Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Opera: Zelmira; Contes d'Hoffmann

Eastside Road, February 18, 2015—
WE SAW A PERFORMANCE of Rossini's fine opera Zelmira in Berkeley last night, a staged production by Edge Opera, as I believe the former Berkeley Opera is now known, in a series they call "Opera Medium-Rare": workshop performances, sung from the printed music, unstaged, with reduced accompaniment. The idea seems to have grown out of a salon reading of — I don't know which opera; something some singers wanted to get to know, but which would have had little or no production history, at least locally.

Case in point: this mature Rossini score, premiered in Naples at the San Carlo in 1822, repeated to good reviews in Vienna, then throughout Italy; performed in London in 1824; then apparently dropped from the repertory, with few productions (and fewer staged!) until quite recently — and none in this country, except one New Orleans performance "around 1835" according to Wikipedia.

Two acts; florid coloratura writing, bel canto in its purist form, somewhat foretelling Semiramide, ludicrous plot, extraordinarily demanding tenor role and quite demanding soprano, contralto, second tenor, and bass roles. You can see why it would be a difficult opera to make convincing, especially in a big American opera house.

Well: we heard it in Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, essentially a small theater with an attached coffeehouse-bar, with decent acoustics, seating perhaps 500 people comfortably enough. In place of Rossini's orchestra — beautifully scored, by the way, according to comments I've read online — the accompaniment was provided by the musical director, Alexander Katsman, and the piano, with three colleagues playing violin, cello, and flute. (Why flute? Why not clarinet? Don't know.)

The vocal performances were adequate, even more than adequate, at one end of the scale; nearly breathtakingly impressive in tonal beauty and technical facility at the other. Shawnette Sulker has a sweet, resonant, clear high soprano, ranging up at least to an "E" I believe in this score, capable of dying away in a glorious pianissimo anywhere in the register, yet full of presence at any dynamic level, with no register break that I noticed — and it doesn't hurt that she is beautiful to see and graceful in her movement and expression.

As her confidante Emma Nikola Printz found a true contralto voice in her lowest range and blossomed clearly and fully in a higher mezzo-soprano area, matching and complementing Sulker's singing with equal beauty and presence, and negotiating Rossini's fioratura with admirable precision.

Even more amazing: Brian Yeakley, a true coloratura tenor di forza whose voice presses out high "C"s and higher, I believe, with little strain and considerable beauty; whose flexibility and accuracy were triumphal, and whose physical presence is engaging and sympathetic.

Michael Belle was nearly his match though with an appropriately darker tenor voice as the villainous Antenore. Paul Thompson, bass, was adequate in the difficult role of the aged king Polidoro; and baritone Jordan Eldredge was sympathetic as Antenore's lieutenant Leucippo.

We went to the opera for the general policy that one shouldn't miss one never before heard, but for another reason as well: our somehow-sister-in-law Želmira Ž. was interested in seeing it, with her husband M. They are the Czech-born parents of our son-in-law Pavel: I don't know how much opera they attend, but they agreed to join us at this one, and they seemed as diverted as we were.

THE OPERA ITSELF sent me to the aforementioned Wikipedia, where I learn tha Rossini's librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, based his work on a play greatly popular in France in the late 18th century: Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy's Zelmire (1762). The plot concerns a princess who hides her aging father, King of Lesbos, from the invading usurper Azor, who is himself killed (before even appearing onstage!) by his own usurper Amenore (Azor's general), but who is ultimately saved by her husband Ilo, prince of Troy. De Belloy was a monarchist, according to French Wikipedia, who believed that "the alliance between the sovereign and his people held the key to a nation's force"; and he was attacked by Diderot (and by Voltaire, who'd begun by approving his plays).

At the heart of the dramatic theater, including of course music theater, is its function as a voice of and for the collective people: even as highly evolved a form as bel canto opera inherits this ultimate purpose. One enjoys a performance like last night's Zelmira for the beauty and technique of its voices, and the skill and imaginativeness of its musical writing; but I find the experience even more compelling for the principles and values lying behind and perhaps above its entertainment value: the abstract symmetry and resonance of the plot, at once absurd and haunting.

Sixty years lay between the premiere of de Belloy's play to that of Rossini's opera. That period — as long as the American epoch spanning from the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center — were of course epochal in the transformation of concepts of family, tribe, and nation; parallel one might say to the transformation in the arts from the late Baroque through Classicism to the beginning of Romanticism. Throughout the period, theater, including opera, represented and expressed a nexus of ideas, social and personal, practical and ethical, available to urban citizens of various classes; and it developed and responded in its various ways, often enough periphrastically to avoid censorship. It's a fascinating period, one with considerable in common with our own.
A FEW DAYS AGO we saw the Metropolitan Opera performance of Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann as one of their "live broadcasts" into a local movie theater. I've noted my reservations about such productions here before: the disorientation of close-ups and changing visual (and aural!) perspectives when watching an in-the-theater production through the eyes (and ears!) of roving mechanical observers, as they're directed and chosen from by an unseen director/editor somewhere, who inserts a new and often intrusive personality into an art form already greatly impacted by its essentially committee-based creation.

That said, this was a glorious Hoffmann. It is of course a masterpiece, one of the truly great and significant works of art ranging from Orfeo through the Mozart-da Ponte operas to, for my money, Four Saints in Three Acts and Einstein on the Beach. It's amazing, I think, that this triumphant article of Romantic opera, a nearly perfect embodiment of German Romanticism, should have been the product of a classically educated Mozart-loving German fabulist and a Parisian Jew better known for his contributions to musical comedy. Even more amazing is its prescience, looking forward to Freud and the Surrealists, who themselves linked the internalizing, highly personalized contemplations of Novalis and Nerval, let's say, to the dreams of the Age of Aquarius.

For me the perfect visualization of Hoffmann will always be the film — English; 1952? — by the team that had produced Brian Easdale's The Red Shoes. The edition used in that film was cut and otherwise misguided, I'm sure: but (at least in my memory, which is now probably sixty years distant) it captured the hauntingly present but unreal quality that Hoffmann was expressing, a purely mental state linked to purely sensual stimuli.

The director of the Met production — I don't have the program at hand; you'll have to look up all the credits — was, I think, unduly chained to Hollywood Surrealism. Writhing faux-nude bodies and oddly emblematic eyeballs distracted from the content of Offenbach's realization, recalling Satie's objection that the stage trees don't really have to speak German in a production of a Wagner opera. (Or however the quote goes. I could look it up; I won't.)

But the edition used was the best I've encountered, restoring the impetus of the Muse to the prologue and epilogue, elevating Niklaus (brilliantly sung, spoken, and acted) to a major role, and fusing the scraps and extended successes of the score as poor Offenbach left it at his death into a major, rich, fully achieved work of art. The tenor singing Hoffmann was remarkably engaging and subtle. The three sopranos were persuasive. If the villainous bass-baritone was less than superb, that was due as much to clearly transient vocal problems as to the rather pedestrian aspect of the role he was apparently directed to present.

Minor roles were superb; ditto the chorus; and the musical direction was very good indeed. We were glad to have seen this.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Carel

Carel_Fabritius_-_The_Goldfinch_-_WGA7721_1024.jpg
Eastside Road, Feb. 9, 2015—
THIS IS ONE of my very favorite paintings: The Goldfinch, as it's known in English, painted probably in 1654 by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. I have written about it here before, but it's on my mind again because I just finished (in the sense of having definitively stopped working on) a short piece of music suggested by the painting. It's called Carel, like the painter, and come to think of it like me, and my father, and my grandfathers…

In fact it was suggested by my friend the painter Patrick McFarlin, who we visited last June in his Santa Fe studio, where we saw a number of canvases he was working on in homage to Fabritius's painting. He calls the series The Goldfinch Variations, and he asked me if I'd like to supply a piece of music to be played in an eventual exhibition of the series — an exhibition projected to include works in similar homage by other painters he knows.

The opening measures of the piece came to mind immediately, but I'm sorry to say they stayed on a back burner for an indecently long time, in spite of occasional polite suggestions from McFarlin. Finally, though, I realized my stumbling block had been the unusual instrumental ensemble the piece seemed to want: and then I simply went ahead and wrote the piece out.

My mother disliked the oboe. Many people do. I suppose many would say four oboes in one place is four oboes too many. But I like the oboe, which I think apposite to a meditation on Fabritius's goldfinch, not only because the oboe can be made to sound like a finch, but also, and more, I think, because its reed looks like Fabritius's finch's wingfeathers.

Those wingfeathers are amazing. The whole canvas, about the size of a sheet of typing paper, is painted illusionistically. There are those who think it was meant to hang, perhaps without a frame, on a plaster wall the color of that forming the background of the painting. Seeing it so displayed would be a real treat: especially when the viewer's eye would be directed closely to that wing, which is not painted illusionistically at all — it's very painterly; the yellow is troweled on, then scratched through with the end of the brush. In a tiny area of a seventeenth-century painting Fabritius looks forward to de Kooning.

Fabritius was born in February 1622 — nearly four hundred years ago! — in a new village, Middelbeemster, in the middle of a new polder, Beemster, the first polder ever reclaimed from a Dutch lake, in the province of North Holland. The province is noted for its seaports (most now cut off from the sea) and its cheeses; Beemster is still a favorite cheese of ours. His father was a painter and a schoolteacher named Pieter Carelsz. — the surname is an abbreviation for "son of Carel," and our painter was probably Carel Pietersz.; no doubt the names Peter and Charles had alternated for generations in the family. He became known as Fabritius, though, because as a youth he worked as a carpenter: fabricius is an old Roman name deriving from fabr-, "make" [things out of wood or stone]. Names were in flux in those days, and you wanted a distinctive one if you wanted to make a mark in the world.

In his early twenties our painter was in Amsterdam, studying in Rembrandt's studio, but by ten years later he'd settled in Delft, where he developed his own quite personal style — whose illusionism would quickly influence Vermeer. It's too bad, though, that he chose to settle in Delft: two years after he joined the Painters' Guild there he was badly maimed in the great Gunpowder Magazine explosion, and died shortly afterward of the wounds. Only nine or ten of his paintings are known to survive to our own time.

Anyhow: I finished the score a couple of days ago. I have in mind four oboists standing in corners of a gallery, perhaps unseen, or in any case not particularly on exhibit themselves. The music is meant to be heard, but not necessarily in silence: it's what Erik Satie calls musique d'ameublement, "furniture music", background music. The oboists may turn their backs to the audience when playing at mp or quieter, and lift the bells of their instruments, facing their listeners, when playing at f or above, if they like.

And if four oboists aren't to be found, why play the piece with flutes, or violins, or maybe even soprano saxophones. But I would like to hear it with oboes.

You'll find an mp4, if you're interested, at http://www.shere.org/CS/CSsoundfiles/Carel.m4a . It's only a synthesization, of course, but it'll give you an idea. You can see (and download) the score at http://www.shere.org/CS/CSscores/carel.pdf

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

We hold these truths…

United_States_Declaration_of_Independence.jpg
•Danielle S. Allen: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.
New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014
315 pages. ISBN 978-0-871-40690-3
Eastside Road, February 3, 2015—
THIS IS A MADDENING BOOK, addressing a topic of great historical importance and overwhelming contemporary urgency, and in the process illustrating the value of close reading even to the lay public — but written in a prose style, and with an authorial posture, that seems determined to repel any reader but those already possessed of the point.

Allen's subject is perfectly expressed in her title and subtitle. She rightly addresses the Declaration as a document — the document — which establishes, as the reasons and justification of the colonists' determination to secede from the British Empire, the concept of a free egalitarian society governed for the purpose of guaranteeing individual rights. The Declaration sets forth a detailed complaint of the deliberate refusal of the British king to govern in this manner, and announces the former colonists' intention to provide that government for themselves.

Allen's impetus was apparently a course she gave in an adult education context, at first with the intent of encouraging close reading of a text in order to plumb both the original and the contemporary implications of the content of the text. Her previously published titles suggest, however, that the choice of the Declaration of Independence, and her own reading which emphasizes egalitarianism, was a logical one:
The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 2000
Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown vs. the Board of Education, University of Chicago Press, 2004
Why Plato Wrote, John Wiley & Sons, Limited, 2010
I have not seen these titles, which (judging from comments on the Internet) are concerned with demonstrating the relevance of historical literature, and specifically political literature, to issues of our own time — a laudable concern for a thoughtful writer to address.

It must be stated at the outset: though an academic, Allen writes for a mass audience. She begins Our Declaration with an account of the dinnertable conversations of her childhood, a mix of Christianity, liberal politics, communitarianism, a healthy regard for education, and the social awareness likely to prevail in a metropolitan American mixed-race household in the 1970s and early '80s.

And clearly her double intent is to demonstrate the value of close, attentive, and collaborative reading, as well as the (literally) revolutionary concepts of freedom and equality that are present at the beginning of our nation, pointing out that whereas freedom is implicit in a declaration of independence, equality is immediately stated as its adjunct:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Declaration of Independence, preamble (emphasis mine)
Of course it is the next sentence that most memorably insists on equality as the foundation of the American political ideal:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [,—]
—and here, Allen writes, a crux immediately appears: for most contemporary copies of the Declaration put a period after that word "Happiness," whereas the working documents (and her own analysis) suggests those lines are merely the first of three clauses forming not only one complete sentence but, more importantly, a logical syllogism justifying the very concept of the colonists' action:
[,—] That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, [,—]

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
To establish a government capable of guaranteeing freedom from tyranny, Allen argues — whether British tyranny as the colonies had experienced it, or any subsequent tyranny that might be visited, from foreign or domestic sources — the new society would have to be founded on the concept of equality. And not only equality: five "facets" of equality:
We have followed the Declaration sentence by sentence as it set out principles, among them the proposition, as Lincoln called it, that all men are created equal. We have tracked it through its presentation of an important syllogism about equality, rights, and government. We then pursued the argument as the Declaration laid out matters of fact to generate propositions about tyranny and good government. Along the way, we have mastered four out of the five facets of equality presented in the Declaration. The ideal of equality designates freedom from domination, equality of the opportunity to use the tool of government, the use of egalitarian methods to generate collective intelligence, and an equality of agency achieved through practices of reciprocity. The time has come to draw some conclusions.



Indeed, we are on the cusp of the sentences in which the Declaration draws its own conclusions… And as the Declaration concludes, it also presents its fifth and final facet of equality: equality as co-creation and co-ownership of our shared world.
Our Declaration, p. 258
I detach from Allen's gently hectoring style the points she is eager to have us consider, her five facets:
•Equality of the citizens' station with his government
•Equality of opportunity to participate in government
•Equality of input to "collective intelligence"
•Equality within reciprocal social and political transactions
•Equal station within the fabric of the "shared world".

Allen's book is urgently significant and important in today's political climate, which as she points out values "freedom" (in the guise of libertarianism) to the exclusion of egalitarianism. Half the country, it seems, has lost sight of the purpose of government, as defined in the Declaration of Independence:
Governments are instituted among Men
to secure these rights[:]
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness
— lines energizing any number of individualists often more concerned with their own liberties than those of their neighbors, forgetting that the very first sentence of the Constitution, the indispensable adjunct to the Declaration, reads
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
[emphasis mine]
Allen's point is that individual rights cannot obtain except in an egalitarian society, organized "on such principles and… in such form" as to secure the "Safety and Happiness" of "the People."

Much of her book deals with the vexing question of slavery as it existed at the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence — indeed, as it was practiced by one of the chief authors, Thomas Jefferson. I find her discussion of the subject tentative and apologetic, as if aware of the logical absurdity of condemning past periods for not sharing subsequently changed attitudes. Her explanation for the historical difficulty is that the "course of human events" that would lead toward the abolition of slavery throughout the nation was only begun when the Declaration of Independence was drafted; presumably the authors foresaw the inevitable, but preferred to undertake one revolution at a time.

Recent events, of course, prove the concept of equality of station and opportunity is still not embraced unanimously, and Our Declaration will not persuade exceptionalists of its moral imperative or its practical value. It is in fact a difficult concept, particularly when the implications of our governmental foundation are extended to our nation's international relations and presence. The Declaration of Independence is in fact an idealistic document, proclaiming how things ought to be in order to justify rebelling against things as they are. But it is an idealistic document born of the Age of Reason, of the Enlightenment. It virtually single-handedly overcame millennia of oppressive tyranny founded on "the divine right of kings," replacing top-down rule with "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." We have perhaps inevitably declined in moral courage and intellectual acumen since the days of Adams, Lee, Franklin, and Jefferson. Society today is too fragmented, fast, and materialistic to replicate their achievement; perhaps even to comprehend them. But Allen makes a useful attempt to explain that achievement to today's reader.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Power of Harmonia

•Bhishma Xenotechnites: Monochord Matters: or, The Power of Harmonia..
Online here at http://shere.org/Leedy/MonochordMatters.pdf; 19 pages.
Eastside Road, January 27, 2015—
AMONG THE MEN and women I have met in the course of nearly eighty years, many of them people of considerable intellectual and ethical substance, none, I think, has impressed me more than the friend I have occasionally referred to here as "my reclusive friend in Corvallis."

He is reclusive, having long ago developed a thorough scorn for Western Civilization — he would put that last word in quotes — and having developed an intense pessimism on the likelihood of our planet surviving the terrible things humanity is doing to it. And because he is reclusive I'll say no more about him at present; it feels like betrayal having gone even as far as I have.

I do want to make it known, though, that he has published what I think is a significant monograph on a subject of considerable interest to him, as both musician and classicist. I had something to do with the publication, as I had volunteered to set it in (computer) type and arrange for placement on the internet.

The monochord, a single string, as the word suggests, stretched over a resonating block or box, is, Xenotechnites suggests, one of the oldest technological inventions. It was used by the Greeks for the exploration of ratio and proportion, and stands, I would say, at the intersection of music and mathematics, of concrete demonstration and abstraction, of reason and mystery.

MonochordextractIn a series of eighteen or twenty short sections, inspired perhaps by Wittgenstein and Whitehead, Xenotechnites elegantly describes the implications of the Hellenic discoveries. Of course there is a great deal of technical matter in his description, and I'm afraid my typesetting could go only so far in rendering the discussion either clear or attractive to a lay reader. Yet some of these items have astonishing beauty and arrest the reader with their insight and vision:
14. Mathematics "is given to us in its entirety and does not change, unlike the Milky Way. That part of it of which we have a perfect view seems beautiful, suggesting harmony." (Kurt Gōdel, quoted in Palle Yourgrau, A World Without Time (Basic Books, 2005), 184.)
As that quotation shows, Xenotechnites ranges wide among his source material, quoting Homer, Lady Murasaki, the composers J.J. Quantz and John Dowland, Pythagoras, and Claudius Ptolemy; and going to Aristotle, Helmholtz, and Wittgenstein among others for his own instruction. Xenotechnites is comfortable in ancient Greek and Latin, and reads well enough in a few modern European languages. He respects his sources, quoting them in their original languages as well as in English translation (generally his own).

I can't pretend to grasp the mathematical and philosophical implications of Xenotechnites's monograph, but I can admire the clarity and beauty of his prose style, through which I can glimpse, I think, what he is getting at:
The proportional relationship of two string-lengths we know as a ratio, the Latin word that also means reason (the Greeks’ word was logos, a word with many other meanings). We apprehend the musical interval between the pitches through the faculty of perception, and we note the relationship of string-lengths associated with that interval through the faculty of reason, which we can expand into principles that qualify under the modern meaning of “scientific.”
If I think I can glimpse the substance of this fascinating argument, then I think almost any reader will. I believe Xenotechnites comes close to poetry here, the kind of poetry that is close to philosophy that Charles Simić was contemplating in my previous post. I repeat: Monochord Matters is, I think, an important piece of writing, as well as a beautiful one, even, at times, moving.

Charles Simić

•Charles Simić: A Fly in the Soup..
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 182 pages.
ISBN 978-0472-08909-9.
Eastside Road, January 27, 2015—
ALTHOUGH A STUDENT of English literature when at university, I have never developed the habit of reading poetry. Oh, there are many poets I love to read: Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore (lordy how I date myself); later Anselm Hollo, Kenneth Koch, the San Francisco Beat poets to an extent, my friend Andrew Hoyem; abroad certain poets in French and Italian. But I don't read verse habitually.

And here is why: when I read short lines my mind wanders. Perhaps my mind is attached to my eyeballs. I like, in spite of recent musings here about a dislike of narrative, I like a long sentence, even a long paragraph. Nothing more beautiful than a block of text on a page, a nice big rectangle of letters, justified top, bottom, right and left. And where does the mind wander to? Why, to writing poetry of my own, of course — it always looks so easy — and of course I can't write poetry, not worth a damn. If I want to get that far from prose, I'll keep going just a bit farther: to music. Or, more likely, to total mindlessness.

One of the few regrets I have is having lived all those years across the street from Ron Silliman, and virtually never having had a conversation with him. Well, we were both busy, with marriage, and children, and bill-paying work; there wasn't a lot of time, it seems, for conversation. But I do regret that; it would have taught me to transform my latent appreciation of poetry into an abiding passion, I think; would have taught me to come to terms with poetry's tendency toward universal perfection, and its generous overlooking my my uniquely individual flaws.

All this occurs to me as I consider a marvelous book I've just finished, Charles Simić's memoir. Born in then-Yugoslavia in 1938, he left that country, with his mother and brother, when he was sixteen, joining a father he hardly knew, spending his adolescence in Chicago, settling in New York, working at a number of casual jobs, reading reading reading, finally turning to professional poetry and literature, teaching at the University of New Hampshire, editing poetry at The Paris Review — you can read all this stuff at Wikipedia, where I got the funny thing on the final letter of his name.

The memoir is beautifully written to the reader, in short sentences and chapters, often very funny, full of improbable anecdote and memorable events and characters whose unlikeliness seems to puzzle the writer as much as his reader. There are rural peasants in Simić's past, but his was essentially an urban childhood and youth; and his story often mediates The Bicycle Thief (which he fondly discusses) and Down and Out in Paris and London (which he doesn't mention).

Thanks to the accident of birthplace and year, Simić knows things most of us have only heard about, or seen in movies. And he doesn't take long to make note off that:
I knew something they didn't, something hard to come by unless history gives you a good kick in the ass: how superfluous and insignificant in any grand scheme mere individuals are!
A Fly in the Soup, p.4
And, always with humor and a degree of wonder, Simić leads us through petty crime, corruption, espionage, jails, dangerous border crossings, petty scams, ineptness at love, and always a great zest for life.

Until you get to the final five chapters, when the book takes a very profound turn, harvesting all the fruits and sweetmeats the author had been artfully concealing in his jokes and escapades, the overheard profundities at drunken parties, the improbable everyday beauty of vacant lot or neighboring window.

Although not directly stated, these chapters center on Poetry, God, Society (and bad language), and Philosophy. (The final chapter is about Mozart and fire, but I'll leave that for you to discover.) On Poetry:
The poet sits before a blank piece of paper with a need to say many things in the small space of the poem. The world is huge, the poet is alone, and the poem is just a bit of language, a few scratchings of a pen surrounded by the silence of the night. … Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat, and the poem is as much the result of chance as it is of intention. Probably more so.
Ibid., p.160-61
On God, a marvelous anecdote about a visit to a monastery, a nuns' monastery in Mesić, Serbia, near the Romania border, where he is struck by the combination of silence, tranquillity, intelligent conversation, and discipline. "Every poem, knowingly, or unknowingly, is addressed to God," he remembers a friend telling him long ago. At that time Simić, an atheist, objected.
No more. Today I think as he did then. It makes absolutely no difference whether gods and devils exist or not. The secret ambition of every true poem is to ask about them even as it acknowledges their absence.
Ibid., p.169
Finally, on Philosophy, which is to say still about Poetry:
The pleasures of philosophy are the pleasures of reducction— the epiphanies of hinting in a few words at complex matters. … In both cases, that need to get it down to its essentials, to say the unsayable and let the truth of Being shine through.

History, on the other hand, is antireductive. Nothing tidy about it. Chaos! Bedlam! Hopeless tangle! My own history and the history of this century like a child and his blind mother on the street.

Ibid., p.180
It is a lively and beautiful book, because it records the immediacy, the pleasures, the zest of life fully lived, and arrives, at the end, at insights, even vision.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Epicurus

•Daniel Klein: Travels with Epicurus:
A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.
.
New York: The Penguin Group, 2012. 164 pages.
ISBN 978-0143-12662-1.
Eastside Road, January 18, 2015—
NEARLY TWENTY YEARS ago I was handed a serious diagnosis and an appointment with surgery. I was already retired, but barely sixty years old, not really ready to face mortality. On arriving at the doctor's office to discuss scheduling a nurse noticed I was carrying a small book with me.

The nurse was slim, tall, rather elegant, probably in her thirties; clearly of Ethiopian stock, with that beautifully chiselled brow and nose that I associate with the heritage. I see you're reading Epicurus, she said. Good. Especially read the Letter to Menoeceus. Oh: and be kind to your wife, who is suffering, and who will work hard for you.

The surgery was successful; the recovery took only a month or so; I'm still living with the diagnosis; I've treasured Epicurus ever since. I think it one of the great tragedies of human history that Christianity did such a solid job of shouldering Hellenism aside — co-opting what it could distort to its ends, of course. In this no doubt I am influenced by my mother, who was a stoic and an agnostic, and who subtly shaped me in the only way that made any sense to her.

Last month at Christmas Lindsey and I played the O. Henry game, giving one another the very same book, Daniel Klein's Travels with Epicurus. We will be eighty years old this year, and we're aware of the lessend span ahead of us. It's time to begin putting things in order, setting aside vain thoughts of works and legacy, enjoying the rich though simple pleasures of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, daily routines, the table, contentment.

Epicurus believed that the purpose of life was pleasure, and that pleasure lay in the avoidance of pain — by renouncing commerce and industry as far as possible, and complex and costly tastes, and ostentation and concern for position. According to Klein's refreshing, easily read narrative, Epicurus treasured above all a simple life, eating from the garden, with friends of all backgrounds (women as well as men, exceptionally for his society), with conversation at the center of daily activity.

Klein is an interesting author, a man with one foot in philosophy and the other in humor. He's written half a dozen mysteries, a couple of plays, and three novels, as well as a series of little books aimed at presenting the parade of western philosophy to the general public. Last month I enjoyed a quick read through Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, which he wrote with Thomas Cathcart.

Travels with Epicurus finds the 72-year-old Klein spending a few weeks on the Greek island of Hydra, where he's gone with a few books and the intent to ccome to terms with the great conundrum of post-career life: How To Live Well (in the face of the Grim Reaper). The books on his his list are on my own reading pile — the pile of Books Currently (or Constantly) Being Read, be it understood, not Books To Read Some Day. They are Montaigne, William James, Erik Erikson. Also a couple that have been on the To Be Bought list for years: Huizinga, Lars Svendsen, Eva Hofmann.

Reading them confirms what is learned more readily by the simple observation of life on this apparently relaxed island, where there are no motor vehicles, where old men spend their time eating simply, drinking ouzo, playing cards, and conversing gently about not very important but eternally rewarding mundane things. Oh: and occasionally dancing — seriously, intently, ritualistically.

What emerges is a short course on practical philosophy:
…the prime purpose of a philosophy: to give us lucid ways to think about the world and how to live in it.
Travels with Epicurus, p. 26
…pleasures are to be aoided if greater pains be the consequence, and pains to be coveted that will terminate in greater pleasures.
Montaigne, quoted in Travels with Epicurus, p. 32
…[to want to reactivate] one's libnido… amounts to wanting to want something you currently don't want
ibid., p. 89
Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, smiles, and says yes.
Wm. James, The Variety of Religious Experiences, quoted in Travels with Epicurus, p. 116
We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter permits.
Aristotle, quoted ibid., p. 159
You get the idea. The book is calm, persuasive, sensible, friendly, easily read, easily kept at hand for late night re-reading. It should be given to every retiree.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Soviet food memoir

•Anya von Bremzen: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking:
a memoir of food & longing.
.
New York: Broadway Books, 2013. 350 pages.
ISBN 978-0307-88683-5.
Eastside Road, January 17, 2015—
THIS IS TRULY an engrossing book, one that grows more interesting, more complex, more successful as it continues: and truly a memoir, focussed on the table both as the author experienced it in her childhood in Moscow and as she imagines it — knows it, in fact, by direct testimony and from books — in her native Russia throughout the twentieth century.

Von Bremzen tells the story in ten chapters, one per decade beginning with the 1910s — "The Last Days of the Czars" - and running through the first decade of the Putin years.

Von Bremzen was born in 1963; her mother in 1934; but the author knew her grandmothers, and tells most of the gripping story of her country's sad history through the eyes and ears of participants. She was only eleven when she emigrated with her mother, arriving in Philadelphia in 1974; but children grew up quickly in the Soviet Union; she had already reluctantly bought into the system; she was even a practiced black market operator by then.

I can't imagine how this book will strike American readers under the age of, say, fifty — it's a little shocking to realize the Soviet Union has been gone for nearly a quarter of a century now. Von Bremzen's book does a good job, I think, of presenting the Soviet century, its tribulations, the impossibility of its ambitions. From the Bolsheviks' impossible dream of a successful technocratic state, through Lenin's impossible challenges of war and famine, through Stalin's increasingly paranoid and inhuman dictatorship, then the increasingly bumbling improvisations of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and the forgotten Chernenko, to the hapless Gorbachev (praised abroad but scorned at home), the history of Russia (for the book centers on Moscow) is inseparable from food shortages, starvation, mismanaged economy, ineptitude on all sides.

Through it all, of course, the survivors managed to eat — something. There might be eighteen families to a kitchen in the communal apartments, but there would be a pot of cabbage soup, perhaps even a few bits of meat floating in it. And, of course, vodka.

Alongside the history of the desperate search for food, and the constant awareness that there had once been better times, even a proud national cuisine, this is an insightful memoir of domestic life in absurdly crowded conditions, in a society with no real hope, where generations of people went missing in war or worse, where science and superstition were equally consulted by a superstitious and suspicious government, where daily life was all too often reduced to the most basic, mechanistic, desperate series of actions.

I think the most valuable aspect of von Bremsen'z book is a subtext that is never really stated: many of the inadequacies of the Soviet century were mirror-images of inadequacies of the American one. Hype and propaganda tried desperately to determine the course of history there as it has all too often here, the difference being that the Soviets tried to organize it toward a rational political economy serving all, and the Americans have organized it toward a profit-making consumer society. Von Bremzen clearly states the irony of the ultimate Soviet failure to attain the American ideal without recourse to the American technique, market capitalism; and she makes it clear that the ordinary Russians were rarely taken in. It remains a mystery to me that anyone could ever have believed that an ideal system could be conceived, let alone successfully put in place.

(The contrast between the two systems comes to life when the author describes her first visit to an American supermarket:
My First Supermarket Experience was the anchoring narrative of the great Soviet epic of immigration to America. Some escapees from our socialist defitsit society actually swooned to the floor (usually in the aisle with toilet paper. Certain men knelt and wept at the sight of forty-two varieties of salami, while their wives—smelling the strawberries and discovering they lacked any fragrance—cried for opposite reasons. Other emigrants, possessed by the ur-Soviet hoarding instinct, frantically loaded up their shopping carts. Still others ran out empty-handed, choked and paralyzed by the multiplicity of choices.

The Jewish Family Services office where we collected our meager refugee stipend resounded with food stories. The stories constituted an archive of socialists' misadventures with imperialist abundance. Monya and Rays complained about the flavor of American butter—after smearing floor wax on bread. The Goldbergs loved the delicious lunch meat cans with cure pictures of kitties, not suspecting the kitties were the intended consumers. Voychik, the Odessa lothario, slept with his first American shiksa and stormed out indignant when she offered him Triscuits. Desiccated cardboard squares! Why not a steaming bowl of borscht?
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, p. 199
Toward the end, after the collapse, as the center is gone and the individual nations drift, at first apart, then individually, the story is ever more gripping. Pluralism fails, and artificially drawn borders, around "nations" which had no precedents, reveal their inadequacies. One senses there is no end to the failure of empire.

But Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is throughout a warm, humane, affecting narrative, often quite funny. Chekhov and Gogol are never far from its stage. The Slavic taste for bitter irony is frequently cited. You get the feeling it has to substitute, at times, for bread:
A popular Stagnation-era gag sums up what historians dub the Brezhnevian social contract. Six paradoxes of Mature Socialism: 1) There's no unemployment, but no one works; 2) no one works, but productivity goes up; 3) productivity goes up, but stores are empty: 4) stores are empty, but fridges are full; 5) fridges are full, but no one is satisfied, 6) no one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes.
ibid., p. 189
And then, finally, shockingly, they vote No, at the polls or on the streets. And then, inevitably, chaos reigns. And then, most likely, a strong man appears to try to nail it all back together, getting rich and powerful in the process, until he too oversteps. And on, and on, and on.

Meanwhile there's kulebiaka and gefilte fish, pilaf and Russian salad, blini and kotleti — the recipes are here, and I have half a mind to try some of them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Strayed

•Cheryl Strayed: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail..
New York: Vintage Books, 2013. 336 pages.
ISBN 978-0307-476074.
Eastside Road, January 14, 2015—
THIS BOOK has gathered decidedly mixed reviews, even in my own family: some of us dislike the author's tone and style; others are sympathetic with her story and her emerging character.

Abandoned by her father early, raised with a brother and sister, in poverty, by an unconventional mother and stepfather, Strayed reacted to her mother's early death (at 45) by falling to pieces, experimenting with drugs, seeking comfort too casually with too many men, until finally a chance encounter with a trail guide on the bookshelves of a sporting good store led her to an almost whimsical decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail — or, at least, the section from Mojave, California, to Ashland, Oregon.

It's a mistake, I think, to believe she did not prepare. She clearly put in a fair amount of research as to equipment and planning. That contrasted, though, with an almost casual approach to physical preparation, in terms of preparing her own physique, rehearsing the pack, even carefully choosing the shoes. Further, she had the bad luck to pick a heavy snow year for her trek, requiring a bypass of the high Sierra (and consequently extending the original itinerary to the Columbia River).

This curious collision of preparation and impetuousness characterizes almost every aspect of the young Cheryl Strayed: intelligent, well read, thoughtful, but clueless about so many aspects of rational living. It's easy to explain this by her upbringing, not only her father's abandoning her but also her cheerfully impoverished mother and the unconventional childhood in a rural setting where material comforts were denied in favor of blithe free-spiritedness: but you can also read that upbringing, in the 1980s, as symptomatic of the times, of a fundamental schism in American society.

The book has been made into a film (which we saw the other night) that's been criticized for its irritating and frequent intercutting. The book itself proceeds by flashbacks, alternating between description of the trek and memories of the childhood and the crisis. Like others, I found this intercutting mannered at times. I'm not fond of the writer's prose rhythm, which alternates extended paragraphs with choppy single sentences; and like others, I found the book's final pages rushed.

But having done a little long-distance walking of my own, though without carrying tent or stove, I recognize the tedium, the meditation, the pain and what can only be called the transcendence of her experience.
…what mattered was utterly timeless. It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds, and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable day. It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. And what Clarke knew and Rogers and what thousands of people who preceded and followed them knew. It was what Iknew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.
Wild, p. 207
Although she hiked alone, a good-looking young woman under a ridiculously big and heavy back-pack, Strayed apparently met with few really scary situations — although she was conscious of risks. She had very little money, and describes the hunger and thirst, in many senses, that accompanied her. She also describes, beautifully, the alternating desire for companionship and solace of solitude that comes to many on the trail — or, perhaps, drives them to it.

More than once I thought of Patti Smith's marvelous book Just Kids, describing her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. Whatever you may think of casual sex and drugs, there's a sweetness in both these accounts, a wistful innocence that I think expresses the awareness that something is seriously lacking in the mainstream contemporary American address to life; that in the absence of conventional family structures damaged adults, discontented with the cult of the individual, emerge craving affection, affirmation, companionship.

I think this is an important book in spite of its flaws, a provocative, dogged, generous narrative of things that go wrong, of damaged children and lost adults, but also of daily kindnesses and, ultimately, the lofty, uncaring, objective serenity of the Nature we must all confront, whether disease, privation, discipline, death, or sublime beauty. It makes me want to hit the trail again — finally, perhaps, alone, and with a tent and a stove.