barnes, generally because I always enjoy his intellectually stimulating novels, more particularly because he taught me how to look at a painting. One chapter in The History of the World in 10½ Chapters muses on Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa.” I remember Barnes’s careful marshalling of evidence in the painting to decide whether the tiny ship in the horizon is approaching the desperate survivors of the shipwreck, or leaving them. I don’t remember the conclusion, but the approach has stuck with me: seeing is also interpreting.

His new novel Arthur and George begins with the desire to take a look:

A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wanted to see.

This particular child who wanted to see is Arthur, who is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the professional ophthalmologist, the champion of the weak, and, finally, the evangelist of Spiritualism. What the child Arthur saw was the corpse of his grandmother, and so is launched a great theme of the novel: after death, what survives of our loved ones, of us? If the answer is nothing, then we are comparable to the cattle and horses ripped mysteriously in the belly, in Wyerly, Staffordshire, a crime of which George is accused.

George Edalji is the local Vicar’s son, who made his parents proud by becoming a solicitor. His belief in the law of England subjects the institutions of Justice to a test. His half-Scottish, half-Parsee heritage questions traditional ideas of Englishness. Arthur, who champions George, compares his case repeatedly to the Dreyfus affair, seeing it as England on trial. George, meanwhile, stubbornly rejects Arthur’s assumption that race prejudice was and is at work against him.

In crucial ways, the novel is an anti-detective story. Inspector Campbell, who promised initially to be a hero, turns out to be a callow apparatchik. Arthur is an investigator more enthusiastic than expert. In the end, the cattle killer is not found, and the malicious letter-writer turns himself in. The ending follows the historical facts, and so underlines how inadequate the detective genre is to convey even the outlines of reality: how infantilizing its exaltation of a singular hero-detective, how deluding its denouement, how outdated its picture of moral and metaphysical certainty.

The sifting of evidence, during the investigations and the trials, is illuminated by the shifting points of view adopted in the novel, mostly between George and Arthur, two very different men from very different backgrounds. One of the great achievements of the novel is to flesh out fully both men. The personalities and the perspectives of the two men, deftly compared throughout the novel, are given equal space in the novel. If the novel begins with Arthur, it ends with George, attending an séance in Albert Hall, at which Arthur’s spirit is expected to appear.

The shift in perspective takes place not only between characters but also between past and present. Some of the sections, usually those describing the protagonists' personal lives, are written in present tense. Other sections, more to do with the public events, are in past tense. This formal device matches two other concerns of the novel. One is the power of memory, which can make the past seem present again, and smooth out the contradictions and ambiguities in repeated retellings, whether in a court session, or in an autobiography.

The other concern, illustrated by the switching of tenses in the very first sentence of the novel, is the generalizability of the particular. Which is truer: “A child wants to see” or “A child wanted to see?” Here, George functions as the particular other people wishes to generalize. For Captain Anson, the racist Chief Constable, George represents the Hindoo half-caste. For Arthur, George is the victim of race prejudice. George’s father, the Vicar, thinks of his son as a martyr for God’s mysterious purpose. George himself would like to think that his case, and others like it, pushed for legal reform, the setting up of a Court of Appeal. His thinking here is modest, cautious, practical, and empirical. The novel seems to think that we cannot help generalizing from the particular, but generalizations should bear George’s traits.

After the Albert Hall séance is over, George remains behind to look at Arthur’s chair on stage, where his ghost supposedly appeared and left.

When most of his section is empty, he reaches down again and presses the binoculars to his spectacles. He focuses once more on the platform, the hydrangeas, the line of empty chairs, and the one specific empty chair with its cardboard placard, the space where Sir Arthur has, just possibly, been. He gazes through his succession of lenses, out into the air and beyond.

What does he see?
What did he see?
What will he see?

In focusing on the platform, plants and chairs (“and the one specific empty chair”), George’s looking is empirical. This empiricism is capable of metaphysical speculation, as represented by the “space” where Arthur has been, and is open to possibilities and contradictions. It is also a kind of looking that is fully aware of the lenses through which it looks, the lenses that enable and distort. The last three paragraphs not only conclude one of the novel’s key techniques—the shift in tenses—they also pay tribute, I think, to the novel’s way of seeing, through time.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Rabindranath Tagore's Song Offerings

I'm reading Joe Winter's translation of Song Offerings (Gitanjali). According to Winter, Tagore wrote Gitanjali from 1906-10, but mostly in the last three months of that period. These poems were written as poems to be read on the page. Tagore turned them into songs as or shortly after he wrote. Winter describes the relationship between poems and songs in this way: "It is as songs that they are known far and wide by Bengali-speakers; yet the text still has a spoken voice."

Winter also describes usefully the publication and reception of the English Gitanjali:

Tagore translated a number of the Gitanjali into English in 1912, at first, while recovering from illness and without the energy, as he put it, 'to sit down and write anything new'. He continued the exercise on a voyage to England that year, his first serious venture into English translation, and arrived with a manuscript made up half of Gitanjali re-creations and half of pieces from nine other of his books. (He wrote over fifty volumes of poetry in all.) Some material translated was in fact new. The exotic figure, as he must have seemed, with his haunting, prayerful and strangely authoritative offerings, was at once taken up. W. B. Yeats read from the manuscript to a distinguished gathering held in a private London house in Tagore's honour; and it appears Yeats was of some assistance in the selection of finished pieces for the final English text. A little misleadingly, this was given the title of the main contributory volume. The English Gitanjali was first published in 1912 and Yeats supplied the introduction, a powerful personal statement amounting almost to a confession, of the magic spun by the poems, the inner light woken in him. The magic worked apace: Tagore left for India in September 1913, after a little over a year in the West; and news of his award of the Nobel prize for Literature reached him in Santiniketan near Calcutta that November. 

I was already deeply impressed by Tagore's lyricism when I read William Radice's translations in a Selected Poems (which deliberately did not include any Gitanjali poems).  After reading the first twenty poems of Winter's translation (157 poems altogether), I felt my soul drawn out of me, and up into the air above me. The poems, in their devotional nature, remind me of the Hebrew Psalms, but harken to a radically different theology. The soul-drama here is not sin and redemption, but forgetfulness and remembering. 

The second stanza of No. 17 ("Where is the light? Where, where is the light?") is tremendously moving:

The messenger of grief sings, "For your sake
O Life, on your account God is awake.
xxxWhen pitch-black dark of night is falling
xxxto a love-tryst he is calling,
rich-honouring you by way of sorrow's ache.
O Life, on your account God is awake.

The recurring trope of awakening from sleep dramatizes the soul's movement from forgetfulness to remembering, in this case, remembering that sorrow awakes the divinity within us, and so rich-honour us. This is no mere intellectual formula;  Tagore's wife and two sons passed away within a brief period of 5 years, just before he began writing Gitanjali

The skill of the translation is most apparent in the repeating line "O Life, on your account God is awake." The assonance of "O" and the contrasting consonance of "k" make the line musically memorable. "Account," a word rich with meaning in this context, is linked to "awake" by the initial "a" sound, but both words come from very different semantic fields, and that juxtaposition jolts a recognition. 

Like the Psalms, the poems here cover a wide range of tones, expressive of the soul's various responses to the divine. There is the joyful wonderment in No. 8, of which I quote the first stanza:

Today I'll watch the paddy play
xxxhide-and-seek in shadow-light.
Who has floated in the blue sky
xxxa boat of cloud so white?
xxxxxxToday wild-circling in the sky,
xxxxxxits honey forgotten, a bee whirls by.
xxxxxxToday by the river why should a crowd
xxxxxxxxxof chokha-chokhi birds alight?

I love the idea of the paddy playing hide-and-seek, and of the bee whirling by. What playfulness in the name of those birds--chokha-chokhi! And the simple effectiveness of that image of a crowd of birds alighting by the river of the soul. 

There are prayers in here too, not just prayers for spiritual understanding, but also for spiritual doing, for Tagore was as much a doer in life as a dreamer. He was active in Indian politics, and founded a university. His spiritual ardor reaches outward to the world. In No. 15, in the second stanza, he asks:

When, at my eyes' new-opening,
xxxshall I be glad at heart?
To be of some small use to all,
xxxdown which road shall I start?
xxxxxxThat you are here--O when will this be
xxxxxxsure within my life and easy?
xxxxxxWhen of itself will your true name
xxxxxxxxxecho within each deed?

These last two lines utter a prayer I had not realized I have been praying. "O Life, on your account God is awake."