Monday, March 27, 2017

Contentment in the face of decline

17426181 10155141190612162 3135907696036097733 n Monday, March 27, 2017—

SO MANY RECENT experiences converging; time to awaken this Eastside View. The view outside is green green green as the unusual rains continue. It’s the time of year, early Spring, when I always recall Robert Nathan’s marvelous novel One More Spring , read alongside a dozen other books in a course I took on the 20th-century novel from one of my most influential teachers, Sidney Meller, at Santa Rosa Junior College, sixty years ago. It’s time to re-read it, I think; as I recall, it’s an optimistic view of life going on in spite of the Great Depression, aging, poor health, and poverty.

And this is where I read. I posted the photo to Facebook the other day, and drew an interesting comment from a Facebook friend living in Europe:

I must admit, Charles... I envy the construction of your later years; I sadly doubt I'll do anywhere near that well...
my response:
“the construction of your later years ": a felicitous phrase, Paul, giving me a thing to contemplate. Much of it has been luck and serendipity, of course, and nearly all owed to my wife's serenity and frugality. But to an extent it's been a deliberate choice over career, and intended as a lesson to the grandchildren …
his reply:
Of course one aspect of luck/serendipity is also knowing when to go with change and opportunity - I'm afraid I tended to be a bit pigheaded and uncertain, refusing to make decisions when unsure; some of those non-decisions avoided problems, others left me a bit in limbo. Of course I know there are still probably some years to move towards where I'd want to be...
(and I congratulate myself that one grandchild was quick with her response: “and a wonderful lesson it is.”)

Then there’s this:

I and Pangur Ban my cat
’Tis a like task we are at,
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

’Tis a merry thing to see,
At our tasks how glad are we
When at home we sit and find,
Entertainment to our mind.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye,
Full and fierce and sharp and sly.
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge, I
All my little wisdom try.

So in each our task we ply:
Pangur Ban my cat, and I
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Four quatrains where the original has, I read on Wikipedia, has eight. We are told further that it is "an Old Irish poem, written about the 9th century at or around Reichenau Abbey. It was written by an Irish monk, and is about his cat. Pangur Bán, "White Pangur", is the cat's name, Pangur meaning a fuller."

I read the verses in Everyday Life in Medieval Times, by Marjorie Rowling. I like those Everyday Life titles; they're old-fashioned and probably pretty out of favor by now, but I like them. Just as, hokey as it is, I like the translation, which is no better than most of us would have done ourselves. (Thomas Fowler, a 19th-20th c. Irish cleric.) Doggerel, almost, saving the subject. And I particularly like that it was written in Irish, presumably by an Irish monk, in the ninth century, on an island in Lake Constance, where itinerant monks were keeping culture alive in a dark time. These are the things I contemplate, or among them.

A WEEK AGO we saw a performance of King Lear , put on by A Noise Within in Pasadena. It was one of the best Lears I've seen, beautifully balanced/ This Lear was not simply mad; he was apparently in the early stages of dementia, confused as to why he was behaving the way he was, trying to make sense of things. Among other things, language: trying to understand what he, and his daughters, meant by their various statements. Trying to bring heard statements (his own included) into conformation with remembered experience in its logical consistency, which is all we have to go on.

Lear, of course, growing old, decided to divide his realm into three equivalent parts and leave each to one of his three daughters, as our president has decided to put his business into trust and leave its management to his daughters and their husbands. In the Pasadena production the two older daughters were not evil from the beginning, but became corrupted by the sudden responsibilities they were faced with and maddened by the illogical and unpredictable turns their father takes as his own madness develops further. It's a vicious loop spiraling into a hellish descent in spite of Gloucester and Kent, who seem to understand the problem but are politically and socially unable to interfere with its process. You can see how this relates to our present political situation.

My brother wonders if this situation is material for an opera. No, I think; too big and sprawling even for a Ring-like cycle. But the choosing of the Cabinet might make a comedy. And a play about the descent of this presidency into chaotic incompetence, and its ultimate resolution into a caretaker administration, has a Shakespearian promise. It should be written quickly, before it actually takes place, so it will be seen as fiction certainly, and not alternative fact.

I've been silent here for months, benumbed like so many by the bizarre quality taken by the times we live in. I've been meditating on the differences between Knowledge, Awareness, Understanding, Belief, and Faith. Things are so much simpler for Pangur Bán. Were they really that simple for me, too, and for the rest of us? Possibly not. Certainly not now; not in the foreseeable future. I feel, at times, like Lear, and desire my quiet room. I hope to be as silent as that cello, as purposeless as that bicycle wheel.

The central problem of musical composition is the relation of the moment to the ongoing process. Of course not all composers know this. Many simply accept the norms of musical composition they are given and continue them. But I came to maturity as a composer (if ever) in the 1960s, when Time and Process and a skeptical address to Tradition were as natural as mother's milk. I had planned to spend the first four months of this year writing about those years, as some of you know, continuing my memoir Getting There into the next twenty-five years of my life: but I have been struck by the extent to which the qualities of those thirty years, 1964-1987 to be exact, seem to have been forgotten, or at least quite misunderstood, by those who've reached their maturity since.

I had thought the present morass was simply the result of failure of nerve and of the triumph of short-term greed over long-term enjoyment. But the sudden recent turn of political events has revealed, at least to me, a much bigger and more fundamental evolution. Everything goes along slowly; then everything hits a bump and crashes about. I think we've just hit such a bump, and the 1960s and '70s are as dead as the Bronze Age, as Cycladic sculpture, as Latin, as the liberal arts.

In the meantime Spring has returned, one more spring. The flowers have returned, as they always do. Today I walked with a daughter and a friend seven miles among the redwoods, climbing steeply at times, noting at various times iris, trillium, poppy, blue dick. The recent storms have smashed a number of trees, snapping them in half or blowing them completely out of their root zone — always an impressive thing to see. Other young trees will replace them. With luck, something like the Irish monks will maintain the liberal arts, and write delightful but oddly regretful poems in the margins in spare moments.

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