Friday, June 27, 2008

Ruskin-The Stones of Venice (1851)--Part I

I took eleven pages of notes on this book, or such of it as I was able to find, but for my own sake as well as any potential reader's I am going to try to pare my observations down as much as possible. Having somewhat introduced the subject in the last post I will just briefly touch upon the main theme of the book, which is that the art and architecture of Venice from the origins of the city as a distinct society up until the early 1400s, if perceived properly, testifies to the ever-increasing wisdom, virtue, piety and good government of that society, and that that art and architecture which came after these qualities began to fall into disuse, however technically skillful, betray the ever-increasing emptiness and wickedness of the society that in turn produced it. Having never read Ruskin but only knew his reputation, I had expected him to be more of the prissy, phelgmatic type of scholar-author, who is generally resigned to unending cultural rot as the fate of the species and consoles himself with classical art and imported delicacies and wines. His style however is actually rather angry, and his book takes its inspiration at least as much from the contempt that is aroused in him by pretty much every development of the previous 400 years of history, and the worthless people who promote and accede to it, as from his love of the higher beauties to which he is trying to call our attention.

I made reference above to the difficulty I had in finding a complete, or "official text" of this book. It was orignally published, as far as I can tell, in three volumes in 1851, when Ruskin was 32 years old; while most authorities seem to consider this original work as worth reading in whole it is not readily available in any edition that I have found. It seems that there may have been a reprint of this edition a few years back--there is some fairly recent (i.e., post-1960) multi-volume edition--but what copies were available for sale on the Internet were $300 and up. Ruskin did at least one major revision, in 1879, in which large sections of the original book, particularly the third volume, were eliminated. There was another edition put out in 1900, a reprint of which, numbering 582 pages plus an index, was the version that I read, plus an additional 10 pages that were reprinted in the Norton Anthology of English literature that appeared in the 1851 edition but apparently did not make the cut for the 1900 edition. The New Hampshire State Library, which is a remarkable institution and resource right in my town that I stumbled upon by accident after I had already been living here some time, has a twenty-volume set of Ruskin's works from the late 1800s which includes a version of this book which seems to include several chapters which also did not make it into my edition. However, books older than the very arbitrary age of 100 years do not circulate (this is becoming increasingly unfortunate, as they appear to have been especially vigorous in building up their collection during the 1900-1910 period) and I do not have the time to sit in their reading room, though it would certainly be pleasant to do so (this building is all circa-1900 marble and porcelain and quartersawn oak and sycamore), and go through it. I did not find much of it scanned on the Internet either. So I have not read the entire book at least as it once existed but as much of it as I could cobble together. Ruskin of course is more famous nowadays in some circles for his sexual problems than for his writing. The oft-repeated story that he froze in terror at the sight of his wife's pubic hair on their wedding night because he had expected it to bear a more exact resemblance to classical marble statuary is fiercely refuted by the majority of the most respectable scholars on the subject, but that this marriage was annulled after six years on the grounds that it had never been consummated is a matter of no dispute at all. His wife, Effie, who was "considered a great beauty", proceeded to marry the painter Millais (who painted the portrait above of Ruskin, incidentally), with whom, one book I have or once read which I cannot find now assures its readers, she went on to enjoy healthy sexual relations. Ruskin then fell desperately in love with a 9-year girl, to whom he unsuccessfully proposed marriage when she turned 18 (he would then have been about 50). He was also infatuated for a time with the teenage Alice Liddell, the daughter of the famous Greek lexicographer, and Lewis Carroll's very same Alice, a few years older (she must really have been something else). If he ever molested these girls rather than merely adored them hopelessly from a (psychological) distance, the historians do not seem to have any definite evidence of it. He is recorded as having suffered recurrent mental breakdowns over the last 30 years of his life.

This last little scene involving three famous and decidly brilliant and interesting people (and members of their immediate family) who were on what we would call the faculty at Oxford University at the time, I want to comment a little on the intellectual environment which flourished in Oxford during the high Victorian period, from the 1860s to 1880s. We are left, it is true, mostly with the record of the most entertaining anecdotes and personalities, the most brilliant writings and advancements to human knowledge that were attained in the age, and the most stirring monuments to contemplate; the constants of university life such as pedants imprisoned rather than liberated by their knowledge, the lack of appropriate curiosity towards and work in certain subjects (Indian and Eastern Studies generally, technology, in this age--who knows what it will turn out to be in ours?) that have been leveled at the English Universities of this time by modern scholars, the stifling tediousness of official intellectual life imposed by the supposedly outdated traditions and program of study (i.e. unimaginative emphasis on classics) do not always recur so readily to the romantic's imagination. It appears to me however to have been a pretty lively atmosphere, in which what are broadly known as the Humanities carried a great deal of meaning and force to people possessed of the imagination and intellectual strength to make a world out of them. The students of this period tended I think to look back on their college days with more unequivocal fondness and to acknowledge the influence of their tutors deeper into life that at any other period in English history. Among the students at Oxford in this period who later wrote with affection of the place (an affection that other generations were more inclined to temper a little) were Oscar Wilde, the poet Housman, Max Beerbohm; I suppose Arnold and his friend Clough were a little earlier but the beautiful poem set in Oxford, "Thyrsis" (this is actually one of my all-time 10 or 15 favorite poems) was published in 1867 amidst this general mood. Besides the three mentioned above, famous teachers of the time included Wilde's guru Walter Pater and the famous Platonist Ben Jowett (I think the now-eclipsed Cornford may have been there too). Jowett was apparently a great prig but the spirit and acuity of the student body at the time was able to succeed in turning his lasting reputation into that of a quasi-ridiculous figure. I sure there are even better examples but offhand I cannot think of them.

As the quotes in this book are of such a provocative and interesting nature that they stand alone well, and also as they provide a good overview of a subject--the rise and decline of the Venetian Republic as visible through its arts--that I think is not well known, I think I will just print the ones I like the best as they are, accompany them with illustrations if that can be managed, and comment on the quotes if I feel moved to. Here is what I wrote back on January 23:

...His arguments are so unique as to be persuasive taken on his precise terms. Obviously his apparently fervent religious feeling which is the basis for much of his thought does not have much resonance w/us (sic. who do I mean by us?); also his classism. Nonetheless as a critic of art & architecture--the objects themselves--he is suberb.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Venice Overview

As the next musty book I am going to pay homage to is The Stones of Venice, I am going to take the opportunity to indulge in some of my own reminiscence of that city, having been there for four days once. As I was still relatively young then too, young, and hopeful, enough to be able to say that I was once these things in Venice, which I will certainly never be again, even if by some chance I should ever get back there.

This visit ocurred in 1997, which did not seem all that long ago to me until fairly recently, but is now decidedly starting to take on the character of yet another lost, faraway age with which I never had anything to do. This is when we, meaning my future wife and I--this lady needs a name for the purposes of this blog, so henceforth she will be referred to as Sabrina--were in Prague, even to the extent of having an apartment there and transit passes and all of that. In short the schools closed down the first week in March just as they do in the Northern U.S. and one of us had recently come into a bequest of $1,000--in 1997 this was still real enough money for two people to take a nine day vacation on and maintain at least a 1950s middle class standard of dining and accomodation in most of Europe. My great idea had been to go to Russia; Prague being a popular stop-in point for people easing their way back to the convenient, standardized, bloodless West from business and adventures in more arduous territories--the conflict in Yugoslavia especially, though in a lull, was still simmering at that time--I was under the influence of thinking that we ought to exert ourselves a little more, and that maybe I especially might be improved in the same worldly way as the dynamic people I was meeting (and who were outshining me in company) were. However, there was a lot of bureaucracy involved in getting a visa to Russia. One was supposed to present an itinerary and show evidence of room reservations and have an invitation from some reputable person or organization in Russia, (which of course could be purchased easily enough if one had a few extra hundred dollars to throw around, but we are talking about me)--this was all still before most people, and certainly I, and definitely most of the Russian diplomatic and tourism workforce (this is still when Yeltsin was president) were on the Internet. Then also Sabrina was having no part of a 48-hour train trip each way to Moscow which involved dealing with the Russian border patrol and likely corrupt railway personnel (the Hungarians were bad enough) so that necessitated flying, which was expensive. In short the real travellers of the world won a great victory, for all these difficulties forced me to abandon the Russian idea, and accede to the plan of the wily and beautiful Sabrina, which she had doubtless been secretly harboring all along, to go to Italy. I had never been to Italy, and of course I had always wanted to go to Italy, so it is not as if I was shattered by this turn of events; however in the milieu of that particular time and place I was not sure that it was really going to be of any value to me to go to Italy--the most vital people, if they even bothered going there, seemed to consider it to be as nothing, that there was nothing left there for a serious person to master. Now obviously this seems like a ridiculous mindset to have had, but most people tend to be susceptible to the influence of the Great Men in their immediate environment if they do not seem to be one of them and begin to doubt the validity of their own ideas if these Titans do not appear to share them. So we went to Italy on a Czech bus, which was however completely modern and as comfortable as a bus should reasonably be, quite unlike the domestic intercity buses of that nation were at the time. Going on at length about the details of a bus ride is always a risky maneuver; but as I am one of those people who is greatly affected by sudden emergence in a new locale, and as this is besides surely one of the most romantic bus routes in the world, especially to anyone who has been even a cursory student of European history, I am going to recount it. We departed from Florenc (Prague) station about 7p. Everything was gray and cold and smoky, which I like, actually--the climate and culture of Italy would I think eventually become oppressive to me if I had to live in it for any length of time--but for a brief trip the prospect of going somewhere warm and sunny was exciting. After we got out of the city there was no highway--at that time at least, I don't know if one has since been built--south towards Austria. The bus thus meandered along the ancient roads of the Hapsburg Empire, and perhaps even the Holy Roman one, through the villages and towns of South Bohemia, most still and dark and silent under the cold purple night and a thin layer of gray snow, others with a few solitary lights on and movements of people visible in the windows of apartments or taverns along the sides of the road, which were no more than a few feet from the windows of the bus. We reached the border of Austria around midnight and immediately got on a modern highway. Having besides partaken of several pilsener beers that were vended on the bus (wouldn't you like to see that experiment tried on Greyhound? especially the New York-Baltimore 10pm run) I soon fell asleep, awakening briefly around 3 or 4am as the bus had slowed nearly to a stop due to a blizzard we had encountered crossing the Alps. However I fell back asleep rather quickly until the beating of the sun in my face awakened me in the midst of some much browner looking mountains and terrain, and shortly thereafter we were at the border of Italy. The bus made stops in a couple of the Alpine cities--Bolzano, which was part of Austria until 1918 and still has a significant German-speaking population, and then Trentino, and then, around 10 am, slowly descended into a decidedly Mediterranean-looking territory of plane trees and vine-terraced hills and ricketty power lines stretching as far as could be seen over a mostly treeless landscape and finally deposited us in the grimy depot in a modern, concrete section of the ancient city of Verona. It was sunny and about 55 degrees, and it was immediately invigorating to be there even though I hadn't much of a concrete idea what I was going to do. I had seen enough movies and read enough books to vaguely know that when one landed somewhere old in Italy if he just headed towards the main square things would turn up--pizzerias and cafe-bars, Roman ruins, vespas, affluent, beautiful American or German girls on holiday, baroque churches, faded palazzos and hotels with peeling paint and picture windows the size of doors, beggars and kiosk workers in designer sweaters and good shoes, fountains, statues of Dante, 500-year old bridges, rivers associated with almost the earliest recorded days of man. None of these things disappoint either. They are all--at least in March, when the weather is mild and it is not at the height of the tourist season--exactly as one would have them be.

Now I have already written far more words than most people will willingly endure and we have not even gotten to Venice yet, although at this point we are only about fifty miles away. After poking around Verona for a few hours, we took a short and surprisingly uncrowded train ride out to the islands around dinnertime. As this is how most people arrive in Venice I will not go on at length about the impression made when you come out of the station right on the Grand Canal, right into the very same spectacle made famous by a million paintings and postcards. There are I think a number of impressions which are more or less common among various classes of people--one of the better ones to have, which unfortunately eluded me, is to recognize that most of the people and activity right around the station are lame, and to vigorously seek out direction and transport to where some glimmer of real vitality might be found. My impression was a cross between the frisson of excitement dull people who lead dull lives feel whenever they find themselves in some place that has ever won the approval and patronage of dynamic, sexual, and creative people, and the earnestness of the nice but insignificant boy who wants to demonstrate that he deserves to be in this exalted place and have his merit acknowledged. In short, I was fairly pleased with myself for several minutes for having made it to Venice.

Because we arrived rather late in the day the first night, and as in those days we never thought to reserve ahead for hotels (or restaurants; to this day I have never made a reservation for a restaurant, which I will have to remember if anyone ever tags me for one of those blog surveys where you are supposed to reveal something you've never done) I felt we had better take any room we find the first night that was not outrageously expensive, and we got one near the station for $45, which was real extravagance for me. So much so that the next day we removed to a less central quarter of town where the room was actually nicer but only cost $30, or 60,000 lira--the lamented lira being in those days the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of western currencies. I only make all this mention of price because I have been reading recently that there are no hotels anywhere in Venice nowadays that are less than $150-$175 a night depending on the exchange rate. This seems incredible to me. How can any sensitive young people with ordinary incomes go there? (And yes, I know there are billions of equally and much more worthy and intelligent and sensitive people all over the globe who are too impoverished ever to take a vacation anywhere. For the moment I am going to sympathize exclusively with the people most like myself, for it is their pain I am feeling most acutely).

To be in Venice at this point of history, as many people have noted, is to experience something which I would not say is unreal, but which one is continually conscious of its being temporary, and I think one would feel that way even if he were to stay there for a number of years. There is not a sense of a grand or even a miniature scheme of life there which one can readily imagine being sucked into; the islands, far from being worlds onto themselves, are wholly oriented to the world outside, and have been overwhelmed by it. This aspect of it can make it somewhat sad to contemplate, especially if one is not able to share/join in the conviviality of the tourist scene (because one is socially inept, not because one is too superior for it). I liked it, I was certainly very beautiful, and I would like to go back, but after 4 days there I was ready to go somewhere else and get back in contact with real life again (such as Bologna! I say this because a beautiful girl smiled at me a couple of times on the train out of Venice--I was 27 and probably at my peak of whatever handsomeness I once had then--Sabrina could not see her, we were sitting opposite and this other girl was behind her--and she got off at Bologna--she looked intelligent and well-read, and I have always fancied that she went to the University there).

I will say that I wish I had read Ruskin before I went, even if it happens that all his ideas are wrong, because he gives the English-language reader by far the grandest conception of what "Venice" is, and what it signifies both in history and art. Several of the sites he considers, and argues quite convincingly, to be among the most sacred and important on earth, especially the island of Torcello and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco which has all of the unseen Tintoretto paintings he regards as manifestations of the rarest kind of human genius, were completely absent from my consciousness before I read this book. While these two places are noted in most modern guidebooks, it is usually just a mention at the end of the chapter as something passable to possibly do if one has exhausted all of the major sites. When I was there I only remembering visiting St Mark's Basilica (although as I was going in a guy from Texas exhorted me not to throw away my $3 I held my ground and went in anyway), which of course I liked, and the major art museum, the Accademia. I did not even visit the Doge's Palace, which Ruskin seemed to consider the most important building in the city; at least he devoted about half a volume to it, including dozens of pages going around the whole structure and analyzing the carving of every single capital. I think the rest of the time was mostly spent walking around soaking in the atmosphere. That's what I mainly did when I was younger.

Sabrina had some squid in ink sauce in a restaurant there--I have no idea what it was called or even where it was relative to anything else--that she still remembers, and she is not a woman who is prone to obsessing about meals past. I am sure I mostly ate pasta and pizza and carafes of the house wine, which is pretty much all I eat when I am in Italy. In dining I find simplicity to be the surest route to happiness.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Blake--A Vision of the Last Judgement-Part 2

Characters are dragged down to the Flames, their worldly possessions and symbols of their stations wrenched out of their grasps. As in all meaningful art it is insistent that it is not a story or a parable, but truth itself, uncorrupted by the influence or considerations of the quotidian. As such one buys it willingly enough, at least when he is alone with only the poet for company.

In one section of this vision the poet observes "Albion, our Ancestor, patriarch of the Atlantic Continent, whose history precedes that of the Hebrews & in whose Sleep, or Chaos, Creation began..." Assuming this is a great work, and I think it has definite qualities of greatness, then this particular sighting is important. Firstly because it implies that differences between disparate cultural units and their traditions--the English and the Hebrew say--have significance even is cosmic matters. Secondly because, as in many of Blake's poems, "Jerusalem" perhaps most famously, it insists on the especial importance and centrality of England, a nation not traditionally regarded as having much preponderance of religious genius, to the realization of the great Christian program. Blake clearly regarded this as a highly serious matter. Thirdly, because of the re-iteration that the vision is more true than the mental products of sensation or thought, and does not require to be answerable to those processes, which indeed can only dilute or corrupt the truth as seen in the vision. While I cannot say that I believe this to the last degree, I certainly take such visions when experienced by someone with an obviously powerful mind seriously. Even assuming that reason or science can plausibly explain the meaning of such visions, the mere circumstance of people having them, given that they seem to have become rather rare among the strong-minded, and that they so completely address and inform some deepest concern of the person having the vision, and sometimes that of people to whom it is related, makes inquiry into them a most worthy subject to me.

"...Poetry, Painting & Music, the three Powers in Man of conversing with Paradise, which the flood did not Sweep away." I like this expression.

"He who is out of the Church & opposes it is no less an Agent of Religion than he who is in it; to be an Error & to be Cast out is a part of God's design." A seductive thought; the spectre of being cast out is what makes it work most I think.

"We are in a World of Generation & death, & this world we must cast off if we would be Painters such as Rafael, Mich. Angelo & the Ancient Sculptors; if we do not cast off this world we shall be only Venetian Painters, who will be cast off & Lost from Art." This is what it means to have a strong opinion. It is not cheap, it is definitely not expansive, but it knows what it wants and what it believes, which is unfortunately about the diametric opposite of the way my own mind works.

"In Eternity Woman is the Emanation of Man; she has No Will of her own." If this be the case, I suppose it will be a bit of a shock to some people upon attaining eternity, on either the good or the bad side. Of course I suppose the more conservative/fundamentalist types still believe this to a degree and order their lives around the belief that the male is the representative type of all that is most essentially human; but I don't think the general secularist/agnostic type really can believe it anymore, even if the idea is attractive to him. His psyche has been broached, and this unshakeable belief in male superiority has been, at least in the case of himself, shattered. His understanding is such that he knows too many women who are indisputably stronger than he is to push aside the disturbing implications. This weakens the male religiously too of course.

I'm not going to go on. It is all so much claptrap, my commentary that is. Nothing is being brought to light. This particular piece of writing (the Blake) is full of definitions of abstract contents and precise delineations of spiritual circumstances which I thought would be interesting to write about but I find one has really nowhere to go with them. If Eternity exists, and Independent of Creation, even if only in thought, then the next question is, is it probable that it is anything like the way Blake describes it? which answer I suspect to be, probably not. Do Moral Virtues not exist, as he says, but are only Allegories and dissimulations? "You cannot have Liberty in this World without what you call Moral Virtue, & you cannot have Moral Virtue without the Slavery of that half of the Human Race who hate what you call Moral Virtue....Error is Created, Truth is Eternal. Error, or Creation, will be burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear...The Last Judgement is an Overwhelming of Bad Art & Science." These assertions all strike me intuitively as true. There is no scientific or artistic argument put forth for the existence of men, or any other matter, that is ultimately more convincing than theological ones--the theological arguments are discounted primarily by negation, by either a failure of the imagination or the inflation of the intellect and ego to its debit. But then this depends on where you believe the source of whatever strength/intellectual power humans have possession of lies. But I cannot get into that today. I am busy, busy, busy & my ruminating power is not good.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

...and a Few More
Because they only let you put 5 pictures on a post.
The guys in a tree on Ellis Island. While I can't help assuming that the impression was dangerously and foolishly illusionary, I did find the whole day, and the setting, to be really uplifting. I am, I think, by nature an optimist but by education and experience a pessimist. I have generally found that whenever I have taken the liberty of declaring an enthusiasm for something that other people have not been so much eager to share in my delight as to tear my pretension to pieces, so that I am always suspicious of my own impressions. However at my level of experience, understanding, brainpower, etc, which admittedly is a lot to ask more advanced people to make allowance for, I thought it was a pretty uplifting day.
The children I think enjoyed the outing a great deal. They got to ride on the boat of course, there was some space on the islands for them to run and climb, there were shops with toys in them and a cafeteria serving great all-American food like chicken nuggets, lemonade and ice cream at semi-reasonable prices, the water was full of boats of all kinds, there were several large bridges within view, most notably the Verrazano, and of course the Statue of Liberty itself is so large and green when one is near it, perhaps especially so if one is a child, that it makes for a great spectacle, but not one that accosts all your senses at once like say, a Chuck E Cheese's restaurant.

New York Pictures--Part 2A few days after our three hour visit to Books of Wonder and Union Square in April we returned to the greater metropolis for a six--maybe six and a half--hour excursion to the Statue of Liberty. At least, we went to the island where it is and walked around it, for it is necessary to reserve around a month in advance to go inside, and I did not plan that far ahead. My children have a set of National Geographic flash cards with pictures of iconic global sites--the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, etc--that they like, and the Statue being the site in the collection nearest our house, and my always looking for any angle to persuade people to go to New York with me, it was tentatively determined that we would go. I had never been out to the island to see it close up before, nor had my wife--my impressions were that it was uncool, that real New York people never went there, that the boat ride and islands were unpleasant and overcrowded with stupid/unattractive people and vendors selling junk. Not that any of that would, or should be a matter of concern to me personally, but Mrs S naturally doesn't care to waste any more hours of her life surrounded by lame people than she has to. These fears however were either unfounded, or in the case of the junk not obtrusive enough to spoil the atmosphere. We were fortunate that it was an exceptionally beautiful New York City day on the day we went, and Mrs S, who is always sporting, but usually warily so, when it comes to my excursions, even said afterwards that she had much more fun than she thought she was going to have.
We were in Philadelphia for the week, so we actually took the boat from the New Jersey side, and therefore did not go into the city at all. In addition to the people already named, something possessed me to invite my mother along, so while it would have been fun to go into Manhattan and catch the boat there, it was much cheaper and easier to do it this way (in addition the restored train terminal in New Jersey where you buy the tickets is a beautiful old-America swell kind of building). Although my mother has lived on the north side of Philadelphia, about 90 miles from Times Square, all her life, she has not been to New York since the 1964 World's Fair. I know she still hasn't really been there, but this outing feels very much like being there: one is on the river, and getting the same air, and light, and trees and rocks, and the crowd and the personality of the various monuments and exhibits on the islands have, contrary to popular belief, a distinct New York bent to them. The layout and construction of the park areas very much appears to be in the same spirit as the great WPA-era parks of the 30s and 40s that are found all over the greater New York area.
Here are the guys on the boat. We were there around the time of the Passover holiday, and while I honestly don't know if it is usual to go on outings during this time, it is worth noting that about half the people on the ferry and at the park the day we were there were Hasidic Jews. This made for a higher concentration of obviously intelligent and thoughtful-looking people than one usually encounters when on an outing. Many of the women of this group were also strikingly beautiful and mentally lively-looking, though they often had eight or nine children in tow, a combination of traits which is usually deemed incompatible in mainstream communities. In high school especially I had frequent crushes on various adorable Jewish girls who not only weren't buying what I was selling, but wouldn't even go to the part of town where I kept my store. But now is not the time to go into great detail about these lost loves, though this trip took me back to those days. One of the many deficiencies of the place where I live now is that the Jewish population is miniscule, and the lack is palpable in the general tenor of the local intellectual life. It is not that people are morons, but they lack intensity and any sense of immediacy of their learning or of their habits of thought in their personal relations with strangers, which seemed to me to be a more common, and often attractive, characteristic of Jewish people I knew growing up, though of course I did not make this connection or indeed take any notice of it until I moved somewhere where there were hardly any Jewish people and wondered what it was that was lacking in the mental life of the city I had come to, which has some very good institutions and other cultural infrastructure for a town its size.
The ferry stops at Ellis Island as well as Liberty Island. Naturally my children weren't much up for taking in the museum, but we did walk all around the building for forty-five minutes or so. The building, though restored, is really remarkably beautiful when one considers what it was built for. I doubt our modern holding pens for immigrants of questionable status are either so nicely built or situated. The giant curved windows, built in those pre-airconditioning days, if opened, would have allowed for abundance of air and light, as well as enticing views of the tireless activity of the river against the backdrop of the city skyline. The ceiling of the grand concourse itself is rather finely arched. I know it was not pleasant to be detained there and that liberties were taken of and abuses given to human beings, but for all that the place definitely holds a certain romantic appeal in the American imagination. When it was on the cusp of being demolished, people clamored for its preservation, and not as a memorial of shame. It does arouse very positive symbolic associations when one is there on such a day as we were there.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Vision of the Last Judgement--Wm Blake (1810) Part I

I went through a period a few years back when I was especially enamored of the authors and painters and musicians of the Romantic period. I was not a kid at the time either--I had already attained an older age than many of the era's poets ever reached. If my enthusiasm for the period has abated at all this has more to do with my increasing sense of personal estrangement from the vital animating spirits of the Romantic worldview than from my assessment of their worth. One of the great satisfactions of maturity, it is sometimes posited, is coming to the understanding that the opinions, perceptions, and experiences of one's youth, especially if one was susceptible to passionate feelings, were either false or trivial, and developing the capacity to come into the deeper, earned pleasures and understandings that only competent, considered, serious adulthood can know. This however is the fussy prejudice of a certain brand of low-energy intellectual who was never vigorous. The older person, assuming he is semi-sentient, will know more, it is true, and will usually be more sensible, but the decline in physical and mental energy that seems to afflict almost everyone, even many people who were once Great in their young days, denudes this knowledge and experience of any power when put into action.

William Blake appears to have been one of the exceptions to this general rule. He never lost the energies and mental processes of his youthful intelligence and talent. Nearly everyone who reads him is immediately struck by the sense that he must be among the handful of the most remarkable writers ever to work in English. There seems to be little hesitation, when compared to how scrupulously other writers are assessed, in proclaiming him a genius. His intelligence is equally palpable and difficult to categorize for general instruction. Whatever of makes of what he saw, he was an incredible imaginative writer and seer. He put into words the non-material, non-corporeal nature of authentic religious spirit as well, I think, if not better than any English writer, including the translator(s) of the Bible. He illustrates and comprehends ideas as wholes rather than parts, and does so with great economy of language, as only true poets can.
This is Blake's own illustration of the Last Judgement, in case anyone didn't know. This piece of writing is only 19 pages long but it gives one loads of material to chew over. Right in the second paragraph he distinguishes between Fable, Allegory and Vision, and he does not do so in the conversational style of the lecture hall ("Fable and Allegory are a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry. Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists...The Hebrew Bible and the Gospel of Jesus are not Allegory, but Eternal Vision or Imagination of All that Exists."). One feels that the author must have experienced life very intensely. He goes on in the same brief passage: "Plato has made Socrates say that Poets & Prophets do not know or Understand what they write or Utter; this is a most Pernicious Falshood. If they do not, pray is an inferior kind to be call'd Knowing? Plato confutes himself." This would have been a fun guy to have in seminar at my old college, not so much for his argument, which is hardly incontrovertible, but for the power and unshakeable confidence of the speaker, which is scarcely to be contended with.

Moving on, speaking still of the Greek notions..."Reality was Forgot, & the Vanities of Time & Space only Remember'd & call'd Reality...the Greek Fables originated in Spiritual Mystery & Real Visions, which are lost & clouded in Fable & Allegory, while the Hebrew Bible & the Greek Gospel are Genuine...The Nature of my an Endeavor to Restore what the Ancients call'd the Golden Age." I wrote a note--this was back in December, I am hopelessly behind on my reports--that 'the Platonic ideal of the forms was strong in him however'. I can't figure out what this refers to now though. I also questioned whether Hell were not fun for demons, or at least not torturous, but I can't see why I was moved to write this either.

The worldly purpose of this piece of writing was as a description of a picture(s?) in a catalogue of Blake's drawings. One favorite rather nonchalant sentence: "Those figures that descend into the Flames before Caiaphas & Pilate are Judas & those of his Class." This is a 53 year-old man of historical talent and intelligence, and he means it.

I shouldn't stop now, but it has been a few days and I want to post. I hope I will have some better insights when I am not quite so tired.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Where Have You Gone, Frances Gumm?

One Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks back I was out driving in the very beautiful mountainous countryside near where I live listening to the "Music of Your Life" radio network. This programing is for the most part quite bad, but approximately every tenth or fifteenth song or so they will play something that I like, and that I haven't heard in a long time, or sometimes ever. As this is the only station in my reception area that offers this hope on a semi-regular basis, and because its format is otherwise amiable, I listen to it quite frequently. Although Judy Garland is a much-beloved star and the undisputed queen of the Hollywood musical, and as such would seem to epitomize the type of entertainment the "Music of Your Life" aspires to provide, her recordings are played rather sparingly on the network. Perhaps this holding back is calculated in order to produce the maximum effect when they do play her; if this is the case, it is a successful strategy. As I rode through the lonely landscape, listening to the uninspiring stream of tired standards, light news reports, Paul Harvey soundbites, and gold investments and the virtues of saving for your own retirement, what should come on all of a sudden, direct from 1937 like a signal from a long-lost planet, but "Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart"? This was not merely a superior record, but a temporary foray into a whole other, and better, experience of life. Indeed I felt myself--palpably so--a better person, not merely for the duration of the song, but for some time afterward, and some traces of the effect lingered right up until I fell asleep that night for good, 8 or 9 hours later.

In our age the great consumers and chroniclers of music, alike in schools, urban hipster communities or on the Internet, specialize in celebrating and introducing the work of performers whom 98.7% of the population has never heard of despite the fact that they are much better as well as more important than all the people who are household names. This is a vital service given the ridiculous state of both commercial and public radio in the U.S. as far as music is concerned, such that in my late thirties I am still hearing for the first time even of people who are legendary global superstars, such as Miriam Makeba (aka "Mama Africa"; she goes back to the late 50s and early 60s, so I really do like her greatest hits record). To write about Judy Garland, whom everyone, including me, feels they already know too much about, would seem to serve no purpose; however, as with Joe DiMaggio whom I wrote about a while back, there is something unsatisfying to me in the standard biographies. They all seem to me to fail to distinguish what was really so greatly appealing about these figures. Also like DiMaggio, the legend of Judy Garland took on a persoality after 1945 which carried it a rather long distance from its "real" origins in the psychology both of the Depression specifically and pre-WWII, pre-superpower America generally, all of which was superceded with remarkable quickness, and frequently grotesquely, when the new circumstances of the postwar era swept this old world away. I am not much interested in the unhappiness, the drug problems, the suicide attempts, the five husbands and other lovers, the adoption as an icon by the gay community, all of which have become as much a part of the Judy Garland story as the songs, except so as to see what became--and what was left--of the teenager who made so many pop songs in the 1930s, even the idea of pop songs in the 1930s, seem more important than anyone could demonstrate objectively.When I heard the song, I knew at once that there must be Judy Garland clips all over the Internet which it had never occurred to me to look up. Intending to look at two or three songs I ended up watching two hours worth, mostly from 1937-42, and I could easily have watched more but it was 2am. It was all so...delightful to me in the particular mood I was in that day. She became, I guess, a real diva when she got older...she earned the right, at least...but in these earlier movies, she just sings as if it is as natural to her as talking, as indeed it probably was. Like Charlie Chaplin, as well as many other old stars who literally grew up in the circus or a travelling troupe of stage or vaudeville actors, whose parents were part of the company, which company's other members took the place of aunts and uncles and teachers, etc, a sort of childhood by the way that no one really has nowadays, Judy Garland never fully learned to make a significant differentiation between performance and life, and she certainly had not done so as a teenager. This is as important a talent as an entertainer--particularly one who performs live--can have, for this is how one connects with an audience, by becoming a medium through which the material of art acquires realization. Because of her being conditioned from an early age--again like Chaplin--to solicit and depend on a response from an actual audience, she always gives the impression in her movies of pulling the audience into whatever she is doing more vividly--and indiscriminately--than other actors do (this is supposedly a big aspect of her appeal to gay males). This feeding off of the energy of the crowd also makes her a great conveyer of the particular spirit and personality of the time in which she is singing, certainly as it was experienced by her own generation, the descent of which from chirpy, hopeful youth to middle-aged existential despair was not only more starkly extreme than that of other generations, but also constitutes one of the fundamental storylines of America in the 20th century.

I am going to link to some songs now, though I suspect people rarely follow song links, either because A) they are at work, and not alone or B) they don't have time to invest three or four minutes in a song. In my instance there is also probably C) no one is reading my blog anyway; however something has made me determined to write a Judy Garland post, and dadgummit, I am going to do my Judy Garland post.

I apologize for the intrusion of the noxious Mickey Rooney into several of these clips, but as he co-starred with J.G. in 9 films between 1938-42 it is hard to avoid him. Needless to say she carried him in these movies to the point where he is practically vaporized--I mean for the most part you aren't even aware of his presence when Judes is singing.

Here is "Zing! Went the Strings...". The version they played on the radio was a little jazzier, but I couldn't find it during my brief internet researches. This seems to be the standard version. The clip does not contain a lot of action, but it is one of her signature songs and it evokes a lot.

This is a good one here, which Rooney and the film directors continually steer in the direction of imminent disaster, only to have J-Gar not only rescue them but elevate the song to the status of being one of the iconic tunes of its era. It appears to me that they are trying to imitate black people in this scene, which of course is not successful, but thankfully Judy Garland has her own unique style and appeal as a singer to fall back on and steer this effort in a direction where it still bears considerable fruit. To better illustrate what I mean, here is the really lame-white-people version of this song from the in my opinion much-overrated Singing In the Rain.

Like several of these songs this one starts a little slow but under the Judester's steady grasp accumulates a lot of force by the end. Also there is the not-to-be-missed babe sitting with Rooney in the audience at the debutante ball (who is she?) The contrast she provides with Frances Gumm gives us a segue into a matter of some substance, for apparently the question of whether Judy Garland was good-looking or not was one of the burning issues of the early 1940s. She herself was supposed to been tormented by the fact that she was not a great beauty along the lines of her Hollywood High classmates Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, and that this insecurity led her to abuse diet pills and alcohol and other substances throughout her life. I don't know enough to speculate; it seems plausible. At the same time it goes without saying that men--many men, at least, including me--absolutely love women who can sing, especially young ones of course but at almost any age a really good singing voice is worth (and I can't think of any clearer way to express this) 20 points of beauty on a hundred point scale. It seems to be hard to make the women themselves feel this, which is perhaps why celebrated singers so often have both romantic lives on a par in quantity and quality of lovers with more conventional beauties, as well as more tortured and tempestuous.

This is my favorite. If you don't like this one even a little I congratulate you, for you are a truly hard man who is not to be trifled with. This is just enchanting. My initial thought--this was made, remember, in 1941--was that if Hitler and the German intelligentsia had been shown this clip, and been as perceptive about human nature as they fancied themselves to be, they could have read their doom, for I have never seen it spelled out more starkly. They were dealing with a foe who would be capable of reducing their thousand year-old cities to rubble in a matter of hours, and then skipping merrily off to the pictures the same night for the most part unconscious of the magnitude of the destruction it had just unleashed. I understand that the real history is more complicated than this but looking back at the music and art and films of the 30s both in America and Europe, including Germany, from the vantage point of today, it looks so obvious that America is the juggernaut, albeit a remarkably clueless one, and the Nazis can scheme and bully and stage spectacles and murder and wreak havoc among the etiolated states of Europe, but there is no way they are hanging with America, which was operating on a wholly different scale in everything, which the Germans appeared to have failed to ever take into consideration, preferring to focus as they always do on the perceived stupidity and dearth of individual personality among the populace, including most of the educated portion of it. It may have been a fluke of history that this happened to be the case, but it nonetheless was the case.

I don't know what is going on in this movie--it appears to be the annual dinner of the Skull and Bones society--but J.G. looks very good and the song is very evocative to me of this whole time period.

I am disappointed with my post, so I am going to console myself by throwing one last song out.