Friday, December 30, 2011

Nothing to be frightened of

So many books read this last year, so few of them commented on here. End-of-year reflections will haunt me for the next seven weeks, I'm sure — I'll be too busily distracted for them after that — so I won't anguish over my failure to share notes on Frederic Tuten, or Patrick Leigh Fermor, or Carolyn Brown, or Patti Smith, to cite only the most impressive of the authors I've learned from recently.

Instead I'll concentrate, for the moment, on a book uniquely appropriate to the season: Julian Barnes's Nothing to be Frightened Of (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). Barnes is better known as a novelist, I suppose, at the present moment at least, with his A Sense of Ending on the lists: I haven't read that yet, partly because I wanted to approach it through this earlier book, which is not fiction but memoir, meditation, and criticism — a conflation-medium I'm particularly attracted to these days. (One's late seventies launch an autumnal mood.)

Barnes was the second son of two teachers of French and French literature, and that language and literature are central, it seems, to his address to life, its observation and discussion. Nothing to be Frightened Of is a contemplation of a selected history of man's meditations on death — not many women's such meditations, be it noted, though a few do turn up — as a way, no doubt, of pinning down his own view of the matter. A consummate writer, Barnes writes, I believe, as the best writers do, in order to discover (or at least approach) resolutions of his own confusions, or misgivings, or as a friend said this morning apprehensions, about the subjects at hand: and what greater subject than death?

Death; dying; God; religion. Someone asked Thoreau, as he lay on his deathbed, if he had made his peace with God. "I hadn't realized we'd quarreled," he replied — at least that's how I recall the line. Googling it just now, I find it often quoted, but the source never cited.

(I do, though, find two other nice deathbed lines: When Voltaire was on his deathbed, a priest abjured him to accept Christ and renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, "Father, this is no time to be making enemies!"
As Talleyrand lay on his deathbed, he cried, "I suffer the torments of Hell!" A friend (I forget his name) sitting up with him replied, "Already?")

Barnes loops gracefully through confrontations with these four principal themes (death; dying; God; religion; remember?) and more; interweaving funny stories about his childhood and his philosopher brother (who, oddly, lives at the near geographical center of France in order to teach in Geneva); and considering similar confrontations by a number of minds of the highest ranks. The book is not indexed, which is a major flaw — especially in a book with the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf! — but my endpaper notes will provide an idea:

36 treacherous memory
38 childhood memory
40 Montaigne
47 Renard
54ff god out of art (art sans god)
61 fear of death (thanatophobia)
83 S. Maugham
86 Daudet: adieu, moi
95 Flaubert
97-8 d. of Daudet; of Sand, Braque
99 Title!
107 either you or I
108 Critics
117 The dead appear to the dying
121 Chabrier
124 Wharton, James, Turgenev, Falukner
132 Stravinsky
134 Edm. Wilson
138 memory is identity.
166 last words. Hegel. Dickinson.
185 meaning
189ff problem of eternal life
193 Rossini
195 Goethe
202 Shostakovich 14
209 flux
That last note, of course, sums it all up. There is nothing that is fixed, as Heraklitus famously noted. Acceptance of death, which is to say acceptance of life, is acknowledgement of flux. If it's true, as Emerson notes in his essay "Circles," that
…this incessant movement and progression, which all things partake, could never become sensible to us, but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. While the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides.
quoted by Ross Posnock in his review of American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ramer-Rosenhagen, The Nation, Nov. 21, 2011
it is also true that these principles of fixture are site-specific to "the soul", are individual and unique and not fungible, are there for purposes of convenience only: and life (and its apparent extinction) are not there for convenience. Emerson goes on to note "Life is a series of surprises": those who yearn for stability, certainty, reassurance, are denying the essence of life.

Barnes gives a good deal of attention to Jules Renard, "one of my dead, French, non-blood relatives," known to students of elementary French in my day (the 1950s, in this context) simply as the author of Poil de carotte but much more significant (and influential
on literature) as a memoirist. Clearly Renard has been a muse for Barnes, providing him with both details for contemplation and a model for its practice and expression.

Such influence or inspiration is linked, I think, to the subject at hand, for what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" (in a book by that title, which I haven't yet read, perhaps fearing to be influenced by it) — the fear or apprehension that influence will dull individuality — is related to the apprehension of death. Both are rooted in a mistaken notion of identity, which notion is one of the most seductive, therefor sinister, of the "principles of fixture" Emerson concedes to us.

I sometimes think we are, at best, like books. I bought this copy of Nothing to be Frightened Of at Title Wave, the deaccessioning outlet of the Portland (Oregon) Public Library, and I'm off this afternoon to lend it to an ailing friend. Human thought about existence and its consequences, from Epicurus to Shostakovich, go with the book, with Barnes. I'll print out a copy of this post and tuck it into the endpaper: perhaps it will be read, perhaps not. So it goes.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Looking at what you've just done, the critics ask what's in it for them, for their immediate entertainment or information; and maybe -- maybe -- what's in it for their moment.

The historians will ask how it continues what you've done before, and how it fits into your era.

But you, why have you done it?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Twelfth Night

Pasadena, December 17—
MY FAVORITE OF ALL Shakespeare plays — I know, it's a ridiculous formulation — is Twelfth Night. It has some of the most affecting poetry; its large cast includes some of his most memorable, complex characters; the narrative is interesting enough on its most literal level (even after all these viewings), and Is particularly rich with extended meaning. 

Last night we saw a fine performance in A Noise Within's new theater here. Julia Rodriguez-Elliott set her production in a (probably) pre-Castro Cuba, which mostly worked just fine. (Short Cuban dance numbers replaced Shakespeare's songs.) Twelfth Night always suggests Sicily to me — Viola is from Messina, as I recall — and Cuba is our Sicily, in a way: exotic, free-wheeling, fantastic.

I peck these comments out on my iPad keyboard without time for extensive discussion, so won't go into detail. will provide the credits, and I'll simply note here each actor seemed well cast and approached the assignment with intelligence, interest, skill, and sympathy; "small" roles were as beautifully and tellingly fleshed out as big ones.

(This meant, for example, that Antonio was able to emerge, correctly, as the pivot on which so much extended meaning of this great play turns.)

The company is still tuning its approach to this spacious yet cozy, beautiful new venue, but there's no doubt of the outcome. We like the hall, the company, the seriousness of purpose and the vitality and humor of approach and achievement. What will tonight's Desire Under the Elms be like?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Wow: Googling around while relaxing in that twenty minutes before bedtime I find this:
Se Reich e' l'Haydn del minimalismo, Adams ne e' il Mozart, gia' teso ad un geniale, e talvolta irriverente, superamento del classicismo.
The other night we went to the "Live TV broadcast" or whatever they call it from the Metropolitan Opera to the local charter-school auditorium, rather an ambitions building, of Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha. If Reich is the Haydn and Adams the Mozart, then Glass, at least in this opera, is the Verdi of minimalism. No: let me quickly amend that. In some scenes he's the Verdi; in others, notably the great closing scene, he's one of the Richard Strausses.

We saw the opera once before, and can't remember where and when. Probably the San Francisco Opera production, though my visual memory of the event suggests a different house. This season's Met production is very different, what you might call second-generation Robert Wilson, tricked out with immense puppets and aerialists and such. It's hard to tell from the absurd film-as-cosmos style of these movie-theater broadcasts just what the impact in the real theater might have been: the film production alternates between close-ups, long shots, and side-to-side pans, sometimes in a tempo so quick and a sequence so unpredictable and chaotic as to leave at least this onlooker physically confused.

I've railed so many times about these collisions of scale — the amplified string quartet as loud as three Wagner orchestras; the soprano's face as big as four billboards — that I hate to harp on it yet again. But this is a serious matter, folks: scalar confusions of this sort not only physically confound the audience's entrails, throwing them into a nauseated discomfort warning of impending doom; they also misrepresent the point of the message at hand — in this case, a very beautifully conceived and proportioned masque representing Ghandi's discovery of his purpose, the principle of nonviolent resistance, the forward-looking triumph of good sense and comprehension over stubborn authority and oppressiveness. Glass's opera is all sensitivity, grace, introspection, receptivity; this video production of his opera lurches, insists, moons, cajoles.

The singing was mostly first-rate. I don't know if anyone could have bettered Richard Croft's performance as Ghandi; that closing scene, though long, floated beautifully; it was hard to let it go.

But what must poor Phil have thought of the Met's including long excerpts of Wagner's Ring in the second intermission? I suppose you can argue there's historical precedent here; two centuries ago it wasn't uncommon to play comedies in the intervals of opera seria. But Wagner?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Recognizing the Midtone

Berkeley, December 2, 2011—
SITTING IN A CAFÉ over a cappuccino I have no time to write here properly, but I want to call attention to an important paper by my friend Douglas Leedy, who as well as being a composer of significant and often beautiful music is a scholar of the first rank.

His area of specialization is of course music, and his knowledge of the subject extends far and wide. He has at various times and places been a player of French horn (including stints with symphony orchestras in Oakland, California, and Caracas, Venezuela); a keyboard player (chiefly harpsichord); a conductor (chiefly of music of the Baroque era); and of course a composer.

He made extensive visits, often amounting to residencies, in Poland, India, and Venezuela. He has taught at Reed College and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he founded the electronic music studio.

In recent years he has pursued an intensive study of ancient Greek, which has led him to conclude that among the early Greek poets, certainly through Pindar, poetry and music are essentially synonymous; and that our fuller understanding (or, better, awareness) of their work requires an attempt to reconstruct the sound of their sung poetry.

This has led him to a determined, highly disciplined, and to my limited understanding quite persuasive account, still evolving hence not yet publicly available, of exactly how to go about singing Homer today, accompanied by instruments readily available in our own time.

Alas, I can't share his Reconstructing Greek Music yet. I can however announce that an example of Leedy's thorough scholarship and gracefully persuasive writing on another subject is available.

Recognizing the Midtone addresses a musical interval important throughout history and across continents but lost to the familiar Western European "classical" tradition. Leedy presents an abstract of his essay:
Recognized as a melodic interval in the musical scales of the ancient Greeks, the three- quarter tone, or so-called “neutral” second, is a fundamental melodic interval, along with the tone and semitone of the Western diatonic scale, in present-day musical cultures that extend eastward in an arc from northwest Africa along the Mediterranean to Egypt and the Near East, the former Burma, much of southeast Asia, and Indonesia. For this interval, which is incommensurate with the tone and semitone (and which is, for example, considered to exert a powerfully expressive effect in classical Arab melody), the more autonomous name of midtone is here proposed, along with a parallel renaming of other “neutral” intervals. An overview of the use and significance of the midtone in a number of musical cultures is presented, with references to recordings, published studies, and musical notation, as well as to its occasional, exotic appearance in Western classical music.
I am pleased to have participated a bit in the presentation of this important essay, and I hope that its online publication will be followed by other papers of his.