||This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison,
Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the
winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were
AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.
| || || ||1||2||3||4|
In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever,
and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything
that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool
of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the
site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc.
May 17, 2013Monterey
Here we are in California, at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, watching the sea otters play, with the ocean lapping just under our windows. When we close our eyes, the sea puts us to sleep in no time.
You can tell a high-class hotel chain by the fact that the basin in the bathroom isn't plugged up. But there are always things wrong with hotels. There is never a fan in the bathroom. The coffee shop here is too far away, starting with the fact that somebody's room has to be a quarter of a mile from the elevator, and this week it's ours. There is a short in the lock on the door to the room: the key-card works fine when the door is open, turning on the green light every time, but when you're trying to get into your room you have to try it several times, until you're afraid you won't get in at all. The remote for the TV needed new batteries, and the sound still can't be turned up and down. (Is that enough complaining?)
Ethne's Cooking for Solutions conference, held partly in the hotel and partly in the wonderful Monterey Acquarium up Cannery Row, is full of interesting people and terrific food at lunchtime; and our son David is in very good shape. Last night at Ambrosia we had the best Indian food we have had since leaving Britain almost 15 years ago. David is doing extremely well at the U.S. Army's language school, and he is wiser, funnier and more handsome each time we see him. He really ought to be in the movies.
At Recycled Records on Lighthouse I have found three lovely old LPs for less than ten bucks, including the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet on Westminster playing two of Haydn's Opus 64: I saw this old favorite here on my first visit to Monterey a year ago and foolishly passed it up, but it was still waiting for me this week, and now I find that the group had recorded most of Haydn's quartets, which will no doubt take me on a new treasure hunt. One would enjoy almost any performance of this music, but the Viennese understanding of it is complete: the intuitive tempi and phrasing add up to an indescribable insight.
I am using Ethne's laptop to write a blog entry. Last night I tried using my Nook, which altered and invented fields so that it couldn't be done. As for the outside world, the politicians and the media are milking Benghazi (last year) and the IRS "scandal" (last week). The most interesting news item is that Daniel Henninger, a Wall Street Journal columnist, thinks that abortion should not be allowed anywhere, anytime, for any reason; he of course is a middle-aged white male, in no denger of getting knocked up at age 14, or being a victim of rape or incest. In other words, there's no news this week.
May 13, 2013Hello and Goodbye
The reason for a hiatus here is that we are in the process of changing hosts and it proved more complicated than we thought. For a while I was locked out of my admin page (I probably wasn't, but didn't have enough brains to try retyping the password), and now we are off to California on some of Ethne's pleasurable business, a nice function at the beautiful Monterey Acquarium, and to see our handsome soldier son, who is earning a perfect 4 at the Army's language school.
I may try to blog from my Nook, but don't bet on it. Speaking of my technical helplessness, I didn't know why my Nook's power leaked out so quickly last time I was traveling, but now I've learned how to power it down properly when I'm not using it. I may still make it into the 21st century.
See you in ten days or so!
May 13, 2013Madison, movies, memories, and Joe McBride
Congratulations to my old acquaintance Joe McBride from the University of Wisconsin. DIrector William Friedkin, in the Personal Choice feature in the Wall Street Journal at the weekend, chose five books about film directors, including Joe's Searching For John Ford.
The early 1970s was before videotape, let alone DVDs, Netflix and all that, and there was a wonderful nest of film freaks in Madison then (Tom Flynn, where are you?). Two or three nights a week I saw movies I had heard about all my life, and the happy memories are still with me.
May 13, 2013The Bach Choir Of Bethlehem
The Packer Memorial Church at Lehigh University, moments before the 106th annual Bethlehem Bach Festival began on Saturday. The Bach Choir of Bethlehem has been mounting the Mass in B Minor each Spring for over a century.
The choir was actually founded in 1898 by J. Fred Wolle with the first complete performance of the Mass in the USA, but Wolle, by then a nationally famous choral director, then accepted an appointment at the University of California; he found the academic life in Berkeley very different from the Moravian community he was used to, so he came back to Bethlehem and revived his dream. The choir has only had five music directors: this has been Greg Funfgeld's 30th season as conductor, matching the great Ifor Jones (1939-1969). The Choir has performed in Leipzig, in Carnegie Hall, at the Proms in London, recently in Washington DC, and I don't know where-all. The Choir does outreach work in the schools, performs Bach cantatas at lunchtime concerts once a month for several months each year in the lovely old Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, and presents other composers as well as Bach: recently three performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah, and two weekends this month, on successive Fridays, Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and Morten Lauridson's beautiful Lux Aeterna as well as several cantatas, as well as the Mass on Saturdays. I don't know how they do it all.
We were warned the weather might be bad, and the rain started coming down just as we entered the Packer two days ago. But it only lasted a few minutes, the sun came out, and during the performance, as the hosannas were at their highest, a lovely spring breeze came through the church. It was a gloriously wonderful afternoon, as it is every year! Learn more about the Choir here.
April 21, 2013The Pennsylvania Sinfonia: Happy Birthday!
A very nice concert last night at the Presbyterian church near our house, the finale of the Pennsylvania Sinfonia's celebration of its 30th year of bringing classical music to the Lehigh Valley. Apart from its founder, Iowa-born conductor Allan Birney, the orchestra has three members who have been with it since the beginning, and many more with ten or 20 years.
The program consisted of Beethoven's 4th symphony and his 4th piano concerto. The symphony was my favorite part. One of Beethoven's lesser-known, but no less a masterpiece for that, somebody once described it as "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants" (the 3rd, "Eroica" symphony, and the famous 5th), but in fact Beethoven had taken time off from writing the 5th to write something completely different, like the great craftsman he was, and to me the high spirits of the 4th are nothing less than a celebration of life itself. In last night's performance there was a surprise in the first movement: the symphony is full of Beethoven's signature development, the way he spins little ideas and rhythmic bits into a musical structure; in one passage of the first movement one of these rhythmic ideas, only a couple of bars, is repeated three times, and at the end of each the strings play a chord, and three times last night there was a crescendo on that chord, lasting only a second each time, so that the chord came flying at you. I don't know if that was Birney's idea or if it is in the score, but if it is in the score, I have never heard it brought out like that, and it was one of those moments we go to concerts for: to have a smile brought to our face.
Both the early 19th-century pieces were well-chosen for a chamber orchestra; we don't need 100 musicians to play "classical" music. Michael Gurt from Louisiana was the soloist in the concerto, and he played well; I wish the program had told me what cadenza he played: it didn't sound familiar to me, but I'm no expert. And the acoustics in a church are not kind to the sound of the piano; in some passages it was easily covered by the orchestra. The audience was very pleased, and there was an encore, a pretty and sentimental dauble. The audience was still appreciative, and there was another encore, while I wanted to leave, but I would have missed a great treat. Mr Gurt came back out and played "The Banjo", by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, also from Louisiana, who was a sort of 19th-century Creole Gershwin, a piano virtuoso who took on board the spirit and the rhythms of the vernacular. "The Banjo" imitates that instrument on the keyboard, and quotes Stephen Foster's "Camptown Racetrack"; Mr Gurt gave it a rattling fine treatment, and sent us all home smiling.
And come to think of it, the first encore, the pretty and sentimental dauble, could have been Gottschalk's too; he seems to have had a talent for making the ladies swoon. There's nothing for it: I'll have to buy season tickets again next year. Learn more about the Pennsylvania Sinfonia here.
April 20, 2013The Soviet Curse
The Soviet Union was the 20th-century manifestation of the Russian Empire. A century ago that empire was trying to drag itself into the modern world, but then 70 years of Communism badly retarded it. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist gangsters quickly became capitalist gangsters, stealing the country from the long-suffering people; it is still an outlaw state, surviving on its oil and gas, just like Venezuela, another country which ought to be rich if it were ever competently managed.
But the crooked masters of Russia had to take the blame for the dissolution of the Russian Empire: many of the constituent "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" no longer wanted to belong to that club; Ukraine and Georgia went their own way, as did smaller states of central Asia such Kazakhstan and Kygyzstan. Twenty years ago, little Chechnya announced that it wished to be separate, and the Russians lost their temper. They don't even like the Chechnyans, never have, regarding them as dirty, backward and dishonest, but they were not going to let them go. With appalling brutality the corrupt Russian armed forces (the officers stealing the wages of their own troops) flattened the Chechnyan capital and virtually destroyed the rest of the country, turning it into a wasteland and reducing its people to the status of refugees. This began under the drunk Boris Yeltsin, and in case the Chechnyans hadn't learned their lesson, the brutality was resumed under the gangster Vladimir Putin.
There have of course been unintended consquences; there always are. Journalists covering the Chechnyan war were murdered, nobody ever brought to justice. The closest thing to law and order is that of warlords in Chechnya; Putin has installed one of the worst as "president" there, to keep the lid on the garbage can. The Chechnyans being Muslim, the filthy cancer of Bin Laden's death cult has been enabled in Chechnya and neighboring states. And a great many Chechnyan families have become refugees worldwide, driven away from their villages, their fields, their mosques, their very languages. Some of these families must have become dysfunctional; a few of the children must have been unable to adjust, and were doomed to join anything in a desperate attempt to find an identity. And now, last week, Boston in the USA has paid a price, yet another victim of corrupt Russian brutality.
April 20, 2013How we live now
From a Greek conversation:
We live in a sphere, not on a line, and we must find a way to fill it. Only fools worry about what's coming. We are here, after all, swirling back wine in our glasses like a couple of emperors.
This was quoted by David Mason, reviewing Christopher Bakken's Honey, Olives, Octopus in the Wall Street Journal. There is something valuable here. True, we plan for the future: we decide to go to college, we take out a mortgage, we put money into some kind of pension. But the line to the future is completely unpredictable, and often broken. Meanwhile we have to live in the sphere: we have to do what we do now, today, from one minute to the next. Happiness and even contentment are possible only in the present. I am sitting in a basement, my view of my space obstructed by ductwork and sheet metal, still recovering from my surgery; but I am listening to Vernon Handley and the BBC Scottish Symphony playing the 5th symphony of Arnold Bax: good big sound on Bose speakers purchased in a yard sale. And I am an emperor. All I need is a glass of wine.
April 15, 2013A narrow escape
Many years ago, still living in England, still wondering what I was going to do when I grew up, I began to hear about popular culture as an academic subject. There was actually a Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The subject had been invented as a discipline by Ray Browne, who was the head of the department; and his wife, Pat Browne, was also employed there. So I wrote to them. I had already produced an 1800-page reference book called The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, which had won a prize from the UK branch of an international association of music librarians, and beside, I grew up with the Lone Ranger and I Love Lucy, so I thought I knew a thing or two about popular culture.
I don't remember what I wrote to the Brownes, but I was probably enquiring about the possibility of enrolling as a grad student from overseas. The letter I got back from Pat Browne I can only describe as snotty. Her attitude seemed to be Who did I think I was? I suppose it is a measure of my shortcomings as a scholar that I did not keep the correspondence; it would be amusing to have it now.
Ray Browne died in 2009 at age 87, survived by the guardian of his little empire, who I suppose must be retired by now. Meanwhile, the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green is still said to be the only one of its kind, and this month they had an International Conference on Heavy Metal and Popular Culture, where there were lectures and PowerPoint presentations on subjects such as "Beyond Black: Satanism, Medievalism and the Dark Illumination of the Self in the Aesthetics of Norwegian and Transnational Black Metal". The International Society for Metal Music Studies has launched a peer-reviewed journal. A professor from the Sorbonne came over to lecture on France's failure to produce a metal band with an international reputation. A professor from New Zealand with a doctorate in social psychology had received an $80,000 government grant to study that country's metal fans (which raised a stink in the country's Parliament).
At Bowling Green they were all studying things like the difference between inhaled and exhaled screams. Thank heaven I did not have to have anything to do with it.
April 10, 2013W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz
I have been wanting to read this book since friends recommended it in Chicago and Kansas City years ago, and when I finally got around to it I might have purchased an eBook, but I'm not going to pay over $10 for a download, so I ended up with a 10th anniversary Modern Library paperback edition, which was only about $12. I am very disappointed. This is a modernist novel which should cast a spell, like stream of consciousness; you have to read it and keep reading it until you get an accumulation of detail, and the design of the book makes it hard to read. The typeface is too finicky, the font is too small, and there's a useless and distracting amount of white space between the lines. It is no doubt a very elegant production from the designer's point of view, but not from the reader's. The introduction by the self-important James Woods is useless.
April 10, 2013Another signpost seen to
I have indulged myself here about my surgery two weeks ago today, my stay in the hospital and so on, so now I have to report that yesterday I went to the doctor for a post-op consultation, and all the news was good. We were worried because we had seen a lot of blood, and I wasn't sleeping well, but it turns out that all that was normal. The post-op biopsy revealed that the tumor was entirely enclosed by the offending gland which was removed, so now I should be in the clear; the catheter came out, and all I have to do now is drink plenty of water and practice not dribbling in my pants. Three cheers for Dr. Eric Mayer, Stacy his nurse, and everybody else at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem!
April 9, 2013RIP Margaret Thatcher
When I went to England in 1973 I was a Democrat, a "liberal", a union member and so on. When it turned out I was going to stay for a while, I joined a union, and was very soon in a state of shock. It was a different country, with different laws, history, attitudes and so on; unions did not look after the best interests of their members, but concentrated on disrupting the country.
Ted Heath was a Conservative prime minister when the coal miners' union struck the country in 1974. Arthur Scargill was the leader of the miner's union, an unabashed Communist; coal stocks were low at the power stations, and the country went on a three-day week. In Britain it starts getting dark at three in the afternoon during the winter; in my office we worked using kerosene lanterns. Heath called an election and the people blamed the politicians instead of the unions, and the hapless Heath got turned out. Harold Wilson became prime minister (again); the only thing Wilson was ever good at was keeping himself in office as leader of the Labour Party. But the Conservatives replaced Heath with Margaret Thatcher as their leader, and after the next election the world was turned upside down.
The British are, or were, too polite. Around 1980 The Times of London, known as the Thunderer, one of the world's great newspapers, closed for a year, trying to get the best of the the printers' unions, where featherbedding and other abuses were comically outrageous. Not one of the other newspapers backed up The Times. All the nationalised industries were led by hacks who were never accountable; British Aerospace, Telecom, Steel, Leyland and all the rest were driven into the ground, while the merry CEOs collected gongs and golden parachutes when they retired, to be succeeded by more hacks. Thatcher turned it all around. When the miners' union took her on in 1982, she had seen to it that coal stocks at the power stations were ample; the strike was long, violent and divisive, but ended with the destruction of the miners' union, and the departure of Scargill into the dustbin of history. Britain was becoming easier to live in for most people; the customer was no longer always wrong. And in foreign affairs, Thatcher took back the Falkland Islands and saw the collapse of the Argentine dictatorship, and yes, she and Reagan breathed on the house of cards that was the Soviet Union, and got the credit for that collapse.
But she always made mistakes. She not only destroyed the coal miners' union, but also the coal industry, closing pits and devastating close-knit mining communities all over northern England. And finally came the reform of the rates. The rates in Britain were the equivalent of the property tax in the USA: one paid the local rate, and the money went to mend the holes in the road, remove household refuse, provide police and fire protection, pay inspectors to keep up building standards, and so on. Thatcher's idea was that everybody should pay the same: everybody got the same services; why should a householder be penalised with more taxes if he spent his money on improving his property instead of spending it on beer and cigarettes? Her mistake was insisting on everybody paying it. The money went to maintain and protect property values, but she insisted that tenants should pay it directly, rather than through their rent, and that people should pay it who effectively had no money, such as nuns and college kids. The result was a disaster: lots of people just didn't bother to pay it, the whole thing collapsed and the rates had to be reformed all over again. This was a perfect example of her rigidity and her inability to take any advice.
She had repeatedly insulted the mild-mannered and competent Sir Geoffrey Howe, one of her cabinet ministers, and a debate in Parliament on Britain's role in Europe became the beginning of the end for Thatcher. Sir Geoffrey's mild-mannered speech suddenly made it clear that her enemies in her own party had had enough, and then she was gone. Meanwhile, all our friends in Norfolk were Conservatives, and in the context of Britain during those years we had become Tories ourselves. Thatcher was succeeded as leader of the Conservatives by that nice John Major, and the election night party, when Major had led the Conservative party to victory in his own right, was a riotous occasion, the Labour Party still being in disarray. (Major's father had been a music-hall entertainer; he was described by comedians as the first man in history to run away from the circus to join Parliament.) When we finally left Britain in 1998, Labour had finally regained power, and Tony Blair looked to me like a gargoyle; at Princess Diana's funeral he was the biggest ham I had ever seen.
It seems that every country needs a Thatcher now and then. In the mid 1970s the unions were running Britain; the laws governing picketing were laws that American labor unions never would have thought of asking for, allowing anybody on strike to shut down the whole country. Thatcher took Britain by the back of the neck and shook it until all the loose bits dropped off. There is no question of me being a "conservative" in a country where what is left of the Republican party seems to take its cues from clowns like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, MIchele Bachmann and Grover Norquist; but in the USA, during the Great Recession, some people should have gone to jail, and more of the incompetents in the financial sector should have been allowed to fail; and in 2013, the vast majority of the people want every sale of a firearm to require a background check, while special interests and cowardly politicians will see to it that nothing happens in that area.
Where is our American Margaret Thatcher?
April 8, 2013Do words mean anything any more?
I guess it was Lewis Carroll who had Humpty Dumpty saying, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." George Orwell wrote about Newspeak. We are losing words left and right. We lost 'gay' a long time ago--no more Gay Paree, no more Gay Divorcée. We've lost "awesome"--nowadays a hot dog is awesome.
How about "entitlements"? Don't know where that one came from. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this "semantic infiltration". I've paid for my Social Security, and my employers contributed to it, as they had agreed to do; how is it different from a private annuity? Because politicians mislaid the money? And nowadays an "entitlement" is bad.
And we've lost "home".
There were sayings: "safe as houses!", which meant a good investment, and "There's no place like home", which was different from a house. You can knock on the door of any house, but "Home is where, when you go there, they have to let you in." "A house is not a home" will make less and less sense nowadays. "Home Sweet Home", they say, was the best-selling song of the entire 19th century. But it's over.
A couple of weeks ago there was a feature in the Wall Street Journal about a fellow in California who is cleaning up: he "owns or manages 1,700 homes in Southern California." He is shown in the sumptuous kitchen of one of his properties. There's no toaster on the countertop, no coffeepot on the stove. It is an empty house. Nobody lives there. It is not a home. It's just a house.
"Where investors are scooping up homes...buying up single-family homes...The expense of maintaining a large number of homes...the federal government sold hundreds of homes...Fewer than 3,300 homes were listed for sale last month...before the homes were repossessed by banks...Purchased homes get fresh paint..." It is a long article and it is full of this stuff, and it is all wrong. My home smells like me. It is full of my clothes, my books and records, my dog. I can't sell it and you can't buy it. I can sell you my house, whereupon I move out and take my home with me, and you move your home in, your smell and your dog. But the word "home" has been hijacked by the real estate industry, with the connivance of the media.
April 8, 2013Grateful for small things
Glad I got "homes" off my chest. I like a little blog entry. Ethne has a laptop and an iPad, but all I have is a desk and a chair, and I can't sit in front of the computer too long. I'm still an invalid, and mighty tired of it!
April 3, 2013A funny thing happened on the way to my keyboard
I thought that when I got out of the hospital I would be free for a week or two: I've just had surgery, okay? No walking the dog, no housework, no taking the garbage out, none of that. I was writing blogs in my head. Now here it is eight days since my last blog. Who is going to hire me to run a big company? To compile a big encyclopedia? To edit a great newspaper? Over the hill, I am. Sigh.
I'm not complaining. It has all been very interesting, and it's different every day. I cannot say enough about St Luke's Hospital, a wonderful institution of its kind, full of kind, competent, good-natured people. I cannot say enough about morphine: I don't know why it's addictive; all it did for me was take away the pain, but during the first night there was a lot of discomfort, and with each shot of dope I got an hour's wonderful sleep. The funniest thing was the next day, when I realized that the roiling clouds of discomfort in my belly were in fact GAS (they blow you full of CO2 when you're having surgery; makes it easier for the doctors.) Ethne thinks I fart a lot, but she wasn't there for the record breakers. After that I didn't need the painkillers at all. For a while.
Removal of the prostate requires cutting the urethra and then stitching it back together, and while it is healing you have a catheter all the way into your bladder, and no control over your urination. So I have two rubber bags: a big one at the end of a long tube, and a smaller one that hangs on my thigh, if I want to go out. I thought I would choose to be housebound rather than going through the rigmarole of changing bags, especially since the small bag has to be emptied more often, but it turns out that shuffling around all day in my nightshirt with a bag of pee over my arm is soul-destroying: much better to pretend to be normal. The big bag is for at night.
So on the seventh night after the surgery, last night, for the first time, the discomfort kept waking me up. It's hard to describe: my delicate parts are not used to having a tube shoved through them, and they ache in the way they might have ached after several hours of lovemaking (a long time ago, to be sure) but far more intensely, so that the ache becomes a sharp pain. When I lie down in bed at night, flat on my back, there is no pain, but one does not sleep all on one's back all night; every time I rolled over last night it woke me up. This morning I discovered what the hydrocodone is for. I don't really want to take pills, but if I take two of these my naughty bits still ache, but I don't care. And I've learned how to stack up pillows in the corner of the sofa so that when I'm reading something and I want to fall asleep, all I have to do is lean back. This will no doubt be a useful skill as I sink into senility.
For now, up to two more weeks of this. Blechhh.
March 26, 2013Is God happy? One hopes so.
Leszek Kolakowski was a historian of ideas who was a Communist when he was young, but eventually got kicked out of academia in Poland because he could not swallow the lies. His critiques of Soviet Marxism were actually posted on bulletin boards at the University of Warsaw and published in a Polish periodical in 1956-7, and by 1968 he had started another career in English-speaking countries. One of his most important works was Main Currents of Marxism (1978), a three-volume demolition. He is still a hero in Poland today.
He died in 2009; his daughter has put together a collection of his essays called Is God Happy?, which was reviewed recently in the Wall Street Journal by Barton Swaim. Several of the essays are concerned with the fact that so many Western intellectuals subscribed to the Marxist pie in the sky when the evidence of its failure was all around them. When I was a kid in the 1950s I didn't know anything about economics, but I knew that people in Russia had to stand in line to buy toothpaste and toilet paper; as Kolakowski put it, the Soviet Union was "a state that produces superb jet planes and lousy shoes", and to this day I do not believe that Communism was ever a domestic threat in the United States. Everybody except a few crackpots knew better than that. It is a mystery, though, that some of the crackpots were people who certainly should have known better.
Kolakowski's "What Is Socialism?" (1956) was treasured by the Polish underground; "Genocide And Ideology" (1977) compares Soviet Communism and German Nazism. In "Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie" (1983), Swaim writes,
[Kolakowski] recalled hearing a guide at the Hermitage in Leningrad dismiss the art of Matisse and Cézanne as bourgeois degeneracy in 1950. In 1957, he heard the same guide praise them as masters. The party's needs had changed, but the guide wasn't stupid -- he knew the truth.
A few days later Bret Stephens quoted Kolakowski in his column:
Even in the best of conditions, the process of forgery cannot be completed: it requires a large number of forgers who must understand the distinction between what is genuine and what is faked...The rulers of totalitarian countries...wish to be truthfully informed, but time and again, inevitably, they fall prey to their own lies...
In other words, eventually they can't keep their lies straight, like a man who is cheating on several women at once, and Stephens makes the point that the same thing is true of China today.
Kolakowski saw through the lies; then in later years he indulged in theological speculation, which is not my cup of tea. I don't bother God, and God doesn't bother me. I may as well throw down my gauntlet here: it seems to me that religions began to be invented in prehistoric times for the purpose of explaining the Universe; nowadays we know a great deal about the Universe, enough to know that we do not know everything, and indeed that we shall never know everything. I do not believe in any of the supernatural stuff. The only possible definition of "God" must be "that which we do not know". One of Kolakowski's essays is called "Is God Happy?" Swaim's brief discussion of some theological issues makes my eyes glaze over (not his fault). Even Swaim wonders why Kolakowski's daughter named the book after this short essay, but he finally decides it makes sense:
As a boy, Leszek Kolakowski saw Jews rounded up in Nazi-occupied Poland; as an adult he winessed the dominance of a brutal and fraudulant ideology; and in middle age he saw many of his fellow intellectuals defend that ideology at every opportunity. In such a world, where is there room for happiness?
To this my only response can be: almost everywhere. Before the industrial revolution, life for most people was "nasty, brutish and short", but even then, throughout time and in the most deprived of societies, people made art; they lived, laughed and loved. The defeat of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and now the collapse of Communism, may not have been the end of history, but were certainly the end of an epoch in human affairs: no nation today seriously believes that its leader is a god. No nation today hopes to conquer the world. The human population of the earth is larger than ever before, yet a larger portion of it has a rising standard of living than ever before. As terrible as our problems may be today, most people are not in danger of being blown to bits by religious fascists. Most people, even in Detroit or in downtown Allentown, are not being shot or stabbed.
I could complain, and I have complained, about growing up in a certain time and place. Today our society is loaded with filth and trash; not so long ago, you could not say the word "pregnant" on television: now you can get pregnant on television. Yet I would not wish the pendulum to swing back to a time when everything important was a secret. I knew a girl named Beverly when I was a young teenager (no, not you, Bish, a different Beverly) who had a lovely complexion, and a smile every time I saw her. On a certain occasion she puzzled me (I will give no details). Many years later, suddenly recalling this curious incident, I realized that she had offered me an opportunity to find out if the rest of her skin was as beautiful as that on her face: horny as any other adolescent, I was yet too repressed to know what was being offered; and looking back, I can only laugh (an important component of happiness is the understanding that most things are basically funny). Beverly was a girl with a "bad reputation", in the context of the small-town USA of 50 or 60 years ago; looking back, again, I knew several such, and all of them spoke to me with smiles, without sides, without agendas. They may have been the least screwed-up people in the town. Perhaps they were happy.
It took me many years to begin to educate myself, and the process will never be complete; but unlike poor Sir Henry, in an obscure novel by Robert Nathan, I have glimpsed some truths while I am still alive. In London I saw and heard Lorin Maazel (not my favorite conductor) leading the Philharmonia in Mahler's 2nd symphony, and he seemed to have the big band in the palm of his hand, and they seemed to enjoy it; a climax in the first movement started with silence and raised the roof. That orchestra seemed to have rediscovered its joy in playing music; many years later, in Austin Texas, Kevin Noe and the much younger University of Texas orchestra in the same symphony was audibly discovering this joy. Also in Austin, I heard Lauren Zachry-Reynolds singing Vivaldi, among other things, and Julie Whittington McCoy sing a song by Vaughan Williams: they were both sopranos, and I don't care much for sopranos as a rule; but they did not scream or screech: they each had beautiful vocal color, and they each exhibited what I can only describe as musical intelligence: I forgot what kind of music I was listening to. In Des Moines I was there when guitarist John Pizzarelli sat in with a bunch of locals at a private function after a concert and tore the place up. I heard Alexandre Pirojenko, a young Russian pianist touring in the USA, play some early Schumann etudes, and again, I was not a fan of big Romantic piano music, but I heard the Schumann I knew and loved from the piano concerto and from Kinderszenen; I do not know if I will ever hear Pirojenko again, but I shall never forget him. In the Lehigh Valley I have heard Agnès Maurer play the viola. In Bethlehem I heard the Pacifica Quartet play Beethoven in such a way that I had an out-of-body experience.
This is leaving out all the gardens, all the places, all the sunsets, all the conversations with friends, all the smiling babies. I have been alive; I have loved life. What else is there? Nothing. There are philosophers who allege that since it all ends in death, we may as well never have been born. What a load of rubbish.
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.
-- From “Vacillations”, by W.B. Yeats
And from an American:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.
-- From “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”, by Wallace Stevens
I have been there; I have quivered with the simple joy of being alive. I have a daughter who knows who Fats Waller was. I have an old sweetheart who adores Fletcher Henderson. I have a son who digs the Metronome All Stars. Best of all, I have a talented, wonderfully kind and happy wife, my Ethne, who is all I ever wanted, and who puts up with me no matter how much I contemplate my navel. No philosopher, no theologian can discourage me.
Jascha Horenstein said that the saddest thing about dying would be never to hear Das Lied von der Erde again. Sadder still would be never to have heard it at all.
I wish I could just live until I die, but there have to be signposts on the road: Mortality is the price of entrance to the ball park, said James Lee Burke's grumpy sheriff. I have had a kidney stone; then something like a transient ischemic attack, which led to the discovery of a lazy thyroid; then a hernia; tomorrow I go to the hospital to have my prostate out. My prostate, dear friend for lo these many years; I must say goodbye, and then I shall be good until the next signpost. But meanwhile there is the light:
The sun may set and rise,
But we, contrariwise,
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.
--Catullus, trans. Walter Raleigh
Ah, but what a light!