Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Monday, August 31, 2009

Beethoven: Joy and Radiance

I recently saw the movie ‘Copying Beethoven’ in which Ed Harris played Ludwig van Beethoven. It is worth seeing. But the central character of the movie is Beethoven’s music. And that makes for a very inviting and attractive movie. There is another major character. It is a girl who shows up to make copies of the score as Beethoven finishes his ninth symphony. Such a female never existed and it is indescribably unlikely that a woman would have done that job in those times. Let me just say that some unfortunate people find Gloria Steinem, Bill and Hillary and PC foolishness more important than historical accuracy and say no more about this blemish on this movie that is otherwise highly commendable.
The movie recaptures the events surrounding the completion of the ninth symphony and its first performance. The movie conveys a strong sense of the beauty and grandeur of the ninth without the whole work being executed from beginning to end at one go. Some sense of that debut is created by large chunks of the beginning and end being played in a beautiful and spacious hall. The final choral section’s ability to bring tears to the eyes of men and women because of its joyous beauty is there in all its glory.
The movie has a few scenes that show Beethoven’s relationship with his nephew. Beethoven had raised the young man but had not done a fantastic job at it. It could be summed up by saying that he loved his nephew and had been better at parenting than his own father had been. It is probably unrealistic to expect more than that from anyone. But this subplot gives us insight into the man who happened to be an artist. And Beethoven’s contacts with others were generally very limited. He was consumed by and totally devoted to his music.
Beethoven had an extremely high opinion of himself because of his great talent for music. And his great gift makes him stand out in the history of mankind. But the inordinate greatness of his gift was so prodigious that it would be more accurate to call it a rare gift from God than the an aptitude or achievement of one person. Still it is good that Beethoven saw himself as so very special. Because of this sense of self-importance he went to the lengths necessary to create his body of musical work. He was able to live through the loneliness, misunderstanding and sacrifices that necessary for the creation of his work. And the emotional tenor of his music makes it obvious that he never surrendered to anger or hate.
Throughout my life I have been emotionally drawn to different composers at different times. In my twenties I was drawn to Mahler, Brahms and Stravinsky. In more recent years I have felt more pulled toward Gabrieli, Vivaldi, Corelli and Scarlatti. But throughout varying times Bach and Beethoven have remained constants. (I sometimes think of them as the Catholic and the Protestant of music or the papist and the roundhead.) I do not know much about many of the technical aspects of music. I listen to the emotion of the music and am guided totally by my emotional reactions. And I suspect that this is also the case with the most technically talented and knowledgeable of musicians: they also end up where their emotions lead them.
Emotionally I find Beethoven’s music a rock and an inspiration. Around the edges and sometimes a little deeper the master’s music is aware of the challenges, irritations, disappointments and inescapable tragedies of life. But at the core is an heroic and steadfast and even joyful perseverance in the face of anything life sends at him. Beethoven’s music defiantly refuses surrender to any force. Plato would have welcomed this music into his Republic because there is nothing about it that encourages sentimentality, lewdness, cowardliness or excessive introspection. There is something about the master’s music that fully appreciates the dangers and difficulties of life and responds by grappling with them and enjoying any victories. Defeats are possible but are only momentary since they are never wallowed in and the hero of this epic music always has forward momentum.
But this music is not just about difficulties and obstacles. There is also the simple and soul strengthening enjoyment of natural beauty. And there is joy. The joy of just being alive and aware. The joy of creation and accomplishment. The joy that comes of feeling the radiance of a beautiful work of art or one of nature’s endless miracles. As love is the opposite of hate and fear, I think that joy is a species of love. Rather than having one object joy’s object is all of creation: the eternal and imperishable within myself and within everything in creation. I suspect joy even enjoys the perishable and finite in everything. In his Poetics Aristotle says that a beautiful object is characterized by unity, harmony and radiance and joy is the radiance within me that is able to recognize and enjoy the radiance in everything external to me.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Modern Library

When I was young I read a lot, all kinds of books. I read those horrible books written for specific age groups and then slowly went beyond to the classics. Sometimes I look back and wonder what it was that so drew me. I know part of it was deep insecurity. I had no sense of purpose or goal . And I felt that if I read and studied the books that centuries of consensus called the best I would become better by learning what mankind valued most highly. And that is how it works. Matthew Arnold called education an introduction, “to the best that has been thought or said.” If done properly it includes developing critical thinking. And also developing a sense for recognizing and appreciating beauty.
One of the things that made the classics superficially attractive was Random House’s Modern Library. They are simple but delectable little books. When I was in school they mainly published the best writers from Homer and Confucius to Joyce and Proust. In those days I spent dozens of hours a week in libraries and these beautiful little jewels of books were sprinkled throughout the stacks. Initially I didn’t read any of them. But I took them down off the shelf and just enjoyed looking at them. They were smaller and had more pleasant proportions than most books. They all had essentially the same binding. It was clean, symmetrical and appealing and each had a little surprise: the title and author’s name in the small dark box. When younger I was always mildly startled by the art deco naked runner with the torch. I grew up with Pinkie and Blue Boy and landscapes on the walls. I didn’t know from art deco. In spite of their modest size they were not inconsequential. Printed on heavy paper they had real heft. And I loved to open them to the back and look over the list of all of the titles offered . Here I slowly made familiar objects of all the names. Turgenev, Pepys, Plutarch, Goethe, Gogol and many others slowly began seeping into my consciousness.
Then I slowly began reading them. One I tried earliest was Gulliver’s Travels. It moves slowly compared to what I was accustomed to. There would be pages and pages of minute descriptions. I couldn’t hack it. I don’t think I made it to page forty. Then I started checking out some of the Caedmon recordings of plays. Some Shakespeare, some O’Neil and lots of Tennessee Williams. I didn’t enjoy any of this but I forced myself because I was sure it was good for me. In those days the average American education didn’t prepare a ninth grader for Shakespeare.
I kept at it. I was a senior in high school when I read Plato’s Republic. And even though most of it went over my head it was the first of the bunch I recall enjoying. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Modern Library edition; it was probably the Viking Portable edition.) From there I went to reading histories of philosophy and many individual thinkers. I ended up with some fondness for Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein. When I entered college I intended to get a string of degrees in philosophy. But I soon realized that my mind does not have the acute gift for logic that serious philosophy requires.
I began to turn more towards literature. I had read Clifton Fadiman’s ‘Lifetime Reading Plan.’ And my interest was peaked by his description of Thomas Mann’s prose. He called it musical and talked about Mann’s use of Wagner’s leit motif technique. So I read ‘The Magic Mountain.’ and I was hooked by Mann’s slow but solid prose. I ended up reading all of his major novels: ‘Buddenbrooks,’ ‘Felix Krull, Confidence Man,’ ‘Doctor Faustus,’ Joseph and His Brothers’ and ‘Lotte in Weimar.’ But ‘The Magic Mountain’ was a great intro to Mann and to the classics of Western civilization. It is the story of a simple young man who accidentally ends up in the company of a couple of very educated European scholars. One of the men is a product of the more spiritual traditions while the other is a materialist. They enter into a fight for the young man’s intellect and soul. But so much else happens since five hundred plus pages can contain much.
As I was growing away from philosophy I developed deeper enjoyment of literature. And I had begun to haunt bookstores. Used bookstores were full of Modern Library editions in those days (the seventies and eighties). And I discovered some other great and attractive books. The Loeb Classical Library filled some of the spaces left by the Modern Library, e. g., Strabo. But the Loebs are higher priced. Penguin books are great. The Oxford Classics are ok but don’t have the grace and charm of the Modern Library. The Viking Portables are pleasant and reasonably priced. I highly recommend the multivolume collection of English verse if only for the marvelous and enlightening introductions to each by W. H. Auden.
The other day I looked up the Modern Library on the net. And they still have a hell of a fine line up of books. Though they seem comparatively more expensive and I didn’t see any frequent flyer type of program. And, no, they didn’t pay me to write this.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

DEMONS by Dostoevsky

I had planned to start this site off by writing about ‘Demons’ by Dostoevsky. I read it and greatly enjoyed it. It was well plotted for a rambling nineteenth serialized novel. It swarms with well drawn characters and many compelling situations. And it had lofty themes. When I finished I felt I had a good grasp of it. Then I started to write about it. I wrote about different aspects and characters. But I ended up feeling that all my writing was about aspects and corners and I had failed to capture the strong character of the novel. So I kept putting off the launch of the site as I wrote more and felt more and more frustrated. Then I just decided to put together the best I had as well as I could. When I had done that I let it sit a couple of days and then read it. I was not happy with what I had written. It felt like it was all awkward seams stretched over scarring and pimples. I decided I would be sorry if I posted what I had. So I decided to let it sit some more, wait for more insight on how to best present it and move on to some shorter works by James Joyce. I feel a need to lay out a quick sketch of why I think ‘Demons’ is significant and enormously relevant in times full of change and of great transition.
I want to present something that might induce more people to read this great work. And I will begin with a brief description.
Dostoevsky’s Demons is the story of a group of young Russians in the 1870s planning and executing a rebellion in a small provincial capital. They call themselves a fivesome which is the basic organizational unit in the secret society planning the revolt. They disseminate political tracts, which from the evidence within this book, was a brazen and effective political tactic of that time and place. They have also commissioned an escaped prisoner to commit random acts of violence. As things progress, the leader from outside the fivesome, Pyotr Verkhonensky, decides to bind the group closer together and increase his control over them. Pyotr says that a member has betrayed their plans to the governor and decides that they will execute him for this crime against the revolution. This murder so stresses the rebels that the fivesome disintegrates. The authorities, who have been baffled about all of the events, slowly come to an understanding of what has happened.
Nikolai Stavrogin is one of Dotoevsky’s more complex and interesting characters. He is believed by many to be the leader of the secret revolutionary society. His mother is the widow of a general and the richest land owner in the province. He is flawed but larger than life; a mysterious and compelling figure. Women want his love and want to mother him. Men want his approval (seldom given) and they endlessly project their feelings and beliefs onto him. He spent a couple of his early years after college in drunken dissipation in Moscow and St. Petersburg. While there he spent most of his time with the the lowest class of society: with the poor, the insane and drunkards. He moves from there to Europe where he mixes with Russian expatriates in France, Switzerland and Germany. In Europe he spends his time with the wealthy and educated. He is up on all the newest trends of the intellectuals but he is also a gentleman of the old school who duels and deflowers virgins.
The main force, planner and agitator for the revolution is Pyotr Verkhovensky who generally tries to stay behind the scenes. He has been abandoned by his father and has done a good job of self-creation by becoming a modest middle class intellectual type. He wants Stavrogin to be seen as the leader. He feels that people will be more likely to follow Stavrogin whose large personality draws people to him. And maybe he hopes to escape some blame in case of failure. He weasels his way into the circle of the wife of the provincial governor and uses his influence with her to lower the values and standards of the upper class of the province’s society. His understanding of the upper classes and the basic psychology of socialists and atheists is summed up by his assertion that,. “I can get them to go through fire, if I just yell at them they’re not liberal enough . . .”
Shigalov has thought and written along the lines of Fourier about the new society that the revolution will create. He describes his system thus: “ . . . I am suggesting my own system of world organization. . . I get entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my own solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”
The narrative plot of Demons is a rebellion against the czarist government and one of the main subplots is rebellion against God or atheism. Most of the characters I’ve mentioned so far are atheists. And they are not atheists of the ‘No I don’t believe there is a God, would you like to get together for dinner on Tuesday” variety. They are more of the ‘Of course there is no God, but if there was I still wouldn’t believe just to teach that megalomaniac a lesson’ variety. They are pathologically atheistic. All of the members revolutionary society are atheists. It is never a matter of rational argument or discussion. It is just what everybody thinks and to not go along would be to subject oneself to the ridicule a peer group uses to enforce conformity. And you would never get anywhere in the world of socialists and revolutionaries without submitting completely to peer pressure.
Kirilov went too far with atheism even for this group. Rather than the revolt against the czar he makes revolt against God the center of his life. And he thereby makes himself only slightly useful in the earthly revolution. He is angry and frustrated that God has limited his freedom by making the time of his death a random event. But it is more than that. Possibly he’s insane since he feels he can become God by committing suicide. His singular devotion to this idee fixe causes him to resemble a paranoid monomaniac. This dialog between him and Pyotr Verkhovensky takes place: “Pyotr V. says, “’If you shoot yourself you’ll become God. Is that right?’
“‘Yes, I will become God.’ [Kirilov answers] . . .Kirilov says, “If there is a God, then the will is all his, and I cannot get out of his will. If not, the will is all mine, and it is my duty to proclaim self-will.”. . . ’It is my duty to shoot myself because the fullest point of my self-will is -- for me to kill myself.’
“‘But you’re not the only one to kill yourself, there are lots of suicides.’ [replies Pyotr Verkhovensky]
“‘For reasons. But without any reason, only for self will-- only I.’
… . . ..
“‘It is my duty to proclaim unbelief . . . .’”
Stavrogin is the most clearly and completely drawn character in the book He is full of contradiction. He is a duel fighting, skirt chasing rich kid who is recognized by most as the leader of a revolutionary secret society. He steals a trinket just to see a child be punished for the theft, rapes the child and then plans to publicly confess to enjoy the thrill of the humiliation. He is not purely evil since he does experience guilt for his disgusting actions. And this is one of the reasons why women are so drawn to him. He is able to project himself as the kind of ‘bad boy’ women are often fascinated by. And he causes many women to feel challenged to reform him.
More than any other character Stavrogin walks on the razor’s edge between good and evil. He has at times steeped himself in especially noxious evil. Evil that is like the mommy-naughty child-spank-me hypnotic sexual role game Rousseau plays endlessly. And the ego won’t let go of it. It can’t just be a sinner but demands to be THE SINNER TO OUT SIN ALL SINNERS. Tikhon, the holy man, understands this and does not empower it with argument: he just offers a simple yet difficult solution, which, if embraced, strips the muscle from the pathological ego. And Tikhon understands what a complete game it is because he sees that all sins are infinitely evil since their very nature is the denial of God. He is as much a sinner as Stavrogin but his salvation comes from not having Stavrogin’s need to keep playing the ‘I’m naughtier than you game.’
There is so much here: good and evil, revolution with power struggles and in fighting, a genuine holy man and devout atheists. There are a couple of love stories. And there is redemption. Or at least a map to redemption.
Thi is what I've been able to get together so far. I plan to add more about God, socialism and revolution as it comes together.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Links to 'Sisters,' 'Ivy Day in the Committee Room,' 'Dubliners' and Plato's 'Republic'

Here is a link to the full text of ‘Sisters’ on the net. This will get you to the page on Gutenberg where all of ‘Dubliners’ can be downloaded. Next I am going to write on ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ which is another story from ‘Dubliners.’ Click on its title for the full text on the net. A knowledge of Plato’s 'Republic' is helpful to a full understanding of ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Sisters by James Joyce

‘Sisters’ is the first story of James Joyce’s collection ‘Dubliners.’ It is about the relationship between a young boy and an old priest. I am going to focus on the theme of sin. Joyce was not a Christian and did not believe in a personal God. But he grew up in Catholic Ireland that was permeated with the idea of sinfulness. Joyce had once believed and suffered under a sense of sinfulness. And he saw this and understood it in others.
This story is short so two or three rereading are not a great burden. After a couple of readings I had gotten to know the setting, the narrative and the characters well enough to see them like stationary furniture. Now when I reread I could move around this furniture and look at it from different angles. And I could now focus in on small details and try looking from different perspectives. That thing that I originally took to be a console table came more and more to look like a sacrificial altar. The corpse in the bed begins to look like a graven idol. The family and friends at the bedside came to resemble worshipers. Everything is what it is and some other things as well
Old Father Flynn is described as guilty of simony though no details of this sin are given in the story. But consequences of the sin can be detected in the narrator. Simony is named for Simon the magician who is described in the book of Acts. Simon, a sorcerer and healer, was impressed by the powers that Jesus’ apostles possessed. Simon offered them money in exchange for the same powers. He was even baptized and joined the Christians. But the offer of money for spiritual powers got him ejected from the Christian communion. Simon was told to leave because he had converted for the wrong reason. He was concerned about what he could get rather than what he could give: his heart was not right. Simon did not argue the point he just requested that they pray for a change of his heart so he would not have to suffer what would inevitably fall to those in rebellion against God. Simon knew he was wrong.
The narrator is mentally stalked by a sense of sinfulness. The first words of the story are ominous, “THERE was no hope for him this time.” And in that first paragraph his thoughts about the old priest’s illness could even be seen as the child hoping for Father Flynn’s death. That paragraph’s last two sentenced combine dread, sinfulness and a dangerous curiosity about evil: “But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.” The boy does not just go to visit the priest to learn about the mass and the intricacies of Christian doctrine. He has a longing to be near and see the ‘deadly work’ this old sinner and what his sin can do in spite of some level of knowledge that it is evil and deadly.
The narrator feigns unconcern about Father Flynn’s death when he feels certain Old Cotter and his uncle are watching to see how he will react to the news of Father Flynn’s death. This connotes a sense of guilt. Then as he dreams the old sinner haunts him but he remains in league with sinfulness by, “smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.” But the youngster is of two minds about the sin and the sinner since he, “found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death.” But there is still power there since he is afraid to go inside and view the body.
The way the old priest has the child from the neighborhood memorize the mass for their amusement trivializes what many see as a life giving ritual. It brings to mind Buck Mulligan’s black mass with the shaving paraphernalia in the opening scene of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’
While pretending to pray when viewing the old priest’s body the boy becomes convinced the corpse is smiling. In his dream the narrator had used a smile to absolve the old priest of his sin. His conviction that the corpse is smiling keeps Father Flynn and his haunting alive even in the grave.
The narrator listens as the ladies drink wine, eat crackers and chat about the deceased. And while this goes on the boy experiences his epiphany: The ‘maleficent and sinful being’ who had haunted him now no longer exists. Father Flynn is now just silent and dead.
How was the haunting presence exorcised? One explanation is that hearing the mundane stories reinforces the reality that the old man is merely the brother of these very ordinary sisters. Why be afraid of a man who aspires to rent a car with ‘rheumatic’ tires to take a ride with these dismally colorless sisters to their birthplace in Irishtown? What could be more boring and uninspiring than a place called Irishtown? And the banality of much of the conversation between the aunt and Eliza could drown otherworldly view of the old priest in ordinariness.
Eliza’s description of her brother’s mental collapse could replace the boy’s fear of a spiritual threat with a strong awareness of pathology. Freud and Jung might have a different explanation. In his dream the narrator saw that, “. the grey face still followed me. It
murmured, and I understood that it desired to confess something.” Maybe the mental picture painted by Eliza of the crazy old man laughing to himself in the confessional resolved the boy’s need for Father Flynn to confess and the boy’s desire to absolve the old man. Maybe the boy also realized that nothing that the old man had taught him had given him the least bit of priestly power.
The thought of the trip to Irishtown in the rented car with the sisters attending to Father Flynn reminds me of ancient festivals that paraded an idol of a god through the street to end up at a location holy to the god. It is also reminiscent of Christian feasts in which an icon, the statue of a saint or a holy relic is paraded through the streets. The relationship between the old man and the boy similar to what is common between a god and many worshippers. Father Flynn connected the child to a larger wider world. And the boy’s object of worship personified his own fears and needs. Also, at the time of the boys growth into puberty, the nature of his relation to the object of worship radically changed.
This story could just be a description of the journey into adolescence. Feeling out of place and not quite right along with always being under surveillance are hallmarks of the teen years that are dawning on the narrator. Instead of using the psychobabble labels of today conflicts have been described in the language of Irish Catholic guilt. Freud was alive when the story was written but his world view had not yet seeped into the collective unconscious of Westerners.