Monday, December 11, 2017

A TOUR OF NETHERLANDS AND ITALY: 1

A TOUR OF NETHERLANDS AND ITALY October-November 2017
Prinseneiland
I: Amsterdam
1: Arrival; October 27, 2017
We landed at Schiphol at 8:30 in the morning, flying from San Francisco with layover in Philadelphia. We know Schiphol well, but still the first order of business is going Dutch: getting the sound of the language in the ears (and to an extent in the mouth), getting SIM cards for our iPhones, reminding ourselves about the “chipcard” good for all trains and trams in The Netherlands, getting a couple of cappuccinos, and getting a haircut. Then we took the train to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, where we splurged for a taxi to our home for the next few days, on Prinseneiland, a 15-minute walk from the station but we’re tired from the flight and we have these suitcases…

Our European travels always involve visits with friends — friends so intimate you might well call them family. Writing about these travels is therefore complicated. There are so many stories, so much history, much of it personal. I find it all endlessly fascinating and often suggestive of Big Themes, and so I ache to write — but how to protect the privacy of people I love like my own family? But I can describe Cynthia’s apartment, I think. You enter the lobby of a former warehouse — every building on this island is a former warehouse — and go up three flights of stairs (8, 11, 13 steps), out onto a rooftop, then up another storey on a spiral steel staircase (14 steps).

The apartment
There is one big highceilinged room with kitchen, kitchen table, desk, shelves, chairs, a sofas. There is one bedroom (hers; now ours) big enough for a big bed, a four-foot rack for hanging clothes, perhaps a chest. Above, there’s a cozy sleeping loft, temporarily hers. It has a doorway out onto another roof for her use as patio, drying-yard, etc. Her apartment (and another, similar, at other end with its own matching spiral stairway) are new additions on ancient brick warehouse like many others on the island, about which more later.

The apartment is all white with one black half-wall above the kitchen wall. There are black very steep stairs to the sleeping loft. Cesar the tortoiseshell cat is the very happy lord of all he surveys, scrambling up the ladder-stairs when he wants to visit the roof; he reminds me of Carl Van Vechten’s book Lord of the Housetops.

We have a simple lunch of bread and cheese and much conversation; then leave Cynthia and walk the short distance — ten minutes at most, two bridges — to the restaurant Marius for dinner with Tom and Judith. I immediately asked after her father, a world-famous neurologist, still hard at work — he published a new book only last year. He turned ninety last June. His work left time, his family thought, for few friends. It turned out, though, that he was fast friends with a number of professional acquaintances, though in touch with them only through correspondence.

They arranged for a congratulatory symposium to be held in Amsterdam. It was attended by friends from around the world. Many gave papers in his honor. You couldn’t understand half of what they said, the daughter told me; and then Father gave his talk, and it was completely understandable and often funny, all about his work over the years with all this community. It was all in English; hardly anyone there spoke Dutch. The symposium was held in Bondsgebouw ANDB (General Dutch Diamond Cutters’ Union), a fine old Amsterdam School building, a Berlage building from 1900.

For her gift, Judith had learned Bach’s chorale-prelude Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and played it for him, in public. This was a great effort for her; she wanted to play it as well as possible. At the end, thanking her, he said (again publicly) that he had wanted to ask her to do that, but didn’t, fearing it too much an imposition. Years ago he and I met at a party where we disputed, slightly in jest, the merits of Bach and Mozart. That’s not music, I said of Bach, it’s numbers. Mozart’s not music, he said, it’s sentiment. And so on.

He is a very serious, very droll man. At another party a couple of years ago we were conversing when another man approached. Excuse me, Judith’s father said, somewhat resignedly, I have to talk to this man, I’ll get back to you. I watched them converse rather earnestly; then the other fellow left and I returned to the neurologist. He excused himself: I had to talk to him; he’s a very important psycholoog, I’ve never met him, but we’ve collaborated on books together.

Yes, I said, and what exactly is a psycholoog? Interesting question, he replied. I am a scientist; I know about physically existing things. My field is the brain: I can tell you what it is, how it works. The psycholoog talks about a mind. No one has ever seen one.

Kees, in front of his Marius
Dinner was delicious, of course. Marius was packed. The chef is Tom’s brother and also my daughter’s brother; she lived with his family for a year as an exchange student, forty years ago. We have nearly merged, our two families, one Dutch, one as I always say Californian — the United States having become too complicated to discuss.

I write about these dinners elsewhere so won't describe them here. Here, in the next few installments, which I hope to upload roughly once a week, you're going to encounter ruminations on place, people, and their intersections. This is what usuually happens when I travel, and observe, and speculate, and write. Most recently it resulted in a little book written last April in Rome: Where to Dig, and how far down. You can buy a copy here. It's cheap (but mind the postage rates!), and makes a nice holiday present…

Next: Strolling the Western Islands

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Small Concerto for piano and orchestra (1964)

(reposted, with edits, from January 28, 2010)

THE EARLIEST PIECES of mine that I still like to think of, Three Pieces for Piano, were written in October and November, 1963, and February 1964. At the time we were living on a small grant from Edith Fitzell, a gentle, enthusiastic widow who took recorder lessons from me, and who volunteered at KPFA, the listener-supported radio station in Berkeley. She sensed my need to devote an unbroken year to musical study, and enabled me to quite my day job. (I was then a laborer for the City of Berkeley, working mostly on the sidewalk crew, breaking up old sidewalks and laying new ones.)

I spent that year studying composition with Robert Erickson and conducting with Gerhard Samuel, and listening to as much music as possible — much of it on the radio, for KPFA broadcast a great deal of new music in those days.

The first and last of the three pieces were written slowly and intuitively, at the piano. They are centered on soft dynamic levels and smoothly phrase lines, and meant to be played very softly. The middle piece was added later, for contrast, pitched on a much louder level, and alternates violent and rapid gestures with ringing sonorities. It uses only pitches omitted in the outer movements; otherwise the composition follows only intuitive principles of structure, not conventional tonal or serial concepts.

Much of the music in the outer movements is essentially unmeasured and meant to be played quite freely, and the third movement ends with a performer's choice between two possible approaches to the close.

In 1964 I orchestrated the music as a Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. No new material was added; I simply assigned some of the notes to rather large orchestra, including a harmonium in the wings, a pair of Wagner tubas, and alto flute among the more usual instrumentation. In this form the music was premiered in August 1965 at the Cabrillo Music Festival, with Nathan Schwartz as soloist and Gerhard Samuel conducting. It was the first time I heard my music played by an orchestra: a very delightful experience.

(The solo pieces waited for their premiere until March 1993, when the late Rae Imamura played them at Annie’s Hall, Berkeley, on an instrument tuned not in equal temperament but to Kirnberger 3.)

The orchestral score of the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is available now, either in print (8.5x11, 8 pages, saddle-stapled) for $12 or as an e-book, at Lulu.com. The Three Pieces for Piano are available at Frog Peak Music.

Sound files of the three movements of the Small Concerto are available online:

First movement (2:02; 3.5 MB)

Second movement (2:33; 41.1 MB)

Third movement (1:56; 3.4 MB)

A PDF of the score can be downloaded here (10 pages; 600 kb)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Pasadena Theater

In flight, October 26, 2017—
Dickens, adapted by Mike Poulton: A Tale of Two Cities, directed by Geoff Elliott & Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
Giraudoux, tr. by Maurice Valency: The Madwoman of Chaillot, directed by Stephanie Shroyer
Shaw: Mrs. Warren's Profession, directed by Michael Michetti
  Seen in Pasadena at A Noise Within, Oct. 19-22, 2017
REVOLUTION IN THE AIR in Pasadena, through the canny programming of this thoughtful, enterprising, estimable repertory theater company. I think we were lucky to see these plays in the order listed, describing an intelligent sequence: in Stephen Dedalus's formulation, they were epic, then lyric, finally dramatic. A Noise Within — the company took its name from a stage direction in Hamlet — is a fully professional company, now a quarter-century old, I think, characteristically producing three plays in the fall season, another three in spring, in revolving repertory to the extent actors' schedules make it possible. (Most of them are veteran professionals, gainfully employed in film and television; I suspect they engage in legitimate theater out of love for the art.)

The repertory tends to the classical, including classical 20th-century theater. You don't subscribe to this company to see new plays. There's a Shakespeare play nearly every year; there's usually a French play (in translation, of course); there's a survey of the significant American repertory. We like to visit Pasadena for four days, fall and spring, when we manage to catch three plays. (And catch up on botanical gardens, favorite restaurants, and old friends.)

Lately the seasons have illustrated themes of one kind or another: this year, social revolution. It's in the air. I've written here before of my theory that theater was born with a social responsibility: in early societies, it was through public performance that social problems — ethical, moral, religious, political — were pondered. Theater offers a unique merging of intensely personal and intrinsically public introspection and expression, and the rituals theater has evolved over the years offer a kind of adjustment, a tuning, an alignment of turbulent events with the human norms needed for stable social life, whether on the small scale (couples, families) or the large.

IT IS SIXTY YEARS and more since I read Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities as a required text in the ninth grade, and I thought I remembered of it only the opening and closing lines and the description of Mme Lafarge knitting as the tumbrels go rumbling by. Watching this adaptation, however, brought the characters, the situation, even the dialogue out of some long-closed chamber into active memory. The play is compressed, of course; parallel sub-plots and minor characters are gone — two acts across two and a half hours, on a relatively bare stage, can only accommodate so much. But the result is, as I've suggested, epic theater: it was impossible to attend to it without thinking of Bertolt Brecht. Who knew Dickens was a forerunner? (Probably lots of graduate students.)

Dickens's plot rests on the possibly confused identities of two men, a young French nobleman whose ideals and empathy lead him to renounce his title and a similarly young English barrister utterly devoid of moral discipline yet dedicated, ultimately, to similar humane ideals. They are human counterparts of the "two cities," London and Paris; and Dickens's larger purpose is, through narrating their individual human predicaments, to investigate the commonalities of privileged and tradition-bound English legal society and resentful and erupting French rebellion against a thousand years of monarchy.

I was surprised — still am, a week later — at how detailed, profound, and often subtle this undertaking was: the novel, the adaptation, the production, the performance. This in not unusual: these theater trips to Pasadena usually leave me mulling over the productions for days afterward; it's one of the rewards of the visit. But, perhaps because I was expecting Dickens to exaggerate sentiment at the cost of insight, I was particularly impressed with the evening. I won't detail the cast and crew; I haven't the program at hand; you can always find the credits at the company's fine website. Everything about this production was strong and affecting.


JEAN GIRAUDOUX wrote his lyric fantasy The Madwoman of Chaillot in Nazi-occupied Paris in the dark days of the early 1940s, perhaps to take his mind off the daily unpleasantnesses. The play is utterly French, set in the Chaillot quarter of Paris, whose denizens are ordinary workers: café waitress, barman, ragpicker, shoelace peddler. Well, there's a deafmute, too, because mimes have to make a living.

Into this charming world enter a group of Important Men — a miner, a chief executive, an investor; that sort of crew. They are convinced there's oil under the Paris streets, precisely here at this corner, and they plan enthusiastically to drill for it, to install derricks partout, with no regard at all for the charm of the place, so necessary to pleasant, stable everyday life.

The play centers on la Folle — "madwoman" seems not quite the right translation — who confronts the threat, organizing les habitants du quartier (and two other equally dotty crazy-ladies) to send the capitalists packing. (One of the subtexts of the play, of course, is that they may themselves be victims of their own confidence games.)

Chaillot is sentimental and frothy, and its Paris is not that of 1789. The social protest it describes is far from the stormers of the Bastille. Its resonance with the environmental politics of our own time, however, is inescapable. In the context of the two plays flanking it one sees this thin upper crust of capitalist investors for what they are, a threat to social order ultimately able to achieve a new aristocracy, oppressing ordinary men and women and spoiling the world to satisfy nothing more important than their own insatiable greed.

Again, cast, crew, production were all exemplary. Even the musical cues were impertinently effective, in my opinion, and the musical dimension is often the least effective in this company's productions. (I do find it odd, though, that while various attempts at British accents seem always to disfigure plays here by English authors, no attempt is made — grace à Dieu — to put on French ones in plays like this.)


AS DICKENS IS too sentimental, says my stupid prejudice, so George Bernard Shaw is too talky. I was looking forward to seeing Mrs. Warren's Profession as a duty owed to my intellectual curiosity, not an enjoyable entertainment. I was wrong. Her profession is that of Madame: Mrs. Warren saves herself from the poverty of the lower classes by turning not to factory work, poorly paid, long of hours, and beset by terribly unhealthy conditions, but to prostitution. A canny woman, she quickly realizes the money and position is to be gained through management, not labor, and she hooks up with a cynical member of minor nobility to develop a richly rewarding empire of houses in Ostend, Brussels, Vienna, and Budapest.

In the meantime she has educated a daughter of uncertain paternity through the English boarding-school system, rarely seeing her until she too attains maturity and casts about for her own way into presentable modern (Victorian) society. The meat of the play is the intricate dialectic between generations — not only of mother and daughter, of course, but of socially evolved, tolerated, and depended upon methods by which the female sex can take its place with in a male-dominated system.

Interestingly, and as is often the case chez Shaw, the males who dominate this action are pretty hapless — a young cynic who'd romance mother or daughter, whichever is handy; a minor ecclesiastic beset by regret, the Marquis (or whatever he is) who profits from Mrs Warren's profession, a likable architect who stands for Art and Free Spirit.

In the performance, the two women were particularly strong, easily, imperceptibly moving from early expository presentation — almost type-casting — to final detail and complexity. There are no solutions to the social problems which are Shaw's quandaries, precisely because there can not be an ideal stable society. There can only be relatively calm periods within the turbulent succession of human history. I suppose the analogy is ultimately with the vicissitudes of daily life, with the successions of hunger and satiety, desire and fulfillment, individualism and responsibility.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Tradition and the avant garde, as seen in 1968

Eastside Road, October 5, 2017—
jUST FOR FUN, and because I've just run across it, a transcription made by I know not who of remarks ad-libbed on Critic's Circle, a review show on the arts I used to participate in at KQED, back when this sort of thing was possible.
It's long.
Charles Shere - CRITICS CIRCLE
April 3, 1968
[transcription of unscripted remarks]

I would like to talk about the PBL [Public Broadcast Laboratory] broadcast of last Sunday night because for the first time PBL give its two hours over entirely to a cultural program — and it gave those two hours to the avant-garde — which is very much, of course, in controversy these days, being only some thirty or forty years old. PBL's program was called Who's Afraid Of The Avant-Garde?: an excessively coy title which I think established PBL's stance toward the subject of its program.
It was never quite sure what its stance was going to be. Television can either act as a recorder, the kind of television that says "let's pretend you're at the Buffalo museum or let's pretend you're at the ball game and we will take you electronically there and you can carry it from there,” or television can act as a participant — and PBL attempted this a couple of times in Sunday night's broadcast.
When it did make this attempt, and when it succeeded, it came up with the most exciting things that it did the entire evening. I'm thinking, for example, of their coverage of Cecil Taylor's jazz group. I'm thinking also of the first coverage of Merce Cunningham's Dance Company, when the television entered and participated in Cunningham's dance and did considerably more than taking you out of your living room and putting you down in the auditorium.
By and large, however, PBL's attitude toward the avant-garde was very much conditioned by what I guess it feared was a recalcitrant audience nationwide; and perhaps that audience is more recalcitrant than we would think, living as we do in the San Francisco Bay Area, an area which is by no means representative of the country as a whole. For example, there were frequent statements on the part of the narrator that the difference between the avant-garde art and normal art was that avant-garde art does not care at all about any kind of representationalism. Taylor's music, for example, it was stressed, had no beat and no recognizable melody. When some underground films were shown, specifically Jonas Mekas’s film Circus, the narrator made a great point of saying that underground.films share the avant-garde prejudice against heroes, against plots, against stories, just as the avant-garde paintings and sculpture is non-representatlonal. It seems to me that there is a reason for this and that this is symptomatic, rather than the end result, of an attitude of the avant-garde artist. I was looking at a copy of a new book which came out recently published by Walker and Company, a book about the French sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who died in 1918, and in looking through this book it struck me that his career sums up the difficult time in western art which took place at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was a critical turning point, I think, in European history, certainly in the history of European civilization.
It was the transition between the teleological representational attitude of art until then and the new art which is the art of the 20th Century, representing homo ludens, man who plays games, man who is more concerned with the experience and with the integrity of what he is doing, of his activity, than he is with the pre-conceived concept of what kind of goal he is going to find at the end of his activity. In other words, where the nineteenth century and earlier thought of art as being a search with a goal at the end of the search, today's artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jonas Mekas, all of the people who were touched upon by PBL, are not concerned with what they are going to find at the end of their search… if you can call it a search. They seem to be considerably more concerned with what it is they’re doing while they’re filling the time ….
And I think that there is probably a lesson for all of us in this. I think that civilization gets the art that it gets because it is the civilization that it is. I think that our avant-garde art partakes of this quality partly because today the artist and intellectual, when he realizes it, is a little bit tired of the civilization which is founded upon things, upon works of art which have commercial value, upon having as late a model of car as your neighbor, and this whole sort of thing.
It's still very difficult to talk about avant-garde art and about Dada, its progenitor, because like PBL we tend to lump all of this activity into one bag. To think, for example, of Buckminister Fuller as being avant-garde, to think of Mary Quant, the fashion designer in England of being avant-garde, the same way as John Cage and Merce Cunningham are avant-garde. Of course this is perfectly absurd. There is a great difference between an industrial architect and an avantgarde fashion designer on the one hand and a painter and a musician on the other. And as John Calder says in his introduction to a new book about English happeners, talking about surrealism. "It will quickly lose its sense of identity as an art movement and become a technique to be used to a greater or a lesser extent by dramatists and artists of the future.”
I think this is true of the avant-garde and it’s true of Dada, and I think that programs like last Sunday's PBL, excellent in places and pedestrian in others, will help to accelerate this feeling, will help to accelerate the possibility of all of these phenomena, with the avant-garde being assimilated not only by the artists themselves but also by we the audience, the people whom the artists serve, the people who in the last analysis feed upon and, in turn, nourish the artistic activity itself.

Well, all of this said, I went out to Mills College Sunday night to see what was supposed to be an evening of Dada and about the only Dada on the evening's program were two films, a marvelous film by Hans Richter called Ghosts Before Breakfast, a film made in 1927, and Ferdinand Leger's Ballet Mechanique, a film made in 1924. I think that its greatly to television's credit that things like PBL are doing programs like that of the avant-garde. Certainly television should be reviving these early films, early experimental films and the recent experimental films as well. Television is the perfect medium of making these films an accepted part of our inheritance, just as the Mona Lisa is, for example, or September Morn was fifty years ago. And until this has become a common part of the culture, the importance and vitality of Dada and the avant-garde will be lost on most of us.
At Mills College there were also some musical performances, notably of the Three Miniatures for violin and piano by Krzysztof Penderecki and, before that, the Four Pieces for violin and piano by Anton Webern. These were very sensitively played by Nathan Rubin who was accompanied by Naomi Sparrow (who played, incidentally, the best I've heard her yet). The Webern could not he heard too well because of a marvelous crotchety woman who was in the audience banging her cane on the floor and barking like a dog from time to time. She was, I suppose, the most Dada of them all at Mills College.














Monday, September 25, 2017

Manifesto, 1966

FROM SOME TIME in 1966, this rather breathless and no doubt far too dense summary of what I had then come to believe:

The important things to me as an onlooker having been the sound (in music) the quick immediate appearance (in visuals) or (intermedia) the combination of these always coupled with not the way these final impacts, these appearances, were made (I don't care how it sounds Feldman says Boulez wrote, What I want to know is how was it made) but the way they happen once they have been made inevitably to happen. What it comes down to is an interest, no a concern with process: not techniques of writing/composing/painting/causing inevitably to happen but the objective fact or process or progression from (a point which can never be determined) to (a final position I at least will never fix). Cases in point being the whole Bride, the whole Joyce, the whole dada-surrealism-mid-twentieth century avant garde. The whole Mahler. Any individual Webern. Virtually any one opera. In short, any (apparently) closed microcosm, any closed system. Robbe-Grillet, Marienbsd, Blow-Up, Ionesco, Beckett. Getting lost in one luxuriant paragraph on the island in To The Lighthouse or Patriarchal Poetry or one stanza in The Faerie Queene or a metaphysical poet or wandering in the garden of a composition by Loren Rush or Bob Moran or a painting by Chirico or Magritte or Klee or Vermeer or the wake early in L'Etranger or the word chair in L'Age de raison. Tzara. Conversations with Jon Cott, David Abel, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Performances by Nelson Green, Bob Moran, David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi. Ives: 4th Symphony, piano music, Central Park, Set For Theater Orchestra. Ashley's Frogs. David Goines at work, or Julia Child. This kind of process turns out to be a kind of texture always involving contemplation, but an exploratory kind of contemplation. The activity of absorption. No sort of time process at all. A physical visual impingement surpassing those objectivities set in motion by egos or personalities or intellects, and so we must restrict ourselves to gestures, to activity, to performance, and our reflections must be on the gestures activities & performances. Leave quickly when someone begins a presentation. Everything hard quick & committed, and full full full full. But serene in its vitality & its integrity. And the responses must be quick: no delay. But also no analyzed response, no conditioning: come when you're called, don't bring anything with you. Entities are discrete: constituents disappear within integrated contexts. No viewpoints, no perspective, no beyond, behind, this side or that. An unassailable logic of inevitability is the only teleology to be permitted. Make everything that concerns you an object of your concern, and mind your own business in a businesslike way. And once having committed yourself to that concern, no betrayal of commitment. The subject (of commitment, of concern), being secondary, disappears: cf. The Art (or Process) of Fugue. The agent, having acted, is unnecessary, and withdraws. This is what Dedalus meant by dramatic art. What's left is the process. No room any more for the heroic epic between the objective lyricism which is mood & the lyrical object of process. And having restricted ourselves to the business of being concerned with our gestures our activities our performances, seeing ourselves within the contemplative exploratory luxuriant texture we make of our microcosm. Abandoning a world only when it is fully known; until then returning as often as necessary; but abandoning any world unalterably when it is devoid of surprise. And never offering the insult of familiarity to any living thing (and all things live) but always granting to life the dignity of concern. And maintaining the joy of discovery, and the obligation of continuance, & the vitality: being.

ALL OF WHICH I though I summed up, later, more efficiently if perhaps more opaquely, in this short poem:

David Goines Contemplating the back of an axe.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Doggerel written while driving north

Highway 101, September 11, 2017—

SOMETIMES WHILE DRIVING or riding on these car trips silly verse jumps into my mind:

1.

An ant is on my seat
A moose steps on my feet
A cat nibbles my apple pie
A worm lives in the beet

A crow flies in the sky
A cat nibbles my pie
A dog drinks all the Chinese tea
Six chickens learn to fly

There is no pie for me
A dog drinks all the tea
A fish swims in the goldfish bowl
An owl sits on my knee

Three robbers steal the coal
A fish swims in the bowl
Lions lie on the dusty beach
Under the bridge, a troll

Thank god, they're out of reach
Those lions on the beach
You know it isn't very far
Please, may I have a peach

Cows fly up to the star
It isn't very far
There must be something dreadful wrong
My shoes are full of tar

We have to end this song
I think there's something wrong
Whatever you may think you think
It has gone on too long

2.

The cat's at the whisky, the mice at the rum!
The carpenter's clawhammer's beat up his thumb!
Little Jack Horner can't get at his plum!
Calamity! Catastrophe!

The children have mostly been fed to the bears!
Aunt Martha chokes while putting on airs!
Grandfather, drunk again, falls down the stairs!
Catastrophe! Calamity!

Those mischievous boys have derailed the train!
The surgeon's knife slips while inspecting a brain!
The turkeys all drown looking up at the rain!
Calamity! Catastrophe!

An elephant's eaten our favorite plants!
Apes have intruded and spoiled the dance!
The firemen have rushed off, forgetting their pants!
It's a Calamity!

Thieves stole all the instruments, left just one gong!
All the band's music sounds terribly wrong!
Everything's off, nothing seems to belong!
Calamity! It's a Catastrophe!

Trump's in the White House, and Ryan and Mitch
Make our eyelids break into a nervous twitch!
And the Press has worked up to a fever pitch —
Calamity! It's a real Catastrophe!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to the desk

Eastside Road, August 27, 2017—

Ali A. Rizvi: The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason
New York: St. Martin's Press,
2016
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 226     read 8/24/17

Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,
2016
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 275     read 8/26/17
THE LAST FEW MONTHS have not been the best, as readers of this blog — and particularly the other one — will have suspected. I'm not complaining: plenty of others have it a great deal worse. It's largely a matter, I suppose, of aging: I've just gone past 82.

Nor is it simply a matter of fatigue, lack of stamina, and a chronic backache, serves me right for always suspecting those who announce that complaint of malingering. Nor is it only the political situation, extremely depressing — I am convinced we are on our way to dictatorship, perhaps a new form of it with puppet congress and courts, and publicly owned lands and other goods (museums, libraries, post offices) turned over to private business. Perhaps even the military.

So I've taken a vacation of sorts from the blogs, spending my time on baseball games (only a couple of them live in ball park) and writing. (The last two posts here offered you peeks at the process.) This has occasioned reading through pocket calendars, journals, and reviews from the 1960s and '70s, and the difference between those times and the present has been striking to say the least. To bring me back to the present, two books caught my eye in the last week or two.

Ali Rizvi's The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason was recommended somewhere online, I no longer recall where. (I haven't been keeping up with my usual book review sites: The Nation, NYRB, and so on.) The title promised a good fit to the mood I've been in since the election. Dedicated readers of mine may recall my writing last April about this:

Belief, faith, knowledge : I began this month’s musings planning to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death. Maladjustment of my own cells has made me more than normally aware of mortality. And what have the trams and ruins of Rome brought me to contemplate? Cats and garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years. Gardens and palazzi ; conversations with strangers; public behavior; the embrace of family; a toy boat; a pile of broken pots. The events and detritus of everyday life, in short. Nothing special, but constant reminders that there are things we see and so believe we know, transactions we share and so know we feel, concepts (and constructs) we hear or read about and so strive to understand. And I keep coming back to Montaigne: Que sais-je, What do I know?

Rizvi's book is far from perfect (I am hardly the writer to complain of imperfect books), but I think it is worth reading; perhaps even imperative reading in these times. Born in Pakistan, brought up in Libya and Saudi Arabia before moving with his parents to Canada and the United States, he observed the doctrinaire Muslim culture of Saudi Arabia from a protected position as the son of professionals living in a protected enclave.

This did not prevent his close reading of Quran and hadith, the twin written foundations of Islam. The internal contradictions in those writings, and their uneasy applicability to life in a post-Rationalist world, set him on the course described by his subtitle: a (personal) journey from religion to reason. Rizvi is a physician, hence a scientist; and he holds Islam — and Judaism and Christianity — up to a scientist's skepticism. As I myself think we must all do in these times when the inherently authoritative desert monotheisms seem increasingly at war, figuratively and literally, with contemporary society as it has evolved.

After a couple of hundred pages describing his own growing rejection of Islam, in the course of which Rizvi cites scripture as well as personal experience, he comes to the point: the solution to much of the present war in the Middle East — and the growing problems in the US with radically fundamentalist Christianity, though that's a bit outside the scope of his book — is reformation. He suggests a four-step process: Rejection of scriptural inerrancy, Reformation, Secularism, and Enlightenment.

But even the first step is dauntingly difficult in societies whose very identity — and whose individuals participate in this identity — is bound from birth with a sacred text. Muslims may be fundamentalist, lax, or even (as in Rizvi's case) atheist (or at least agnostic), but they are Muslims because of their common cultural grounding in Quran and hadith. It took Christianity some 1600 years to reach the Enlightenment, and a lot of blood was spilled along the way; there's no reason to think the path will be any easier for Islam.


IT WAS A RELIEF to turn from "faith" and "belief" to cognition — scientifically verifiable examples of memory, invention, and reason. Even if the examples were not from the doings of men and women, religious or not, but those of other primates, of octopodes and dolphins, of elephants and corvids. When I was a boy it was taken as fact that the lower animals were incapable of reason, of language, even of feeling pain. De Waal's book persuades otherwise, relying on his own experience with primates and the work of colleagues and forerunners in this fascinating field.

Much changed in that work over the last few decades, beginning with the suspension of the axiom that we humans are an essentially different and nobler animal than all the others. Observations in the wild (think Goodall) and experimentation in the laboratory revealed, once that prejudice was relinquished, that all animals communicate and many understand, or at least work with, memory, even with the concept of futurity. Such social animals as chimpanzees and bonobos, elephants and whales clearly have evolved language skills and evidence of economic and political methodology.

De Waal is a scientist and does not take up the question of religion. Perhaps this is the one thing that separates us humans from the other animals. I like to think that in this respect they may have evolved beyond us, to a stable point in their own evolution which dispenses with religion. Or perhaps Homo sapiens has evolved to need religion in order to externalize the intrinsic tribalism he shares with certain other apes, to justify irrational action when he knows better. We may hope for another book from de Waal:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart WE are?