Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gabriel Marcel: E. M. Cioran

To my mind, the friendship sustained for many years by E.M. Cioran and Gabriel Marcel must rank among the most improbable (and appealing) of the twentieth century. According to Cioran’s report, the two were neighbors and went to the theater together regularly. The conversations they had while wandering the streets of Paris after a performance must rank, along with Aristotle’s dialogues, among the most precious artifacts that have been lost to history forever.
Though neither thinker would be considered “mainstream” today, Cioran is probably the better known. His aphoristic writings, collected in works such as The Trouble with Being Born and A Short History of Decay, are relatively accessible, and as these two titles suggest, they’re steeped in pessimism and bile, though they’re also leavened by an acrid humor and a lyric sweetness, as if Cioran were really a disappointed sentimentalist rather than an angry scourge.
Though Marcel earned his living as a theater critic and wrote quite a few plays himself, it’s as a philosopher that he’s best remembered today. His writings along these lines differ radically from Cioran’s in both tone and shape. Marcel was adept at crafting lengthy, meditative essays that were often assembled into collections with titles such as Creative Fidelity and The Existential Background of Human Dignity. His goal, when baldly stated, takes on a whiff of grandiosity: to tease out the reality and (perhaps divine) significance of finding ourselves in the presence of other people in the world.
Nowadays Marcel seldom appears in surveys of philosophy, and when he does, it’s usually in a footnote or subordinate clause, as the thinker who coined the term existentialism. With the passage of time, and the rise in stature of his younger contemporary and sometime student Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel himself grew dissatisfied with that association, preferring to describe his work as “neo-Socratic,” and this term may give us a clue to the foundation of his long-standing friendship with Cioran. Marcel craved dialog; he loved opposition.
Cioran may well have been a perfect foil. The two men were both temperamentally religious and both tended to push ideas to extremes.
In his eloquent though occasionally long-winded essays, Marcel offers us his entire train of thought as he ponders some seemingly unpromising event or situation—a child bringing a flower to show her mother, for example. He develops his lines of reasoning cautiously, prodding and poking, circumnavigating and re-examining the situation from every angle, in Socratic fashion. The end result is usually a modest set of assertions expressed in everyday language.  And, once again like Socrates, Marcel is comfortable acknowledging when the heart of the issue under consideration may have escaped him. Nevertheless, he leaves open the possibility that the investigation itself might offer flashes of insight to those who follow along, regardless of its inconclusive character.
 Cioran more typically gives us the end-point of his dire ruminations in a few caustic sentences:
  I anticipated witnessing in my lifetime the disappearance of the species. But in this the gods have been against me.
Read somewhere the statement “God speaks only to himself.” On this specific point, the Almighty has more than one rival.
Such relentless teeth-grinding would soon grow tiresome, but Cioran also has his appreciative moments.
Music is an illusion that makes up for all the others.
For Mallarme, who claimed he was doomed to permanent insomnia, sleep was not a “real need” but a “favor.” Only a great poet could allow himself the luxury of such an insanity.
The son of an Orthodox priest, Cioran was born and raised in a small village in the Romanian mountains. He attended the university in Bucharest, where, along with playwright Eugene Ionesco, essayist Mircea Eliade, and other young intellectuals, he fell under the spell of the fascist ideology of the Iron Guard—an enthusiasm he later regretted and disavowed.
On the strength of his first book, Tears and Saints, a set of idiosyncratic reflections on the Christian mystics, Cioran received a scholarship to study in Paris from the French Institute of Bucharest. He remained in France for the rest of his life, avoiding starvation until the age of forty by eating in student cafeterias. In 1949, he published A Short History of Decay, his first work to be written in French. The book, in the context of the fashionable existentialism of the postwar era, was a success, and with the proceeds Cioran moved into a small garret apartment in Paris where he lived for the rest of his life.
Reflecting on his own background, Cioran once wrote, “I come from a corner of Europe where outbursts of abuse, loose talk, avowals—immediate, unsolicited, shameless disclosures—are de rigueur, where you know everything about everyone, where life in common comes down to a public confessional, and specifically where se­crecy is inconceivable and volubility borders on delirium.”
The son of a high-ranking government official, Marcel was raised in a typically haut-bourgeois Parisian environment, though the death of his mother (a non-practicing Jew) when Marcel was four cast a shadow over his early years. He excelled academically as a teen, in part due to the incessant demands of his step-mother, and eventually specialized in philosophy. But he found the mechanized character of his education chilling, and the relative emptiness of the material itself was brought home to him in the course of World War I, during which he was employed by the Red Cross to locate missing soldiers and inform their relatives of the often unhappy results of his researches. 
Marcel published his first play in 1914 and established himself as a thinker of note during the 1920s with a series of essays and journals culminating in “On the Ontological Mystery,” and the Metaphysical Journal (1933). He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1929, but orthodoxy had little place in his researches, which remained grounded in common experience to the end. 
Although the subjects Marcel addresses vary widely, they all impinge in one way or another on questions of the meaning and value of personal life. If a single phenomenon lies at the heart of his reflections, it’s l’exigence ontologique, which might be translated as “the need to exist,” or “the need to be.” On the face of things this expression seems absurd: after all, we already exist, we already have being. Yet Marcel detects within himself, and also notes in the thoughts and actions of friends and colleagues, a degree of doubt on this score, which manifests itself in a compelling urge to exist more fully.
Several of Marcel’s eminent contemporaries devoted their careers to highlighting the alienation and absurdity of human existence, but Marcel found such veins of thought, when stripped of their rhetoric, neologisms, and bizarre totalitarian undercurrents, to be self-dramatizing and shallow. Yet he didn’t deny that the condition of alienation presented a genuine problem to be examined and overcome.  “...being and life do not coincide,” he once wrote, “my life, and by reflection all life, may appear to me as forever inadequate to something which I carry within me, which in a sense I am, but which reality rejects and excludes.” Such a disjunction is not only unpleasant but life threatening.
Despair is possible in any form, at any moment, and to any degree, and this betrayal may seem to be counseled, if not forced upon us, by the very structure of the world we live in. The deathly aspect of this world may, from a given standpoint, be regarded as a ceaseless incitement to denial and to suicide.  It could even be said in this sense that the fact that suicide is always possible is the essential starting point of any genuine metaphysical thought.
The allure of negation has become the stock-in-trade of modern philosophy. Marcel singles out Nietzsche, somewhat dubiously perhaps, as one thinker for whom such a turning toward despair was “the springboard to the loftiest affirmation.” And although his affirmations can hardly be called lofty, Cioran is clearly cultivating the same plot.
Marcel’s own investigations led him in a different direction: toward the realization that although “I” am inseparable from “my body,”  I begin to participate in a higher order of being when I make myself available to, interact with, and come to love others. Cioran would no doubt acknowledge the importance of such a quest, while denying that any progress toward its fulfillment is possible. Thus: “Of all that makes us suffer, nothing—so much as disappointment—gives us the sensation of at last touching Truth.”
In Marcel’s view, the pursuit of what we might call transcendent value is far from futile, though he would be the first to point out that the word “transcendent” should never be taken to mean “divorced from life.” First to last, he remained committed to exposing the distinctly personal and incarnate character of the realm he was exploring. That being the case, it’s interesting to note that the love for others Marcel describes seldom takes the form of a man loving a woman. Far more often he couches this “incarnation” of spirit in terms of friendship, family life, or the goodness we come upon in unexpected places.
...I cannot stress too emphatically that the word “fulfillment” can take on a positive meaning only from the point of view of creation. Moreover, it is clear, as we have already suggested, that creation is not necessarily the creation of something outside the person who creates. To create is not, essentially, to produce…I think that we must all, in the course of our lives, have known beings who were essentially creators; by the radiance of charity and love shining from their being, they add a positive contribution to the invisible work which gives the human adventure the only meaning which can justify it. Only the blind may say with the suggestion of a sneer that these individuals have produced nothing.
“Oh, isn’t he sweet?” “Oh, isn’t she a saint?” We hear such sentimental remarks from time to time and even make them ourselves when acts of thoughtfulness and selfless generosity take us by surprise. Look closer (Marcel is saying) and you will see here a more ample manifestation of “being” than there is to be found in any path of phenomenological reflection, ponderous chain of logic, or histrionic, alienated aside.
From such observations and reflections Marcel arrives at the conclusion that truth itself is participatory rather than empirically verifiable. Here Cioran might well agree, in his own way.
It is never ideas we should speak of, but only sensations and visions—for ideas do not proceed from our entrails; ideas are never truly ours.
Early in his career Marcel, reflecting on the buoyant and invigorating potential of human interactions, sensed the emergence of a presence to whom he cautiously granted the epithet divine. Thus, to the arsenal of everyday terms he had developed to limn the character of being—availability, participation, love, fidelity, embodiment—Marcel found himself reaching again and again for yet another: faith. This concept served him—I may be putting words in his mouth, here—not as a substitute for reason, but as a means of describing an orientation of the personality toward the good.
 To some readers this will all sound somewhat imprecise, not to say mushy. What is goodness, after all? And how much can we expect to accrue by means of an availability that seems to be largely passive? But Marcel’s own essays are far from mushy. On the contrary, his reflections flesh out several aspects of the movement of being toward goodness. His problem lies not in conceptual mushiness so much as in rhetorical prolixity. As he moves from everyday experiences into more numinous regions, Marcel peppers his train of thought with phrases like “Great is the temptation to...” “But it will be objected that...” “I am inclined to think that there is...” “We cannot go on to a deeper analysis of this suggestion without...” and so on, to the point that we wish he would just get on with it. At some point we might yearn for a dash of Cioran’s brevity:
The essential often appears at the end of a long conversation. The great truths are spoken on the doorstep.
The unorthodoxy of Marcel’s religious views may be suggested by the following remark:
I can say no more than that between God and me there is the relation of one freedom with another.
Yet this supposed freedom notwithstanding, Marcel occasionally oversteps the range of conclusions that follow logically from his analysis, tiptoeing into the realm of dogmatic assertion that he’s keen to avoid. The remark previously quoted, from the Metaphysical Journal, leads on to a long-winded analysis of the relation between love, faith, and God, during which he lets fly with several curious assertions:
When faith ceases to be love it congeals into objective belief in a power that is conceived more or less physically. [So far, so good.] And love which is not faith (which does not posit the transcendence of the God that is loved) is only a sort of abstract game.
At this point we’re starting to leave the track. Don’t we all love plenty of things that aren’t God? It might be said, on the contrary, that love rooted in an act of positing anything is ipso facto an abstraction. Unless we’re merely loving an idea inside our heads.
Marcel compounds his error a few lines further on in this terminological juggling act when he writes,
Just as the divine reality corresponds to faith (the former can only be thought in function of the latter) so divine perfection corresponds to love…I cease to believe in God the moment I cease to love him; an imperfect God cannot be real.
While the association of belief and love might be solid, that between love and perfection is weak. Most of the fiber and character of things is rooted in irregularities, idiosyncrasies, and imperfections. Here Cioran brings us closer to the truth when he remarks:
Every anomaly seduces us, life in the first place, that anomaly par excellence.
 No doubt, there are aspects of Marcel’s analysis here that deserve greater attention. Plato’s famous remark that “Love is the desire to generate perfection” has more obvious appealing than Marcel’s passing observation that “divine perfection corresponds to love,” but Marcel is less likely to considering “young love” than a deep-rooted, abiding love between two people. How is an individual to respond when such a relationship is severed by misfortune or death? At this point the theological dimension becomes more germane.
By choice, Marcel was never a systematic thinker, and it’s not easy to summarize his position. Such glosses are prone to vacuity and abstraction, but I’ve got to give it a shot.
Marcel’s  vision is of being that recognizes itself in both reflection and recollection. I am not the same thing as “my life,” he reasons, but there are undeniable connections between the two, since “my life” is certainly mine. At the core of my recollection is “my” being, an entity both greater and more tenuous than “the things I have done.” The realization that other beings are in a similar situation leads me to a revelation of shared life that I can cultivate by remaining “available” to others, or ignore by promoting myself at their expense in a attempt to establish myself in being independently—an attempt that’s likely to fail because it lacks the shared ground of being in the midst of which my own development actually takes place. The domain in which interpersonal relations develop dialectically, in Marcel’s view, constitutes the only genuine reality. It consists not in consensus or compromise, but in interplay. From such a domain springs all the things we value, and all the things that endure.
By way of contrast, in one essay Cioran praises playwright Samuel Beckett, another seemingly misanthropic emigrant in Parisian, in the following terms:
To fathom this separate man, we should focus on the phrase “to hold oneself apart,” the tacit motto of his every moment, on its implication of solitude and subterranean solitude ,on the essence of a withdrawn being who pursues an endless and implacable labor…as relentlessly as “a mouse gnawing on a coffin.”
It’s a curious fact that although Marcel lived through a turbulent era in European history, and spent a large amount of his time reviewing plays, evaluating works of fiction for a Paris publishing house, and translating foreign authors into French, relatively few of his opinions on specific aesthetic and political issues are available to us. It’s as if, being beset by issues of a deeply personal and ontological orientation, the middle ground of value in its specific manifestations—art, politics, history, belle letters—was of only secondary interest to him. On the other hand, I might suggest that his broader views underscore what we all know intuitively yet lack the courage or persistence to explore or defend—that life, value, and being are just about everywhere, either actually or potentially.
As for Cioran, read him and weep…and then laugh…and then weep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Bark River Chronicles

The Bark River flows for 67 miles across southern Wisconsin, heading southwest toward its confluence with the Rock River. Neither waterway was considered worthy of inclusion in the River of America series (1937-1974)  perhaps being aced out by the Yazoo, the Santee, or the Chagres. But the Bark does have a story to tell, and in Milton J. Bates it’s found a chronicler more than worthy of telling it. Bates and his wife, Puck, have been canoeing various stretches of the river for years; they’ve participated in clean-up drives and visited the nearby mills and museums. Beyond that, the author has delved deeply into the archives of the Wisconsin DNR to track the fate of this or that marsh, millpond, or dam-site across time. What emerges is a picture of the changing role played by the Bark as an avenue of exploration, a source of waterpower, and a recreational resource.

The “chronicle” in the title refers to the attempt Bates and Puck make to canoe the entire river in the course of a single summer. But anyone expecting a whitewater adventure ought to steer clear. There are more fallen trees than horsetails, more marshy bends than windswept expanses. Bates’s progress downstream is far less memorable than the associations he drums up along the way, which provide him with opportunities to dilate at length on such topics as ice harvesting, the circus industry, the changing technology of milling, the issues associated with dam-removal, Indian mounds, objectivist poetry, the growing threat of invasive species such as carp and zebra mussels, and the Blackhawk War of 1832.

In one of Bates’s more interesting digressions, we find him acting on the request of one Joanne Cushman to locate an aluminum pot that has sunk somewhere in the river downstream from her house.  A few pages earlier we learned the story of “Reverend” Robert Cushman, who, eight generations back, arrived in Massachusetts in 1621. This Pilgrim Cushman delivered the earliest sermon in the New World of which we have any record. It’s not so famous as the one John Winthrop gave nine years later, but in Bates’s opinion, “ …it may nevertheless have the better claim to being the keynote address for New World civil and economic order.” And he tells us why this might be.

But Bates doesn’t merely rely on far-flung associations to make the Bark River seem interesting; he shows how various levels and eras of history are in evidence, even today, along the river’s banks and in its communities and environs. In Cushman’s sermon—to take the current example—he emphasized the need to balance entrepreneurialism and neighborliness, which is precisely the issue facing those today who own private dams along the Bark River that they can neither afford to fix nor to remove.

The book has an easy pace and it’s very well written. Bates is equally at ease whether he's describing Indian (and white) scalping methods or the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, a writer previously unknown to me who was raised on the banks of the Bark River. The conversations that take place from time between the author and his wife seldom really come alive. Rather, they seem like yet one more vehicle for presenting  information to the reader. But that’s a minor blemish on an otherwise well-paced and engaging riverine portrait. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Late Quartet

Do you need to like chamber music to like A Late Quartet? Probably not. In fact, viewers hoping to sink into long stretches of Beethoven’s opus 131 may come away from the theater disappointed.

The film examines the lives of a group of musicians—and not only their musical lives—in the course of a few weeks during which the cellist (Christopher Walken) discovers that he’s suffering the first stages of Parkinson’s Disease. Will he be able to finish out the quartet’s twenty-fifth season? If not, who can be found to replace him?

A few pivotal scenes take place in Walken’s elegant Manhattan flat, during which the members of the quartet practice little but discuss much in thoughtful, measured tones. They’ve spent a quarter of a century being attentive to one another’s playing, and that same sensitivity and deference comes out in their conversation.

We find ourselves more often at the apartment of the violist (Katherine Keener) and second violinist (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who’ve been married for decades. Their daughter (Imogen Poots) is an up-and-coming violinist herself, and early-on in the film she starts taking lessons from the group’s first violinist, an icy perfectionist (Mark Ivanir) whose dedication to his art leaves him with little patience or tact when it comes to doing whatever’s necessary to ensure the future of the group—or teaching a young student who lacks his extreme devotion to the art-form.

Tensions between  Hoffman and Ivanir surface early as they dispute whether to play the Beethoven opus 131 with or without the years of notes they’ve been penciling on their sheet music. (Skyfall this ain’t.) The situation grows more heated when Hoffman points out that if they have to hire a new cellist, the quartet's sound will change, and in that case, it might be a good time for Hoffman to take over the 1st violinist part on occasion. “That’s a horrible idea, coming at the worst possible time,” is Ivanir’s acerbic response.

The situation grows yet more complex when Keener fails to support her husband’s new idea with enough enthusiasm. She’s always had strong feelings for Ivanir; in fact, it appears they’ve been meeting regularly on a bridge in Central Park for decades. (Why? To discuss the opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” quartet, I guess.)

Throw in a flamenco dancer with whom Hoffman often goes jogging, and the fact that Walken’s wife has recently died, and you have all the makings of a high-brow soap opera…Yet somehow, the creaking gears of the plot mechanism don’t detract much from the depth of emotions being exhibited on the screen. Declining health, professionalism, parenthood, mortality, honesty and tact,  mentorship, infidelity, artistic abandon—these things are all exposed in the course of A Late Quartet, and they get to you in a big way.

They got to me, anyway. I choked up on several occasions, and for entirely different reasons.

Then I went home and listened to Beethoven’s opus 131.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Does the World Exist?

That’s the question posed by Jim Holt in his new book by that title. He goes around interviewing physicists and metaphysicians, and lots of nonsense gets scattered here and there, along with some intriguing insights and speculations. 

However, Why questions are seldom worth asking (as my dad always said). We’d be better off asking, “What is the world?” Or better still, “Why do I exist?”

“Why” questions are really concerned with one of two things. They’re concerned with motivation or with explication, and the former can usually be transformed to the later without much difficulty. I might ask someone, “Why did you put that CD by the Cocteau Twins on the stereo just now?” Was it simply to irritate me? Perhaps not. Perhaps you actually like this stuff. If so, then the question becomes, “What do you hear? What draws you to this sound?” I hear the music, but evidently I’m not really hearing it. What is really going on here?

To suggest that the question Why Does the World Exist? is a hunt for motives would be to suggest that someone made the world and we want to know why he or she did so. It carries obvious theological overtones. 

In fact, when this question arises, it’s usually simply a way of expressing the dumfounding realization that there is no real reason for all this stuff we see and engage and live through. There is no motive behind it. There might just as easily have been nothing as something.

Such thoughts tickle the fancy of some. In others they strike a note of unspeakable terror. Yet others at least occasionally become rapt in awe at the situation they find themselves in—alive amidst an inexplicable universe. I would put myself in the last category.

It seems to me that most religious sentiment arises as a very imperfect means to express the marvel of existence, both personal and cosmic. Yet in so far as such sentiments become encoded in holy books and liturgical texts, they tend to take on a mindless rhetorical quality. They lose their luster.

Does the fact that the universe exists prove that God exists? I think that argument could be made convincingly, though many of the voices in Jim Holt’s book would, I suspect, reject such an inference. It would probably be closer to the truth to say that God is the universe than merely to say that he or she made the universe. But in the end, the argument is less important than the feeling underlying it. It’s a love feeling—me and the universe—and the challenge lies in expanding and extending it before it fades of its own accord or becomes institutionalized and loses its luster.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Leaf Hills

Remark overheard at the Traveler’s Café in Alexandria, Minnesota, two days after Thanksgiving:”We didn’t do any shopping. We stayed home all day yesterday and watched movies.”

We, too, avoided the malls on Black Friday, a day that would seem less black if it weren’t so heavily advertised. Inspired by an email ad from the Country Inn motel chain, we booked a room in Alexandria, hopped in the car, and headed northwest toward the Leaf Hills. This little-known (and easy to overlook) geographic feature consists of a range of hills running in an arc from Detroit Lakes to Sibley State Park north of Willmar—a stretch of more than a hundred miles. It’s also referred to as the Alexandria Moraine.

The name of this range of hills is a rough translation of an Ojibwe word for the region, Gaaskibag-wajiwan, which means something on the order of “Rustling Leaf Mountains.”

The Leaf  Hills, on the left, in red
We didn’t hear much rustling ourselves—most of the leaves have long since fallen. But we made an interesting day of it all the same. Though the sun was bright the temperature continued to drop throughout the day and the wind was bitter, blowing around the buildings in downtown St. Cloud. We got a taste of Black Friday as we stepped into Herbergers to find a bathroom—families were rushing this way and that, clutching down comforters and bright pink iPad covers. We spent a few minutes in the used bookstore across the street and wandered into a coffee-shop on another corner that turned out to be a bank. I believe the saleswoman was truly shocked when I told her we got 2.5 percent interest on our checking account.
“I think you mean .25 percent.”

“No, 2.5 percent.”

Well, no free coffee for us.

Our one purchase of the morning was in the ’Lectric Fetus, where I nabbed a 2-CD set of a Stan Getz Quartet live performance, circa 1981, for $3.25. As we continued northwest along the freeway to Sauk Centre we listened to inspired (yet mellow) interpretations of  “My Old Flame,” “Easy Living,” and “Sweet Lorraine.”

At Sauk Centre we left the freeway, heading north and west to Lake Osakis and on to Lake Carlos State Park, just north of Alexandria. The blanket of gray clouds had caught up with us by that time. We spotted five swans cruising majestically on the lake just as we arrived at the park entrance. The park itself was deserted.

A Few Muskrats on the Ice
Ice had formed on the west side of the lake, and the drifting snow was collecting at the base of the reeds near shore. We watched five muskrats eat their Thanksgiving dinner on the ice—the young’ens clearly smaller and lighter in color than their parents. But it was only after we left the park heading north and west that the countryside became hilly.   

This part of Minnesota is dotted with lakes, but they’re often surrounded by farms, which undercuts the “woodsy” feel to some degree. The farms themselves are often attractive, and the dusting of snow in the furrows made them more so. The sun broke through the clouds again as we proceeded north on Douglas County 8 north of Leaf Valley, and the distant farms to the west looked spectacular in the glinting brightness. We pulled over at one point to study a large flock of birds flitting through the bushes near the road. Snow buntings? Horned larks? No, they were redpolls!

The hike through the woods to the top of Inspiration Peak, which rises 400 feet above the surrounding countryside, was easier than I remembered it, and the view from the top was better, no doubt because we could see more, now that the aspens have lost their leaves. Gray hills and lakes spread away to the horizon in every direction, with the green-white trunks of aspen and tiny daubs of red sumac berries brightening the scene.

Sinclair Lewis is responsible for giving the hill its current name. The Ojibwe, who also recognized its prominence amid the surrounding countryside, called it Gaaskibag-wajiw, which I would imagine means “Rustling Leaf Mountain.”

Our return to Alexandria took us past some very fine country—the heart of the Leaf Hills, as it were—past Lake Christina, through Evansville, and down into flat country again alongside the railroad tracks. It was dark by the time we got back to town.

The next morning we headed out to the farmsite where, in 1898,  Olaf Ohman allegedly unearthed the Kensington Runestone. I’m a believer myself, though I’m not an expert in medieval runic symbols. I can’t go into the details of the controversy here, though I think at the very least Mr. Ohman, an immigrant from Sweden, ought to be given credit for devising a runic artifact that included a number of symbols that the scholars in Scandinavia had never seen before—though they were later found to be current during the fourteenth century. That’s quite a trick.

In any case, the park is a lovely place; the farmhouse still stands, there are trails through the woods, and for what it’s worth, the first jail and  railroad depot building from nearby Kensington have also been moved to the site.

From there it was on to Starbuck, Glacial Lakes State Park, Terrance Mill, and Ordway Prairie—all situated in the midst of sandy, rolling hills that were fun to wander through. We followed the signs for Glacial Ridge Trail down some fairly obscure gravel roads before finally jumping onto Highway 55 and drifting back to town.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ian Frazier, Sherman Alexie, Geoff Dyer

In the aftermath of the announcement Wednesday that two writers who call Minneapolis home had won National Book Awards—that’s half the total—local journalists were eager to riff on the vibrancy of the local literary scene. And with good reason. There always seems to be something going on hereabouts in the line of readings, tweet-ups, and other arts-related events, sponsored by various local alliances, bookstores, and publications. Of course, the correlation itself is a little shaky; Louise Erdrich didn’t learn to write as well as she does by going to literary events. All the same, Twin Citians can be thankful for a seemingly endless stream of opportunities to listen to, and rub shoulders with, literary and cultural luminaries—both visitors and home-grown talent.

My thoughts were drifting in this direction on Sunday afternoon, a few days before the awards were announced, as I sat in a plastic folding chair and watched Garrison Keillor wander forlornly into Common Good Books (which he owns) dragging a small black carry-on bag behind him. I was among perhaps sixty people who’d gathered in an open space in the center of the store to hear Ian Frazier read from his new book, The Cursing Mommy. During his introductory comments Keillor remarked that “very funny people often don’t like to be referred to as ‘very funny’ … so I’ll say no more about that.” He went on to draw attention to Frazier’s substantial book about Siberia, which “has not yet found its audience.”

Frazier, in turn, began his intro by remarking that he spent a lot of time traveling to small towns, where he marveled again and again on how great Keillor’s influence has been on that hue of the American demographic spectrum. “These people know they like living in small towns, but Garrision has made it possible for them to actually be proud of that fact.”

Once he got into the reading, Frazier was very funny indeed, bringing to life the personality of the cursing mommy in ways the printed word can only hint at. During the question-and-answer period, he talked a lot about growing up in Ohio, and characterized his latest literary creation as “a cross between Sylvia Plath and Phyllis Diller.”

It snowed during the night, and the next morning Hilary and I headed up to Maple Grove to see the new nature center at Elm Creek Regional Park. That’s another outstanding municipal amenity we Twin Citians have long appreciated—all the green and wild open spaces.The new nature center proved to be very fine and airy, adding some sparkle to a creek-bed that can sometimes seem a little dour and skanky.

Snow on the ground affects your mood in subtle ways; it tends to make you more withdrawn, and more poetic. Maybe you end up reading more? In her Star-Tribune interview, Erdrich remarked, "People elsewhere think that it's cold and desolate around these parts, but that cold is good for literacy and reading and culture."

Inspired by the Frazier reading, we went downtown that evening  to hear Sherman Alexie speak at Plymouth Congregational Church. The church sponsors a fine “literary witnesses” program, and Alexie drew such a large crowd they had to set up chairs in another part of the building to manage the overflow. The disparity between the Frazier crowd and the Alexie crowd seemed a little odd to me. Then again, aside from being a literary and a nature capital, Minneapolis is also considered the urban capital of America’s Native American population.

Alexie himself, who’s from Spokane, WA, admitted as much, and to underscore the point he added, “I think every Indian in America has gotten laid in Minneapolis at one time or another.”

Such was Alexie’s monologue—raw, funny, antagonistic and affectionate by turns, droll, insightful, intense. Once again, the human voice and personality took us beyond anything to be found on the printed page. His comic timing was superb, his improvisational genius remarkable. He delivered an extemporaneous monologue about house fires (he’s been in three or four) and Claude Van Damme movies that deserves a place in the Library of Congress.  At the root of it all there was clearly a troubled soul who’s learned to modulate and temper his emotions, though he's no where near finished working through them.

It occurred to me later than Alexie has a lot in common with Richard Pryor. (And if you haven’t seen Richard Pryor Live, you should. Might as well see Smoke Signals again, too, while you’re at it.)

Two days later we drove across town to my home town, Mahtomedi, to see the premier of The Girl from Birch Creek, a documentary about Minnesota Supreme Court justice Rosalie Wahl. Her son Tim has been a very good friend of mine for a third of a century at least, and I’ve known Rosalie as a mom and friend for just as long. The film brought out aspects of her early life in Kansas that I’d never heard before, and though its one-hour length made it difficult to touch on every aspect of her background and character, what did shine through was her simple decency, commitment to helping others, and dedication to fairness…and also Rosalie’s poetic streak. It isn’t often that you get to hear a Supreme Court justice sing a hymn a capella or recite a poem she’s written.

Thursday was Jazz-and-Pie Night. For several years we’ve been gathering once a month in Edina at the condo of Hilary’s parents, Gene and Dorothy, to listen to cuts from our favorite jazz albums. Everyone brings a few tracks and gives a little speech about why they brought a particular number before putting it on; then we sit quietly and listen, interjecting an appreciative comment from time to time about the drummer, perhaps, or the tone of the reedman who’s currently at the mike.

Gene often brings Big Band numbers or jazz vocals, Hilary’s brother Paul is a fan of Happy Apple, Keith Jarrett, and Brad Mehldau, and brother Jeff has made an effort to introduce us to young Turks such as Gerald Clayton and William Smith III, though his selections range from Weather Report to the Wailin’ Jennies. Yet each gathering produces quite a few surprises, and an added source of amusement is the habit we’ve gotten into of trying to devise a line of reasoning connecting the track previously played with the one we’re about to put on.

Thursday’s playlist was a little skewed by the fact that Jeff couldn’t make it and the CDs Paul brought wouldn’t play because he’d burned them just that day and used the wrong pen to write the names on them; the lettering had somehow bled through to the other side. All the same, we ran through a very interesting “set” that included several numbers by songstress Anita O’Day; a live performance by Sonny Rollins of  "You Are Too Beautiful"; the Maria Schneider Orchestra (coming to town soon) doing “Over the Rainbow”; a 1955 rendition of “Out of Nowhere” by Coleman Hawkins; Gerry Mulligan coursing through "Bippity, Boppity"; Paul Desmond and Jim Hall performing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”; and Cannonball Adderley loping through a sweet version of one of my favorite songs, “I Can’t Get Started (with You).”

Then we all went into the kitchen to sample Dorothy’s pumpkin pie.

Culture Week was brought to a fitting conclusion last night at the downtown Minneapolis Library where Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae interviewed English essayist (and novelist) Geoff Dyer, author most recently of a collection titled Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.

Before the show we indulged in a plate of sashimi and some Happy Hour tempura at Origami, an intimate restaurant nestled in the bosom of the Federal Reserve Building a few blocks from the library. We arrived at the event—a fantastic building at night—and secured two seats in the mid-sized auditorium before rounding off our meal with a napkin-full of complimentary cookies from the table outside.

At that point I noticed that a party was underway down the hall, and in the best Dyeresque gate-crashing spirit we went down to see what we could see. As I had suspected, it was a pre-reading soiree sponsored by Graywolf Press. There was Geoff, of course, assuming a conversational pose in front of the water cooler just beyond the string duo as he listened to one of the Graywolf guests expound a theory of seemingly elaborate proportions.  We got no further into the room, and hadn’t intended to.

The conversation in the auditorium was top-flight. Geoff read one essay (in which he ends up comparing the world of haute couture to Amazonian fertility rites) but mostly talked about his approach to writing an essay, how America differs from England, and how he chooses his themes—or how they choose him. There were few surprises but plenty of well-fashioned sentences and off-the-cuff humor.

I started off the Q & A myself, remarking that I’d enjoyed his essay on W.S. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard. I went on to say that after reading it, I began to notice that Dyer himself sometimes uses the circular, repetitive, Bernhard style. “Do you actually like Bernhard? Do you consider him an influence?”

Dyer paused for a second, then replied sheepishly, “Guilty as charged.” He extolled Bernhard’s work, referred to the famous blurb about its affinities with Broch and Musil, and admitted that the opening passages of his book on D.H. Lawrence had been directly inspired by Bernhard’s novel Concrete

This strikes me as interesting because Dyer and Bernhard are temperamentally quite dissimilar. Bernhard is the ultimate crank, and no one will enjoy reading his work who fails to see that his extreme misanthropy is supposed to be funny—though he’s being perfectly serious, too. Dyer, on the other hand, though also quite serious most of the time, in the end just wants to have fun. And share that fun with us.

Maybe it all boils down to the same thing in the end. But the cool thing about literature is that it isn’t a process of boiling down, so much as it’s a process of building up. Regional culture, too.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Lists: Read This!

Read This! is a nifty little volume, though it isn’t really the kind of book you’d pick up and read. It contains lists of favorite books you might like to pick up and read, compiled by bookstore owners, book buyers, and employees of independent bookstores around the country. It also has a few choice anecdotes and personal remarks from the contributors about individual choices.

Thumbing through the book, I was once again reminded how little I’ve read in recent years—and how many books I’ve started but failed to complete. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of quite a few of the titles listed. I also spotted a number of titles that I was meaning to read at some point in the past but had long since forgotten about—for example, The Leopard. And I also came upon a few titles that I did read and love…and then forgot about entirely. It’s like running into a long lost friend, very nice.

This happened to me, in fact, as I glanced at the first list in the book, compiled by editor Hans Weyandt of Micawbers Bookstore in St. Anthony Park. Number 6 on his list is Running After Antelope by Scott Carrier. Now there’s a brilliant, humorous, and very low-key collection. Thanks, Hans, for reminding me!

It occurred to me that I ought to return the favor by compiling a list of my own. I have never worked in a bookstore but perhaps warehouse work might qualify me. Categorical thinker that I am, I thought I might divide up my selections by type, so the reader (presuming there is one) would find it easier to apprise unfamiliar selections.

Literary Non-fiction (my favorite category)
Literature and the Gods: Roberto Calasso
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Larry McMurtry
Islands and Books in Indian Country: Louis Erdrich
Voices of the Old Sea: Norman Lewis
The Gameskeeper at Home: Richard Jefferies
Vertigo: W.S. Sebald
Son of the Morning Star: Evan S. Connell
Rameau’s Nephew: Denis Diderot
Six Memos for the Next Millennium: Italo Calvino
Running After Antelope: Scott Carrier
The Book of Disquiet: Fernando Pessoa
Keeping a Rendezvous: John Berger
London Journal: James Boswell
In Bluebeard’s Castle: George Steiner
Desert Solitaire: Edward Abbey
Essays: Montaigne (the motherload)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Geoff Dyer
Thinking the Twentieth Century: Tony Judt
Prague Pictures: John Banville
Around the Day in Eighty Worlds: Julio Cortazar

Long Novels
Parade’s End: Ford Maddox Ford
Your Face Tomorrow: Javier Marias
The Makioka Sisters: Junichiro Tanazaki
Don Quixote: Cervantes
Vanity Fair: Thackerey

Repetition: Peter Handke
A Heart So White: Javier Marias
Out Stealing Horses: Per Petterson
Montauk: Max Frisch
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: Milan Kundera
The Periodic Table: Primo Levi
Far Afield: Susanna Kaysen
Growth of the Soil: Knut Hamsun
Philosopher or Dog: Machado de Asis
Lord Grizzly: Frederick Manfred

Short Novels
Runaway Horse: Robert Walser
Solo Faces: James Salter
The Connoisseur: Evan S. Connell
Pan: Knut Hamsun
Wittgenstein’s Nephew: Thomas Bernhard
The Assault: Harry Mulisch
Farmer: Jim Harrison
A Thousand Cranes: Yasunari Kawabata

Short Stories
Sketches from a Hunter’s Album: Ivan Turgenev
The Interpreter of Maladies: Jhumpa Lahiri
Dance of the Happy Shades: Alice Munro
The Moccasin Telegraph: W.S. Kinsella
Collected Stories: Frank O’Connor
Five Tales of Ferrara: Giorgio Bassani
By Night Under a Stone Bridge: Leo Perutz
Once in Europa: John Berger

The list betrays an obvious bent toward postwar European literature. Well, what can I say? I’ve read quite a few of Willa Cather’s novels—My Antonia, A Lost Lady, Shadows on the Rock, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, Obscure Destinies—but I’m not sure which one I ought to include. The same goes for Conrad and Chekhov.

I’ve become a dabbler, dipping into Thoreau, Audubon’s Journals, books of poetry scattered around the house. Recent triumphs (meaning I got to the end) include Darwin’s Lost World (Martin Brasier), The Bullhead Queen (Sue Leaf), Falling Man (Don Delillo), The Round House (Louise Erdrich)  A New World (Amid Chaudhuri), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid).

What next? Looking over at the bookshelf, I suddenly spot a book I forgot I had. It has a pale green binding, easily lost in the mix. Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge.

But there are also plenty of half-read books sitting in a pile beside the bed…

Friday, October 26, 2012


A round of applause is due to any documentary that makes it into general distribution. Hence, our hats go off to Samsara, a non-verbal film shot in 70-mm by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. It’s part documentary, part cinematic coffee-table book, on the order of Baraka and those films of our youth, Koyanasqatsi and Powaqqatsi.

If you haven’t seen at least one of these films, you should. And to get the full effect, you really ought to see it on the big screen. That leaves you with only one option: Samsara.

But if you have seen one of the films mentioned above, do you really need to rush out and see this one? I think not.

Samsara offers a long string of gorgeous scenes, beginning with a Thai landscape littered with temples, seen from above in the evocative light of the setting (or rising?) sun. There follow extended sequences of Balinese dancers with immobile, doll-like faces; Tibetan monks crouching over sand paintings; African tribes-people staring angrily into the camera, their faces dotted with leopard spots; lovely sand dunes stretching to the horizon; moonlight penetrating an abandoned pueblo dwelling as the stars streak by; and so on.

The Sanskrit word Samsara refers to the wheel of life, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and the film does have an “arc” of sorts. As it progresses, the images get more troubling: A heavily-muscled man, tattooed from head to foot, cuddles a little baby. Instead of the windswept emptiness of Tibet, we get the raging highways of Los Angeles, filmed at night. The camera looks down on the bizarre millionaire housing developments on the fan-shaped ocean dunes of the United Arabic Emirates. Before long we’re deeply immersed in Asian chicken factories, milking operations, and the assembly lines of massive manufacturing plants.

All of these images are interesting. And nearly all of them are lovely. The inmates in the Filipino prison have a great dance step. Even the slum-dwellers scavenging the dumps in Mumbai seem to have hired an art director, just for the day.

One spiritual blog wrote of the film:
“Experiencing Samsara, we are challenged to leave behind our passive and isolated role of spectators and to step into the incredible energy streams of the wheel of life. For each of us, in our own way, is caught up in the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. And our journeys are connected to those of the people on the screen: we are rich and poor, happy and sad, hurried and at peace, open to change and locked in service to authoritarian leaders, filled with lust and dutifully spinning prayer wheels, searching for security and coming to terms with impermanence. Samsara shows us in no uncertain terms that the movements of creation and dissolution never stop.”

Yet watching the film, I came to the conclusion that the individuals who made it don’t know much about life…they just happen to have a very nice camera. There are no births or deaths in the film, at least none that I can recall. (Yes, there is a funeral and a baptism sequence.) Worse yet, there is no dialogue, and little interaction between people. The rendering of natural phenomena exposes almost no familiarity with natural processes or forces, or the inter-connectedness of things. The soundtrack carries an atmospheric, New Age portentousness that sweeps us up in anticipation of a cosmic enlightenment that never quite arrives, thought the ride is a nice one.

Yes, Samsara remains a worthwhile film. It’s interesting to see how a modern chicken-factory works—though it would have been more illuminating if they hadn't sped up the film. And the views of Mecca during the Haj, seemingly taken from a blimp hanging over the city, are remarkable. Watching the LA highway at night (once again in fast motion) I had a sudden urge to watch Ironman II again. Perhaps I wasn’t getting properly into the spirit of the piece.

I can admire a film where the director asks you to connect the dots (Babel?) even if the result is feverish and out of balance, but in Samsara, I’m afraid there aren't enough dots to connect. Between the timeless religious imagery and the pell-mell portrayal of industries, poverty, and firearms, we need more of a middle ground. 

Watch the trailer here to get the effect.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Different Shakespeare

Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?

It’s a question that won’t go away. Why not? Because many who have read, seen, or acted in the plays can’t believe that a semi-literate, mean-spirited corn-merchant from a rural backwater could have produced the most compelling and erudite drama in history.

Countless tenured academics and popular biographers, not to mention the folks who benefit from the billion-dollar tourist trade at Stratford-on-Avon, have a vested interest in casting ridicule on attempts to re-examine the question. Yet doubts about authorship of the plays date back to the eighteenth century, and John Quincy Adams, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, and Derrick Jacobi are only a few of the literary and theatrical luminaries who have felt that the corm merchant from Avon was not a playwright. (The evidence suggests he could hardly write his name, much less write a play.)

Scholars, too, have weighed in on the question, with J. Thomas Looney presenting the first well-reasoned argument almost a hundred years ago in defense of  Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the “real” Shakespeare. In 1984 Charlton Osburn gathered together all the main threads of the argument in his well-written The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare. The question was given a pop-culture twist not so long ago in the fictionalize film, Anonymous (2010) which brought widespread exposure to the authorship question while also offering further material for academics to ridicule.

Now, in Last Will. andTestament, Lisa Wilson and Laura Wilson Mattias have followed the main threads of the issue in a well-paced 85-minute documentary. The talking-heads format features eminent scholars of the conventional persuasion, including Stanley Wells, as well as tweedy literary types who propose an alternative. The film is enlivened by fifteen minutes of costume-drama footage from Anonymous, scattered here and there, and the musings of Redgrave, Jacobi, and Mark Rylance (former artistic director of the Globe Theater in London) on behalf of DeVere certainly add to the sparkle.

The Wilson sisters have done a good job of avoiding most of the highly speculative detours and subplots to which Oxfordians are sometimes prone. What we are left with, in a nutshell, is this: There is no contemporary evidence linking the man from Stratford with the plays of Shake-speare (as it most often appeared at the time). Nothing about his life is interesting. And neither Wells nor any the other Stratfordian scholars involved have any real evidence to bring forth in defense of their candidate—except tradition.

The second half of the film examines the life of Edward DeVere, which makes a far better story, questions of authorship aside, than the "must-have-done" and "probably-went"s that pepper the official story . He translated Ovid (Shakespeare’s favorite Roman poet) at 13, and was captured by pirates and left for dead on an island. (So was Hamlet, you may recall.) He was raised by a domineering guardian of Polonian fatuousness, spent a good deal of time in Italy, owned the Globe Theater, was considered by many as the heir apparent to Queen Elizabeth—and even signed his name as such without being hauled in on charges of treason.(Why not?)

The film will make its official premier in Austin in a week or two, and it will be available on pay per view soon afterward. Meanwhile, you can study up on the pros and cons of the Oxfordian position on Wikipedia. Seeing this choice little film, made by two former Minneapolitans, is sure to whet your appetite for more.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century

I have enjoyed few books more thoroughly than Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century. I even took notes, in hope that at least a few of the brilliant one-liners it contains would sink in. As I followed the conversational argument taking place between Judt and fellow-historian Timothy Snyder, it struck me that the lightning shots being delivered by both interlocutors—they’re hardly adversaries—represent historical thinking at its best. No more with the million-dollar studies proving that healthy people tend to be happier than sick people, or that drinking pop isn’t all that good for you.

 I was reminded all over again that the richest field of thought is historical thought, and that historical thought is not only a fact-finding enterprise, but also an act of judgment and evaluation.

Reading Judt’s final work also reinforced my feeling that some of the best thinkers are mavericks who don’t find it necessary to mince words in order to assuage their academic colleagues. Yes, Judt taught at several universities, but his personal story—which he also tells in the course of these dialogues—doesn’t really follow a conventional academic path.

I’d describe the meat of the book in greater detail, but you can read all about it here, in the Rain Taxi review that just came out.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bly at Blue Mound

On August 25 Robert Bly gave a reading at Blue Mounds Interpretative Center in the southwest corner of the state as part of a year-long series honoring the 100th anniversary of novelist Frederick Manfred’s birth. I reserved a walk-in campsite at the park, stuffed the backpack with the bare necessities, and was on the road by eight, hoping to reconnect not only with Bly but also with that relatively untouristed part of the state.

Outside of Belle Plaine I saw a man chasing a horse down a gravel road—always a funny sight. Two police cars and a pick-up were parked along the highway. I suppose the man was transporting the horse in the pick-up, and when the cops pulled him over, the horse jumped out. But I have no idea what’s really going on in rural Minnesota. It’s a whole different universe.

The skies were gray but the route along Highway 169 up the broad floodplain of the Minnesota River Valley toward Mankato was lovely. The rosemary-apple scone I picked up at the River Rock Coffee shop in St. Peter was also topnotch. I’d dropped a recording of Claudio Monteverdi’s 7th Book of Madrigals into the CD player radio; angelic voices, both male and female, were intertwining with tireless bright emotion in pleasingly incomprehensible Italian, and I said to myself, “I could listen to this all the way to Luverne!”

By the time I got the Windom, I’d taken a wrong turn down 169, driven through a patch of heavy rain, and was thoroughly sick of Monteverdi. The expansive sea of corn through which I’d been driving, dotted with islands of thick woods as far as the eye could see, was impressive. All the same, I was happy to depart Highway 60 onto a county road where the landscape was hillier and the shoulders were narrower or non-existent.

I was on my way to Kilen Woods State Park, tucked into a fold of the Des Moines River. I’d never been to this park before, and found that there isn’t much to do there, especially with the hiking trails being so wet. The park does offer some views down into the valleys, and the largely treeless “prairie” campground loop has a few nice sites looking out across the countryside.

At noon, having passed a fair number of wind-turbines in Jackson County, I was sitting in the parking lot at a Burger King in Worthington under a gray sky, looking out the windshield at a Walgreens, a Hy-Vee gas station, and an O-Reilly’s Auto Parts. I was listening to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau trying to breathe life into “Still Crazy After All These Years” and I was also struggling to keep mayonnaise from dripping out of my hamburger onto my shirt.

Half an hour later I was in Luverne, scoping out the Art Rocks art fair on the county courthouse lawn. I listened to a woefully off-kilter rendition of “Under the Boardwalk,” then went inside to the Brandenberg Gallery to look at the same ten Brandenberg photos I’ve been seeing for the last fifteen years.

I was crossing the street on my way back to the car when I was stopped by a woman in a passing SUV who asked me where the Brandenberg Gallery was. “It’s not in this building here,” I said, pointing, “but the one next to it.” Then I noticed Robert Bly was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Robert,” I said, as if we were old friends, “I drove down from Minneapolis to hear the reading. I’m camping at a walk-in site at the park.” (As if he needed to know that!) He smiled wanly, tried to look pleased, and nodded his head.

Blue Mound State Park lies just a few miles north of Luverne, and I doubt if there is a better time to see it than in late summer under an overcast sky. The “mound” rises a hundred feet and more from the surrounding countryside. It’s made of pink Sioux Quartzite, one of the hardest rocks on earth; local farmers found it impossible to cultivate the thin layer of soil scattered on top of it. Patches of virgin prairie remain amid the exposures of quartzite, and quite a bit of it is now used as grazing land for the park’s sizable herd of buffalo.

Three hiking trails cut along the length of the mound at different levels from one end of the park to the other. That afternoon I hiked a few miles of the middle trail, moving along the crest of the mound, then cut down through a break in the cliff face to get a view from the grassland below. The pink slabs of exposed rock veritably glowed, and the lichens, the grasses, the stunted sumac, the cactus, and other flowers and shrubs roundabout all took on a remarkable intensity in the filtered light.

Touch the Sky Prairie, established in 2001 by the Brandenberg Prairie Foundation, can be reached via paved and gravel roads three miles east of the park. It lacks the drama of Blue Mound’s pink cliff-face, but the site seems more remote and windswept, and the prairie grasses more all-encompassing. The peculiar positioning of the quartzite chunks scattered here and there call to mind Zen gardens or menhir alignments, though I suspect they’ve been sitting that way for eons.

Communing with these solitary, elemental environments put me in a good frame of mind for the Bly reading, and even the tired lettuce in the salad I bought for dinner at the local supermarket couldn’t dispel it. Bly isn’t a “nature” poet, but he does draw much of the imagery for his illogical, fabulous, musings from the plant and animal kingdoms—mice, dogs, birch trees, the sea. Benedetto Croce once described a work of art as “a compendium of universal history” and as far as Bly’s poems are concerned, the definition almost fits: guilt, love, infatuation, vanity, deceit, longing, all bundled up with dream-images from the farm and allusions to classical literature.

But I don’t care to analyze Bly’s “style” here. Some like it, others don’t. I will say that he’s a marvelous reader of his own poems, giving them a conversational yet musical emphasis that renders the “meaning” almost secondary. He’s also good at pacing an evening of readings, leaving long breaks between poems and reciting others twice.

There has always been a compulsion underlying Bly’s work, not merely to assert his personal genius, but to get us to change—like a Biblical prophet, but with a far more eclectic pantheon. And though he peppered the evening with little quips and jokes, it’s clear that he thinks it’s important for us, as listeners, to dig more than a little deeper into our relationships with our parents, children, and neighbors, and also into our religious beliefs.

I found some of the quips endearing. After reading the short poem “Clothespins” (reprinted below) he remarked, “That says about as little as a poem can say, I suppose.”

I’d like to have spent my life making
Clothespins. Nothing would be harmed,
Except some pines, probably on land
I owned and would replant. I’d see
My work on clotheslines near some lake,
Up north on a day in October,
Perhaps twelve clothespins, the wood
Still fresh, and a light wind blowing.

At the conclusion to one poem he said, “I have no idea what that means.” Then he added, “You write a book of poems, and years later you look at it again and say to yourself, ‘Did I write that?’”

But perhaps the most touching aside came at the conclusion to “When My Dead Father Called.” Robert read it twice. He honed in on the line, “He was stuck somewhere.” Then he asked the crowd, “Maybe your father has been stuck somewhere. What would you do?” There was a pause, and then he said, almost dismissively, “Write a poem, I guess.” The sense of resignation with which he delivered this remark left me with the impression that this is what he did…and it wasn’t an adequate response. And it still pains him.

David Whetstone provided beguiling sitar accompaniment throughout the reading—he was skilled and relaxed and congenial, adjusting Robert’s microphone, stopping and starting on command. And Robert’s wife Ruth helped him pick out selections to read, eventually coming on stage to sit behind him. “It’s nice to have a wife who likes some of your poems,” he remarked at one point. It was a truly loving scene, and the thirty or so guests sitting alongside me down in the pit, most of them from Luverne and the surrounding countryside, I suspect, were lapping it up. (But as I mentioned earlier, I have no idea what’s really going on in rural Minnesota.)

The Laverne Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, if I’m not mistaken, and they also provided the free bottled water and ice-cream bars!

At one point Bly, uncomfortable dominating the proceedings, asked the audience to contribute, to say something. This is an awkward moment. We’ve all been thinking about the words Bly has been reading. We’re going to have a hard time coming up with a response to:

You become whatever
steals you, the tree steals a man,
and an old birch becomes his wife
and they live together in the woods.

Bly had stolen us. But we had not yet become Bly.

I was going to say something about the nighthawks circling outside the building, or the blue grosbeak I spotted earlier on a dead tree down in the valley below the interpretive center. But I held my tongue. Saw some birds? Where’s the import? Where’s the catch?

It was not yet dark as I made my way down the path to my little campsite. A lump of Sioux Quartzite about the size of a tank sat just beyond the fire ring, half-covered with wild grapevines. The Rock River gurgled through the woods in the shadows nearby. I’d purchased a load of firewood at the ranger’s office and I sat on the picnic table staring into the fire, sipping the Irish whisky I’d brought along in a little metal flask, thinking about nothing.

A vast contingent of families from SE Asia had occupied the group camp a few hundred yards away, and the pleasant shriek of children chasing one another and playing games came wafting through the woods in the dark.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Middle Class Busts a Button

The Star-tribune ran an article recently on a Pew Research finding that the middle class is shrinking; it now accounts for barely half of the US population. That’s a ten percent drop from a similar poll conducted forty years ago. It sounds bad.

But wait a minute! The same study revealed that 20 percent of Americans are now in the upper class. Yet only 14 percent fell into that category 40 years ago. So where did the missing ten percent of the middle class go? More than half of them got richer!

Therefore, the use of the word “squeezed” in the headline is misleading. It might better have read Middle Class Leaps Forward, or Middle Class Busts a Button. In any case, such studies are based on a rather arbitrary statistical determination of where one class stops and the next one starts. The same Pew study also revealed that approximately the same percentage of whites, blacks, and Latinos considered themselves to be “middle class,” even though the data exposes significant differences in the financial well-being of these groups.

Some of the more interesting findings of the Pew study are to be found in the back pages that don’t show up in the newspaper reports. For example, the median family income for all income levels rose significantly in the last 40 years. I also find it interesting that those segments of the population that are moving ahead the most slowly, blacks and Latinos, are the most optimistic about America’s economic future, with 78% and 67% respectively seeing better things ahead, while those who are doing best, the whites, are far more glum about their prospects (48%).

No less surprising is the fact that the young, who have been hit hard by unemployment, tuition debt, and a real estate nightmare, are the most optimistic segment of the population; meanwhile, the old, whose welfare has improved more than any other segment in recent years, are the most discouraged about the future of the economy. Are we measuring the economy here, or are we measuring hormones, or eschatology?

The standard wisdom to be drawn from the headlines is that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poor. Maybe. Yet one of the big mysteries raised by the statistics is this: Why can’t the rich hold on to their money? It would surprise many to learn that 60% of those who were in the top quintile forty years have watched their offspring drop out of that category, while the same percentage of individuals in the bottom quintile (60%) watched their children climb out of that category into what might be called the lower middle class. Yes, things are always changing. Things are always in flux.

All this niggling about numbers seems to carry a hidden message about “our society” and it isn’t a happy one. But the real story of what’s going on has less to do with quintiles and classes than with technology. As one economist put it:
Much of the technological change in recent decades has been skill-based; it impacts skilled and unskilled workers differently. For example, the computer revolution has increased the productivity of skilled workers, but blown unskilled ones out of the water. Skilled, computer-literate applicants job hop to ever-increasing salaries. Former clerks and assembly-line workers, now displaced by computers and robots, pound the pavements unable to replace their former wages. In almost every market and occupation, those workers with the education and skills to adapt and take advantage of new technologies have prospered relative to those who cannot.
One of the most encouraging pieces of data comes not from the Pew study, but from a recent article in the Atlantic, which showed that Millennials have significantly less interest in buying cars and houses than their parents did. This may be simply because they can’t afford to do so. But perhaps it also reflects a more mature understanding of how much those things actually cost. Many young people nowadays can get along just fine with a smartphone, a bicycle, and a flat uptown.

So perhaps the revolution has finally begun.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Top Ten Films

Sight and Sound Magazine has come out once again with its once-in-a-decade critic’s poll of the top films of all time. Vertigo topped the list, which seems strange to me. An unusual, quirky film, to be sure, but when you start thinking about how long someone had to wait to drop that body off the top of the monastery tower, the whole finale becomes absurd. And if you’re going to go that route, why not go all the way with Mulholland Drive (which did finish in 28th place on the poll, by the way)?

The list leans a little too much toward the “arty” for my taste. But spurred by the sight of so many fine films—I’ve seen all but four of the top twenty—I decided to make a list of my own. I wouldn’t say these are the greatest of all time. What I will say is that I’ve seen most of them all more than once, and they hold up very well. A top twenty list for the common man.

Rules of the Game (France, 1939: Jean Renoir) The Rules of the Game remains the greatest film ever made, for the simple reason that it has more life, incidental detail, fluidity, energy, historical nuance, and moral import than any other film. Certainly it has a political dimension as well, with the weak-kneed French “hero,” the brittle and aggressive Alsatian gamekeeper, the slightly effeminate Jewish millionaire, the perky French chambermaid, and the naive Austrian countess. Love, betrayal, propriety, aristocracy, violence, diffidence, loyalty, charm, ribaldry, conviviality—it’s all there, and it displays itself with a vigor and economy that seems almost to spring from the eighteenth century.

The Big Sleep (1946, USA: Howard Hawks) Bogart and Bacall star in the most satisfying and fully realized Hollywood detective film, It’s famous both for its snappy dialogue and its incomprehensible plot. Who killed Brody? What happened to Sean Reagan?

Un Coeur en Hiver (1993, France: Claude Sautet) In this unusual film, Sautet, a past master of the subtleties of the human heart (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others) explores the relations between a pair of violin-makers and the concert performer (Emmanuelle Béart) who’s in need of their services. The soundtrack of Ravel chamber music compounds the atmosphere of attenuated romanticism, and the presence of students, mentors, and agents gives the film a multi-generational resonance.

The American Friend (1977, Germany: Wim Wenders) A very slow and uneasy story about a frame-maker with a terminal illness (Bruno Ganz) and an American entrepreneur (Dennis Hopper,) loosely based on themes from the novels of Patricia Highsmith.

L’Attlanta. (France, 1937: Jean Vigo) In this film about newlyweds on a barge the expressive potential of black-and-white cinematography is put to the service of a poetic and surreal rendering of the beauty and strangeness of becoming a couple. The presence of Michael Simon as the crusty old deckhand adds to the film’s ballast.

Rashomon (1951, Japan: Akiru Kurasawa) A bandit accosts a couple traveling through the woods. Later, as each of the protagonists relates his or her version of what “actually” happened to a judge, we see the events unfold before our eyes not once, but three times, colored in each case to reflect the personality, and the vanity, of whoever happens to be telling the story. Needless to say, the three versions bear only a vague similarity to one another. A fascinating meditation on truth, self-image, and compassion.

L.A. Confidential
(1997, USA: Curtis Hanson) An altogether absorbing tale, its top-flight production values are overshadowed by the growing tension,complexity, and violence of its storyline.

Cover Girl (1948, Vincent Minelli) Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, and Eve Arden. With music by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Need I say more?

Latcho Drom (1996, France: Tony Gatlif) A semi-documentary rendering of the movement of the Gypsies from Northern India to Spain by way of Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Belgium, and Provence, told entirely by means of musical set-pieces.

Dark Eyes (1987, Italy/USSR: Nikita Mikhalkov) And speaking of Chekhov, this complicated retelling of the Russian master’s story “Lady with a Dog” describes the attempts of a dissolute Italian architect to redeem himself by pursuing a relationship with a Russian woman of a very different background whom he’s met at a fancy spa. This is the best of Mikhalkov’s many fine and lyrical films.

Sorcerer (1977, USA: William Friedkin) Friedkin’s remake of The Wages of Fear focuses on the background of the four men—a Palestinian, a German, a Frenchman, and an American—who will eventually take up the challenge of driving over-ripe nitroglycerin through the jungles of Central America. The beauty, economy, exactitude, and restraint—in a word, the ART—of the shooting make this film a genuine, if little known, cinema classic.

Into the Wild (2007) Into the Wild chronicles a few years in the life of a young man named Christopher McClandliss, who decided to get away from it all and live the simple life in the wilds of Alaska. Much of the film is set in the deserts of southern California, however, and there’s enormous sociability, energy, and uplift circulating through the story. Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, and Hal Holbrook befriend the kid. An no one who see the film will soon forget the zany German couple camping on the banks of the rapids. Even the eccentric sculptor with his gigantic mud-and-metal monument to love somehow comes off as the genuine article.
Into the Wild is above all else a road movie, and it captures the spirit of that impulse as well as any movie I’ve seen. And yet…

Motorcycle Diaries (2004) Two buddies travel by motorcycle across South America from their home in Buenos Aires to see as much of the world as can be seen without leaving the continent. Alberto is eight years the senior, and he’s also much more robust and fun-loving. Ernesto is an asthmatic; he’s hesitant, a little uncertain, almost in a daze at times. The one dances, the other doesn’t. The two bicker frequently, sometimes almost violently, but affection also runs deep. The film is packed with motorcycle crashes, spectacular scenery, hostile and friendly strangers, problems with funds, encounters with beautiful women, village dances, bad weather, and mechanical problems, all of which are presented with a slightly faded majesty that evokes the innocence of a bygone era. (The fact that one of the two happens to be the young Che Guevera is hardly relevant to the plot.)

Touching the Void (2003) Two young men decide to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, Alpine-style. That means, quick up, quick down, little equipment. Things don’t go the way they’d planned. The fuel runs out, bones are broken, safety ropes are cut. The two men are narrating the film in person, so we know they survived. But while you’re watching it, you tend to forget. It’s a true story and a gripping drama, recreated for the big screen so that you feel you’re right there…and wish you weren’t.

Twilight Samurai (2002) The samurai movie, like the Western, is a magnificent genre providing endless variations on a few basic plot-lines. Twilight Samurai, which won eight Japanese Oscars, incorporates many of them, and adds a few new twists of its own.
The hero of the tale, Seibei, is a low-ranking samurai who spends his days doing the books for his lord and his evenings caring for his mother and two young daughters. (A widower, he’d married a woman from a wealthy family and impoverished himself financing the wedding.) His colleagues refer to him as the “twilight” samurai because he’d rather spend his evening making bird cages to support his family than go drinking with the boys.
By chance, Seibei defends the sister of a childhood friend against her drunken samurai husband and she, grateful for her old friend’s courageous act, starts coming to the house to help him look after the kids. News of the donnybrook get around and the clan elders decide to send gentle Seibei on a suicide mission to root out a renegade samurai who’s refused to commit hari kari in honor of his vanquished lord.
It’s a great story, full of nuances and complexities, and just enough swordplay to keep the pot simmering.

In America (2002) Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical family drama chronicles a few years in the life of a spunky Irish couple who move to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood with their two young daughters to start life afresh. It’s a rough environment, with bums, transvestites, drug addicts, and alcoholics seemingly around every corner, and work is hard to find. Yet the film is laced with humor, and it’s moving to watch this young family face and (for the most part) surmount the challenges of inner-city life in a new country. Sheridan wrote the screenplay with his two grown daughters—so this is probably what it was really like.

Fanny and Alexander (1983, Sweden: Ingmar Bergman) In this film Bergman brought both his talents and his idiosyncrasies into a more powerful and satisfying whole than at any other time in his career. A sprawling epic set at the turn of the century, the narrative focuses on the members of a fun-loving extended family, several of whom are members of a theater troupe, and (as the title suggests) especially on two young children within that family whose lives change radically when their widowed mother marries the local bishop. The radiant tone of the cinematography suits the generally glowing affection that passes between family-members, friends, and servants who, as the film opens, are celebrating a candle-lit Christmas together. Watching the story develop we are reminded repeatedly of themes and even scenes from other Bergman movies, but in each case they’ve been expanded and enriched.

Hamlet (1996, Great Britain: Kenneth Branagh) The longest Hamlet at four hours, this is also far-and-away the best Shakespeare film ever made. In fact, Shakespeare or not, it is simply a masterfully realized creative work. Branagh, Kate Winslet, Ian Holm, Julie Christie, Richard Briars, and even Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, give Shakespeare’s lines intelligence and emotion, as if the characters might actually be trying to say something coherent. The complexity and interest of the story itself—”Student returns home to find father dead, mother remarried,” as TV guide would have it—has never been so forcefully presented.

Night Moves (1975, USA: Arthur Penn) A subtle study of an ex-football star (Gene Hackman) turned detective who is hired to find and bring home an eight-year-old girl. In the process he uncovers a smuggling operation and the truth about his friends, his marriage, and his own past. Low-key, confusing, and effective.

Knife in the Water (1962, Poland: Roman Polanski) Polanski’s first feature film relates the adventures and imbroglios of a middle-aged married couple who go sailing with a young stranger they’ve picked up hitch-hiking. That’s all there is to it—which only goes to show how much can be made out of little.

Shoot the Piano Player (1962, France: François Truffaut) Truffaut’s up-beat story of a bistro pianist attempting to hide from both his gangster siblings and his concert-musician past is full of insight, humor, and energy. The jaunty tone and loose camera-style leaven the dark subject matter, so that it comes as a genuine shock when someone actually dies.

Day of Wrath (1944, Denmark: Carl Dreyer) In a city riven with witch-hunt hysteria a young woman marries the local preacher. She falls in love with the man’s son, however, and as events unfold, the question arises whether she herself is a witch. It’s full of darks and lights, with glowing cinematography and subtle psychological tension. Of all Dreyer’s famous films (Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1931), Ordet (1955), Gertrude (1963),) this one, I think, has the best blend of entertainment, religiosity, weirdness, and cinema art.

Local Hero (1983, Great Britain: Bill Forsythe) A frustrated minor functionary for a Texas oil company tries to buy a remote Scottish village. The longer he stays, the longer he feels like staying.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, USA: John Huston) This gritty tale of three men prospecting for gold in the mountains of Mexico has both psychological depth and rich local color. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the paranoiac Dobbs is justifiably famous, Walter Huston won an Oscar for his performance as the wizened old-timer, and even Tim Holt, who seems out of his league here, is really only trying to be nice. The film, which contains the now classic line, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” never flags, and the ending is worthy of all the hardship, conflict, and tension that leads up to it.

Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978, Italy: Ermanno Olmi) Peasant life at the turn of the century, by the director who remained true to the neo-realist ideal. It may not be great, but it sure is long. No. It is great.

Alice in the City (1974, Germany: Wim Wenders) A photographer headed back to Germany from the United States enters into a brief involvement with a compatriot in New York and ends up with the woman’s nine-year-old daughter on his hands. A hilarious and somehow true-to-life series of misadventures ensues. Once back in Germany, they have to find the little girl’s grandfather’s house: she doesn’t know what city it’s in, but she has a photograph…

A Sunday in the Country (1984, France: Bertrand Tavernier) A married couple and their two sons visit the man’s painter-father at his nearby country estate. Father and son do not really get along, and the daughter-in-law is out of her depth, even before her husband’s brash sister arrives unexpectedly. Shot in an unusual sepia tone, this film is like an Impressionist painting of a Chekhov short story, which is saying a good deal. Even the lengthy scene of the housekeeper snapping beans is memorable.

Red Rock West ( 1993, USA: John Dahl) Nicholas Cage needs a job, but as it turns out, inadvertently impersonating a man hired to kill the bartender’s wife is not a good way to go about getting one.

Rio Bravo (1959, USA: Howard Hawks) This very long Zen Western finds sheriff John Wayne looking for recruits who are “good enough” to help him defend the town jail against an expected raid by local outlaws. He comes up with an inexperienced kid (Ricky Nelson) a gimpy old man (Walter Brennan) and a drunk (Dean Martin.) Deftly mixing comedy, violence, romance, and even a musical interlude or two, Hawks exploits every cliché in the book, and the result is magnificent. Who says fine art has to be boring?

Powwow Highway (1988, USA: Jonathan Wacks.) The modern West as seen from an Indian Reservation, this funny, spiritual, and entertaining film is a true rarity.

American Graffiti (1973, USA: George Lucas) A comic picture of small-town adolescence in Northern California during the early days of rock-and-roll. With a very young Richard Dryfuss and Harrison Ford.

Casablanca (1942, USA: Michael Curtiz) Everyone knows about Casablanca, but it’s surprising how many people have never actually seen it from start to finish. The core of nostalgic romance is dwarfed by a wide array of character actors and sketchy sub-plots concerning Germans and refugees from Vichy France. It’s difficult to tell who’s a crook and who’s not, and there are few genuine heroes around, yet every scene strikes an uncanny balance between sincerity and cliché—perhaps because no one on the set knew quite what was going on.

Red (1994, France/Poland: Krzysztof Kieslowski) A young fashion model (Irene Jacob) and a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trinagnant) cross paths more than once in this study of love, fate, and coincidence. The most successful of Kieslowski’s Red/White/Blue trilogy, it’s a satisfying mix of troubled solitude, murky romance, abject bitterness, and unabashed sentimentality (the puppies), all of which has been brought to the screen with considerable élan.

Queen of Hearts (1989, England: Jon Amiel) A young Italian couple uproot themselves from their village to escape family pressures and set up a coffee shop in London. The story is told from their young son’s point of view, and there are one or two supernatural elements in it, but by in large it’s a comedy of Italian family life, full of arrivals and departures, squabbles and reconciliations, personal crises and dramatic reversals of fortune.

My Father’s Glory/ My Mother’s Castle (1991, France: Yves Robert) This duo of films detail the summer vacations of a school-teacher, his wife and child, and his wife’s sister and brother-in-law in the hills behind Marseilles at the turn of the century. Based on Marcel Pagnol’s autobiography, it’s a staggering example of simplicity, sincerity, and charm.

Chinatown (1974, USA: Roman Polanski) A gorgeous color classic mix of crime, politics, romance, and decadence set in Los Angeles in the thirties, with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975, USA: John Huston) The Kipling tale effectively retold with Michael Caine and Sean Connery in the lead roles.

His Girl Friday (1940, USA: Howard Hawks) The second, and perhaps the best, of Hawks three classic screwball comedies (see also Bringing Up Baby(1938) and Ball of Fire (1942)) here editor Cary Grant tries to get his star reporter and estranged wife Rosiland Russell back on the job, and back in his life.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, Spain: Pedro Almadóvar) A madcap farce in which a woman attempts to re-establish contact with her drifting lover.

Something Wild (1986, USA: Jonathan Demme) A recently divorced man (Jeff Daniels) encounters a young woman (Melanie Griffith) and accompanies her to her high school reunion, among other places.

Christ Sopped at Eboli (1983, Italy: Francesco Rosi) A beautiful and far from sentimental rendering of the experiences of a doctor exiled to the harsh and poverty-ridden fringe of southern Italy during the Fascist era.

Il Postino (1994, Italy: Michael Radford) A simple-minded peasant delivers mail to the famous poet Pablo Neruda. Soon they’re discussing metaphors and metaphysics. Throw in a little love and a little left-wing politics, and you’ve got a masterpiece.

L’America (1996, Italy: Gianni Amelio) A sharp and cynical Italian businessman sets up a phony business in Albania at just the wrong moment. First he loses the tires off his jeep, then he loses the senile Albanian who’s fronting as president of the business. Before long the business is gone, and then…but I don’t want to give too much away. An exploration of values, ideals, simplicity, and civilization that moves on the highest level.