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.