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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mushroom soup

I am feeling poor for no particular reason (I never gave Bernie Madoff a single billion to play with) but that I have been fending off colds blindsiding me from left and from right (does a flu shot do any good?), and because though I had 17 jobs to work on over the holidays, last one turned in January 13, no one has called me with a new one since Christmas. Free-lancers become upset at this sort of thing. Truth to tell, I was hoping for a week or two free to go to museums and do my own writing and make some order in my apartment, and the last of these I have at least got to (amazing changes, I am no longer humiliated at the thought of bringing someone home for the evening), still: I feel poor.

So I am not going out to dinner at any of the enjoyable eateries abounding, in every price range from absurdly affordable to absurd. No, I am studying what I've got on my shelves and thinking, Hmmm. It's true I'm not much of a chef, but all the great cuisines began with poor peasants who had to make do with what they had, and that is where I shall start.

Too, I am inspired by Eartha Kitt on youtube singing and growling the recipe for "Rahadlakum" in Timbuktu (1978). Julia Child was never like this!

And there is a can of Progresso cream of mushroom soup that will serve but will need help. What shall I add to it? I hazard: cut up three cloves of fresh garlic (for my health as well as flavor) and put them with a chicken bouillon cube in a cup of water. Chop up half a dozen large fresh mushrooms. Don't bother sauteeing. Then add the soup and a hint of tawny port. Heat this slowly, over low heat, stirring. Add coriander (Mrs. Lovett's favorite spice!), paprika, sea salt and white pepper (because I happen to have them, that's why), keep stirring. A dozen chunks from the cold roast chicken I ate one-third of for last night's supper. Stir. Taste. Not bad! But a little watery. How to thicken without flour or breadcrumbs on hand? Crumple some crackers? No - there is rice left over from the extra container in my take-out sushi last Saturday. Just a forkful. Oh hell, the whole container - when else am I going to use it? Rice from the fridge can't have gone bad. Too bland for that.

It shows clear signs of being an enjoyable meal. (Add more paprika.) I wish I had some crusty bread to break up into it, but oh well. I could sprinkle cheese on top. I could add some vegetable broth if required (but it's not). Yes, it's a meal. Hope the cream doesn't go right to my sinuses. The garlic should help. (I can always add more.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The silence of the letter

A friend objects to French because she finds the concatenations of vowels defies her perusement. They are original, true.

There are no absolutely silent letters in French, but many of them are merely breathed. Like a subtle glance passing, and understood, without spoken words, between un homme and une jeune fille – n’est-ce pas?

Whereas in English, silent letters are like old family secrets, concealed so long that people have no idea what (if anything) they ever meant. And yet somehow, they linger and oppress the future generations.

Or like leftover dishes in the back of the refrigerator that you never ate and can’t remember what they are and whether they are still good for anything, but haven’t got around to discarding. Flavoring everything about them.

Other languages don’t have silent letters at all and look at us with amazement.

But they serve a purpose, like silent butlers and silent partners and silent movies.

They are evidence (like family secrets) of a forgotten ancestry that links us, holds us together. After all, if English were to be spelled phonetically, it would rapidly distinguish itself from the language written (as it already does from the language spoken) in Scotland or Ireland or Australia or India - not to mention all the different languages spoken in the U.S.

Which phoneticism would rule? If nite replaced night, would it also replace knight? Would eight become ate, or aught? Would through be threw or thru if it were through? Led has already become lead to far too many writers, and L.E.D. is not a past pariciple of any description. As for foreign words rewritten as English, if niche were obliged to choose between "nitch" (the correct English spelling) or its French ancestor, would it be written "neesh"? Would beautiful's beauteous bounty of vowels be replaced by the voicing "y" of byootiful, since we lack the alternate vowels of the Russians? If know were spelled no, would not confusion arise? And would wud be pronounced wood or wad? Would money retain its reassuring extra "e" - and where would all the other "e"s go, the silentest as well as the frequentest letter in our language? Would we reduced to IM speak?

R U + (with) me?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rumination with a view

This cropped up out of nowhere (my own head) during a discussion on (the only site I visit almost daily) about Jonathan Miller's contributions [sic] to the world of opera, and a debate he had had with Norman Lebrecht, which inspired our disgusted compere, La Cieca, to show us a youtube video of Dr. Miller's initiation to public discourse in a classic Beyond the Fringe skit with his old partner-in-crime Alan Bennett parodying the philosophic manners of the Oxford of their (then recent) youth.

I had no idea Norman Lebrecht had ever “done” Alan Bennett. At least Bennett does not mention it in his memoirs, but then they are not tell-all memoirs in the sex-sshual sense (to use the Oxon pronunciation), in the Rorem sense (as the thing may be understood by the musically bibliophilic) (or biblious-philic) (joke) (or bibulous-philic) (I say! there’s another!), but tend to revert at odd times to his excursion to the ruins of Aquileia. Or perhaps it would be more just to say that the ruins “stuck out” (as the columns of the forum do, from the sward) at me because I have such happy memories myself of passing a mid-day of my last visit to Venice (April 2006) exploring the ruins of Aquileia while en route to the performance (in Trieste) of an obscure Paisiello opera - so different from the common, everyday, thrice-familiar Paisiello operas we all hum o’ mornings.

But the question of whether, by “Yes,” we mean “Yes” in the consensual, accordative, agreeable sense (or, more simply, as a syllable whose powers of soothe to the audiating soul have been hitherto detected) is not yet made clear by the divergations above of messers Bennett and Miller, and I wish to here evidence a contrary instance from my own experience of the real world, in this case a pub of the gay (in the secks-shual sense) variety, when I proposed to a handsome fellow for whom I had purchased a gin and tonic that we excurse to my flat some blocks (about half a kilometer) further downtown for such disportation as the day and the hour might suggest, and he replied “Yes” in the apparent affirmative, while actually (as a waggle of his eyebrow apprised me) meaning nothing of the affirmative sort at all, but rather a great inclination to be off to New Jersey (or some such) on his lonesome on the grounds that my prolixity (!) had dissuaded him from any physical activity other than the somulous.


Ruminating with a view… (to a death?)