Tuesday, March 23, 2010

cultiver le jardin…

Excellenz von Schubert

YES, VOLTAIRE. It's from the close of Candide — now where did I put that book? — describing the moment when the eponymous hero of the book, finally disillusioned, gives up his quest for philosophy, turns his back on his tedious mentor Pangloss and his tedium… but let Voltaire tell it:
“Pangloss disait quelquefois à Candide: ‘Tous les événements sont enchaînés dans le meilleur des mondes possibles; car enfin, si vous n’aviez pas été chassé d’un beau château à grands coups de pied dans le derrière pour l’amour de Mlle Cunégonde, si vous n’aviez pas été mis à l’Inquisition, si vous n’aviez pas couru l’Amérique à pied, si vous n’aviez pas donné un bon coup d’épée au baron, si vous n’aviez pas perdu tous vos moutons du bon pays d’Eldorado, vous ne mangeriez pas ici des cédrats confits et des pistaches.’

‘Cela est bien dit,’ répondit Candide, ‘mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.’”

Pangloss frequently told Candide: 'everything's connected in this best of all possible worlds; for finally, if you hadn't been chased from a beautiful chateau with considerable kicks on your behind for the love of Mlle Cunégonde, if you hadn't been sent to the Inquisition, if you hadn't run through America on foot, if you hadn't given a good sword-slap to the baron, if you hadn't lost all your sheep in that fine country of Eldorado, you wouldn't be here eating pistachios and candied citron.'

'All very well said,' replied Candide, 'but we must cultivate our garden.'
Voltaire wasn't talking about a garden of his own, whether in Switzerland or France. Wikipedia provides a pretty good take on the quote (I recommend the entire entry, and that on Voltaire):
The conclusion of the novella, in which Candide finally dismisses his tutor's optimism, leaves unresolved what philosophy the protagonist is to accept in its stead. This element of Candide has been written about voluminously, perhaps above all others. The conclusion is enigmatic and its analysis is contentious.

self-portrait, San José

WE SPENT THE WEEKEND in the improbable city of San José, which is greatly changed in the last forty years. (The addition of the acute accent to its name is one of those changes.) With over a million inhabitants it is now California's third city (after Los Angeles and San Diego), and the heart of the city, where we spent most of our time, is an odd survival of the old architecture and street-grid in the midst — well, there is no "midst" here; the city reminds me of Houston, where empty office-skyscrapers thrust up from blocks of bungalows in a wide-spread scatter fully dependent on the automobile.

We were there to attend the state finals in the mock trial competition organized by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Our grandson Henry was participating, his high school (Laytonville) having won the Mendocino county competition.

We found the trials absorbing, Lindsey and I. We watched four of them, Laytonville arguing for the prosecution twice and the defense twice; and then a fifth one, in which Hillsdale High (San Mateo county) bested the San Francisco School of Performing Arts to win the state. (The national competition is set for May 6-8 in Philadelphia.)

Each high school fields two teams, for defense and prosecution, enacting a single murder case, the details of which are scripted but the arguments of which are apparently left to the teams. A real judge presides; the "jury" comprises a number of legal professionals who score each team member as to effectiveness. (The judge's decision is immaterial to the final rating of the student legal teams.)

There's a good deal of theater in all this, of course: the drama inherent in any courtroom scene, and that of the students as they learn, individually and as a team, from their mistakes and from their opponents; as they respond to completely different styles of questions from the judges; as they meet, best, or fail the crises developing from all these courtroom interactions.

To me, though, the greatest dimension of this theater was the dialectic of Laytonville and San José. Laytonville is an unincorporated community of a thousand souls, an hour's drive from the county seat of Ukiah. Our son and his wife run the local feed store, help out with the rodeo, and interact with much of the community. "I'm comfortable there," he says, "because it's the only place I've seen that's like Berkeley" — the Berkeley of the 1960s and '70s, he means — "all kinds of people, all of them interesting, all of them respecting one another's privacy."

Maybe that shouldn't be in attributive quotes; maybe I'm writing my own observation. Laytonville's citizens seem a deceptive lot, rustic and isolated but intelligent and quirky. The highschool kids are plugged into the world, of course, fiercely tap-tap-tapping at their cellphones, Facebooking and Tweeting. But the difference between their demeanor and that of their first opponents, from Marin county, seemed to speak a grand subject. Marin county per capita income is over $90,000; Mendocino's, and Laytonville's, is less than $20,000. The Marin kids, from Tamalpais High, came out strong, assertive, composed, confident; Laytonville, prosecuting a very weak case, struggled to find their footing.

Affluence, security, confidence: these are no doubt wonderful things, but I'm not sure they necessarily make good citizens, particularly in the context of a society that seems to overvalue individualism and commodity. The Laytonville kids can garden and hunt, ride and build. They use and enjoy the Internet, but for them I think real community trumps virtual community. They're competent and helpful, and my money's on them in case of catastrophe; I'm not sure the complex global community of banking, law, and marketing can survive as well.

RETURNED SUNDAY NIGHT to Eastside Road, we entertained eight or ten friends with white wine, Alsatian onion tarts, Lindsey's absolutely delicious Savarin, and sight-readings of two of Gertrude Stein's little plays: What Happened a Play and Ladies Voices. Stein's plays, as I've written elsewhere,
…are famously overheard conversation, but they have an integrity, stylistically and theatrically, that comes from a single observer's point of view (far-reachingly intelligent though it be), filtered through a single writer's editorial and expressive technique.
I've always imagined those overheard conversations took place among settings exactly like Sunday evening's, gatherings of old friends and new, pleasingly fed and judiciously lubricated, comfortably seated and sheltered; and it doesn't hurt that we're in the country; it's quiet outside; and you can see the stars.

A gathering like this is something of a garden, I think. A courtroom is not; a courtroom is an arena. Stein writes somewhere that landscapes are useful settings for two purposes, battles and plays; but there are landscape plays and drawing-room plays, and I think her early short plays fall into the latter category. (Four Saints in Three Acts manages to contain drawing-room theater within a landscape play.) The comedy some of us first enjoy in Stein's theater comes from the apparent first-level non-consequence of these Cubistly juxtaposed overheard lines; the fascination some of us go on to enjoy, to contemplate and consider, comes from the resonance that arises from these lines and their very "meaninglessness," and that grows and enlarges, dissolving our linear and literal response to them in a greater, less specific, more timeless landscape of sound and society.

The landscape of downtown San José hesitates between old and new, always cluttered with wires, signs, and lines; it's almost unvaryingly hardend by pavement, glass, concrete; and the flow of its visible energies is herky-jerky, responding to the tyranny of stoplights for the motors first, pedestrians only secondly. There are of course a number of vacant storefronts. Restaurants, bars, and cafés tend toward the cheap and easy. The Peet's we found did make a decent, individualized cappuccino and was playing Mozart, but it took an humble place away from the main streets where the corporate-scaled faux-village St•rb•cks prevail.

There's a confusion in such a landscape, a disagreement of place and purpose, a disorder of clutter and irrelevance; a confusion that can't help but influence the sensibilities of its citizens. There's a lot of stuff there, but not that much There, as Stein might say. I think the natural, perhaps the normal mental response to such confusion is a shut-down, a turn-off, contrasting with the continual-onward, the opening-outward I feel on reading Stein, on conversing with friends, on hearing the birds and contemplating the stars and the garden.

A PHONE CALL from the north, yesterday, got me to thinking about the instrumental extensions at the end of sung phrases of Homer. The singing of Homer is perhaps an arcane subject, but it fed right into the weekend's contemplations. Homer, and the Greek poets who followed him, composed his work; there seems to have been no distinction between "poetry" and music. Ancient Greek was an inflected language in more ways than one: melody — the contrasts and connections of pitches articulated the lines as much as did rhythm — those of the quantities, the lengths, of the syllables.

As my Corvallis friend sings it, Homer's Greek is insinuating, mesmerizing, constantly forward-spinning. The mind can only deal with so much of this rich texture of voice, sound, language, meaning, narration. At the end of certain sections, then, the voice falls silent for a few moments, and the accompanying harp extends the line, giving the singer's voice and the listener's mind a bit of rest.

At least that's what I think the purpose of this extension is. But what is the resulting effect? It lies in what's meant by the expression "letting something sink in," allowing time for external functions, outside the intentionality of the singer and the hearer, to make their own little adjustments to context; to configure — sounds, rhythms, meanings — within a kind of perceptible landscape.

I believe that language, meaning, narration, and music were originally inseparable, like self and society. Homer's Iliad is tragic for its record of war, violence on both an individual and a societal level: but in that degree the tragedy's trivial, compared to that of its example of the devolution of thought and language from a position of prayer and praise toward one of argument and persuasion.

Well: all this in my garden this sunny Tuesday. I think when Candide turns to his garden it's to give his mind time to settle. I think you gentle reader for letting me wander here in mine.

(There's an interesting page about singing Homeric Greek here; on it is a link to a performance of Demodokos' song about Ares and Aphrodite. My Corvallis friend says it's pretty good; it sounds a little rushed to me.)


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Charles Shere said...

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