Sunday, September 20, 2020

Pessoa on death

 A morte é a curva da estrada,

Morrer é só não ser visto.

Se escuto, eu te oiço a passada

Existir como eu existo.

A terra é feita de céu.

A mentira não tem ninho.

Nunca ninguém se perdeu.

Tudo é verdade e caminho.

— 23 May 1932


Death is the curve of the road,

To die is just not to be seen.

If I listen, I hear you pass

Exist as I exist.

The earth is made of heaven.

The lie has no nest.

No one was ever lost.

All is true and path.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Reading Baldwin, 1

James Baldwin: Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)
Library of America no. 97 (ed. Toni Morrison),  pp. 1-215
Giovanni’s Room (1956)
op. cit., pp. 217-360
ISBN: 978-1-88301151

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, and public intellectual particularly active from the 1950s until his death. Black, gay, and (much of the time) expatriate, his relationship to the Civil Rights Movement was complex. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI accumulated over 1800 pages of documents in his file; he met with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy; he appeared prominently at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963; but — this is my speculation — he saw observation of the social condition, let alone analysis and action, as complex and nuanced.

I come to that conclusion rashly, not having read Baldwin’s essays. Not having read Baldwin at all, in fact, though his first two novels had appeared, to considerable discussion, before I graduated with a degree in English Literature. Baldwin had not been assigned in any of my classes, and I didn’t know of his importance.

What with these times I’ve decided to read him, complete and chronologically, depending on the Library of America for my sources. After completing the primary sources I may turn to criticism and biography: his was clearly an interesting life as well as an important one.

Baldwin took ten years to write his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain. The result is powerful, clear, and expressive in content; fascinating, balanced, and intelligent in structure. It is a bildungsroman, nearly, but stops just short of the expected final intellectual awakening of John Grimes, the central character — Baldwin leaves it to the reader to extrapolate the catastrophe that will precipitate, a year or two after the narrative’s conclusion.

I won’t describe the plot: you’ve read the book, or if not you can find plenty of outlines on the internet. It involves a family: stern father, taken-for-granted mother, John (sired by a different father, though he may not know it), younger brother Roy, two younger sisters; and aunt Florence, the father’s older sister, who offers an outside, non-Christian view of the family’s failings.

The father is a Pentecostal preacher to his own storefront Harlem church, and the relentless, remorseless cruelty of the Old Testament permeates the novel. “Race,” in the usual sense, is rarely an issue; the preacher has no use for whites, and John has to keep his own childhood experiences with kind white adults — teacher, librarian — to himself, not seeing a way to share them.

The book’s narrative seems to take place in one long day, John’s fourteenth birthday, but the crushing events of the day are informed by other, similarly crushing events in the distant past — and by implications of catastrophes waiting in the future. I’m sure Baldwin must have sketched out the story chronologically, then worked on methods of incorporating flashbacks, and even flash-forwards within the flashbacks, to slow the pace, build the tension, and concentrate the power of his writing.

It is inconceivable that Baldwin could have written Go Tell It On the Mountain without knowing the novels of Henry James, without knowing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I see Gertrude Stein’s novella Melanctha behind Baldwin, too; and wonder about his view of Faulkner — I’ll find out when I get to Baldwin’s essays. I even wonder if I shouldn’t reread Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise soon, to see what it has to say to Go Tell It On the Mountain. I don’t mean by this that Baldwin’s novel is derivative: it is not. It is fully achieved. The ten years were well spent.

• • •

Giovanni’s Room is a completely different book. I think of Fitzgerald again, but this time of Gatsby; the book has that precision, clarity, and efficiency. And I think of Camus and L’Etranger: the book has that blinding moral force, that nearly physical impact.

We are in the south of France, apparently just after the end of World War II. The central character, who narrates the action, is a fair-haired American man, clearing out his house after his fiancee’s sudden departure, no clear future in store unless it’s a final descent into the transient rootless Paris scene whose revelation precipitated his girl’s decision.

For if Go Tell It On the Mountain is a novel centered on Pentecostalism, Giovanni’s Room centers on (male) homosexuality. If whites are nearly absent from Go Tell It On the Mountain, blacks are not to be found in Giovanni’s Room. Most of the action is in Paris, involving characters and settings Proust’s Baron de Charlus would recognize instantly, though regretting the fall of social graces between fin-de-siècle and Libération. Baldwin writes of a world of casual cruising, from which love appears to blossom.

And if Go Tell It On the Mountain suggests I reread Fitzgerald, Giovanni’s Room spurs me (!) to get back to the Proust project, lapsed a year ago midpoint — precisely in Charlus’ company.

Just as some critics have suggested that John’s religious crisis, in Go Tell It On the Mountain, is code for his growing awareness of his homosexuality, others see the narrator’s bisexuality in Giovanni’s Room as standing for the conflict between black and white (or mixed) society. (Both novels are clearly autobiographical to an extent.) 

Doesn’t matter to me if some readers see and pause over this possibility, or even if someone persuades me, in future reading, that Baldwin had this in mind. Such readings reveal the riches of nuance, fed by the experiences determining the postures of such readers. Let a hundred flowers bloom. I will never be able to read Baldwin as anyone but an old straight white man: but I am reading him, so far, with great appreciation and gratitude for his knowledge, his eloquence, his artistry, and his humanity.


Monday, July 06, 2020

From my 1975 Journal, an account of an elaborate party

(16 May)

[John] Fitzgibbon had called the day I was working on the grant application for The Bride, to invite me to his Bride-based event for Bruce Nauman & Howard Fried, so of course it was necessary to go. L. had to work, so Giovanna accompanied me. A gorgeous day: we drove to Auburn, then south up behind Folsom Lake through Cool to Pilot Hill, turning west to John's. We were directed to a parking place; there we gave up the dozens of roses we'd brought & were instructed to walk down a trail, stopping at some point to take all our clothes off (I retained my hat & shoes) & lay them out to look as if they were still being worn. Clothes were hanging from trees & bushes (some times from poisonoak!), sitting, stuffed with other clothes, on logs; lying spread out on the ground. In a large hillside meadow – actually at the edge of it — we sat, getting our instructions from John; down at the bottom of the hill there was an easel; on it, a painting by ____ in homage to Duchamp’s Nudes. In time we saw the figure of a unicorn appear at the bottom of the hill, accompanied by one of John's daughters in a bridal gown; after a while we heard country string music, & then Nauman & Fried appeared, escorted by a fiddler.

They had flown to Sacramento, been met by a car, ostensibly to be driven to John's, but were let off at the lake, where the fiddler met them & accompanied them via sailboat to the bottom of our hill. While looking at the painting they were distracted by the bride & the unicorn, who proceeded slowly up the hill; as Nauman & Fried followed them, we nudes appeared on either side of their path, arcing Frisbees across it & calling out messages out of the Duchamp canon: "Water & gas on every floor!" “No solution because no problem!” etc. At the top of the hill the bride was stripped by seven bachelors, who barred the guests from aiding her; she was abducted by Death, a hideous skeleton, & was led, with the unicorn still protected by the seven, so that Nauman & Fried could not touch his horn & free the maiden, up the steep path past the clothing- dummies.

In the meantime we swift nudes were ascending through the oaks on either side of the path, so that we got to the top ahead of Death & the maiden & the guests: at a corral at the trailhead we formed a gauntlet, analogous to Nauman's green corridor, the path between the two rows strewn with rose petals — a lovely smell – & Death, maiden, unicorn, bachelors & guests passed the gauntlet into the corral, where John welcomed them, the guests were finally able to touch the unicorn horn, the maiden was freed, & the event was over to dancing & music.

The impressions — youth, of spirits above all; sunshine & oak-dappled shade; aromas of grass, flowers, roses; animal energy & beauty; speed & power, a little mystery. It all worked very well indeed.

Afterward G. & l went up to John's to thank him - on the way seeing the discarded typewriter, lying among the oaks like a rejected casting, the relic of a previous event.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Memorable visuals, 3: Gardens: The Villa Garzoni

The Villa Garzoni in Collodi, near Lucca, was the first Italian hillside garden we visited. Many gardens have impressed me: Het Loo, the Alcazar, Cordoba, the Reggio in Caserta, Tivoli… But this was the first, I think, to leave a lasting impression. I’m sorry I don’t have a better photo. 




A well-designed and -maintained garden is a painting in space, usually on a strong drawing. It is architecture freed of the obligation to contain ,inviting the visitor to wander, now considering detail — color, texture, form — and now contemplating totality, the overall, changing, generally visceral rather than analytical impression of the garden’s statement as a whole. 

And then the mediations: between detail and totality; between totality and Place, by which I mean both site (here carved out of “wild” setting, and facing paved streets and “development”) and historical position. 

Much to consider, and where would you find a more tranquil spot in which to make the effort?

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Memorable visuals, 2: Sculpture. Le Cheval majeur

The Large Horse, bronze, by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, one of Marcel Duchamp’s older brothers, who was destined finally to take sculpture in a straight line past Rodin — except that World War I killed him in 1918.

In fact this work is posthumous: Duchamp-Villon made a small version, in plaster, in 1914, apparently leaving instructions as to the size he wanted; Duchamp and his surviving older brother Jacques Villon had an edition of casts at the final size — 150 × 97 × 156 cm — made in 1930.

Of course it is stupid to look at a photograph of a sculpture. This one particularly: you have to walk around it, slowly, looking at the constantly changing edges, perhaps with one eye; and back away and approach, and raise your head and lower it…

I suppose if you have to classify things you’d say this is a rare example of French Futurism. I wish Duchamp-Villon hadn’t joined the army — he served in a medical corps, contracted typhoid fever in 1916, and died of it two years later, just before the Armistice. Tragic.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Memorable visuals, 1: Painting: De Melkmeid

A Facebook friend challenged me to post a work of art a day, one I have seen in person or has greatly affected me, and incorporates the visual: painting, sculpture, theater, opera, film, dance, photography, architecture … Vermeer’s kitchenmaid will likely not be the only Dutch painting to show up this series, even the only Vermeer. But of all the paintings in the Rijksmuseum she’s the one I’m closest to, taking every opportunity for another glance between crowds…

Selected comments to the Facebook post:

John Whiting: A favorite of mine as well. A masterpiece of composition as well as comment.

Curtis Faville: The great Dutch masters portray a world of order, clarity and stasis.

Anthony Holdsworth: One of the greatest of the Dutch masters, Pieter Brueghel the Elder did not paint a world of 'order, clarity and stasis'. His later works: The Blind Leading the Blind, Hunters in the Snow, The Peasant Wedding, among others, are the most astounding depictions of the vanished peasant world in western art.

Alexis Alrich:I keep wondering what that box on the floor is. It looks like an incense burner or maybe rat poison. Do you know Charles Shere?

Charles Shere: Pretty sure it’s a little charcoal burner for warming your feet. It can get cold and damp in Delft…

Alexis Alrich: oh that makes sense! Another forgotten piece of daily life.

Dan McCleary: I love the broken window pane

Martin Snapp: Vermeer is my favorite.

Suzy Nelson: Did you see the movie with Scarlett Johansen....The girl with the pearl earring? I love mise en scene in that picture. Point/counterpoint to our own lives.

Daniel James Wolf: Amazing how little the bread has changed. I guess when you get it right, you stick to it.

Allan Leedy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim's_Vermeer

I myself think Brueghel the Elder does show order, clarity, and the same kind of stasis Vermeer does. The stasis is a held breath, an interruption in that constant motion we've known since Heraklitus.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Landscape

From The Old Ways, by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books, 2012) (many thanks to Deborah Madison):
‘As I watch [the world],’ wrote Nan Shepherd in 1945, ‘it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles.’ It is a brilliant observation about observation. Shepherd knew that ‘landscape’ is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance, as if it were a panel in a frieze or a canvas in a frame. It is not the passive object of our gaze, but rather a volatile participant — a fellow subject which arches and bristles at us, bristles into us. Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, an immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take ‘landscape’ as a collective term forthe temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds (cricket screech, bird cry, wind through trees), the scents (pine resin, hot stone, crushed thyme) and the uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the bristling presence of a particular place at a particular moment.

Later that night, from the deeper shadows of the-pine forest, two pairs of animal eyes glowed orange and green.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Helene Aylon

Eastside Road, April 13, 2020
I DIDN’T KNOW Helene Aylon well, but I considered her a friend. I first met her in 1975 or ’76, I think. I was working for the Oakland Tribune as the art critic, and saw an exhibition of her recent works on paper, a series called “Paintings That Change,” in which she applied oil along the top (usually, as I recall) of the paper — in time the oil moved slowly across the paper, constantly but slowly changing the painting’s appearance.

I was impressed by the chance beauty of the results, and by the egoless attitude of the artist, who was content to let the medium make the image.

Late in the 1970s she began a new series, “The Breakings,” similarly chance-determined but clearly feminist: she poured linseed oil onto plexiglas panels, let it form a thick skin, then tilted the panels to form a sac containing the oil. At a certain point the sac would break, allowing oil to move across the panel. The results were strong, formal, yet emotional.

In the 1980s Helene turned toward a more conceptual approach, to an area even larger than feminism: pacifism. This began with an ambitious project: she gathered dirt from nuclear bases, mines, and reactors, stuffing it into pillowcases and deploying them in demonstrations at, for example, the United Nations headquarters. This project grew into an international activity, gathering dirt and other material from many sites, often incorporating material from interviews with women living in troubled areas.

I never though of Helene, in those days, as having a settled residence — she would appear one day, seemingly en route from Palestine to Japan, with documentation of projects involving sacks, dirt, narratives. She was always earnest, caring, patient; she seemed resigned to the continual human tragedy.

* * *

At one point, probably in the 1980s, Helene asked me to appear in her defense in a court trial. Sacks of dirt she had taken from various sites had been damaged in storage: the facility’s roof had leaked, the sacks had rotted; the various earth samples, meticulously gathered, documented, and stored, had run together. The storage company was pressing her for unpaid fees; she was refusing to pay and asking damages, I think, for the ruined work.

The trial hinged on one question: was her work art, or was her material simply ordinary dirt. I was asked to testify that she was an artist and that her work was significant. On the day of my appearance I was alarmed. The jury looked utterly uninterested in the proceedings. I listened to Peter Selz’s testimony for the storage unit: Helene was a minor, marginal figure, he said, in a complex galaxy of conceptual and process-oriented artists. The dirt was simply dirt. Much of his testimony was on videotape for some reason and during its presentation I saw that the judge was actually sleeping, members of the jury bored and restless.

My testimony was limited to answers to direct questions from the attorneys for the two sides, and it was apparently insufficient. I finished and was dismissed. Soon enough the jury returned its verdict — against Helene.

She seemed resigned, but in a way I thought her defeat confirmed the justice of her attempt. There is a quiet, Sisyphean heroism to such work. Helene persisted, turning in later decades to work even more ambitious, even more futile to my view: removing paternalism and male supremacy from orthodox Judaism.

In 1996 I spent a week or so in New York City, and she offered me her studio apartment in Westbeth. I spent almost no time with her then; she was away on one of her frequent trips. But another trip a few years later brought her to San Francisco for an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, as I recall, and we met briefly on that occasion. She was warm, curious about my own doings, expressive. She always had a soft power, the sympathy of human concern attached to the strength of enduring persistence.

Helene was not a distancer. She died of complications of Covid-19 on April 6th, in New York City. She was eighty-nine years old.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Listening to the Haydn symphonies

IVE BEEN LISTENING to Haydn these last few weeks, chronologically as is my absurd compulsion: at first the string quartets, up through Opus 9; more recently the symphonies. I tend to read authors and consider painters and sculptors the same way, reading where possible (and where I am interested) the complete works, beginning with the first and continuing to, ultimately, the last.

I do this because I am interested in the development of the author/composer’s work, both as it evolves intrinsically, you might say, within his/her output, and as it reflects awareness of outside events, whether the work of other, contemporary creative artists or the impact of social or environmental events.

This is particularly interesting when applied to Haydn’s symphonies. Though his are not the earliest in history, he is commonly thought to have defined the form, trying a number of approaches as to the number and disposition of its various movements, until he had pretty well fixed them in his last, “London” symphonies. (Where, to be honest, it seems to me he has sacrificed inventiveness to consistency.)

But how determine the chronological order of Haydn’s symphonies? This is a vexing problem, and one I have settled, I’m afraid, in an absurdly uncritical and arbitrary way: by following comments found by chance, as so much is these days, on the internet — at a website called, cutely, Haydn Seek, hosted by one Gurn Blanston, a fellow about whom I know nothing other than his fondness for Haydn. Blanston writes that his presentation is in turn taken from a German-language website, www.haydn107.com. This website reflects research by Sonja Gerlach; alas, I do not read German and so have pursued the matter no farther.

Blanston offers a table comparing the various number systems, beginning in 1757 with the first symphony. The commonly used numbers are taken from the Hoboken catalog, in which the symphonies are grouped in section I (that’s Roman-numeral-one). Though individual dates are generally unknowable, there’s agreement that Number One — Hob I:1, in D — is in fact the first, scored for pairs of oboes and horns and the usual string quintet.

It’s thought that the first 15 or so of these symphonies were composed for the house orchestra of Karl Joseph, Count Morzin, who hired the composer, then in his late twenties, in 1758, give or take a year. (Too much is uncertain in Haydn’s early history.) Morzin must have had a good band: there are challenging parts for oboe, horns, cello, and contrabass in these pieces.

My method in “studying” these symphonies — the word is too flattering — is to listen to them on YouTube, generally in a performance by Christoper Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, while reading the score, found at IMSLP.org. What fun to be reading scores again, after years of neglect; to be singing second horn or contrabass lines, even if I do find my bass range is gone and I’m lucky to fake a low F.

This all began with a chance remark by my grandson Simon, who’d gone to a Salt Lake City Symphony concert to hear something of Messiaen’s, I think it was, and The Rite of Spring, and was less than interested in the Haydn 10th (actually the 5th in the new chronology). I immediately listened to the 10th, and was surprised at the part-writing in the violins, especially in the Andante.

Morzin had to let Haydn go in 1760, but recommended him to Prince Anton Esterházy, where he found an even better position. But the Morzin year, or years, saw the composition of probably fifteen symphonies, almost all for the same instrumental forces — oboes, horns, and strings, with a bassoon likely playing with contrabass — but three, all in C major, adding trumpets and drums. The thematic material ranges from country-style dance music to heartfelt slow movements, occasionally for solo violin — Haydn would likely have played those himself, as he “conducted” these pieces violin in hand.

This morning I got to Number 34 (old style: in the Gerlach numbering, 29 — composed (along with five others) in 1763. D Minor is of course a very serious business, and this symphony opens with a stately, formal Adagio that lasts twelve minutes. (Hogwood’s recordings thankfully take all the repeats. Then a suddenly energetic Allegro, with slashing violin themes above a jog-trot propulsion in the lower strings. The Menuetto returns to symmetrical formality, but prominent oboe and horn parts retain the ironic energy of the Allegro; and the final Presto assai, very fast indeed, feels like an invitation to the listeners to move along out of the concert hall.

Who first heard these pieces? Who did Haydn write them for? The musicians first, I think — they must have worried a bit about some of the fast passages, and maybe even — the wind players — about counting their rests. But what about an audience? Presumably the Prince and his family and guests. Austrian nobility and upper-class were musical (the Prince played baryton) and took keen interest in new music. A piece like the opening Adagio of this d minor symphony requires patience: it is as severe and symmetrical as the facade of Esterházy Castle. Attending to this music reminds us of life as it was before electricity and the gasoline engine: as difficult to imagine, for many today, as life without internet and computer.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Back to the blog — via books…

Perhaps stay-in-place will revive the blog, which declined, in some cases died, in the last couple of years — perhaps the victim of increased Facebook activity largely attributable to the distractions of these Trump years.

Let's give it a try with a few paragraphs on reading. These strange epidemic times interfere even with that. The volume of correspondence is much increased — no complaint there; I love reading and writing letters, but it takes time. (Correspondence so far this year, sent and received, runs to nearly 70,000 words, just among friends and family!)

I just read Donald Hall’s A Carnival of Losses, sent me by a friend. Hall was poetry editor of The Paris Review; he died two years ago, nearly ninety years old; this book was his last, a collection of light first-person anecdotes and memories of interactions with poets he had known. I found Hall a little too self-congratulatory, though perhaps at his age and after his accomplishments that can be excused.

Until now I would have logged the successful reading of the book at the website Goodreads, and perhaps left a short “review” there. I recently learned, though, that Goodreads is yet another Amazon property, and I’ve decided to spurn it. This is unfortunate as a number of my children and grandchildren use it, and it’s pleasant to read their comments there — and to keep track of their literary interests. But I will return to LibraryThing, where I note two anodyne reader reviews of A Carnival of Losses: I should add one of my own, I suppose.

I am nearly done with the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays, most of them reviews, in The Common Reader, first series. I bought the book over sixty years ago, as I can tell by the style of my signature on the flyleaf. It’s a Harcourt Brace Harvest edition, paperback, published in 1953; it has held up remarkably well. I don’t remember if I read it previously; I think not. Here Librarything offers six reader reviews, and several of them are quite worth looking at. I liked, for example,

The common reader is decidedly not a book to read without the mind and without the heart — both of those organs will be stimulated more than adequately as you read it — but the considerable enjoyment is still there all the same!
What’s next? I’m stalled in Richard Jeffries’s The Story of My Heart and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, in both cases partly because I’ve been reading them as e-books, on my iPhone. A friend has just sent Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Landscapes) with a glowing recommendation, and another is apparently sending me Roy Morris’s Gertrude Stein Has Arrived for which I will no doubt drop everything else temporarily. (And no doubt that will drive me back to Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography.) When the weather's warmer I plan to resume and finish Proust, and I've been hearing a call from Beckett lately, his great trilogy.

In pre-internet days reading a book like The Common Reader was slowed by trips to the encyclopedia. One wants to know more about the Mitfords, the Elizabethans, the Greeks. Wikipedia is quicker to consult, of course, but ends taking up more time, because its distractions are equally quicker. I find it more difficult to write, these days; the future is so vague it seems futile to leave yet more words scattered about. But how I appreciate those left by earlier writers; how gratifying their conversations are now we can't conduct our own with old friends and youngsters!