Itzhak Perlman & the Klezmatics
“Kyrie” from Mass for Five Voices
The Tallis Scholars
“Kritikos Horos / Theme from ‘Zorba the Greek’”
Living All the Days of Our Lives
Wide Lands of the Navajo
Jonathan Swift wrote somewhere “may you live all the days of your life.” On the one hand this just seems a lighthearted play on words, a bit of a joke. But on the other it says something profound that is in danger of getting lost in the play with words. That we live all the days of our lives would seem to go without saying, but there are many days in the lives of most of us when we do not “live,” we do not experience the richness and joy that is available to be experienced. I will suggest to my students from time to time “don’t kill time waiting for time to kill you.” Each of us is given a parcel of time leavened with a bit of potential. We are not obligated to do anything with it, but we have it. Living all the days of our lives involves our opening the parcel and experiencing what follows.
It also involves an appreciation and enjoyment of the world and the good things that fill it. Art, literature, music, those things that impart beauty, that encourage and uplift, that heal and nurture. The Klezmer music and Zorba’s theme from the film of the same name provoke exuberance and joyfulness. The title of the Klezmer song, for all its exuberance, evokes a monster from Hebrew folklore, the Golem. This creature was the subject of a classic silent film that was itself based on a novel (“Meyrink’s The Golem: where fact and fiction collide”). In the film based on Meyrink’s novel the Golem is something of a mixed blessing. He is a Frankenstein-esque creature but he is originally created to help protect the Jewish community in Prague. He is fearsome and he goes astray, but he was intended for good. According to the Talmud, Adam, before receiving the breath of life, was the first golem, an “unshaped form” in God’s eye. Perhaps the Klezmer song is only an example of the pleasure we often find in being terrified, at least in the controlled environment of story. On the other hand, the music of William Byrd, and especially his Mass for Five Voices, always purges the tension from my body and exhilarates my spirit. As the music washes over me I feel the troubles and concerns of the day drain out of me. At various levels it heals, renews, and refreshes. It is therapeutic.
I am not alone in this feeling, there are others that would suggest that art is therapeutic (“What Is Art For,” by John Armstrong and “Alain de Botton’s guide to art as therapy,”) and plays a significant role in enabling one to live all the days of their lives. John Armstrong in his article points out that “therapy” and “therapeutic” are terms that have been cheapened a bit by advertising and the dubious promises it makes. But he also points out that the belief in the therapeutic qualities of art is an idea at least as old as Aristotle. When I look at the painting above, Wide Lands of the Navajo by Maynard Dixon it calms and relaxes me. It also awes me, fills me with wonder; the big sky, the barren grandeur of the land, the smallness of the people in contrast with the environment through which they move. Part of this is the effect that the soft blues have on me, and always have had. I suppose for all of us there are colors that affect us more than others, for me it is certain shades of blue, for others it may be reds or greens.
The Cezanne painting L’Estraque produces an effect similar to the Dixon painting. The earth tones of the buildings, the trees, and the water (in addition to the shades of blue) are also calming and exhilarating. It is not just the colors that are evocative. It is shapes, and textures, and the natural world, (and in fairness, many of the products of human labor). It is a part of what Wordsworth in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” meant when he said:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
As the beauty of the creation profoundly affects us so do the paintings that capture a bit of its essence, the language of poetry and stories and Literature in general, and music that in their forms evoke this beauty. I remember visiting the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It sits on top of a hill, raised above the noise of the city. It is a beautiful architectural space. I remember roaming through one of the buildings. I turned a corner and was confronted with Van Gogh’s painting of Irises. The space was designed such that I was totally unprepared for what I saw. It was overwhelming. The beauty and design of the space in which it was placed empowered the painting to produce its full and profound effect. In part, the power the painting exerted over me was produced by my being totally unprepared for the experience.
Alain de Botton takes us on a tour of different paintings and gives thumbnail sketches of the wisdom and healing they provide. He guides us through a list of values and emotions, hope, empathy, care, sorrow, work, appreciation, relationships, and consumerism. Not everyone will like the artworks he selects (not all of which are paintings) but there is value in the lessons he takes from them even where the art itself is not appealing to us. In his final “value,” consumerism,” he suggests that this idea though “a scourge” to the modern world has value when approached properly. He says, “At its best consumerism is founded on love of the fruits of the earth, delight in human ingenuity and due appreciation of the vast achievements of organised effort and trade.” This reminds us that many things are not harmful in and of themselves, but only when they become an obsession, when we look to them to provide us with things or to satisfy needs they were never intended to provide or to satisfy. Art, according to Armstrong and de Botton, can help us discover our right relationship to the world around us.
Evening Rain at Karasaki
Something similar was produced when Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was performed for the first time in Leningrad (“Shostakovich, Leningrad, and the greatest story ever played”). The music was composed as a tribute to the Russian people, but especially the Russian people enduring the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The first time it was performed in Leningrad (this was not its world premier) was while the siege was in progress. There were few professional musicians so the orchestra was filled with citizens that could play instruments. Performing the symphony was itself arduous. But musicians drew strength from the audience and the audience was inspired by the musicians and the music. Pierre Ryckmans tells the story of Primo Levi and another man trying to survive in a Nazi concentration camp (“Are Books Useless”). Levi was reciting from memory a passage from Dante’s journey through “The Inferno.” He got to a point in the text where his memory went blank and he could not recall the rest of the passage. The poem’s effect was such that Levi and his fellow inmate would trade food they desperately needed for those few lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy, “In Auschwitz, the forgotten poem became literally priceless. In that place, at that instant, the very survival of Primo Levi’s humanity was dependent on it.” The idea that art, music, and literature are nourishment is not a metaphor; it speaks to something very real in the human spirit. It was sustenance during the siege for the people of Leningrad and for Primo Levi and his friend in Auschwitz. I cannot say that literature and art ever fulfilled in my life such a profound space, but these people who lived through these events speak to its power to do this and their witness has value.
“Wada Heita Tanenaga killing a huge Python by a waterfall”
Suikoden Series 4
Literature and art and music (the whole of the Humanities) exist, among other things, to upset the world. They begin by upsetting us or confusing us or playing games with us and with our thinking. Wendy Lesser (“The joy of literary destruction: Writers who broke all the rules”) says her favorite passage from Swift’s Tale of a Tub is:
Here is pretended a Defect in the Manuscript, and this is very frequent with our Author, either when he thinks he cannot say any thing worth Reading, or when he has no mind to enter on the Subject, or when it is a Matter of little Moment, or perhaps to amuse his Reader (whereof he is frequently very fond) or lastly, with some Satyrical Intention.
The passage is Swift’s confession, he is the true author, and he is telling us he is having some fun with us. But the nature of satire is often to flatter the reader, to please the reader, while the satirist is in fact challenging the reader’s beliefs and preconceptions. Art slays dragons and the first dragon that it must slay is the closed mind, the unenlightened mind, the mind that is resistant to improvement because it believes itself to be self-sufficient. I like this passage from Swift because it works one way within the fiction of the story but it works another way in the real world of the reader. And what Lesser is really talking about in this part of her essay is satire and how it, in the words of Swift, “is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover every body’s Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” Most readers, Swift suggests, enjoy the jokes but miss the meaning. Of course laughter also has healing power, it purges pain and other unhealthy forces at work inside of us. Even if we miss the larger theme, the laughter heals. And who knows if the message does not work a kind of magic on the sub-conscious, that it doesn’t fix unawares other things that are broken inside of us.
From The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an opera written for film. The images in the opening moments of the film revolve around umbrellas and cobblestones and rain. The mother of one of the major characters owns a shop that sells umbrellas called “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” (I am not sure how a business remains viable when it sells only umbrellas, even if it also sells other rain gear.) I remember seeing the film in the 1960’s. When I rode my bicycle through Europe I and my bike took a train that on its way from Köln to Marseilles passed through Cherbourg. And though I do not remember it as a remarkable city, my imagination was so stirred by the film I waited with eager anticipation to pass through this town. We went through at night and I could not see much, but I was very pleased that I could say I had been there. I enjoy the moment in the film clip where one of the mechanics says he prefers film to opera because he cannot stand all the singing. The line is of course sung and the film is an opera and it is a wonderfully funny moment.
But the ending of this film is very moving and does something that is not often done successfully in film. (If you have not seen the film I am probably about to reveal something that you may want to pass over and not read until after you have seen it.) It is a moment of great sadness when two people who were once very much in love meet unexpectedly. Both have difficulty containing their emotions. The viewer’s emotions are also not easily contained. But the moment ends and the two part. One of the characters, the man who was in love once with the woman who has just left, remains on screen as the woman goes on her way. But he is married now and has a small child. In the final scene we know that he still feels pain over the lost relationship, but he sees his child and his wife and he begins playing with the child and it is equally clear he is taking great pleasure in playing with the child. The scene provokes sadness over what was lost, but it also provokes joy over what has been gained. The artistry of the film lies in its ability to produce in the viewer the same conflicting emotions that we see in the young man onscreen. Art helps us not only to understand our emotions, but the complexity of those emotions. There is a kind of pleasure in feeling the pain of lost love vicariously when we know the moment will end and that it is not our love that has been lost. Maybe it prepares us for the future; maybe it assuages a past pain. But it does not have to, it is enough that it makes it us feel something, that it puts us in touch with something that helps us experience our humanity more fully, to live more fully the days of our lives.
Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes
Martin Johnson Heade
Robert McCrum in The Guardian has been taking us on an excursion through the one hundred best novels in English. He is up to novel number twenty-two. The twenty-first novel in his series is Middlemarch (“The 100 best novels: No 21 – Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)”). There are many aspects of the book that he admires, but it is the conclusion reached about Dorothea that is the most important,
“But Eliot has the last word, a famous and deeply moving valedictory page celebrating Dorothea’s ‘finely-touched spirit’. Here, Eliot concludes that ‘the effect of [Dorothea’s] being’ was ‘incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’”
The book does something rare in literature, it succeeds in teaching a kind of moral lesson without being preachy or making the reader overtly conscious of the fact they are being instructed. But this closing raises an important point that is not addressed often enough. The well being of most of us has been secured by nameless people who receive little or no attention. They are teachers, they are nurses; they may serve us our food or repair our clothes. We do not notice them overly much. Certainly the larger world does not notice them, or if it does, it is often to criticize or demean them. They are unimportant in the worldly sense but essential to those that they touch, and essential to the happiness of the world. But the names of those we remember, whose tombs we visit for the most part did little to shape us as people or to make our day to day living easier. We have our heroes whose examples we follow, but it is because of people we have largely forgotten that we know of or can emulate those heroes. There is something of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in this:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
But of course it is not just that we all share a common grave regardless of the memorials that are raised above it, but that those without memorials have done more, perhaps, to preserve the common good than all those whose accomplishments history preserves.
Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer
Rembrandt van Rijn
We are living through one of those times that praises and exults engineering and the things that engineering and science and math can bring us. I think it odd in this light that the sciences seem to have become so preoccupied with reducing Literature and the Humanities to something “scientific.” Jane Austen is a game theorist, Proust a neuroscientist (“Jane Austen Was Not a Game Theorist”). I think it is a bit sad that some within the Humanities see in this a kind of validation for what they do. But this attention misses the whole point about what is important in the Humanities. No matter how well we understand the ways in which sounds and images, language and colors work upon the mind to cause it to feel what it does it cannot speak to the ineffable things that are accomplished in the mind by the Humanities. There is a worldview involved here, one that believes that everything comes through the sense and one that believes that some things come through the imagination and their sources cannot be clearly identified. The world may have been created by a big bang, but we cannot know where the materials that produced the big bang came from scientifically. We make choices about what we believe in this regard, but we cannot prove these choices because the evidence lies outside the material world, at least it does for the time being. Aristotle is regarded by many as an early scientist in that he tried to proceed on the basis of observable data. But in Rembrandt’s painting it is Homer, the poet, that he contemplates not Pythagoras the mathematician and scientist. Perhaps this is just Rembrandt’s fancy and there is not any more to the notion the painting evokes than Rembrandt’s fancy. But though science can tell us how the world works, it is often at a loss when it comes to helping us to live more effectively in it.
So as music and art, literature and philosophy are given a smaller and smaller place in the education we give our children there is reason to stop and ask ourselves is art therapeutic, can literature help us learn to live happily, can music inspire and move us to action? When we find ourselves in our metaphorical prisons, which, thankfully perhaps, is the only kind most of us will experience, where will we turn. The nourishment we need to persevere through hardship and struggle is rarely the food and drink we buy in stores. Too often it is the spirit that dies first, lacking the nourishment it needs to survive. Though the body endures we have lost the ability to live all the days of our lives.
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California