Sunday, November 8, 2015


Listen to Kurt Schwitters performing his Ursonate. This is from the CD lunapark 0,10, which contains several recordings of (mostly avantgarde, or modernist) writers reading from their own works (mostly poems, fortunately). I purchased this CD a few years ago, with the occasion of that exquisitely curated DADA exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Some of the artists featured on this CD: Apollinaire, Maiakovski, Joyce, Gertrude Stein (very pleasant surprise), Tzara, Duchamp etc.

The reason I selected Kurt Schwitters' reading is that it gives us a key to the sound poems which, if only read and not heard, are hard to "register". Fortunately, his language is German, thus phonetic, which does make a reading possible - but it still does not transmit the musical element. It is this musical element, and the "sonata" dimension, that are not readily perceptible, if one has not attended any of the readings (in Zurich, in the 1930s). Furthermore, I like how visible the "Ur" dimension becomes, as he performs it; "Ur" means "arch-", as in: primitive, of the origins, ancestral etc.

But, listen:

Here is the sound poem, in written form:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bric-à-brac for November '12

1. 500 Years from the Unveiling of the Sistine Chapel's Ceiling

The Delphic Sibyl (Cappella Sistina, Vatican)
On October 31st, the Eve of All Saints, the world celebrated 500 years from the finishing & first public showing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is as much a work of art as one of theology, a worthy emblem of the Renaissance but also a deep immersion in the history of salvation, a Biblical trip into history. The rest of the chapel is itself a celebration of beauty and faith, with walls covered in paintings by Perugino, Botticelli,  Ghirlandaio; when one visits it, the beauty of it all becomes apparent, even if it is the ceiling, and especially the creation scene there, as well the Last Judgment on the western wall, that are known by most.

You are invited therefore to make a virtual visit and delight in a panoramic view of the chapel (use the + and - buttons on the bottom left for the zoom function). To learn more about the paintings and the Sistine Chapel, you can visit this attractively slick multimedia guide, or go even more in depth with a dedicated page on the Web Gallery of Art (one of our favorite resources). And I should not forget to recommend the wonderfully balanced and realistic movie, The Agony and the Ecstasy (based on Irving Stone's homonymous book), which deals quite admirably with the relationship between art, history and faith.

2. Metropolitan Museum Catalogs  - Available for Free Download

Wonderful news from the Met, as they are offering their excellent art catalogs for online viewing or free download (in .pdf format). If you have been collecting them at second-hand shops or by rummaging through book sales, or if you have been purchasing new ones online, here is now a wonderful tool, which intends to gradually cover all their out of print materials. Browse and choose to your liking, from the MetPublications website. [notified by I Require Art]

3. Hibaku no Maria

One of the lesser-known facts about the bombing of Nagasaki is that it managed to destroy, in one coup, the largest Christian community - 22,000 strong - of Japan. What centuries of persecution and, in fact, of extermination policies did not manage to accomplish, the Allies did, in one strike. A powerful memento of this is the Hibaku no Maria (the "bombed" Mary), which is the remaining, scarred head of a sculpture of the Madonna from the destroyed Nagasaki cathedral. Learn more about the story of the statue, the history of Catholics in Nagasaki and in Japan, or just look at some additional images of the Hibaku no Maria, which has since become a powerful symbol of the senselessness of war and a message/messenger of peace (as the current Archbishop of Nagasaki explains in this video). [signaled by St. Peter's List]

Image: St. Peter's List

4. Dresch Quartet

Dresch Mihály, the saxophone- (and assorted reed instruments-) player & his quartet, with one of their typical, Eastern European folk- infused jazz pieces. Green and red lines on a canvas with folk motives.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

[BRIEF] Orhan Pamuk, the Writer

Art is not politics. It might deal with political issues, as they are part of life, and art deals with life; but art - or literature, in this case - is life, not politics. The natural-born writer (of literature), the one who has to write, whether or not anyone will ever read upon his works, for whom writing is his way of existing, is almost naturally attuned to this, with a sensitivity to the complexities of existence that would make it unbearable for him to limit his mind to the narrow furrows of politics. But I am sure that there are many amputee writers as well - self-amputated, sadly - who cut off their writing bones, or wings, to fit some ideology, imposed or impressed on them, in school or in society. But the true writer needs to talk, and to talk about everything, as it is. But more on this some other time.

Right now, an interview with Orhan Pamuk on The Diane Rehm Show. Orhan Pamuk is a true writer, there is not much he can do about it. Some of this tension between the intricacy of existence (which is the life and blood of the writer's work) and the amputated versions of it, characteristic (today) of the "news media" and, certainly, of politics, becomes apparent at various times in this interview, although it does not reach a clashing point  (which I would have expected). Take, for example, Pamuk's mention of his depiction of extremists in some of his early novels, and then the necessary addition from the moderator, "...but fundamentalists in the Middle East..."; two different approaches, two different understandings. One simply talks about a society, as it is, messy - with everyday people, hungry, unshaven, chain-smoking; confused every morning about what they have to do and why they do it; all sorts of deformities in their minds, in their ideas; just like the limps and diseases in their bodies, which they carry daily, so it is in their minds; and yet they are the people, they are you and me. This is the material of the writer - reality, human reality, the all-too-human reality. On the other hand you have whichever ideology or approximation of it, as reflected in the public sphere, in politics, by the media; reality simplified, curated, pickled and packaged; fragments of news that become strong ideas with no correspondence to the everydayness of human life.

However, the interview discussion is good, pleasant, and Pamuk is full of solicitude and sincerely glad to communicate, and Diane Rehm and her show are, as usual, one of the the more valuable things on the radio today (in the U.S.).

Here is the interview - listen:
Orhan Pamuk on the Diane Rehm Show

Something else. When I read it, Orhan Pamuk's Snow strongly reminded me of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is interesting, both main characters - and, I dare say, both authors - exhibit the same weakness of being that is characteristic to the postmodern condition; indecision as the late-modern way of living out the (inherently) contemplative nature of the intellectual; indecision and philosophical (-anthropological)  rootlessness.

View from Cihangir (Pamuk's neighborhood)
Another wonderful trait (and a very relatable one, for me) of Orhan Pamuk is his interest in the everyday life  of other societies, but especially his "other" society, namely the past. Thus he established The Museum of Innocence, which is a true physical building, a true museum, yet also a companion piece to his eponymous book, which presents everyday life in the period 1950-2000 (corresponding to Orhan's life-span). It is a museum of everyday life, the way it was; in a way, the museum of our childhood - the porcelain bibelots (knickknacks), the radio dad listened to, the yearly brought out Christmas ornaments, the wrappers and brands, the cars... "Read all about it!" - here.

He also wrote Istanbul: Memories and the City, an "evocation" of a lived place, one that he has lived in and through (and his attraction to cities is also very germane to me). And another novel, My Name Is Red, about life and art in the Ottoman Empire of (very) old - an issue that still continues to interest him, as he says in the interview: how was life, real life, then?

Oh, and, of course, one has to - just has to! -  mention that he won the Noble Prize for literature a few years ago... no, that is truly not that important. But I invite you to listen to the interview, you will enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Ages of Man

I always felt that every age has its own atmosphere, its own "air." Correspondingly, there are ages that feel akin, and others that repulse me.

I have no definite sense of Greek antiquity. Mostly, it leaves me cold. It seems mostly cold. Dead, even - in the way the eyes of its sculptures look dead, with the original paint peeled of. Their problems, dilemmas, drives, reasons, values and orientations - it all seems alien. The city-state and its arrangements, the physicality / muscularity of its culture, its images of the "other world" (Hades, the world of shadows, Charon crossing with the boat)... It is not crepuscular, but it is a world of twilight and savagery.

The Roman period inclines even more towards worldly "virtues" - honor and debauchery, war and commerce, and what looks like a boring, bourgeois everyday life.

Skipping abruptly to the end of Renaissance and then to the Enlightenment. Here the centuries start acquiring their own distinct identity (to my affective memory). The 1500s might be a turning point, as after 1600 it all becomes - slowly, surely, unidirectionally - tired and emptied of truth.

The seventeenth century has too many elegant clothes. The English routines of tea and church start being only about tea; a slow, gradual transformation, which achieves its culmination in our day (just visit an Anglican place). The philosophers of the 17th are already too far removed from the essence of things, to be able to say anything worth dusting off. Plastic arts - painting, sculpture - move strongly towards academism; the freshness of the discoveries of the preceding centuries is gone; we have acquired the techniques, we improve on them, but we immerse ourselves only in touches and dabs of paint, here, and there, and here again. The Dutch lose all opening to the cosmos and to the skies, and succumb into domesticity. Interiors, only interiors - little light, not much air, too much furniture.

The eighteenth century goes on in the same manner, just more so. The flame becomes almost extinguished.  We spend our time in this-worldliness, a sophisticated yet utterly vain pastime (all is vanity). And yet this is supposed to be the Enlightenment, but what I see are dimming lights. Or, rather, homes lit by candles, and there is nobody on the streets; everybody is inside, slightly afraid of living out existence. An oppressive existence.

Jan Davidsz De Heem: A Table of Desserts (1640)
The least appealing century, the nineteenth. There is almost nothing to which I can relate, except for the last twenty to twenty-five years - and just because they lead to something else. Everything seems so empty; it passes with a bang, and bangs are gone as fast as all sounds are, even the loud ones. Sounds are not remembered, either - not in the collective memory.

The turn of the century brings again exciting, burning times; for me, Vienna, symbolist poetry; it all becomes modern, but in a conflicted, adult way. Sentences become shorter, paint on the canvas braver, yet differently than before. It starts becoming my/our time.

But before going into the twentieth, let us make that short excursion to the middle ages. Glowing with embers, simple huts of men, really living and really dying. It is as if the following centuries (17th-19th) have accumulated so much civilizational ballast, so much commentary, that lives were lived afterward in what we ourselves made up, and not in the dust and water (and passion) of reality. (Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau and their states of nature, and their inferences from it - what a cosmic-sized yawn!)

Civilization is commentary on existence; given our imaginative capacities, it can walk a close line along reality, or get farther and farther removed from it. Our openness to the truth of what there is (out there and in us) is reflected in how we live our daily life. Do we draw the curtains, do we live inside, or do we step outside, fearful and hopeful at the same time - fears as visceral as the hope for the beatific vision is strong.

The Middle Ages were real, mud as well as stone; Romanesque architecture expresses it best: simple, ascetic, yet more alive than any other style. Of course, early Middle Ages were less exciting - too much darkness, too much awakening, before we dared to grab a hold of the hand that builds, of the thinking mind, before we dared to confront the world and to integrate it into our this-world/ that-world complex.

Renaissance is like a heightened Middle Ages; all those early tendencies, discoveries of the Middle Ages, like young, strong plants, giving their first buds and daring flowers during the Renaissance; still fresh, still alive, still hopeful, not yet fallen into the stuffy domesticity of garden bushes.

Back to the beginning of the twentieth century.. what a century of horror to follow! And yet, very much alive; if not on the surface, then immediately beneath; not in the governing forces, but in the resistance. True life did not happen at the surface; the surface was terrible. Example of touches and swaths of living fire: in France, from Claudel to Bernanos, from Maritain to Frossard; or the underground currents suddenly coming back to the surface as fresh, new sources, in Britain - from Chesterton to Tolkien to Waugh. Also, civilization pure and simple - for example, an urban culture that has shed the sooth and grime of early Industrialization. Jazz!

The short century. It started in 1918, which signaled the end of classical civilization (as embodied in classical Europe) with a grand war of nations and nationalisms, of strong monarchs and personal alliances. Post-1918 we wake up to find that the world has been disenchanted - which, however, does not stop us from making up our own realities as we go (fantasy wars & al.). We continue to lose in the plastic arts and in the world of sounds; by now, there seems to be little left to say, and equally little to de-compose, destruct, smash through; but the middle of the century is just in the middle of it, so still alive with it. A horrific century of oppressive rules that tried to change human nature - in a natural follow-up to the 17th and 18th and their making up of reality as we go, and of the 19th with the freeing of man to become the abject subject of other men and of their ideas. The twentieth century, which started in 1918, ends in 1989, by which time cold wars of many types lose their grounds of existence. Idle men will try to come up with new reasons for new wars, hot or languid.

But the twentieth century is too close for me to be able to form any precise impression of its nature, of its air; it is very much alive, since I was living it.

No clear color, besides confusion, to the still very young twenty-first century.

Willem de Kooning  - Easter Monday (1955–56)

Monday, September 24, 2012

[Brief] J.R.R. Tolkien's Voice & The Hobbit

The charming world of the shire and the dangerous outside world - why does this juxtaposition attract us so?


This entire little post is motivated by stumbling upon an audio material from the BBC, which talks about the origins of The Hobbit and about J.R.R. Tolkien, and contains fragments from interviews with Tolkien himself and with a few other relevant characters. I find this audio material as warm as an evening spent in the shire, drinking beer and chatting by the fire.

A few more correlated pieces of information:

Here is how Tolkien imagined (and drew) the picture of Bilbo Baggins' home.

Source: The Guardian

By the way, the website of The Tolkien Society has a good amount of information on Tolkien and on his writings (and you can find further information about The Inklings here).

Finally, the trailer for the upcoming movie based on the book, from the same Peter Jackson who made the superlative The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"The Hippopotamus," from T.S. Eliot (1920)

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh-and-blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

The hippo's feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.

The 'potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.

At mating time the hippo's voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.

The hippopotamus's day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way--
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

I saw the 'potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr'd virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

The Hippopotamus,
by T.S. Eliot (1920)


This is from a volume of Eliot verse that I have been carrying with me for weeks, now: The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems (Dover Thrift Editions). With this, I have returned to an old, old habit, of always having a small book of poems in my briefcase - just in case. Which also brings to mind a friend's book of memoirs (as yet unpublished), in which he mentions his father's admonition, that he should always carry a book with him; that way, no minute will go to waste, whether waiting in the doctor's office or travelling on the metro. Wise advice.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Family Is Where Culture Lives

Below are a few videos from a short series featuring families of folk dancers. They illustrate how tradition is perpetuated in and through the family. Indeed, it is the family that perpetuates culture; it is the place where culture is alive, where its fire burns its everyday, slow flame.

The daily habits of cleaning and washing,...

by József Attila

Source: Hagyomány Háló
For a week now, again and again,
Thoughts of my mother have racked my brain.
Gripping a basket of washing fast,
On, and up to the attic she passed.

And I was frank and released my feeling
In stamps and yells to bring down the ceiling.
Let someone else have the bulging jackets,
Let her take me with her up to the attic.

She just, giving me no look or thrashing,
Went on, and in silence spread out the washing,
And the kneaded clothes, rustling brightly,
Were twisting and billowing up lightly.

I should not have cried but it's too late for this.
Now I can see what a giant she is.
Across the sky her grey hair flickers through;
In the sky's waters she is dissolving blue.

(1934) Translated by Vernon Watkins

... and the Sunday dinner with its courses, its mainstays and desserts; the rhythm of the days, which shapes the child's world. Saturday is Saturday, Sunday is Sunday. Cleaning happens when? The songs we hear, the ones we sing; the prayers we say; the vacations we take; the values we value. The world has an order, time has a structure, the up is up, the down is down - and this order is beauty.

Father and daughter, dancing.

Mother, father, and their two small boys.

Mother, father and daughter.

Three generations.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

[BRIEF] I Hear Voices: Operalia 2011

Operalia is the voice competition founded in 1993 by Placido Domingo, which is organized every year in a different city. The 2011 competition was held in Moscow. In a public space in which singing competitions have become very popular, in almost all the countries of the world with a functioning TV market, from Albania to the US, it is refreshing to watch a competition where voice does indeed matter most. Most, but not completely - we are human beings, and Domingo's or Juan Diego Florez' or  Rolando Villazon's relative good looks certainly contributed to their star status - and we have not even begun talking about the many "divas" of the world of opera. However, it is a relief to see - or, rather, hear - a competition where the sheer quality of the voice and of technique matter most.    

What is it about singing competitions that catches our attention? One of the things is the music: we want to hear good music, to be entertained. Second, it is the competition as such - just like in sports, once you start getting acquainted with an athlete or a team, usually by virtue of the fact that they represent your local or national colors, you also become invested in the competition. From this point of view, the pop music competitions take the cake: they are superb at creating mini-background stories, which are truly barebones and aim the lowest common denominator (underdog stories, hardship stories), but also give a certain depth to the profile of the contestant, creating a person with whom we can associate emotionally, and for whom we can start rooting. This is why the initial selection phase is so crucial in these shows: besides being entertaining, through the sprinkling in of auditions disasters and of weird characters, this part of the show also establishes that essential initial relationship between viewer and competitor(s). This happens in shows such as X-Factor, Idol, or The Voice - shows created in specific countries (Netherlands, UK), but that have spread around the world. It also happens in the yearly Eurovision contests, but there the mechanism is that of national allegiance, since each competitor represents a country, and the public of each country gets to know them during the national phase of the selection.

In the video below one can see how the initial story and the initial emotional bond are created, during the auditions stage (of the X-Factor):

Of the contests listed above, The Voice gets closest - as the name indicates - to a focus on vocal quality as such, while American Idol is mostly a popularity contest, especially towards the later stages of the competition (and frustratingly so). In fact, The Voice (US version) is also refreshing because the very atmosphere of the show is much more amicable, and thus much more appealing, than the often abrasive Idol or X-Factor.

There is no use debating the fact that all these shows deal in pop music, which means that the voices sought and presented are the ones appropriate for that specific genre of music. Furthermore, even The Voice, where the initial selection is through a blind audition (a nice twist!), so that the judges (who are themselves pop artists) do not get to see the singers until they actually choose them, based on hearing - even this competition, then, is not and can not be entirely about "the voice." Or, more accurately, the pop genre itself is not about "voice" - as in, "a cultivated, fully developed voice," but about character and expressiveness within the expectations, conventions and the sonorous universe of the specific subgenre. We are talking about natural differences between various genres of music.

Take, for example, the difference between Andrea Bocelli and a true opera singer. Bocelli has a very pleasant voice, especially for traditional popular Italian music (like the canzoni napoletani) or for certain arias; but he is not an opera singer, which becomes evident in live performances with peers from the world of opera. He could be considered a cross-over artist, along the lines of what Josh Groban does so well. (The very talented Josh Groban, who possesses a very pleasant voice that he has cultivated with attention and through hard work.) But yes, each genre requires a different type of voice, and nobody would expect the beautifully crafted voice of an opera singer to fit in a genre that requires the cracked, world-weary sound of a bluesman (although unfortunate experiments in this sense have been made at the Pavarotti & Friends concerts, to give one example). Usually none of the singers comes out well from such experiments, unless a cross-over (bridge) is found where they can both be accommodated.

Different voices, different genres - not all equal...

Let us look, for example, at the winner of The Voice, Javier Colon; he has a truly exquisite, masterfully controlled voice, which is clearly at the top of his genre. A pleasure to listen:

The second-placed contestant in The Voice 2011, Dia Frampton, did not stand out with her vocal abilities as such. Yet she is a (multilaterally) talented young woman: composer, arranger etc., and the possessor of a voice with plenty of individuality. Here is, as an example, her very creative and quite unexpected adaptation of an otherwise banal rap song:

The next video, featuring Groban and Domingo, is not an example of an unfortunate pairing. The genre is cross-over, and the voices are top quality, each in their own field. Yet one can certainly notice the difference between these voices - of quality, depth, amplitude, control etc.

But we started by talking about Operalia, a competition with and about exquisite voices, with and about singing brought to the very highest levels of quality. Of course, this all happens within a genre that demands that quality, and a certain type of voice. Here is a video featuring one of the most impressive singers from Operalia 2011, Jaesig Lee, in a performance filmed two years earlier. (Before any accusations of "cheating" are brought up, regarding the choice of an aria, let me just say that this is one of the very few videos of him available on the Internet... as yet.)

I warmly recommend watching the entire final (concert) of Operalia 2011, available (for free viewing) here at You will not regret this time spent in the company of beauty.  (One more note: Jaesig Lee's outstanding, emotion-filled performance is at 00:53:13.)

Good audition!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

GK Chesterton

A good article by Jay Parini about Chesterton in... The Chronicle of Higher Education. This mainstream attention to GKC might be due to the publication of a new major biography, by Ian Ker, followed by featured articles in the Times Literary Supplement and, I suppose, other outlets of the literary world. This is all good news. Chesterton is a delight to read, especially when he is at his best, which I would consider to be in Heretics and in  Orthodoxy (both are available online, for free - if you follow these links). But it would be mightily unfair to reduce the mighty Chesterton to only these two gems, and not mention his brilliant book on Thomas Aquinas, about which the eminent Tomist scholar Etienne Gilson said decades later,

I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a "clever" book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called "wit" of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. [source]
A typical anecdote about GKC is that he never actually read the Summa from cover to cover, but only browsed through it; but that was enough, because he understood it, in the deeper meaning of the word; he understood it, because his mind worked like Aquinas' - it understood the whole of existence, and how all things fit within it.

And let us not ignore the superb detective stories featuring Father Brown - stories that are both entertaining and philosophical (a common-sense philosophy, accessible to any and all, by virtue of existing).  Or my favorite novel from him, The Flying Inn; or the famous and avant-la-lettre surrealist The Man Who Was Thursday.

Returning to the Chronicle piece, what is interesting about it is that it reveals, inadvertently, some of the academic biases of the moment; the author has to couch his praises in terms that we could consider, with a bit of effort and exaggeration, Marxist or postmodernist. Thus, he needs to underline that GKS stood up for the poor - against the rich, certainly; that he "questioned facts and reality" - how Postmodern! This, in order to assuage the readers' possible, automaton-like reactions to the perceived "conservatism" of Chesterton.

It is sad, sad indeed, that readers and writers can not think outside these ideological boxes dominating our times - and certainly the world of letters, and the academia. Terms that have little meaning, of course, and that fail to account for reality. Terms that are bound by space and time - the understanding of these terms in America is not the same as their meaning in Europe, let alone Africa or Asia; these terms are all part of a tiny little stretch of time in history, namely the post- industrial revolution age, and would make little sense outside of it (was Aristotle a conservative? a liberal? but how about Augustine? ... how silly).

The good news is that Chesterton is not reducible to these puny terms (of derision, I would say). Not even politically per se. As Parini mentions, even politically Chesterton stood for something else that the two twin embodiments of modern materialism, namely socialism and capitalism. He is, after all, one of the "founding fathers" of Distributism, which is a view of society and economy that is rooted in the recognition of the dignity and freedom of the individual, and of the intrinsic value of community and of localism. But by now I am starting (???) to sound dry and empty, so I will leave it at that, about politics.        

What is more important is that Chesterton is not the author of, but the expression of, something greater - a view of the universe and of the human being inhabiting it that is comprehensive, common-sense and, briefly put, true. A view that is realistic and idealistic at the same time - but a healthy idealism, the realistic idealism of fairy tales, not that of dreams and nightmares (as exemplified in Marxism, Fascism, and all the other ideologies). Fairy tales teach us essential truths about the human condition  (there is much death and suffering in them; the hero fights evil, in fairy tales), are optimistic, and, most of all, are filled with wonder - just like existence! Existence is filled with wonder, and this child-like (and not childish!) wonder is the deep root of Chesterton's optimistic, yet at the same time thoroughly realistic, view of human existence.

A joy to read, an even greater joy to discover GK Chesterton.


Finally, here is a good list of GKC works available on the web (yes, gratis).

Monday, August 22, 2011

[BRIEF] ...And the Best Last Lines from (Mostly English Language) Novels

Eugène Delacroix: George Sand (1838)
Courtesy of my friend MP, apropos the previous post about "the best 50 opening sentences in English-language fiction," here come the "100 best last lines from novels," by way of American Book Review. Lists can be very entertaining - and lists about and from literature are so rare, that I do hope you will thoroughly enjoy these.

Notwithstanding the slightly annoying limitation to (mostly) English and American authors, which brings to mind the famous accusation of provincialism that stirred the waters a few years back. Truth is (or is it?) that the literary "world" of each nation (or, to put it differently, each cultural-linguistic space) suffers genetically from selective vision. It is a known fact, for example, that the German literary space is much more open to Central and Eastern European authors than any other similarly significant literature. This is why it is through the German channel that many of these authors become major names in the English-speaking world. Just take the case of Sándor Márai, whose first major British-American hit, Embers, was translated not from the  Hungarian original, but from the German translation.        

So, please find below a short selection from this list; but do go and read the whole thing here. All the nominations received in the process of compiling this list can be found here (also worth reading).

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux: 
Alexande Dumas Fils (1873)
2. Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you? –Ralph Ellison,
Invisible Man (1952)
3. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
4. …I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the
Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the
Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with
my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain
flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could
feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes
I will Yes. –James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
5. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt
Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there
before. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
6. “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also
Rises (1926)
7. He loved Big Brother. –George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
8. ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better
rest that I go to than I have ever known.’ –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
9. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway
leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—
seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness. –Joseph Conrad, Heart of
Darkness (1902)
10. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my
vision. –Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
11. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the
universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and
the dead. –James Joyce, “The Dead” in Dubliners (1914)

Friday, August 19, 2011

[BRIEF] The Best Opening Sentences in English Language Fiction, from MercatorNet

Here is a great little article from MercatorNet, containing "the best 50 opening sentences in English-language fiction." Well, I probably would not say that these are "the best 50" (how do you measure that? from all English literature?), but it is a very neat exercise that you will surely enjoy. You can find below the first part of their list - for the rest, please visit the article itself, if you so desire.

1719, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho' not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call'd me.
Rafaello Sanzio,
 Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami (1510-14)

1759, Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, prince of Abissinia.

1813, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

1830, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

1843, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

1850, Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

1850, Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Call me Ishmael.

1854, Charles Dickens, Hard Times
Now what I want is, Facts.

1859, Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter (1662-65)
1865, Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, 'and what is the use of a book', thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversation?'

1890, Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.

1894, Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips.

1898, H.G. Wells, War of the World
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

1900, Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife.

1903, Joseph Furphy, Such is Life
Unemployed at last!

1908, Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows
The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home.

1911, James Barrie, Peter Pan
All children, except one, grow up.

1913, Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The City (2)

I am always mesmerized by those shots, usually at the beginning of movies, in which the camera floats over some body of water towards a cityscape, and the lights of a city.

The video below is something  similar, as it illustrates, in a way, some of the beauty and fascination of the city (on which I touched in a previous post). Indeed, I do not find the lights of the city estranging; to the contrary, and especially when they are produced by human movement.

There is a sense of distance and otherness, indeed - and maybe artificiality would be the word; but there is also warmth, light - the pulsating life of the city. Because the life of the city is made of human movement.

Take a look, then, at this wondrous video produced by Dominic Boudreault of time lapse images from metropolises in the North America. A suggestion - watch it full screen and in HD. Or just go to Dominic's website and watch it there.

Timelapse - The City Limits from Dominic on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fred & Ludovika: Scenes From the Life Of

"I will buy two cockatoos,
I will call them
Nifty and Thrifty,"
- said Fred.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dada - and Others

Others. This one I like.

White on White, by Kazimir Malevich
(Russian, born Ukraine. 1878-1935. Suprematist Composition.)

And another:

4'33", by John Cage

Nice try, this 4'33" - but it lacks somehow the freshness and youthfulness of Dada, wouldn't you say? Too pretentious, demonstrative, self-referential, and too rational. Dada is anything but - it's instinctive, it is immediate. The immediacy and thoughtlessness of youth.

(And the applause at the end is jarring.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Radio (An Ode or Elegy)

Was it evenings, or was it early mornings? It was during the evenings that, in a small village in Central Europe, my grandfather used to tune in, probably on long waves (marked LW on the radio's dial), with the antenna extended, searchingly inclined toward the angle where the signal was stronger, to BBC's foreign service programming. The song I used to hear, during such evenings, in-between the programs and amidst heavy static, was It's a Long Way to Tipperary, interpreted by an army choir (or something that sounded like that).

Early mornings, around 5.30 am, in a city in Central Europe - it is the early 1980s. I sneaked into my grandparents' room (my other grandparents) the night before, to sleep there, and now I am awoken by the sound of the radio. The receiver is tuned in to Kossuth Radio, and I hear, every morning, while dawn is breaking outside, crisp and clear, a stylized fragment of that Kossuth song that is the station's signature.

It is noon, or early afternoon, and my mother and grandmother are baking, cooking, doing things in the kitchen. I am there with them, and we are all listening, amidst doings and goings, and playing, to the radio: the program where the man talks and plays with kindergarten children; the one where listeners call in with comments, opinions, their questions; the classical music quiz, around noon, in which the guest has to guess the piece from which he just heard a small part; the hourly news reports; then the music - always sad, charming, melodious, already old. The soundtrack of the kitchen was provided by the radio - the soundtrack of our days, weekdays and Sundays (when I would look forward to that program with the quirky news from around the globe... always listening to it during dinner, or immediately after).

The sound of early mornings, of the dawn, for me, is that of the radio. The sound of distant places - of an unattainable, noble, civilized UK, for example, or of any place that still holds the promise, because it is unattainable, far and remote, and noble-sounding. The sound of afternoons spent cooking, of the warmth of the home, comes from the radio.

Which "radio," though? What do you mean? Any signal transmitted through waves long, short and medium (medium waves that still feel warmer than FM)? No! The empty, commercials-and-Top40s blasting, pre-programmed stations, with no face, no personality, no human presence? No. 

Instead, radio as the medium of sociality. Where life is, where my society lives, where I hear its pulse, its everyday beating - nothing special, is always special. Where I meet it and learn about it and keep in touch with it; where I live in the society of which I am a part, about which I care, and which has to care about me. We are a part of it, it is with us - and the radio is its voice, and thus our common voice. The medium that creates community, inasmuch as it broadcasts it everyday. There is a we also because we share in an awareness of the we, through the medium of the radio. A medium that is human, that is intelligent, cultivated, whose music makes sense and moves the intimate recesses of the heart (even if you don't know it); that can be common and everyday, just like us; that can be silly, or laugh-out-loud funny, or childish - when talking to children. That is like us, because it is we who are mediated - by intelligent, cultivated, professional people, whose careers are the radio, whose lives are in and with the radio, whose vocations are to be this radio, this voice of ours - a part of who we are.

Addendum: Perhaps not the most fitting, but the most famous. And it is about this future we live in today.    


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Virtual Walk Through Museums: Google's Art Project

Google's motto used to be "do no harm." However patchy its record of living up to that noble goal, Google does actually do some good, too. A good thing coming out of their creative labs is the Art Project.

In short, this is a tool "powered by Google" which allows the user - you - to explore some of the great museums of the world, and to look at some great artworks in detail. In amazing detail, for some of them, as the high definition pictures go as deep as the painter's brushstrokes - as in the case of In the Conservatory by Edouard Manet, from the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. In other cases, such as the painting of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger, from The Frick Collection, you can still go in-depth in your examination of the painting, even if not to the same degree.

Besides examining very closely some of the paintings from Tate, MOMA, the National Gallery in DC, Hermitage in St Petersburg, and many more, the "visitor" can also browse through the hallways of these museums, looking at all the objects exhibited; it is Google's street view technology, applied to the interior of some magnificent houses of art.

What can I say other than that there is art to be encountered through Google's Art Project.

You can also take a look at this short, useful video about how to use this new and enjoyable tool.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why the TLS?

Why the Times Literary Supplement?

I "discovered" the TLS following a friend's recommendation, at a time when I did not have any specific literary/ cultural magazines that I would regularly read; the closest to something that fit my expectations was Der Zeit's literary supplement - Zeit Literatur. Right now, the TLS is the only such magazine to which I subscribe: why?

Its texts are not characterized by ideological deformations, which is a problem ubicuitous among American magazines, making them virtually unreadable. Instead, its texts cover culture - or Culture. "They," or "the texts," because the authors vary with each issue, and there is thus no overburdening, overwhelming "it" of a program or message, blaring from inside the magazine's covers. Compare this with the line struck by the very ideological and most programmatic (and thus, useless, for my interests and purposes) New York Review of Books.

"Culture," because reading it is an act in intellectual enrichment: it is like visiting a library (or giant modern bookstore), perambulating through its sections, indulging in a bit of philosophy, a bit of geography - and how about the history of pearls? Delightful. If your interests and needs are Renaissance-like (and why do we use the word Renaissance to express this most natural curiosity of a thinking human being? perhaps because our times make human beings narrower than that, narrowing them down in the race for subsistence, or success) - if you have that curiosity, then this will fit your tastes.

The language it employs is another delight. The overwhelming majority of its authors write in a beautiful, literary English. From a purely literary perspective, therefore, reading it will be very pleasant. Its literary qualities set it apart from the lack of qualities of the simplified, bare-bones language used in most North-American magazines. I think that for the latter we can speak of a case of contamination with the academic style; most American academics have perfected a simple, clear, direct mode of expression - the research paper style. Mind you, I do think that this simple and clear style is a great gain, especially when employed in the social or exact sciences; in fact, I am quite convinced that the American sphere has produced the best political science and history books, and also the best investigative journalism (when it is at its best). These are genres which greatly profit, and can only profit, from such a style. Just read Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson trilogy - I have still to encounter a more remarkable work of political science (and history, and journalism). But most of the writing in the transatlantic magazines of culture & current events is simply drab and boring. Reading the TLS is, more often than not, a dessert on the daily table.

These are three reasons; I am sure you can find more.

PS: I warmly suggest getting and reading the print version; you would enjoy walking through a library or a bookstore more than browsing through Amazon's titles and its cover snapshots. But you can also find the link to TLS's website on the top-left of this page.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Vassily Kandinsky, Arab City

Vassily Kandinsky, Arab City (1905) [source: Centre Pompidou]

Using this occasion, let me also suggest that you bookmark the website of Centre Pompidou - Musée national d'art moderne (which has this painting), whose collection containing over 60,000 modern works is available online.

I do hope that the quality of the photos presented in the online gallery is uneven, though, since I am not the happiest with the level of detail for the one above; let me then also direct your attention to the Lessing Photo Archive, where you can find, among others, this high quality photo of Kandinsky's Arab City.    

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The City

In the middle of looking for and frustratingly not finding this week's issue of The Times Literary Supplement, at the local outlet of that big name bookstore, I stumbled upon another small miracle: Lapham's Quarterly, of which I never heard, and its current issue titled, "The City."

The urban environment is my native space; the distant sound of the city in the middle of the night; the yellow leaves on the trees in the park; the people walking busily, to and from their business, midmorning; the smell and cheerfulness of squares filled by the yearly Christmas market, with people lingering midday over mulled wine, home-made sweets or dried fish.

What makes a city? What does a city need? In which of its elements does it really subsist? Minneapolis is not a city, Baltimore is not a city (or large parts of it are not) - not anymore. Philadelphia is suffering; its downtown gave me the painful sensation of something wasted, something missed, something that was beautiful but is now unsafe, impersonal; a lost opportunity. (Its two-way boulevard leading from downtown to the Museum of Art was built for carriages and couples talking walks on autumn evenings; now its sidewalks are neglected by human beings, while the roads are lonely with automobiles.)

It is space, and it is the people. The beauty of the buildings and of their setting in Chicago; the Danube passing through the heart of Budapest, with pretty bridges adorning it; the neoclassical, tree-lined boulevards of Milano; the squares and the tram-lined streets of Strasbourg... but none could actually be imagined without the people walking along Michigan Ave., or the teeming life on the banks of the Danube, spilling unto the bridges in various forms (bike, car, pedestrian); and so on.

One could make a reference to Aristotle, who says that having a group of people live in the same place, under the same laws, does not yet a society make; a society requires constant, everyday, physical meetings between its members. The city is nothing without its people. Banal-sounding, perhaps, but it also means that the true form of the city is given by its members in constant interaction (or, by the constant interaction of its members?). This is why I could feel instantly comfortable, the moment I came out from the subway and unto the streets of lower Manhattan; because I  instinctively and immediately recognized the atmosphere, because I  knew right away how to behave on a street busy with people pursuing their own business - stepping into a deli for a sandwich, waiting for the light to change etc.; it was Novi Sad, it was Rome, it was Karlsruhe (just taller).

I think this is what makes the city my environment, my space. This lived space, of people interacting (verbally,  physically; sharing a space, sharing in each other's life) and inhabiting a place that was built not just for functionality, but for beauty, too (yet drab exteriors do become beautiful, their bricks and iron railings aged by the people living with them, for years, decades, entire lives).

Man is inherently social, and if your being has been defined... - well, if you came to know yourself through knowing the others whom you met every day - on the street, in the shop, on the tram, or just by playing outside; then it becomes very hard, almost an amputation of the self, to live without that.

This current issue of Lapham's Quarterly, then, titled The City, is a small miracle. It contains texts from writers ranging from Plutarch to Bulgakov, from Marco Polo to Iréne Nemirovski, from Rabelais to F. Scott Fitzgerald - about a given city, about the city.    

Monday, April 19, 2010

Culture, television, and the nation-state (apropos a surprising new TV series)

Now this looks very enticing! In fact, this is one of the more surprising things to come out of the world of commercial television. Quite unexpected, and this is one of those very rare times when I would actually want to "get TV" (cable or air) in my house. Fortunately, it will surely come out on DVD fairly soon.

Usually, to encounter high culture on TV, in Amerika, you have to watch PBS - the much maligned Public Broadcasting System, the closest equivalent to a national (as in, "state") TV station Amerika has. However, in many other parts of the world, and especially in Europe, the national ("state") TV stations are the guardians of high culture, and thus have a civilizing role - or impact.

A case in point is the world of television in Central and Eastern Europe, and the impact of commercial television after the 1990s. They have invaded the market, have become very successful, but true quality television remained with the "national," i.e. state-owned stations.

These states came about as a result of the pursuit of the idea of the "nation-state," that every nation (defined ethnically and culturally, i.e. ethno-culturally) needs to have its own state(hood). In consequence, the very raison d'être of the resulting states became, and is, the protection of the interests of these "nations," defined ethnoculturally: around a "common" language, culture, history (real or constructed? shared or inculcated? - usually both). (This is the German model.) What is a state, however? It is a set of institutions. This is then what the state institutions are meant to do: to protect the interests of a culturally defined nation, which means the protection and promotion of the given culture, as defined by the state. (This is the French model, although the French nation was not defined ethnically, but politically and culturally.)

There are many downsides to such an understanding of nation and state; for example, the existence of a quasi-sacred canon of national culture, whose questioning is almost a blasphemy - and  whose epitome are the "national poets" - usually romantic poets who wrote during and about the struggle for the definition of the nation, in the nineteenth century, intertwining in their work the definition of the language, history, and the struggle for independence.. There are, however, important upsides, namely this self-understanding of some of these institutions of the state, as being the guardians of cultural heritage - not necessarily limited to the past, especially in the case of national TV stations.

Of course, this might also have to do with the fact that, in many countries, when television arrived, it was through state-owned stations, and not through the market. As a consequence, the approach to this new medium has been shaped not by commercial interest, but by the idea of public service (information, news - just like in the case of the first radio stations there), and might also have meant that the input of educated people, with sophisticated cultural backgrounds, was decisive - and they applied their understanding of other branches of culture, to deciding about the very purpose and direction of the programs of this new medium.

Now, I am quite unfamiliar with the history of television, but these seem to be fair enough suppositions, since I have experienced them first hand, growing up in Europe, nourished (in part) exactly by these institutions (sometimes to my delight, sometimes to indigestion).