Friday, November 27, 2009

A bird's a bird for a' that

We dinna hunt, we dinna trap,
A bird’s a bird, for a’ that!
Still turkey fills the honest lap –
The stomach growls for a’ that!
For a’ that, an a’ that,
Sweet potatoes, pie and a’ that,
Till the hour be late, let them pile me plate,
And I’m well content and a’ that.

Oh a quail sae wee, or a rich confit,
Of a goose or a duck or a’ that,
Or a fine roast hen – satisfying, when
Ye daily dine, for a’ that.
For a’ that, an a’ that,
It’s the middleman an a’ that,
Twixt the veg and grain and your belly’s main –
A bird’s a bird for a’ that.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ravenna Recollected

Roma was the emperor’s cock –
His favorite bird.
A fighter (my guess).
When the servants came crying, “Roma is fallen!”
The emperor (in Ravenna) trembled.
What relief to learn they meant merely the city,
Captured by Goths.
The rooster crowed and flapped, strutted and preened,
Jutting its beak out-in-out-in on the march,
Proud and erect as any centurion of any (defeated) legion.
A Praetorian cock!
What emperor lives in Rome? I ask you?
Honorius didn’t.
That crowded, fetid, overbuilt city
Where they’d been known to murder their emperors
– persecuted in a Palatine ghetto.
He dwelt enmarshed in ramparted Ravenna
And when a Goth carried off his sister
Graciously allowed the yob to wed her.

I remember with pride the fearless day
My sixteenth year
No word of Italian
No map in my hand
I went to Ravenna, a pilgrim, alone.
I’d heard of mosaics.
I remember the buses lined up in the square
And no way to figure which one took me back.
Alone and giddy
As floating on top of the nervous wave
I found San Vitale, saw the empress and emperor
I found Dante’s tomb the body absent – risen –
(as can only be proper for Italy’s god)
I found Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo
The saints in togas, faces glum as child’s play
The palatium (thus) with its curtains gathered in arched windows
I found nothing else in that city revealed – and reviled –
And the telephones defied me
And at last I took a taxi (with the last of my lire) back.

Ah Italy!
The first step in your streets, unreeled like bolts of salable silk
The piazzas of herbs of duomos of men-at-arms
The language uncertain but half-familiar (shouldn’t this all be sung?)
The sweet ice tea in the sour cafés
The limitless vistas of aching houses gelato-colored
Swaying with history’s breezes,
And each corner turned brought (devout was my faith)
Some new angle of beauty
Some new sip some new bite some intolerant ripeness
Some mingling of senses, the ancient and modern,
Like the finer cheeses, the airier salads,
The artichoke in hot aioli.
Was it young? Or was I? (In my thirty-first year)
My shouldrs, my feet – they never complained –
My belly, my cock – insatiable both –
My eye, my nose, my tongue – who had guessed
That all this lay in wait
Attempting to sate me?

Ravenna was once the capital of the world:
Impregnable in ramparts of sea and swamp.
Rome fell – but well – there were more where that came from.
In Ravenna: mosaics!
You can see the progression from Galla’s Greek keys
To Apollinare’s toga’d saints
To the Arian baptistery, John in the dome,
The watery pattern distorts the bare body,
To Classe’s apse, the sheep and the shepherd,
To the banker’s house, where a new style entrances
To the court ablaze in San Vitale:
Justinian conquers – the toga is banished –
The story of Isaac prefigures the Other,
Then decadence sets in in San Severo –
The Exarchs were poor – the Lombards without –
And then they marched in – and the sea marched off –
Without swamps it was only a poor seaside village.
The city fell. The Franks donated. The tyrants ruled.
A chunk of Crusader mosaic thus:
No skill, no art, no elegance survives.
The city has fallen … off.

When at last I returned (it was just forty years)
Nothing returned to my memory there.
I might be an exarch – an emperor – a Goth –
For all the recall of that teenage discovery.
I walked and I walked and I walked – but my feet hurt –
Took the bus down to Classe – and back – for the train.
And Italy forgot –
The wonder – the place without limits – had limits –
It’s beauties accessible, impudent, knowing.

I no longer get lost in sweet Italy now.
I have reached that age: I no longer get lost.
I walk into a town and it’s all familiar –
Though I’ve never seen it I know every byway.
(Well: try Naples before you put money on that one.)

Even Rome is comprehensible now
When no one has eyes for all of its treasures
I no longer have feet for the treasures I knew
And the churches as distant as comets are set
In a knowable matrix.
They have ceased to have children, and soon
They’ll lack ancestors too.
Each piazza belongs to the others – from boot toe to heel –
Each new dom, each palazzo, fits into the pale
And that giddiness, novelty, no more avails
Through the water I clearly perceive the bottom
On which I could walk if I were but taller.

Where is the land in whose beauty I drowned,
The land where mosaics were music?
The water’s dried up –
The coming tsunami
Will sweep me away.
Could I live now in Rome – imperially –
I would sit on a balcony –
With a hen called Ravenna –
Awaiting the Goths.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Will Obama go the way of LBJ?

I have yet to get a clear sense from anyone in Washington what "victory" in Afghanistan would look like. No Taliban? Won't happen. A government with control over its people? Never yet. Half a million American troops killing ever more millions of innocent civilians out of sheer frustration while at home the Democratic party refuses to renominate the donkey-headed president? I wouldn't be surprised. If we're not out of Afghanistan soon, I'll be marching against him and I won't vote for him in '12.

America should not make wars unless it is attacked by another nation. No nation is stupid enough to attack us - it's only happened once in our history - that was in 1941. The Japanese were gambling, and knew it. They regret it now. America cannot win wars if they last longer than three hours with commercials - the American people won't fight them unless they are under threat. They are not being threatened by the Taliban. They weren't being threatened by Saddam either. These wars weren't just crimes, they were blunders - but the men who made them only wanted to get Bush elected; they had no other ambition, and they achieved it. Can we go home now?

We can't win a war in Afghanistan. No one else has since Babur, and he started in Uzbekistan and had Muslim sentiment on his side. Will the U.S.A. go the way of the U.S.S.R.? Breaking the bank for no purpose but making the military-industrial complex even richer, while we die for lack of health care at home?

If Obama could describe a rational, honest objective to this war, I might have some faith in it. He can't. It's not a war he'd ever have made given the opportunity. Is he really going to let every earthly ambition of his life and being go down because of someone else's foreign policy blunder? Yes, the Republicans will shriek bloody murder and traitor and everything else, scrounging votes, if he pulls out - but the answer to that is to denounce their treachery in declaring a war they couldn't win in the first place, committing America to a debt they never intended to pay. The answer is to stop being Obama and fight dirty. Or just resign and let Joe Biden handle it.

Once again, I'm not sure Obama is the man for this job. He gives every sign of wanting to be president to deal with problems he hasn't been able to get to - because of all the problems he'd rather not deal with that have piled up on his desk. Too bad. You don't get the term you'd like; you get the term you were elected to. Deal with this. It's a rough call, and the sooner we're out, the better.

Withdrawal from the war should come as soon as possible after health care goes one way or the other. And a bitter attack on Republicans should fit in there somewhere.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


The latest mysterious ailment:

A rash, my right upper back and neck ... hardly noticeable but skin sensitive to tight-necked shirts, to certain salves ... a waxiness also about the right ear ... a fungus? a leprosy? a melanoma? very mysterious.

Until yesterday, for some reason, when it occurred to me that the sun slants in from the window to the left of the bed ... and I never pull the shade, hoping (uselessly) the light will wake me early ... and came at last to the proper conclusion:

Sunburn! I've been getting a steady morning right-shoulderblade sunburn!

Covered it with aloe goo, and already it feels much better.

The solitary life, unaccessoried by an interested (and often entertained) second party, leads to many a fractured conclusion.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jigsaw Puzzle

There’s no box
Well, there’s a box in my head
And I study it there
How it’s supposed to look finished
Right down to the foxed edges of a well-read first edition

But I have the pieces out on the table
And found the corners, and all the bits of edge
And set out the frame
And the colors are vivid in places, so I’ve written those chapters
But there are acres where the pieces do not fit, have not fit
And the color is wry and deceptive

It’s less easy when you must craft each piece yourself
When the color is clear but does not match the pieces around it
When the shape, the hook, the duck’s head could go here – or there
It’s a puzzle

And perhaps this piece, this ambition of pieces,
This lingering glen, this wormwood
Would look better there (and the box is no guide)
Or belongs there – or how could I be so blind?
It’s a puzzle

And the whole elegantly pieced section over there turns out
To belong to some other picture
Or has already been done better before
Or there are two, just as good, and they must be collated,
And you must learn to discard what you’ve already done
It’s a puzzle

It’s less easy when you must mold each piece yourself
Tear the flesh of the story out of your body
Mold according to cells extracted from the skull without anesthetic
Ignored the blood and guts streaming and starting to smell
To create life, new life, your own story
It’s a puzzle

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Watching George C. Scott in Petulia

The worst thing of all is embarrassment. Barring pain, obviously. The worst thing is embarrassment. I can't even read about it, or watch it on a movie. I flee the theater, I pause the DVD. I can't bear that scene in Notorious where Claude Rains catches Ingrid Bergman in Cary Grant's arms. I writhe. I want to reassure Claude: no, they're not cheating on you - they're just spying on you to betray your Nazi ring to the U.S. government. But he misinterprets, and Hitchcock twists the knife or turns the screw. I can't bear scenes of false pretenses.

I can't play them either. I stutter, I garble, I can't put the words in the correct order, it is as if English had suddenly ceased to be my native language, as if I had to work through the meaning in Latin or Turkish or Chinese and then translate, and the people I am talking to are patient and that makes me more hysterical in its turn. So I cannot get myself to make a simple important phone call because I'm not sure I know everything I ought to know and I can't find all the papers that should be in my hand and I'm tearing my hair out (but I have no hair any more) and it's all very simple and calming myself down ought to be simple and life is impossible if I do not make this call and it's the one (besides shoes) really extraordinary gift I can give to myself on my birthday, but I cannot get myself to do it, to wrap it, to address it, to bring it to FedEx around the corner because I cannot face the embarrassment of a phone call and where the hell did I put that phone number anyway? because I know I didn't toss it out.

I know.

I do like to console myself that now that I hardly have any hair left, I can't tear all my hair out. I mean, how nervous can I actually become? This doesn't console me, but that is how I like to console myself. Disconsolately. Inconsolably. On my birthday. Watching a movie I haven't seen since I was in college (when my roommate had a crush on Julie Christie - as indeed many people did). George C. Scott, whom my father used to call "Old Constipation" for his usual facial expression, plays the doctor she vamps in a hippie San Francisco that was already moribund by the time I showed up there (bewildered and askew). I always see myself a man out of my own time and in no other in particular, but perhaps I am really a late-blooming hippie, uncomfortable that my era is (other than musically) so utterly forgotten.

George C. Scott plays a doctor (sort of like my father), and Julie Christie has a fixation on him, having observed him operate on a boy she ran over. He does not know that is the reason for her fixation, and she may not realize it herself. She's very self-involved. How deplorable. Thank heavens no one is like that anymore.

What my father did (as a doctor) was real, so real - people loved him, were grateful to him, for a reason: he found things inside that needed fixing, he patched them up, he spared them pain. Nothing I ever did was real - I never thought it so, I never thought it a possibility, that anything I did could possibly be as real as that. So why bother to try? I never tried, I never thought of anything sufficiently real that would be in the compass of what I could achieve, there was very little point to it, to effort.

Another thing this movie (Petulia, remember?) did was scare me off handball for life. There is this scene of two friends playing handball, fast and furious and utterly terrifying. Like the world. Atomic reactions about to blow. Handball was a favorite with my grandfather - but then, what sport wasn't? (Cricket, maybe.) Behind his little house in Crestwood, a house I have never even seen, he built the first private handball courts in Westchester (per my father). When my uncle last stopped by to look at the place, he told me, the handball courts had been turned into support walls for flowering vines. My kind of people, obviously.

When my grandfather was dying, when we all sat by his side and he was suffering spasms (how I remember his impatience, the invasion of his privacy, that he couldn't have a spasm with people hanging about, with people before he had to keep up a certain front, his front to which (if not he, who?) had every right and yet it was difficult to make casual small talk about other things (as my grandmother and her sister and my mother were all doing, waiting for my father to arrive with the ambulance to take him to Doctor's Hospital) and it was impossible to turn away because I was out of my head on LSD (though no one else knew about this) and multicolored snowflakes were emerging from the wall and that was what I really wanted to talk about but it occurred to me that my point in discussing it would probably be misconstrued by those assembled, my grandfather said, "I ask God, why me? I've been a good man; why am I suffering so much?" and I was rather impatient about that, because he'd been such a good, pious atheist all his life, it seemed a bit of a let-down to bring up God (as I had never heard him do before), and at the same time, some other self (I have many; they've never liked each other much) said, "How dare you condescend to this good old man who has never done anything unkind in ninety years probably, and you think him less (as a stationer) than you would if he were some intellectual so-and-so, and how fucking dare you? because what he has done, raised children and grandchildren and built a house and built a business and been loved by thousands upon thousands (he was a very lovable man; everyone who met him became his friend in minutes if not seconds) and was never cruel or unkind in his life ... his life was real." The corollary being my life was not real, would never be real. And so it has proved.

And I am awed even by my great-grandfather, whom my father and grandfather despised, because he crossed the ocean (with illegal paperr yet), knowing no one, and certainly no English (but German served well enough in New York in those days), and brought over his wife and children and worked for them, yes, though they all thought him lazy and apt to weasel things (a trait I inherit), and he rose at five for all those years, and took in the papers and ran the store, and fell asleep in the afternoon because who wouldn't? and married at 16 and never looked at another woman, though he outlives her by 17 years. I think I'd like the old scoundrel though none of the others did. His life, too was real.

And my life is not, has never been, can never be real. What difference will it make if it goes on twenty more years or ends now? It isn't real.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Everyone has forgotten Semiramis

Last night to a splendid performance of Rossini's rackety grand opera Semiramide in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor: four hours of warble. Very satisfying. But everyone had to study the program because no one seems to remember who Semiramis is - or, to be sure, was - sometime between the 22nd and eighth centuries b.c.e.

Semiramis used to be as famous as, well, Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba and Herodias and Empress Wu, and the myths have much in common. (Also Zenobia, who is also nearly forgotten.) (On the other hand, Ishtar and Hatshepsut have entered the popular consciousness.)

The Semiramis legend, alas, has faded from the popular consciousness, perhaps because Gina Lollabrigida (who had the ideal maternal quality) never made a major Technicolor picture of it. Last March, in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, generally ignored in a long gallery of late Renaissance bric-a-brac, I saw seven huge tapestries depicting the queen’s life and career. We see her (as far as I recall), a foundling of unknown (perhaps divine) birth, nursed by doves; noticed (while leading an attack on Bactra) by King Ninus, eponym of Nineveh, who falls in love at first sight; sacrificing to Baal upon her husband’s sudden death and her succession to his contested throne; building the Walls of Babylon; leading her armies to conquer Egypt and India; hunting tigers in the Pamirs (or wherever); and at last, her power broken by the appearance of her long-lost son, Ninias, the true heir, taking flight with the doves and vanishing among the clouds. It’s a glorious load of gilt-edged bushwah (the real Shamu-ramat was simply queen regent of hyper-masculine Assyria for three years), and it’s a pity her story is forgotten, when once she held her own with such semi-mythical exotics as the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Alexander, Agamemnon and Roland.

On the web, where one encounters the usual nonsense, a Biblical mystic identifies Semiramis as the wife of Nimrud (builder of the Tower of Babel) and the “inventor of polytheism” – that needed to be invented? Dante and Herodotus are cited among sources on Wikipedia. Her era is variously identified as 22nd and 8th centuries B.C.E. (Top that!)

She is also said to have:
1) been born to a goddess and a mortal – the goddess, ashamed, slew the mortal and abandoned the baby, hence raised by doves and shepherds – typical heroic birth trope, cf. Hercules, Jesus
2) she was a major tomboy, winning men’s hearts by her skill at hunt and war as well as beauty,
cf. Hippolyta, Brunhilda, Zenobia, the Ranee of Jhansi
3) first husband, a satrap of Nineveh, allowed her to lead a campaign against Bactra, which won King Ninus’ notice; the husband committed suicide – cf. The King’s Henchman, David and Bathsheba
4) Ninus was so impressed by her counsel (she founded Babylon in this version, as well as building the walls and the hanging gardens – both among the Seven Wonders) that he made her Queen Regent for a day; she promptly had him executed and took power, deceiving the troops by appearing in man’s attire as her son – cf. Hatshepsut, Catherine the Great, Irene of Byzantium, Empress Wu of China – all real rulers by the way
5) She then conquered Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia, but not India
6) She is said to have had a different lover every night – fearing they would take her power, she had them murdered in the morning. Ergo Dante put her in the lechers’ circle. This trope appears in tales (and operas) about Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Queen Marguerite of France, several Roman empresses, Queen Tamar of Georgia, Herodias, etc. etc. I think it is all about men’s terrof of insatiable female lust which they may not be man enough to satisfy. The woman wiser or braver than a man is always either asexually prudish or lustful beyond all reason (the myth of Catherine the Great and the horse, e.g.) – she can’t be normal, because men can’t stand the idea of brave, brainy women being normal.
7) The incest motif comes from all sorts of places, notably the subconscious – but cf. Jocasta, Lucrezia Borgia, Cybele and Atys, Ishtar and Tammuz.
8) At last, after three years (historical), or 15 (operatic) or 42, her son showed up and had her put to death. (Cf. Athaliah) Or she was rescued at the last moment, cornered on top of the Tower of Babel, by a flock of doves, her old friends, who carried her off. Imagine trying to stage that with a Sutherland or Caballé – or Meade. Well – I once saw Sutherland fly off in a winged chariot in Esclarmonde, come to think of it.

Wouldn't that story have made a great trash flick for Gina Lollobrigida? Or Angela Lansbury in her blonde bombshell bitch days? I see George Sanders as Assur, Tyrone Power as Ninus, Sal Mineo as Arsaces/Ninias. Can we get Cukor to direct?

P.S. After a visit to Boston for the Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese show at the MFA, I wandered the regular galleries of that place (it's been thirty years since I was there last - I think), and found a Guercino of Semiramis Cutting Her Hair while Receiving the News of the Revolt of Babylon. According to the wall caption (bless Boston for its wall captions!), she put down her scissors and refused to complete her toilette until she had ridden her army to the offending city and suppressed the revolt.

That was a new tale to me (and, I presume, you).

Reminds me of the tale of Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia (elder daughter of Philip II of Spain and Elisabeth de Valois, Verdi lovers take note), who reigned in Brussels for 35 years and once swore not to change her underlinen until the Protestant northern Netherlands were reconquered by the Catholic south (her bailiwick). Of course they never were conquered. One wonders what Isabella, and her maids, had to endure in consequence. Across the gallery from the Guercino were several works created for Isabella by Rubens, her court painter, including one of a series of warlike women on whom she might model herself, in this case, notably, Queen Tamyris vengefully tossing the head of King Cyrus into a basin of blood.

Another story I know nothing at all about.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Where were YOU the day Stravinsky died?

During my junior year in college – the one I did not spend merely torn between lusting not too successfully after women and wondering why I felt odd, unconscionable, never to be discussed or admitted things about men – make up your mind, Yohalem! – oh, my mind was made up; my mind was certain; I knew what I wanted - to want; it was just that my genitals did not always agree – I spent a lot of time smoking dope.

One of my dorm buds was Ken, loud, anarchic, thoughtful, ruminating behind a zany basso laugh copped from Howlin’ Wolf and honed with cheap cigarettes, also fond (so were we all) of concealing unsatisfied lust behind druggy philosophizing. He picked datura blossoms in New Jersey and we attempted that one day: unsatisfying. (Lakmé killed herself in Act III with this? I don’t think so.) Marijuana was better.

We were sitting one night in his room with some very effective weed, and he opened the little upper closet over his main closet (so were all rooms in Furnald Hall equipped), swung the door out, suspended a clear plastic cable from the catch, a heavy fishing weight from the cable. I stared and it spun and spun, a weight on a line. Sort of like the pendulum at the U.N. that, if you stare at it long enough, they say (whoever bothered to do this?), will change the direction of its arc in accordance with the spin of the planet – or the influence of the moon – or of the sun – or the Will of God – or some such principle. (A little green spaceman on Uranus eying us by scope, firing a gravity gun here and there, giggling insanely as we jump like electroshocked ants, drooling masticated matter from the corners of his mouth.)

And this fishing weight, this pendulum, Ken took between his fingers, making sure with his eyes that mine were fastened, fascinated, upon it (was it magic? Would it turn into a feathered bird? And sing and fly away?), and he let it go – and, you will hardly believe me – it swung! To and fro, side to side, on and on … slowly less and less (ah, friction! Trapped in eternal conflict with supernal Inertia! I feel a metaphorical Renaissance statue coming on – or a story by Italo Calvino, one of my great heroes at the time – Cosmicomics – they have just been reissued, by the way).

So back and forth and back and forth the dead weight ran on its all-but-invisible (occasionally sparkling in the shadows of an ill-lit snot-green Columbia dorm room) cable, coming ever so slowly to supreme, divine, rest. The earth, with barely an effort, held it fast then, a line from the center of the world to the lock on the little closet door above my head. The miracle of it all. Hit the bong again, bro. Saw a T-shirt the other day: “Bro-hemian Rhapsody.” That’s where we are.

His eyes on my eyes (spinning, whirling, whorling away I have no doubt), Ken lifted the cable again, drew it back, and let it go, grace of the arc, swoop and then up, symmetry and ration, all right with the world, music of the spheres (okay, arcs) (okay, maybe we do need some tunes, bro, actually…), and then, sublimely, all at rest, like Sophocles, the perfection of the knots unraveled and woven anew. The world without might go hang. Inside we had satori – and Jethro Tull – and another bowl.

Could the world be more perfect? I gazed, mesmerized. Rude Ken, for the moment gentle, looked kindly down upon me. He took the weighted cable in his wizardly hand, stared, all a-grin, into my eyes, and drew it this time, for a variation, back – towards himself – to let it fall east-west instead of north-south. A variation! An old thing made new! A wonder of the aeon! I smiled too, and waited for this marvel.

He let the cable go.

The dangling weight paused in the middle of the air.

Across the way, I awaited its coming (like a new Messiah, or at the least a new, improved, upgraded brand of Messiah).

It did not move.

It hung, frozen, in the air.

Gravity, rationality, inertia, the fourth force I forget what you call it – charisma? Animal magnetism? Zapitude? – stood still.

The pendulum was going nowhere, and would continue to go nowhere, while I, crosslegged on the carpet, struggled to keep my balance on the celestial dancefloor. The laws of the universe suspended! How could this be?

And then – and only then – sobering slightly, desperately, because elsewise I was going to choke and go under – my eyes sought the cable and followed it upwards to the fulcrum lock. When Ken pulled the taut cord to him, the open door above had moved too. It would have swung north to south, but it would not go east to west. When he let it go, apparently on the arc, in fact it was plumb, straight down from the handle. I was properly – utterly – magically – manically – gulled.

My shock – my wonder – my mortification – my ecstasy – were almost whelmed in his gusty, hideous, gorgeous, wolflike laugh. I did not know whether to be tickled or annoyed, cold sober or more stoned. It was a wonder and a revelation: the laws of the universe may not accord with your perceptions. Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

All this came back to me this morning – God knows why – as something of a metaphor. The story, as one tells it. As Ken told it. While the teller speaks (or writes), while we allow ourselves to fall under the spell, we are not in our world (much less the real world, allowing for the sake of argument that there might be one beyond our individual perceptions); we are in the storyteller’s world, and for the sake of learning his or her secret, succumb without objection to this or that jiggle with our own notion of the real, allow the house of cards to be constructed before our dazzled eye and dwell in furnished splendor therein until the teller or some other external force huffs it down.

Thus if the teller says: You are in a shop, buying an egg, and the woman at the counter is a sheep – you will believe it. And if you walk towards the egg on the shelf where the sheep has set it, and the walk goes on for quite some yards, even over a stream, you will believe that. And if the egg when you reach it is as tall as you are, wears a waistcoat, and debates you on the meaning of words, you will believe that. Because you are in the story, and it’s a good story, and Lewis Carroll has told it awfully well. But mostly because you know – your mind (even unstoned) is trained to believe – that the effect, which is delicious, derives from this total surrender.

And the teller surrenders to – you hold the power to respond or not – to make him a conjuror or a fraud, based on his success, which you supply. One can tell tales in solitude, but it’s not the same. Yet every writer, to some extent, must work in solitude – and try the magic later.

So when the teller tells his tales, true or untrue, his magic quotient rises (and his self-satisfaction) the more as we believe, and our doubts are concealed so that he might remain a shaman. For he himself comes (I think) to believe the tales invented, or borrowed from other sources, embellished, ornamented, recast (as reality is always recast) as tales for telling, sagas, ballads, chronicles (not mere annals) before the listener who maintained (as perhaps he did not realize) the shaman's magic by pretending to enchantment – a mutual thrill.

Did he believe his own stories? I forgot to ask. It was enough for me that the pendulum continued to swing in the proper direction, or that if it stood still, he had a credible (if unscientific) explanation.

Oh yes, and Ken?

Ken dropped out. “My condolences,” I said, not knowing what to say. “I’m not sure those are in order,” he replied. Nor, in retrospect, am I.

But he still hung around Furnald Hall, and over Easter Vacation took off for Mexico with a freshman named John, in search of sights and booze and women (probably no dice) and weed – the Kerouac road trip we were all (thirty years too late) aspiring to. Their money was stolen in a bad weed deal, and they had to phone John’s wealthy parents for more to get home. They resolved to drive all night, top speed, and the highways of Mexico are not well lit. They hurtled around a mountain where some idiot had parked an unmarked, unlit van, engine trouble or out of gas or hiding from the federales, who knows now? a comedy of errors, except they both died instantly.

I learned about all this when I came upon a little group of John’s friends, sitting in the third floor hall, ominously quiet, loudly silent, oppressively mourning. Nobody spoke. My first thought (happily not aloud) was: They’re as devastated as I am by the news! I’d just read in the Times that Igor Stravinsky was dead.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What if Mary Tudor lived 20 more years?

Mary Tudor does NOT die of anguish at the loss of Calais (or whatever killed her) but drags on a weary existence till, say, 1578, when she dies, aged 65, childless, succeeded by her sister Elizabeth, aged 45, a bitter, frustrated spinster who has had to lie and live alone in country houses all her life.

England becomes thoroughly Roman Catholic (again), as the small Protestant group is increasingly marginalized. Elizabeth has been obliged to become Catholic, but makes a deal that her claim to the throne is not affected by this, her father's will still being the law of the land. She has also declined the hand of the Duke of Savoy, who marries Margaret of Valois instead (as he did in actuality). In fact she continues to hold aloof from the marital sweepstakes, which suits Mary just fine. Mary even beheads the Duke of Norfolk for secretly trying to get Elizabeth to elope with him.

Philip II, however, is without a legitimate heir after the death of Don Carlos in 1568 -- he is unable to marry a subsequent fertile wife until Mary Tudor's death -- by which time he is a gout-ridden 51. Don Carlos, however, has been married to Elisabeth of Valois, and before his complete descent to insanity, has succeeded in fathering a child -- let's say a daughter, Isabel, destined in time to succeed her grandfather as Isabel II of Spain. (She will marry her cousin, Albert of Austria.)

Unsupported by surreptitious Protestant aid from England, the Protestant insurgencies in both Scotland and the Netherlands wither and die. Parma, undistracted by the Armada, takes Den Haag and Amsterdam. John Knox is burned at the stake by order of Mary, Queen of Scots, who marries her first cousin, the widowed Duc de Guise. Mary Tudor, alarmed by all these French forces in Scotland, disinherits Mary and proclaims Lord Darnley the heir to England after Elizabeth, encouraging him to marry Catherine Grey. (They have one son, the future Matthew I.) Willem the Silent is executed in the square of Antwerp. Henri de Bourbon is slain fighting a civil war with the Guises over the throne of Henri III of France. The Duc de Lorraine (husband of Henri II's second daughter) becomes King Charles X. The Armada is sent against Turkey and captures Thessalonika and Rhodes, though not Constantinople (because they can't get past the Dardanelles).

The restoration of a unified Catholicism throughout the West prevents all doctrines of individual human liberty and scientific data from getting very far. North America north and west of Florida is ceded to France. New Paris, at the mouth of the Verrazano River, becomes its metropolis. All the Jews in Europe flee to Turkey. So do the few surviving Protestants.


Monday, June 29, 2009

A Letter on Ethnogenesis to Patrick W. Geary

Dear Professor Geary,

I am an amateur historian whose interests include the myths peoples invent in order to justify various courses of action, and I have just read your splendid book, The Myth of Nations, which addressed (and often exploded) several questions and answers I had had about the era around the so-called Fall of Western Rome - such as why the Arian heresy lingered so long, and only among certain ("Germanic") populations, and then vanished so entirely, and how the Germanic tribes maintained a separate existence among the groups they ruled when they cannot have been very numerous. Your suggestion that this was done on purpose to keep an elite under the king's particular command from being subsumed in the great mass makes new sense of the confusion, as does your theory of the actual origin of the manpower involved.

(Aside: I noticed recently some spokesman for the Italian government comparing foreign immigrants to the invasions of the Goths, the Huns and the Normans - specifically NOT mentioning the Lombards among the foreign invaders of the peninsula. On the other hand, in a recent article in the NYTimes on the Elgin Marbles controversy, a Greek minister cheerfully admitted, "We were all speaking Albanian and calling ourselves Romans until Winckelmann and Goethe and Ingres and Byron told us we were the heirs of Socrates and Plato and ought to be Greeks." Let's hope he keeps his job - indeed, his life.)

Ethnogenesis is not a word I had been aware of, but it is such an obvious and intriguing concept, the invention of a nationality and the myths to support it, the common ancestry and the divinely favored dynasty, etc. One can see it at work from the very beginnings of Rome, in the legend of a city formed by free men, refugees, bandits seeking out an altar that liberated them and allowed them to join the new state, and on a recent visit to Turkey, I began to study Ataturk's far-ranging experiment to "invent" a Turkish citizenry - was he a Clovis or a Theodoric? It seems the former.

The one footstep in your overall analysis that puzzled me was in understanding how the proto-Slavic nations could have become so very widespread (Novgorod to Macedon) while still speaking so comparatively similar a range of tongues (compared to, say, the dispersal of Germanic or Romance languages, which are far more distinct from each other) without some coherent invasion from a coherent entity. The separation of the Slavs by the Avar entity is perfectly clear, but this part puzzles me. That is one question I wished to ask you.

Another question, which you may not have given much thought to (it being a mere thousand years out of your period, and a thousand miles from Europe), but which intrigues me (as a Jew), is how the process of ethnogenesis that you outline might account for the "state history" and racial legends recorded in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Samuel and Kings - a tale that, in its first chapters, has no contemporary written and very little archaeological backing, and in its later (post-Davidic) chronicle shows clear signs of creative tampering and ethnic myth-making of just the sort you record for the Franks, the Goths, and so on.

A minor but semi-professional point, if the book is reprinted (I hope it will become very well known, and taught, and taken into consideration by students of the period), is that whoever copy edited/proofread the hardcover edition I have read (2002, Princeton) was careless to the point of annoyance about the spelling of unfamiliar names, Slovene becoming Slovine, for example, and Breton indistinguishable from Briton. I'd be delighted to send you my list of errata!

With great admiration and pleasure,

John Yohalem

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Stonewall and the Revolts of 1968

What no one ever comments upon, in re: Stonewall (and there is endless commentary upon Stonewall, as in the Times editorial page this weekend, and Rich Wandel's splendid talk at the Chelsea Center last Thursday about what he did in the burgeoning Gay Rights movement after Stonewall) is the timing, vis-a-vis 1968.

1968, you may remember (it hardly got mentioned last year), was the year of rebellion everywhere. The big ones were the revolt against LBJ's handling of Vietnam culminating in the Chicago riots during the Democratic National Convention in August; Prague Spring, culminating in the Warsaw Pact Invasion, also in August; the Paris explosion against DeGaulle; and the Mexico City university riots - the bloodiest, most violent, least remembered of the lot (the Mexican government still denies the whole thing). There were little pops everywhere else, but those were the big ones, the ones that rattled the world. By December, there were notable demonstrations in the least likely bastion of the culture: audiences at the Metropolitan Opera booed Franco Corelli and Gianna d'Angelo off the stage (she never returned to it, at the Met or anywhere), and Rudolf Bing had to put an insert in the program requesting that audience response not be so extreme.

The question is: what did these upheavals have in common? Prague was an uprising against Brezhnev's communism; Chicago against the Democratic machine; Mexico against the quasi-left-wing PRI; Paris against the quasi-right-wing Gaullist Party. What programme did the young (mostly) rioters share?

The answer appears to be an irritation by the powerless against the men in suits (or uniforms) who ran the world and ignored their desires, needs, wishes - the power structure put in place at the end of World War II who refused to change their ways of doing business while the whole world changed around them, who continued to congratulate themselves with remaining impervious to any concerns they had not already resolved upon. The refusal of the power structures to listen. The old refusing to depart. (In an era in which Franco, Salazar, Tito, Chiang, Mao and Stroessner continued to rule, this was quite a notion.)

Briefly the power structure won, nailed the coffin down upon the monster it had begot, but the world cannot be frozen, change cannot be halted for long. And the young were soon entering the power structure and reforming it from within - even in Prague and Mexico. Revolutions are too uncertain, and most people prefer a quiet life - however exhilarating riots are for the young, those whose property might be damaged always side with the forces of reaction. The revolts appeared to fail in almost every case. The violence of Altamont seemed to put paid to the peace and love of Woodstock.


By June, 1969, there was quiet on all these fronts. That is when the embattled faggots stood up in Sheridan Square for what, I argue, was the last revolt of 1968 - and the most successful. A pervasive injustice, the attitude of the rulers of the world towards a generally repressed minority, was challenged successfully. Nothing ever went quite back to normal - first in New York, then in San Francisco, then in Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Vienna. Today: Shanghai, Jerusalem, Riga, Moscow, Rome are the front lines. No one goes back into the closet. The politicians who denounce gay are either shown to be hypocrites (an easy call) or heartily despised by the youth who know far too much. You can't be gay anymore and think you're the only one. The magazines of the 1970s, the epidemic of the 1980s, the Internet now won't let that happen any more.

Stonewall, the last (and least bloody) was the most effective and successful of the revolts of youth of 1968, the fairy godparent after the fact of all the others.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Conspiracy Theories from A to Z!

A friend has suggested I create a list of Conspiracy Theories from A to Z. I am trying to keep to the Usual Suspects. Any suggestions to add to the cauldron to those below?

A is for Aliens (space, time, species); also Assassins; also AIDS, conspiracy to spread it among blacks and gays, and not find a cure

B is for Bush dynastic links with Saudi Arabia and Bin Laden

C is for CIA (or Communist subversion)

D is for Darwin (pro- (undermining respect for the Bible) or con- (undermining Science, Education, Separation of Church and State)); also Princess Diana, assassination of

E is for Extraterrestrials, Roswell, Flying Saucers

F is for Freemasons (or perhaps Fluoride in the water to undermine our sexual vigor)

G is for Gun control

H is for Homosexuals (seducing children because they can’t reproduce) (and undermining marriage)

I is for Illuminati

J is for Jews (or should this be under Z for Zionists?) (or I for Israel?) (or P for Protocols?)

K is for Kennedy Assassinations (includes destruction of JFK Jr’s plane, and murder of Marilyn Monroe, and Chappaquiddick; see also Mafia)

L is for Liberal Agenda

M is for Mafia (or perhaps Modern Art)

N is for International narcotics trade (or for 9/11) (or Nazis) (or the Great Negro Conspiracy to turn our youth into sexually-obsessed drooling idiots by means of various insidious musics, thereby mongrelizing the race) (or for Neo-Cons)

O is for Obama (the Arab, the Muslim, really white with a suntan, Socialist Agenda, can't have written those books because politicians don't write that well)

P is for Pagans (see also, Materialists, Nazis) (or the Pope, but see R) (or Political Correctness) (or Petro-dollars)

Q is for al-Qaeda

R is for Roman Catholics (secret banks, control of Italian government, suppression of Jesus's sex life and true gender, etc.) (or for Rock n Roll, according to Otto Habsburg a Communist propaganda initiative)

S is for Satanists (or Stock Market manipulations) (or Sports Events, secret Mafia control of) (but see N for Narcotics) (or Socialist Agenda)

T is for Terminators/Time Travelers sent by machines to subvert us. (Also Templars)

U is for USA – not-so-secret plot to undermine all distinctive high or national or ethnic culture in the name of capitalist conformity

V is for Vampires (or Voodoo)

W is for Woman’s Liberation, undermining Male Potency and Natural Domination (or Witches, if there is any difference)

X is for … well, I can’t really tell you that – some of you know, of course

Y is for the subversion of irresponsible Youth against reasonable Old Age

Z is for Zigeuner (the Gypsy conspiracy against Civilization) (or Zombies?)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Brooklyn and Queens on a hot weekend

I have seen BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music evolve over thirty years from salvageable hulk of ruin amid scenes of ruin (with unusual performances), to punk palace of the arts (with its own snazzy crowd of devotees and lots of Euro-art), to major grande dame of the city arts scene, jewel set in glittering renewed downtown Brooklyn. At the moment it is holding a Muslim Cultural Festival, with Asia House and other institutions around town – music, theater, dance, film, “storytelling” from a dozen countries – and I am getting to as much of it as I can.

There was a “souk” in BAM’s car park this past weekend, the usual arts and crafts (overpriced), the usual unhealthy junk food – and some exceptions. At the Turkish booth, a bunch of ladies in headscarves brought home-made stuffed vine leaves (best I’ve ever eaten) and home-made baklava (ditto, especially when it had been sitting in the hot sun a while), and some Lebanese guys had spinach pies shaped like hamantaschen. Someone was selling witty T-shirts for far too much money, such as, on a covered wagon, heading a whole train of such, “Why settle? … Israel!” which could be taken to support either (any) side of the question, eh?; “Surf Saudi Arabia! Sportsman’s Mecca,” “Petro sexual,” “Come out to … Iran!,” “Party Like Iraq Star,” “Gaza Strip Club XXX,” and “Afghanistan!” above images of a wind surfer on the ocean. There was very good Middle Eastern music but the CDs on offer were mostly recent, jazz-inspired, beatboxed shit - if it uses microphones or electric instruments, I'm not very interested.

Across the street, by the way, is Mark Morris’s building, an old hulk completely gutted and refitted and modernized for his dance troupe, with rehearsal halls to rent to others. Typical of the modesty of the man: The new cornerstone, prominently visible, was laid in 2000, so it reads: “A.D. MM.”

According to an article I happen to be proofreading, 46 percent of Queens is foreign-born (a record for U.S. counties), and the borough is huge, in addition, with well over a million people. All sorts of cool folk live there now.

All this as prelude to Sunday when, fed up with being cooped up by ill health in gorgeous weather, I took the bike (via E train) to Roosevelt Avenue for Queens Pride. I’d somehow never made it before, and by the time I arrived, the parade was over (if it had ever been) and a street fair on rainbow themes filled a dozen blocks where the Indian, Pakistani and Afghan colonies meet various Latino enclaves as the E train crosses the 7. (There are also a Thai temple and a Jain center not far down the street.)

Several stages had lip sync drag mamas or folk acts or rappers to which almost no one in the crowd paid attention, there was lots of unhealthy food, there was a guy giving out cards of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, lots of condom distribution, petitions to sign (I signed one to save the libraries of Queens from budget cuts), free hepatitis shots and STD screenings, someone selling straw cowboy hats (I bought one, and it saved me from sunstroke), a bin of used CDs (Ann Hampton Callaway scatting standards in tribute to Ella, a bargain for $2), and I got pair of binoculars for $10 which won’t hurt me when I lose them, as the $140 ones did, there were assorted well-built young men but it was very neighborhood, much of the crowd was straight and enjoying the festa part. I’ve always preferred that Gay Pride be a festa for all, not just Our Crowd.

After an hour or so, I’d had enough of it, so I began biking aimlessly southerly, pausing for beer at an Irish bar (barman from Galway, “city of the tribes” – “I have friends who spend the summer there,” I told him; “Have they got a summer there?” he was skeptical) with a waterfall and barbecue in back, drifting down Greenpoint Avenue through ethnic neighborhood upon ethnic neighborhood, all unknown to me, over the Newtown Creek into Brooklyn. The plaza around the east end of the Williamsburg Bridge, once full of elegant bank buildings, then a ruin for decades, is now reviving nicely – some of the banks are now churches; others are, once again, banks – and through the Valley of the Shadow of the Hasidim to Fort Greene and on and on, miles and miles, most of it amazingly less shabby than it was in the 80s. I attempted a bridge to Manhattan, but my thighs were having none of it.

At last I was at BAM again – easy to spot from a distance because it is beside the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, a Romanesque domed minaret spire, the oldest skyscraper in Brooklyn and one of my favorites in the city. (The ground floor, currently in restauro during condo conversion, has a sublime Cosmatic pavement which I trust will be preserved.) The Turks were out of vine leaves, so I got spinach pie instead to wash down more baklava. Then I took the bike by subway back to the Village. Another week of exercise and I’ll be able to handle a bridge or two.

Old movie houses (often full of fine deco detailing) and old banks (usually of turn-of-the-century grandeur: many domes, imitating either the Pantheon or the U.S. Capitol/St. Paul’s; many colonnades of one or another classical order) and old churches tend to switch functions: churches become theaters, banks and movie theaters become churches; banks become carpet warehouses. I favor retaining the old buildings just to vary the streetscape, prevent it becoming lethally dull, so I am delighted when they are preserved, whatever the organization.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Journal: The Met Museum and Sondheim Cabaret

Woke at dawn after very little sleep (due to annoying noises all night), intending to go to the Met Museum in the morning when it’s empty-ish, only to find an offer of a proofreading job I knew I'd love, so I had to wait till noon for the messenger (sleeping mostly), but it came and then I took the bike by subway to 81st Street and biked across the Park – in shorts, a mistake, as there was a deep puddle on the transverse – and brought along carpet slippers to change into for the museum.

Saw the show on French Renaissance bronzes (which closes on Sunday), quite fine, lots of gods and goddesses and Bourbon kings (half the things labeled “model for the famous equestrian statue destroyed in the Revolution” or some such), lots of items never much seen, from the Louvre and from Dresden, and from HM Elizabeth II, having been collected post-Revolution by George IV, the aesthete king – aesthete kings like Charles I and Richard II have never been popular in England. Far too many historical errors in the signage - who, pray tell, is Tsar Paul II? and Charles I was not Henri IV's brother-in-law, he was his son-in-law. Like that, but lots and lots of it.

From that through a show on “Muses of Fashion” – great fashion models of the post-WW2-to-now era and the dresses they wore, which was crowded but did not interest me except in the last room there were half a dozen Galliano party gowns from the nineties with elegant hand-stitching in the style of Met Opera costumes from the early 1900s, and I loved those (too fat to wear them, though), and a few gown-ish photos from the 1940s and ‘50s, a strange era to me (and most of the far younger crowd, I suspect).

Then to the Francis Bacon centennial show, which has just opened and was even more crowded, so I’ll go back later in the summer. My favorite paintings were not reproduced on cards: a naked man slipping through a diaphanous curtain, and a tweed coat over a chair - but I also liked some self-portraits and a pope or two. When asked why he painted self-portraits, Bacon snarled, "Everyone else died."

Ducked through European painting to say Hi to a few friends like Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja, and overheard a bit of a lecture by a charming white-haired lady on Vermeer’s Woman with a Pitcher of Water. Then happened to pass the Byzantine aisle beside the great staircase, though I object to their signage here too: “The empire gradually came to be known as Byzantium” – no, it never did, its inhabitants always called it “the Roman Empire.” “Byzantium” was invented by a German historian in the late 16th century, because idiots get confused if you call it “the Roman Empire” as late as 1453, which I do anyway. Noticed a wonderful panel in opus sectile, just dug up at Caesarea in Israel, and a marble bust of the Empress Flacilla (who?) which looked exactly like my bulldyke cousin Amy. She will not be happy to hear me say that. Flacilla, if you are curious, was the first wife of Theodosius I, that nasty Spaniard who outlawed pagan practices in the empire in 391 c.e.

Then I biked home (about nine miles), pausing at 23rd Street to buy fruit from a Bengali (cherries, apricots, red peppers), wondering how to pass the evening - but at 6pm I fell on my bed and died. So I was up at 11, and went out at midnight. I went to Ty's, which was not interesting, and then wondered what might be interesting at that hour on a Friday night. The answer was clearly Sondheim Cabaret, where I have not been in a year or so.

Sondheim Cabaret at the Duplex (upstairs, Fridays, after 11:30) is an awfully young crowd for me, and you never know whether they're going to sing American Idol sort of stupid stuff or too many renditions of "Being Alive," but on this occasion it was actually a great success. Kate Pazakis and some fag were hosting it, and they played "Diva Tag," which is to say they sang "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," each one emoting and then tagging the other at the most embarrassing moment, whereupon the other had to be right on the note or melisma or whatever, and this was quite funny. They also did an open sing of "525,600 Minutes," which I am too old to know (but I do). A number of volunteers shanghai'd from the floor did uninteresting songs from recent shows, and I did "Necessity" from Finian's Rainbow impressively badly if I do say so myself, and a guy finally did sing "Giants In the Sky" to assert our Sondheim credentials, and someone named Roger Crom (unknown to me) sang a song about Spanish boys and then his version of Sondheim's version of Oklahoma (Oklahomo), which was quite sublimely witty and sophisticated and well performed, and then some rather sweet little guy named Dom Giovanni who claims to be the gayest person in New York sang a dynamite Rose's Turn, and the MC attempted to flirt with a really hot hetero Scottish actor I'd never heard of who was just sitting with his girlfriend in the audience (but the emcee checked him out on Wikipedia right there on the stage), and I had had a couple of Long Island ice teas by this point so it was time to go before I attempted "Begin the Beguine."

But I was feeling full of energy on a warm New York night so I biked over Houston Street to the bike path on the river, which is fun to bike on because it is pretty well kept, no potholes to watch out for, and there was hardly any pedestrian traffic either at 3am, so I biked as hard as I liked up to 28th Street to consider going to the Eagle (I was in a leather vest and boots), but it was past 3 already, so I turned around and biked very hard to Canal Street, then home. Still not sleepy. I can always proofread crime writing till dawn.

Still haven't made the Picasso show in Chelsea. The Met has a show coming in from the Kabul Museum end of next month – yum! (Truly.)

I want to go bike around Ridgewood Reservoir before it gets hot. Never been there – it’s on the Queens-Brooklyn border someplace. Queens is full of parks I do not know. (Manhattan, the only borough I know well, is much the smallest of the five.) I wish I'd had my bike when I was in Rome.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mahler and the Shekinah

Went to hear Boulez conduct the Mahler 8th the other night - that's the one you probably have not sung in the shower, as it is the Symphony of a Thousand and they wouldn't all fit. They didn't fit in Carnegie Hall either. (And Loren Maazel is doing it next month as his farewell to the Philharmonic - or rather, four farewells - he never can say goodbye, no no no.) The text of this leviathan (or do I mean behemoth?) is in two parts, first a setting of the 8th century hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus ("Come, Creator Spirit"), the second a setting of the last scene of Goethe's Faust, Part 2: Faust's soul saved from damnation by the intercession of A Penitent (i.e. Gretchen from Part 1) with the Triple Mother-Virgin-Goddess (so addressed), and the Eternal Feminine Calls Us On from above.

That was appropriate, as I'd sneaked in without a ticket and had to climb the stairs to the top of the building (puff puff puff). At the first performance of this work in New York, Anna Mahler was present and said to an usher friend of mine, "Not one of Papa's best." I have to agree with her. Though I thought otherwise the last time I heard it, under Levine, with the BSO. (Another friend suggests the Metropolitan Opera House would be the right size for this symphony. John G, who was present on this occasion, says only the Royal Albert Hall is the right size with the right size organ, and we all know how important that is.)

As I reached the top of the stairs, I found the evening's usher was a stranger (to me), a tall, lanky, sexy, long-haired youth. Before I'd located an empty seat (sparse at these Mahler concerts), a guy I know slightly named Greg arrived, and began to harangue the young usher on the Faust Legend, its medieval and operatic and Goethean variants. As I'd written about the Faust legend for Opera News and the Met Opera program, I listened intently; later, Greg explained to me that the usher is a young genius and leader of a "dark metal band" (whatever that means) which has dealt with satanic themes (don't they all?), but that he is also interested in the late romantic orchestral-operatic equivalents for death-thrash-metal (equivalent may be the wrong word here), and Greg is trying to introduce him to unfamiliar mythic concepts (such as music without electronics), which desire is perhaps lust-inspired on his part, but what the hey? A natural adjunct to pedagogy in many ancient societies, is it not? And this kid is definitely of age. (Plus, I think Greg is hot, frankly: chunky bronze Sicilian.)

Then Greg turns to me and says, "How do YOU think the parts connect in this symphony? Why did Mahler put them together?" really not knowing. And I hadn't ever thought about it myself (late Mahler not being my specialty).

But suddenly it was all very clear, because I'd just been reading Carl Jung's Answer to Job, which discusses the "divorce" between God the Will and God the Creative Spirit, and how that Creative Spirit is personified in Jewish mysticism as the Shekinah, and in Greek-Christian mysticism as Sophia, and how that spirit was necessary (and necessarily feminine) to God's creation of life itself, and his plans for the earth, and his assault on Job took place because Sophia was on sabbatical or something (Satan merrily slipping into her advisor's place), and her return and unification with God solved Job's dilemma by assuring him that God would be born as a human and find out what he'd been missing, an event only made possible because Sophia was to be incarnate as Mary. (I'm very dubious about all this as EVENT, or theology, but it makes sense as MYSTIC BELIEF.) (Mystics will believe ANYTHING. As you know.)

And suddenly it seemed to me that what Mahler was up to (a Catholic convert of somewhat mystical bent, and married to a femme fatale named Alma, of all symbolic names) was to join the invocation to the Judaeo-Christian god as Creator Spirit to Goethe's guilt-ridden self-invented pardon for Faust (his own questing, amoral, inventive spirit) by an eternal feminine who is given many names and many roles in the poem (Mater Gloriosa, Maria Egyptiaca, etc.) but who is clearly, in all cases, a synthesis subdivided by whole in the supernal Mary (bearing a very slight resemblance to any human Mary), queen of heaven, consort of God and (since God can only be one) his female alterity, anima to the divine animus, in short Sophia-Shekinah. Thereby invoking pardon for his (Mahler's) sins (whatever they were) and justifying his life as the manifestation of God's creativity, just as the original text (completed only a year before Goethe's death after forty-odd years of work, was a similar justification of his life as such a manifestation. (Could Goethe believe in a God who was not an aspect of Goethe? I mean, we all have that problem, but he had it especially rough because it seemed so very obvious to everyone that He was.)

So entirely by chance - the chance that I was reading Jung (on the recommendation of my friend Fritz Muntean of The Pomegranate magazine) - I think I have solved Greg's and everybody else's problem about why Mahler put these two texts together in his magnificent setting. Even if it's not one of Papa's best. (As, say, Das Lied von der Erde or the Wayfarer Songs are.)

Of course Jung's interpretation of Job as a prelude to the necessity for God's incarnation as Christ is, well, Jungian mingling of anima and animus, and does not entirely convince (probably because I don't believe the author(s) of Job had the slightest notion of an incarnation down the pike). But it's a terrific book nonetheless, and a terrific key to certain theological mysticisms.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lineage of a Cab Driver

As you may know, I always look at the cab driver's name (and photo) on their license and guess where they're from. If I get it right in one guess, I get a point. Otherwise - no point. This is only possible in New York - no other city I know of has a visible license with a name and picture on it - I have to ask where they're from, and where's the fun in that?

(My friend Suzanne, from Milwaukee, asks New York cabbies where they were on 9/11; that always gets her a good story.)

This guy's name was "Luis Seixas," pronounced "Seyshas." The "x" puzzled me. I thought, it might be Basque - someone with a Basque surname might be from anywhere in the New World. However, "X" also exists in Brazilian Portuguese, and "Luis" is the same in Portuguese as in Spanish (as I knew because Portugal had a king named Luis in the 19th century - 1855-1889, or something like that).

So my guess was "Brazil," and I was wrong. (No point.)

But the guy's story was very interesting. He was born here, father from Ecuador, mother from Puerto Rico, but the family name fascinated him, so he researched it - very few cab drivers (or anyone else) do that! He was especially intrigued because Sephardic Jews kept telling him the name was Sephardic. It is!

His father had gone to Ecuador from the Dominican Republic. His father's father had gone to the DR from St. Thomas. And at some point an ancestor had come to St. Thomas from Curacao. Turns out (I didn't know this) both islands have very old Sephardic communities, going back to when Portugal re-took northern Brazil (Bahia, Recife, etc. 1647-54) from the Dutch, who had possessed it for some decades. (That's when Jan Mauritz of Orange-Nassau, who was the Dutch governor, made enough money from sugar planting and export to build the Mauritshuis in Den Haag and fill it full of gorgeous paintings.) The Jews had lived quite happily in Bahia when the Dutch ruled it (Recife was called "the Jerusalem of the New World"), but when the Portuguese got it back as part of the peace settlement, they imposed the Inquisition (having acquired that bad habit during Spain's 60-year rule of Portugal), and the Jews mostly fled - though some converted, and Seixas continues to be a popular surname in Brazil, where those who hold it are mostly unaware their families were once Jewish.

The Jews of Recife scattered widely, especially to former Dutch colonies (where they were safer), among them New Amsterdam (the first Jewish presence on future U.S. soil), Curacao and (I didn't know this before) the then-Danish colony of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. And there was lots of communication and business and marriage between the different Sephardic settlements, as there always was. One of the Seixas became an important leader of the New York Sephardic colony in the 18th century - "Abraham Seixas," said Luis. "You know the little Sephardic cemetery below Chinatown?" "Sure." "Well, the big stone in that one is him. And his brother went to St. Thomas, and I'm descended from the brother.... My father sort of knew about it, it had been handed down in the family that we were Sephardic once, but no one knew any details, and we've been Catholic for centuries. You have to go look it up, and I did. But I did because when I came to New York and began driving a cab, all these Sephardic guys asked me if I was Jewish, and if I was related to Abraham Seixas - of course I'd never heard of him then."

So I didn't get the point, but it was one of my most interesting cabdriver ancestry stories.

Current reading includes a biography of Proust's mother, née Jeanne Weil, daughter of a very well-to-do Jewish family that had come to Paris from Alsace two generations earlier (after the National Assembly liberated religious minorities) and were in the process of assimilating/not assimilating - terribly involved in French culture and ever more distant from religious Judaism, culminating in a great deal of intermarriage, such as Jeanne's to Adrien Proust. But questions, every step of the way, of what neighborhood to live in, of what professions to pursue, of whom to associate with, of whom to think of marrying. And then Dreyfus hit, and everyone had to rethink things. Which is excellent background for reading Proust, hein? Who was passionately devoted to his mother and grandmother, and thought about all these matters a great deal.

Proust's grandmother and Karl Marx were fourth cousins! And his greatuncle, Adolphe Crémieux, was a lawyer who led the fight to persuade the various French governments to discard the remaining disabilities placed on Jewish citizenship and full participation in the life of the nation.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Impatience is the problem. Impatience is the basis of my everything. I multitask when I am not too lazy to do anything at all; I am lazy because I don’t see the point of effort, or not soon enough. I climb the hill rather than examining the bus schedules intimately. I refuse to plan, certain that I will mis-plan, that something will be overlooked, that I’ll miss a point; I am frenetic not to miss anything; I do things to have done them, to cross them off my list; I do not sit quietly and absorb; I want to know the steps to follow to absorb; I cannot meditate, I fall asleep; I am always in a rush; none of it is real; the dreams are more real than the stone of the wall into which, full tilt, I am walking. I speak to the line that has not been spoken and hear the line spoken only too late, after I have already responded. I dwell on the impatience of the past instead of preparing for the transformations of a future in which (with or without transformations) I hardly believe. I travel to see, to hear, to taste, to experience; and I am so focused on avoiding imaginary discomforts that I unsuccessfully see, hear, taste to the highest level even of my desire and experience. Travel is my delight but it makes me violently anxious; perhaps it is the anticipation and recollection that mean more to me than any experience, and this has made me a lousy traveler, a lousy worker, a lousy writer, a lousy lover, a lousy chef, a lousy opera-goer, a lousy reader, a lousy witch, a lousy ritualist, a lousy believer, a lousy friend. I could live a very satisfactory life if I were not so impatient. The spring unwinds soon enough, everyone tells me. I even observe it. I can endure anything except the horrors I anticipate. If I did not anticipate, if I were freed from the perception of time, I could be far happier, more animal, ruled by a kindlier Zeus or Potnia Theron. Consciousness, not fire, is the gift of Prometheus; he reaped his just reward.

Jung: Answer to Job

At Fritz’s suggestion, I am reading Jung’s Answer to Job, a fascinating and unsettling explanation of God’s brutality to Job (and refusal to be bound by his own covenant and commandments) as a feature of his own insecurity, and his unconsciousness of self, and his animal (inhuman) nature.

I can see how this worked itself out later (not much later) in the notion of God finding it necessary to be reborn as a human in order to understand humans, but it revolts me a bit to think of worshiping a God who needs humans so much, to whom their high opinion matters so much, that he would find it necessary to do this. It seems to lead us straight into Mormon theology, if no worse: that gods are no better than humans. (Of course, I am influenced by spending this week attending the Ring at the Met, in which humans are far superior to gods and nobody’s very nice.)

If the alternative is to believe in a rollicking Zeus who just doesn't take humans (or their good opinion) very seriously, I prefer that. It makes for a finer natural world and keeps humans in their place. Or do we worship consciousness wherever it occurs, and disdain nature that exists (and, for five billion years, existed) without it? (I'm not sure I really believe in either one, Yahweh or Zeus, as more than a figment of our imaginations.)

If Elizabeth had died, would Mary have been Queen?

A question anet the Tudors, if you go in for counterfactual history:

What would have happened had Elizabeth I died early, in the 1570s-80s, say? Let’s put it right after Catherine Grey’s death. So the only adult in England with any royal blood was Mary Stuart (who, deposed in Scotland, fled there in 1568).

Would the English have found it necessary to offer her the crown? Would she have refused it unless they agreed to reconcile with Rome? Would there have been a Protestant uprising? Would she have invited her brothers-in-law, Charles IX of France and Philip II of Spain, to help her suppress it? (Or another brother-in-law, Henri of Navarre, to help her compromise with it?) Would she have remarried – surely yes – and if so, to whom? An archduke? The frog prince? Norfolk? (executed 1572) Would she have provoked a war with Scotland to recover her lost throne? (Surely yes.) Would the civil war of her grandson’s time have occurred sixty years earlier, and if so, with what result – considering the survival of Catholic feeling in much of the country?

Mary’s political judgment was so generally bad and her imperious temper so uncompromising in later years, I can’t envision her steering through the shoals successfully – but then, I don’t like her. (And her title would never have been so secure among Englishmen as were the titles of Henry VIII’s daughters.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A helluva day

I’m having a helluva day.

So pleased to be out on my bike at last with the new handlebars and a good tailwind, up Sixth Avenue to the lafayette bakery for home-made brioche, then up Greenwich Avenue to 13th Street health food stores to investigate purchase of local pollen (which my friend Cat thinks would be helpful against allergies - but whoever heard of Manhattan honeybees?), and they suggested the free market at Union Square, but sold me some healthy (and pricy) pills. I figure it must have happened then or slightly later, because I know I had my keys when I unlocked the bike at 13th and Greenwich. I went up Eighth to 18th, hummed across to Union Square, no market on Thursdays, hummed down Broadway to hit Radio Shack about a white noise machine, and only when I dismounted at 9th did I realize that I no longer had my enormous bunch of keys.

Their only identifying mark: A silver tag with the initials S.B.Y. (My late father.)

Somehow I managed to retrace my steps (or rather tracks), keeping an eye on the ground, as I do anyway looking out for potholes. I blame the fact that I was wearing gray corduroy jeans instead of blue jeans. Luckily I had i.d. on me. Went to a locksmith on Carmine Street. He wasn't even Israeli. Luckily I'd only locked one lock. Still: it cost me $226 getting into my apartment, where I had a spare thingie for the front door and spare keys for the bike lock and the lower door lock. I don't think I have copies for the three locks on the Gulag. I assume the facility there can just clip them. But further expenses lie ahead, methinks.

I ate all three brioche with a cup of tea and went to sleep. That was at six.

Does this put things in perspective? It does not.

I kept thinking: At least this hasn't happened to me in the last thirty years. (That I remember.) Some people it probably happens all the time.

I wonder if someone on Craigslist or someplace (where?) will advertise a key chain FULL of keys with the tag S.B.Y.?

Colonization and the Wooster Group's Didone

Last week - my review appears on Opera Today - I attended the Wooster Group's production of Cavalli's 1641 opera La Didone at St. Ann's Warehouse in DUMBO. The opera - well, the second half of it (the first, concerning the fall of Troy, is omitted) - is presented more or less in tandem ("sync" would be an exaggeration) with Mario Bava's 1965 Italian horror film, Terrore nel Spazio (Terror in Space, but usually presented here as Zombies from Outer Space or some such title). The stories are intercut, the film is shown on monitors while singers perform the opera and actors perform the movie script up front, singers sometimes saying lines from the movie, actors sometimes saying lines from the opera, two sets of surtitles making everything clear except when they don't. There was some very funny acting and some lovely singing, and it wasn't like any other Cavalli opera performance you may have attended. Or Monteverdi. Or Wagner.

What struck me afterwards was the crux of both stories, the hook on which Elizabeth LeCompte of the Wooster Group had hung both these overcoats. Didone, while centering on the story of Aeneas loving and leaving Dido while on his way from the ruin of Troy to found the civilization that would become Rome (and conquer both Carthage and Greece), has as its subtext the power of Destiny to overrule personal inclination. Aeneas has a job to do, and sex - even sex mandated by his mother (the goddess Venus) - and personal inclination of any sort may not be permitted to interrupt.

In Terrore nel Spazio, meanwhile, the crew of a space ship trapped on a dying world whose inhabitants, desperate to escape and survive, hope to do so by invading the minds and souls of space travelers, thereby ensuring their transport to some more habitable, more vulnerable planet. The rivalry of souls, inborn and invasive, within a single human body is thus compared to the rivalry of civilizations over which shall survive, which is worthy to survive, which has the right to survive. Rome's egotistical certainty of its overriding supremacy is compared to the egotism of both the refugee aliens and the starship crew (human? or are they?) that wishes to reject them.

Carthage was itself founded by colonists from Sidon in Phoenicia, to the annoyance of the local tribes (Numidians, Mauretanians, et al.) in what is now Tunisia. (The Phoenicians called it Africa - whether this is a Phoenician word or Numidian is not clear. Perhaps it's a Phoenician version of a word in the local tongue that they couldn't pronounce - kind of like "Illinois" or "Mexico" or Gascony/Vizcaya/Biscay, the Roman/French/Spanish pronunciations for the place the inhabitants call Euskadi). Carthage rapidly made itself the major power of the Western Med, to the annoyance of previous Phoenician colonies in places like Cadiz and of Greeks in Ampurias, Marseilles, Naples and Syracuse, and of Etruscans and Romans. (The Romans, not being nautical, were less bothered at first than others.) But all these cities, except possibly Rome, had also been founded as colonies by distant civilizations, to the greater or lesser resentment of natives, whose accounts of the matter have not come down to us. (Neither have the Etruscan or Carthaginian accounts, but no matter.)

None of these peoples were aboriginal, but then - who is? There are always movements of people, and it's hard to find uninhabited real estate. The Pilgrims were notoriously lucky - European epidemic diseases had devastated New England's Indians just before they showed up. Other Europeans in America had to go through the motions of purchase or conquest before they could set up camp and begin full-time exploitation. Look at the problems the Israelis have had due to starting their nation on property with a pre-existing population they had no wish to assimilate (and who did not wish to be assimilated). The difficulties have been hardly less (and may perhaps prove at least as enduring) as those Biblically described of the Hebrews when they arrived in Canaan from Egypt.

Colonization is a memory of bad conscience for most modern civilizations - we all dispossessed somebody, even if it was so long ago (Persians and Elamites, Japanese and Ainu, Picts and Scots, Fomhors and Tuatha da Danaan, Greeks and Pelasgians) that hardly anyone remembers it now. The Chinese may be aboriginal - but in what portion of modern China? Less than one-fifth was the site of the original Han civilization - Zinkjang, Tibet, Manchuria were none of them remotely part of it. The Abos of Australia are not taken seriously by more recent immigrants because they did not think of building a civilization at all, for 180,000 years after their arrival from New Guinea. As Cavalli would have been sure to point out, and the modern Aussie to agree, if it takes you that long and you still haven't built an opera house - what good are you?

To see this as a source for the science-fiction delight in extraterrestrial rumor, or as a sidelight to the ancient Roman obsession with its almost certainly fictitious descent from Troy (a feature of Rome's cultural self-consciousness when faced with the glory that was Greece, or even Etruria), is a very sly, very witty dig at all our securities. That Wooster Group makes this quip by way of a lovely performance of a superb forgotten score is to do us all a favor: we can take the performance as it is, or we can enjoy it as a spark to think about the meanings of colonization, of the guilt of the colonizer and the resentment of the colonized, of the way civilizations merge or do not merge, evolve or do not evolve, and the way technological advancement proceeds inexorably, devising justificatory myths whenever the guilty conscience requires them, cut to fit our need to survive. Space aliens may not feel this, but then - they are fictitious too. And unlike the Gods, they do not have an earthly provenance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beyond the Pail? Dream on a Sleepless Night

The Pale was an area in Ireland where civilized, that is English, people lived – to be beyond the Pale was to have no manners, to have no English, to be Catholic, to be Irish. The term was later used by Anglicized Jews to translate the word the Russians use for the provinces they’d acquired from ancient Poland and Lithuania, the only places where Jews might legally live in Tsarist times. (Before 1772, before the Partitions of Poland, no Jews were permitted in Russia at all.)

I don’t know which Pale this dream was beyond; it was at an oceanside resort, maybe Cape Cod or Saturna (Canada). Draw your own geographical conclusions. I was studying the plot in a play (was I the Algernon Moncrieff character?) and then it occurred to me I ought to wake up and write the play down, and Eve was in it, but she was at a distance, so I thought I should write it up with Eve as a character, or I ought to write it and send her a copy, but somehow I didn’t wake up and start writing.

And then it was dusk and there were deer with antlers running along the beach, quite a few of them, and I had the urge to rush out and watch them (as I do on Saturna), but there were so many, and the antlers were fierce (but I remembered Fritz had said they were not mule deer but something smaller), and I went out anyway, and there were tigers. Well, there was one tiger, and it was pretty big, bigger than a stag, and it jumped on me, but only in a friendly way, and after worrying that it would knock me down (which it did) or break something (it didn’t), we wrestled quite pleasantly, and suddenly there was snow all over the ground, and two more tigers emerged, even bigger ones, but it was clear they did not regard me as unfriendly, a threat to their young; they wanted to wrestle too, and so we wrestled and rolled down the snowy hill.

Eve had departed, so it was time to get up and go into the house and start writing the play so I could send it to her, and the plot was quite clear in my mind (it has all gone now), and very clever and intricately worked, and all about a pun in the title referring to being Beyond the Pail (or Speeding the Plough?), or a pail full of sand (or snow), and when I went indoors (now dressed a la Beau Brummell, because this was going to be a Sheridan or Wilde sort of play, a comedy of manners and flashing epigrams I could always come up with later), but as I sat down to the Hepplewhite cherrywood writing desk to dash it off (at least notes of the plot), the characters came to life and crowded around me, tossing off epigrams, and aside from the race to jot them down, this made me laugh and lose the thread, and Eve was still waiting patiently, somewhere, and I still wasn’t waking myself up to write it all down because it kept happening, and it is very difficult to write it down while it is happening and if it keeps happening to remember it to write it down at all. And the tigers in the snow were lonely. And we lit the candles and poured glasses of port, and someone in a white satin dress sat down and began to play the spinet. And the tigers in the snow were lonely. And I was trying to write.

In real (?) life, before and after I slept, I have been typing up the journals of European trips (Berlin 1988, Eastern Europe 1991 and 1998, Spain 1993, Italy 2006, Istanbul 2007), and I have not looked at these in many a long year, but I often remember the trips themselves, and talk about my adventures – but I find on rereading that the adventures I most fondly recall sometimes do not show up in the writings I did at the time, or the truths I discovered, the historical and artistic reflections, differ from those that made it to paper then. And so I am adding to the typed versions the later reflections (trying to make the tale continuous), and wondering which I would have lost had only one source of memory been available to me. But it is always more of a key to things to have words (even words that do not describe the pictures I see) than to have pictures, say. A comment on my mind, the interplay of words and images, as when a word comes to mind in a dream and the dream interprets that as a picture: a Pale becomes a pail, ergo a palisade or a shtetl becomes a beach resort.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Executive Suite - Stanwyck as Queen Bess

Watched Executive Suite, Robert Wise’s 1954 boardroom opus, which Oliver Stone on a commentary track (in which he mostly obsesses about American politics and his own films – I’ve only seen one of them, Wall Street, perhaps the most appropriate here – and misses several salient details of the movie, such as that Barbara Stanwyck feels suicidal when she looks out the window of the eponymous room in part because her father, the company’s founder, did commit suicide that way. (Explicitly mentioned in the dialogue.)

What Stone gets right is the rarity of a major picture with no music track, with so much clever dialogue that you don’t even notice this, with the dialogue explicating the many characters so well and concisely – so that you feel you know who each one is, down to the last contract walk-on player (the secretaries of the executives – all the execs are white males, of course, and all the secretaries white females, and at least one is sleeping with her boss). Stone marvels at the tight, clear, dialogue, the excellence of the leads acting with or against each other, and the climax like a western – but indoors – with William Holden challenging Fredric March at high noon.

Also, which also struck me, that the movie’s message, that factory work means more, has to mean more, than the dividends paid to investors (exactly the path that led us into the present global fiasco, bad news for us all even though I admit I’m enjoying reports that Dubai is turning into a ghost town as its money-grubbing immigrants flee the threat of debtors’ prison and the man-made isles off shore begin to sink, like Atlantis and az-Zahira) is precisely the message the 1950s ignored, with the result (Stone’s own mishigos? Or mine? Or Paul Krugman’s?) that this is where America has traveled: no strong native industries, everything off-shore owned and operated, the nation a seething cesspool of debt, Atlantic City for retirees or those who aspire to be, whose only hope is to aspire to be. Bush’s America – but also Ike’s, because no one else had the courage to stop it either. (Stone brings in Vietnam, I’m not sure how.) America of entitlement and insecurity, not America the brave. Sing louder and maybe the ghosts will stay out of our cemetery.

I hadn’t seen Executive Suite since they showed it to us in junior high school, in segments during lunch breaks. Don’t ask me what lesson they thought we’d be sophisticated enough to understand. We got that Shelley Winters was a trollop with a heart of brass, that June Allyson was the mom we wished we had (never mind what dad wished), that Barbara Stanwyck was a little long in the tooth to be boasting of her beauty. (Now I find her beautiful, especially at the moment that another actress could easily have made shrill, when she confirms her new faith in Holden with a simple, low, throaty, “Yes.”) (Curious fact: Stanwyck and Winters had both had affairs with Holden.)

I didn’t appreciate this film (and a whole lot of other things) at 14, I admit. I like it now, very much.

And when I fell asleep, I had a curious dream, in which Executive Suite was the template. Barbara Stanwyck was now Elizabeth the First, older, sardonic, shadowed by the unappeased ghost of her father; the dead man, Avery Bullard, was Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who died just after the victory over the Armada, the only man she ever loved (unless you count Tom Seymour when she was a kid). Gallant William Holden was Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, Leicester’s stepson and the favorite of the ’90s (until he attempted a coup in 1601, and she chopped his head off as he richly deserved). Calculating Fredric March was that saturnine little hunchback, Robert Cecil, Burleigh’s son. Aging, too honorable Walter Pidgeon was Lord Burleigh. Elegant Louis Calhern, out for the main chance, was Sir Walter Raleigh (or maybe Talbot). Sleazy Paul Douglas was Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford. (Okay, I’m being vicious because I despise the man for daring to claim to have written Shakespeare’s plays, a claim he himself never made – it’s being made for him.) June Allyson is Frances Walsingham, Lady Essex. Nina Foch is one of the queen’s confidante/handmaidens – Lady Northampton or Mary Sidney. Shelley Winters is Burleigh’s ward, Lady Oxford (or maybe she’s Lettice Knollys, Lady Leicester). And baseball playing Tim Considine, the kid, is of course James Stewart, waiting in the wings.

The boardroom and the proto-gothic décor fitted right in – though there would have been more windows in Elizabethan times, I fancy.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Was it the inauguration? I suppose it might have been the inauguration. I don't think it was. I didn't even watch it. I had finished the last of my current free-lance jobs (anyone got publishing scutwork they need done?), and no one had called with any new ones (this is still true), and the apartment (which is small) was getting violently on my nerves. So I picked all the papers off the floor and put them in a huge black sack. All the papers in nooks and crannies all around the apartment. (You wouldn't think how creative a paper on the loose can be.) All the ones behind bookshelves and desks and under chairs and just hither and thither getting walked on a lot. Two years' worth at the very least. Some things longer - much, much longer. That pile toppled in - when? 2005? That doesn't seem so long ago. But it is as the world wags.

The black bag was two to three feet high on Inauguration Day. I sat there sorting through it, pulling things out, finding a place for them or simply discarding them. Every day since I have taken a well-stuffed sack out to the trash. A lot of books have gone, too. A lot of DVDs are ready to be taken to Academy, in theory for cash, in practice in swap for other opera recordings (know your weaknesses, eh?). The bag went down to half size, then a quarter. It's now about three inches thick. Mostly manuscripts and letters. The bills and receipts are all in one pile, the cheesy souvenir postcards from art galleries and Off Off Broadway plays are tossed, the letters ... I'm keeping.

One set of letters puzzles me: requests for copies of my magazine, Enchanté, often from newbies who have found references to it in Drawing Down the Moon or New Age Wicca or some such. Often from incarcerated quasi-pagans who have of course no cash to offer. Years ago I put an announcement in the magazine that if anyone sent me a little cash for the purpose, I'd send free copies to incarceries. A crone of means and great soul sent me a C-note, and I feel sort of honor bound to use the money (long spent) towards these unfortunates.

The thing is, I stopped publishing the zine in 1998. Issue number 24. I was exhausted post-cancer, and with a full-time job (that lasted two years until lack of sleep caught up with me, as it usually does after two years), and the thing simply could not be maintained. I do occasionally think of re-starting it, or of publishing all my own contributions in some slim volume, adding other pagan writings that never quite entered print. And a new magazine Thorn has writ me requesting submissions. (It looks a little like the last Green Egg.) I feel no desire to read it, but might write for it, just to have the deadline to push me.

Anyway, I found about eighteen letters going back to 1999 requesting free copies. One was from South Africa (!). The rest from the U.S. Four or five were from covens or newbies or some such, and one or two even sent me money - checks I couldn't deposit because they were made out to Enchanté not to me, maybe cash once. And I never answered these letters, or sent magazines (I'd have put an X in the corner if I had), sometimes did not even open envelopes obviously from prisons. By now these people have moved on to Episcopalianism or something, I would bet, or been released to halfway houses or who knows what. I discarded all the ones written before 9/11 because ... well, that's a long time. I got out back issues of the magazine (I always had some printed up in each run with outer blank covers that could be sealed, addressed and stamped), and I addressed them laboriously (what else are you going to occupy your mind with at 3am?), and now I'm going to take them to the post office. The South African gets one in an envelope. Roberto Fattore, my one and only Italian subscriber, gets at least a personal letter. Or would if my printer were not dead.

So that's another shelf bare and ready for more activity.

I am throwing out boxes. I am throwing out books. I am even throwing out Pagan books. (Write me for list and extremely low prices.) I wish I could figure out a way to get rid of my wall of vinyl.

How long will it take for my recurrent depression and lethargy to restore the flat to its previous state of too dusty to dare invite home guys who would obviously like to spend a few hours in my company? It was that filthy on New Year's Day, so I didn't invite home the guy who was obviously hoping I'd distract him from a Preston Sturges double bill at Film Forum. But what kind of sex could one hope to have with someone who is capable of being distracted from Preston Sturges, eh? Not excellent.

Each little colony of bare space represents a victory. Plus, there was a mouse (did I tell you?), and I really don't want mice living in here with me, and I don't want a cat either (though I love them). Too much trouble, too much work, not enough room for two of them, and I'm already the cat in residence.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Two operas and three messiahs

The meaning of Empress's Shadow
Last night I was wasting time on youtube because someone had told me the Salzburg DVD of Die Frau ohne Schatten (Solti/Studer, Marton, Lipovsek, Moser, Hale) from 1992 was on it in 25 bite-size segments. This is a hell of a way to see a major four-hour music drama, but I started Act III and was immediately hooked - the beauty of the score always sends me places - and the images (except dorky light sabers for Barak's sword and the torches) were sublime. I think I really must run out and purchase this.

Studer sang the music wonderfully well, holding notes cleanly and swelling them till they seemed to overwhelm the orchestra at that sublime moment when the shadow-less Empress enters the presence of her terrible, invisible father, Keikobad, king of the spirit world. There she is given the chance to save her husband from being turned into stone (he is a mortal who has dared to wed her, a crystalline spirit), but to do this she must drink from the Waters of Life, which will give her a shadow - the shadow belonging to the humble Dyer's Wife. True, the Dyer and his Wife will be destroyed, but they're just common, ordinary people - at the beginning of the opera, the Empress had never met such people and had no feeling for them but curiosity. Her husband is the man she loves, the only man she really knew three days ago, and his plight is her doing. She must save him. But as she steps forward to drink, she hears the anguished cries of the Dyer and his Wife, whose agony she has observed for three days while hiding in the shadows of their house. She can't do it. Even the sight of her husband's pleading eyes (the rest of him is stone) cannot break her new resolve. She feels the pain of the ordinary humans - speaking, not singing, she cries, "I will not!" and rejects the waters of life and the stolen shadow.

The music fades, a violin figure replaces the orgy of doom-laden sound, and - I've never seen it done better - the Empress stands bewildered in a sudden knife of white light coming from behind her, from the wings. At her feet and stretching across the stage is - a shadow. A shadow that moves with her movements. Not the haunted shadow of some other woman, but her own. Since she can feel what ordinary humans feel, empathize with them though they mean nothing to her, she is herself now fully human, no longer disembodied spirit - and so she has her own shadow - and her husband, too, now the human husband of a human wife, is restored to her. And the shadow of the Dyer's Wife is restored to her, and she is united with her husband as well, newly enlightened, able to appreciate and love her as more than just a sex object. And all four of them are worthy to produce more humans - and their unborn children sing and rejoice.

This is the message of the opera: we are not fully human unless we can feel for other humans. It is not, interestingly enough, the message of Strauss and von Hofmannsthal's model, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte - Pamina already feels empathy for other humans when the opera begins, for the moment she meets the unknown, idiotic, clownish Papageno, she wonders about him, his family, and sympathizes with his hope for love. But it is the message of Wagner's Ring (one of its messages), for (as GB Shaw pointed out in The Perfect Wagnerite), the point where the Ring is transformed and makes its meaning clear is the moment in Act II of Die Walküre when Brunnhilde, the thoughtless warrior-daughter of Wotan, a "shadowless" goddess who has been simply doing her father's bidding all her life and despises the mere humans, even her half-brother and half-sister Siegmund and Sieglinde, in duet with Siegmund suddenly feels his anguish at parting from his sister, the pain of human life and its quest for love and acceptance - emotions she can have no way of understanding - and resolves to take Siegmund's side against the express commands of her father. For this hopeless defiance (which does not rescue Siegmund), in Act III she must lose her goddesshood - she has chosen (instinctually, without considering the consequences) the part of the short-lived humans for whom all such decisions mean more than death can to an immortal god. If she understands them, and their eternal loss, she has become one herself. Wotan, who hoped to create a child independent of his will and thought Siegmund would be that child, realizes too late that Brunnhilde is the independent child he dreamed of - and at the very moment he realizes it, he must also renounce her forever - as close to a human loss as he will ever know. It is the emotional climax of the eighteen-hour cycle (and if Wagner had done nothing else, the fact that he has devised a musical setting appropriate to this issue would crown him a master despite all his human and inhuman flaws of character).

These two supreme operatic moments in two supreme operatic masterpieces come to mind the more just now because my friend Peter Bishop over at Quakerpagan blog has been reading the Old Testament [sic] in something as close to the original Hebrew as he can manage in order to get at its meaning, which as someone familiar with the Christian mythos he naturally reads differently from the Jews who wrote it, a fact that troubles him a little, so that he is eager to test his ideas with Jewish readers. (I'm little help here, having grown up in an atheist home and never having studied Hebrew.)

But I suggested to him that the Christian interpretation of the O.T. might be held to run thus: that God having created humans and told them how to live, was frankly puzzled by their manifest and constant inability to follow the rules with any sort of constancy. (This is, actually, an interpretation placed on the historical data by Jewish theologians after hundreds and hundreds of years of lousy luck implied to them that God was angry, ergo they must be doing something wrong. Which is not how I read the evidence, but is prophetically traditional.) So it seemed to me that the God of Israel (whether or not he was the one and only god, and I don't believe he was/is) was like the Empress and Wotan and Brunnhilde simply unable to conceive of human life, to feel empathy with it - that he just wasn't very bright, or he was very preoccupied. Therefore (switching to the Christian mythos here), he resolved to be born himself as a human, and thus experience life in a human body and a human society, thereby learning what the odds against obeying his rules really were. Only then (after about thirty years) did he get it, and decide on a new dispensation: you have to love others as you love yourself. (I would argue that his experience of being human can't have been very deep if he thought that was attainable. The ego is stronger than god, for most people.) Or anyway, have faith in him as god (that's a lot easier) and he'd pardon you for not being able to do all the rest of it. This got him crucified, but whether that was necessary or not (as Christians believe) is another problem I have with the whole theology.

In any case, what Wagner was doing (consciously? unconsciously?) and what Strauss and Hofmannsthal were doing to echo him was to create a female avatar of that god in a music-drama that would universalize the notion, or make it mystical enough to defy organized religion. (Unless art is just another organized religion.)

And you can enjoy both these operas without giving all this a thought. But if you're in tears at Brunnhilde's sacrifice, and at the Empress's redemption, that's probably why.