Thursday, November 29, 2012

Commonplace: the significance of local nations

THE THREE DOMINANT statesmen in the main member states [of the European Coal and Steel Community, the early predecessor formed in May 1950, which led ultimately to the European Union] — Alcide De Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman — were all from the margins of their countries: De Gasperi from the Trentino, in north-east Italy; Adenauer from the Rhineland; Schuman efrom Lorraine. When De Gasperi was born — and well into his adult life — the Trentino was part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire and he studied in Vienna. Schuman grew up in a Lorraine that had been incorporated into the German Empire. As a young man, like Adenauer, he joined Catholic associations — indeed the same ones that the Rhinelander had belonged to ten years earlier. When they met, the three men conversed in German, their common language.

For all three, as for their Christian Democrat colleagues from bi-lingual Luxembourg, bi-lingual and bi-cultural Belgium, and the Netherlands, a project for European cooperation made cultural as well as economic sense: they could reasonably see it as a contribution to overcoming the crisis of civilization that had shattered the cosmopolitan Europe of their youth. Hailing from the fringes of their own countries, where identities had long been multiple and boundaries fungible, Schuman and his colleagues were not especially troubled at the prospect of some merging of national sovereignty. All six member countries of the new ECSC had only recently seen their sovereignty ignored and trampled on, in war and occupation: they had little enough sovereignty left to lose. And their common Christian Democratic concern for social cohesion and collective responsibility disposed all of them to feel comfortable with the notion of a trans-national 'High Authority' exercising executive power for the common good.
—Tony Judt, Postwar, pp. 15-58

WE VISITED RATHER A TOUCHING memorial to the six founders of the ECSC last March, as we were walking through Belgium and Luxembourg. It's set in a small field on the Meuse, where Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg meet at Trois-Frontières, as I recall. The ECSC was significant principally for being the breakthrough cooperative moment between France and (then West) Germany, and since it also included the Benelux countries and Italy it was truly international. It had been the brainchild of Jean Monnet, who was a Luxembourger, and brought to fruition primarily by Robert Schuman.

What I hadn't realized, until tonight in my return to Judt's magnificent history, was that Britain and Scandinavia's refusal to join the agreement was prompted in part by their mistrust of an accord that had been forged, after all, by Catholic political leaders. (Netherlands had also had its reservations, but was pulled along by Belgium and Luxembourg.) I suppose they were afraid of the possible return of the Holy Roman Empire.

There are lessons here. First: trust men from border regions, whose instinct it is to accommodate, not impose. Second: that Catholic-Protestant disagreement, which has spilled so much blood, just doesn't seem to want to go away. Are you listening, Shiites and Sunnis?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

van der Post

Eastside Road, November 21, 2012—
I AM NOT READING enough these days; no question about it. It's mostly because I have been writing and traveling. Both occupations require more energy than they used to, both physical and mental energy; and lately both occupations have also more busily filled those parts of the mind that seem increasingly necessarily at rest, or at least relatively untroubled, if I'm to attend to reading.

Like too many of us I typically read a few minutes at bedtime, when one's least likely to profit from it. Bedtime reading is an exercise in winding down. I'm tempted, in fact, to liken it to end of life, a time for relinquishing mental and physical exercise in preparation for the long sleep. Lately I've adopted the habit of reading in a foreign language at bedtime, and reading without a dictionary. I don't care if I don't fully understand the material; I'm reading for a different purpose. That's an injustice to the book and its author, of course, but I can always return to it with attentions more fully awake, perhaps in translation. Currently I'm reading a biography of one of my childhood favorite authors, Hendrik Willem van Loon. I've learned a few things from it, and one of these days I may even report on them here. But that's not today's purpose.

Instead, let me report on a book read last week, half of it on the flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Reading on airplanes, for me, is akin to reading in bed: I tend to forget completely what I've read as soon as the plane has landed. Sometimes, as soon as I've turned a page or two. Not this time, though, partly because I'd begun the book — at bedtime — a day or two before.

I found the book, Laurens van der Post's Venture to the Interior, at Yarra Cottage Books, a small promising used-book shop in Warrandyte, a bucolic suburb of Melbourne on the banks of the Yarra River. A trail runs along the bank there, several miles long. In mid-spring the trees are in full foliage, eucalypts, oaks, Monterey pines, shading the decomposed granite sandy path. The countryside here is so pretty it's been the subject of a number of landscape painters: at one point a stele commemorates one of them, Clara Southern, with a reproduction of one of her paintings.

Evensong.jpgClara Southern: Evensong, ca. 1900-1914, oil on canvas
The stele reads
Clara Southern, or 'Panther' as she was known, was described as a tall lithe beauty, with reddish fair hair. In 1905, she married local miner, John Arthur Flinn and settled at 'Blythe Bank', North Warrandyte on The Hill' above the Warrandyte township.
This work was painted from the high vantage point of 'The Hill', and depicts a number of the buildings along Yarra Street, including on the far left, the old bakery, which is still operational today. The view is westward across the Yarra River towards the hills of Templestowe.

That bakery — you'll have to take my word for it; my photo of the painting, reproduced in enameled steel or aluminum on the stele, and suffering from lens flare here — is to the left of the two sharply pitched shed roofs, which mark the location of Yarra Cottage Books.

The shop reminded me of those of fifty years ago, a series of small rooms with crowded shelves, well enough organized but better suited to browsing than go-and-get shopping (except that my age and size make the necessary floor-crouching difficult between close-set bookshelves). I looked for a copy of something by Patrick Leigh Fermor to give to my brother, who's done his share of global wandering, but found only the new biography, which I must hasten to obtain. (It was far too large to carry on the airplane). What I did find was Venture to the Interior, in a dog-eared Penguin paperbound that must be thirty years old.

What a book! The country it describes is a long way from the green Yarra valley in Victoria, as the "Interior" of the title is Nyasaland, in central Africa. And the "venture" — whose exact purpose is a little mysterious (causing me to wonder at times just who van der Post may have actually been venturing for) — involved flights very different from mine. I have made one long flight on a propellor-driven passenger airplane, from Bucharest to Moscow thirty years ago, and I know the wallow and the drone: but the flight van der Post describes, through Sahara sandstorms in the late 1940s, was a very different matter. Reading about it made today's flights seem comfortable, even though the food and drinks are considerably more Spartan.

At the bookshop the first sentence to catch my eye sold me the book:
One of the most striking features of the desperate age in which we live is its genius for finding good reasons for doing bad things.
Fourteen or fifteen times, in the course of reading these two hundred pages, I found myself ticking off paragraphs in the margins. Van der Post is writing about the end of colonialism, the tension between the "races," the recovery from the brutalities of World War II, the difference between the sexes; about revenge and forgiveness, the nature of Time, the fugitive transactionality of morality, the melancholia resulting from "education."

He writes about the nature of the nomad and the tyranny of place. He writes about consciousness and knowledge:
And yet there is a way of knowing which is at once underneath and above consciousness of knowing. There is a way in which the collective knowledge of mankind expresses itself, for the finite individual, through mere daily living: a way in which life itself is sheer knowing. So life is to me, anyway; a mystery in all its essentials, a complete and utter mystery. I accept it even gladly as such because the acceptance keeps me humble, keeps me in my little place; prevents me, as we used to say in the recent war, from being caught too far out of position.
Venture to the Interior is narrative and suspense narrative; it is travel and historical travel; it is psychology and social philosophy. It seems to me to be imperative reading for our time, for the age of Taliban and American Exceptionalism, as it was the product of its time, the age of fascism and the Third Reich. What a rich and confounding world this is, that offers such collective organized dismay, in the embrace of such transcendent natural beauty!

Yarra.jpgThe Yarra at Warrandyte

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Commonplace: Leunig

…I want to be rid of it! Please!
You seem ashamed of your inner book?
Not at all. It's just that I don't want to become a… a… …I don't want to become — a WRITER!
There, there — it's not so bad. We all have to become writers sooner or later. We must learn acceptance. We are born, we live and then, sadly, we must write.

(hanging his head) It seems so unfair. Life is so cruel. I thought I could escape.
Michael Leunig, Goatperson and other tales

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Monday, November 05, 2012

Theater down south

In flight, november 6, 2012—

TWO DAYS, THREE PLAYS. Three very different plays, in two quite different venues. We began Friday night with Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, thoughtful, still apt after its hundred years, but talky and, especially in its exposition, discursive. The action centers on a doctor whose new treatment will cure otherwise terminal tuberculosis, but who has only a very much limited supply of medicine. In order to save a brilliant young artist another patient, already selected for the cure, will have to be allowed to die.

There are plot complications, of course, and considerable mockery of rival doctors, all cynical to one degree or another and all ultimately ineffective (for Shaw loathed the medical profession). In the end, though, the play 's a stand-off between fixed morality and social convention, represented by the doctors, and personal freedom — license, in fact — as lived by the dying painter.

I've always had my problems with Shaw, who seems to me to have spent his career wanting to merge or at least mediate Wilde and Ibsen. His greatest flaw is forgivable: he can't resist bringing in side issues. Like many over-intelligent writers he knows that everything is quite complex, and he wants his audience to know that too. Prolixity was rampant in his era: if only he'd satirized that.

I liked virtually everything about the cast and the production; only problems with British accents distracted from the effect. (If we can have American voices in Shakespeare, why not also in Shaw?) An audience-cast discussion after the performance revealed the seriousness of the company's approach and left me impressed with the degree to which they evaded traps Shaw himself doesn't always escape. I still think, though, a little (more?) judicious cutting, especially in the first act, wouldn't have hurt. Surgery has its value, pace Shaw.
ODDLY, THE VERY DIFFERENTLY conceived comedy You Can't Take It With You, with its slapstick and sight gags, delivers the same sermon: lighten up, have fun, live free, escape the tiresome social conventions — especially the drive to work and wealth. After all, you can't take it with you.

The stand-off in this play is between the Sycamore (extended) family, screwball bohemians who write plays because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered, who play the xylophone, dance ballet, make candies for the neighborhood, read Trotsky, and keep a pet snake; and the pompous, priggish businessman whose handsome son has fallen, of course, for the one Sycamore who yearns for a simpler — well, more normal — life.

The Antaeus space, in a storefront, is very different from A Noise Within's, with its lights, rigging, traps, amd sound system. The contrast was pushed further by the curious distance between the playwrights' own stances to their subjects: Shaw can't help being as moralistic as the prigs he satirizes, in insisting on the illogic and inconsistency of their "values," while Kaufman anf Hart are content with Marx Brothers zaniness, preaching by example rather than argument.

The Antaeus production was a delightful jumble of props, costumes, voices, attitudes, and gags, delightfully in your face; the Dilemma kept its place, separated from its audience, presenting itself rather soberly. Each approach has its place; both were appropriately used. An instructive polarity, instructive, as Horace requires, and delightful.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING completely different: a late Shakespeare play, completely new to me. I've read Timon of Athens and Pericles, at least, though it was getting om sixty years ago and I have no recollectioon of them now; but until Saturday I was completely innocent of Cymbeline. O ye Muses, what a magnificent play!

Devices familiar from many other plays in the Canon — sleeping potions thought fatal, long-lost brothers, a disobedient daughter waking to love, the aging benevolent tyrant, rustic horseplay, among others — are reworked here to what seems to me a completely new and finally completely total resolution. There seems no doubt Shakespeare wrote this, the characters and the lines are unmistakable; but the result doesn't feel like a Shakespeare play, its feet in the 16th century. This is modern, new, Baroque. What a pleasure that Noise Within gives us this play in the wake of the Corneille romance The Illusion,, mounted last spring. They make a splendid case, these two productions, for the idea that a sort of Pirandellian Modernism was going on three centuries avant la lettre.

Bart DeLorenzo's direction places Cymbeline in legendary Rome-threatened Britain, appropriately, but softens the place-time specificity to underline its abstraction of universality and fantasy. The play's also intelligently framed by a Prologue in modern dress, divided into a pair of compères in formal suits, telegraphing the theme of counterparts, syzygy and resolution. Given the close proximity of the plays I couldn't help seeing Kaufman and Hart's Grandpa Sycamore in this Cymbeline, Alice Sycamore in Imogen; I don't think anyone would have minded.

I was distracted by a young audience whose laughter seemed inappropriate at times, but there I go moralizing; The Bard clearly enjoys my discomfort, and continues his puzzling and disorienting seriocomic lurching. Even in spite of the intrusive canned music I left the theater enthusiastic, excited, transported; this was truly a memorable night. Why on earth is Cymbeline so rarely produced?

The Doctor's Dilemma, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Bart DeLorenzo: A Noise Within, 3353 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through November 25, 2012;
You Can't Take It With You, by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, directed by Gigi Bermingham: Antaeus, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, through December 9, 2012
Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare, directed by Dámaso Rodriguez: A Noise Within, through November 18, 2012

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Friday, November 02, 2012

Commonplace: aesthetic experience

… THE NOTION THAT art and life are somehow separate has worn out. Dewey argued, and the Barnes demonstrates, that art focusses and intensifies life in the present, invigorating memories of the past and whetting appetites for the future. Aesthetic experience differs from other kinds only in being dramatically cogent. It may happen even in conventional museums, though against the grain of their foregone conclusions. The Pharisees of proper taste deemed Barnes weird for his fanatical orchestration of artistic stimuli. In truth, he was crazy like a prophet.

—Peter Schjeldahl on the relocated Barnes collection, in The New Yorker, May 28, 2012, p. 80.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Back to Einstein

Los Angeles, November 1, 2012—
WE RETURNED ON SUNDAY to Einstein on the Beach, and I have no reason to write much beyond my earlier enthusiastic report, posted here last March. It remains an epochal experience, even a second time within eight months — in fact, we have our tickets for a third performance next January, in Amsterdam. When asked what the opera is about I have no hesitation n answering: it's about the Twentieth Century, and its progress from the age of mechanics and optics at the close of the Nineteenth to that of space and cybernetics at the dawn of the Twenty-first.

There were considerable differences in the effect of the opera, I thought. The Zellerbach stage, in Berkeley, was both smaller and closer than that of the Berlioz Theater in Montpellier. It seemed to me there were fewer dancers as a result — weren't there a dozen on the Berlioz stage? — and the Building scene, Act IV scene 1, was pressed toward the apron, and left less room for individuation among the members of the gathering cast.

More striking, the trial scenes seemed blander, less threatening; and Act II scene 1, the observation car of the train, with its isolated romantic couple, was on the other hand somewhat more ominous. On the other hand the soloists were closer, relating more closely to the audience, or at least to me.

Once again, we did not take any "breaks" from the four and a half hours: the opera is mesmerizing. Zellerbach was absolutely full, for the third performance running as I understand, and the house was quiet and attentive throughout, and tremendously responsive at the end. It was good to look at this audience, young and older, and reflect that while they have been deprived of their immediate cultural heritage by the Establishment theaters, opera houses, and performance organizations, who steadfastly refuse to produce the breakthrough work of the 1960s and '70s, they are receptive and responsive to the few exceptions to that rule. Again, many profound thanks to the generosity of this amazing cast and crew, and to the enterprise of Cal Performances and its partners in presenting this great landmark.