Sunday, December 29, 2013

Winter Music


It’s been a grand season of music, this year more than ever before. I can’t explain why. Darkened evenings, sitting in front of a fire with the stereo going. And more than that.

It got off to a good start early in December, when Hilary’s parents took us to a concert of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. We’ve been listening to these chestnuts for forty years and more now, but not very often. Hearing them live, new voices sing out, the atmosphere is supercharged and their “classic” stature is reaffirmed. Snow had arrived and the bustle of people coming and going in the wintery night in front of Temple Israel lent an additional touch of magic sparkle to the evening.

The next day, as we prepared a Chocolate and Cranberry Layer Cake with White Chocolate Truffle Glaze for an upcoming party, we listened to the concertos again and moved on from there to some of Bach’s cantatas. I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that there’s something joyous, clear, and even-tempered about much of Bach’s music. Never dull, but seldom tortured either.

At the party the next day, while the final touches were being put on the roast pork and the smoked trout-mixed greens-apple salad with horseradish dressing, we played a game in which a series of tunes were played one after another and we had to guess who’d brought each of them. I would never have remembered them all but I still have the ballot. The entries were: “Ant’s Marching” (Dave Mathews Band); Stravinsky’s Pastorale for violin and woodwinds; “Crazy Race” by jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s funk band, The RH Factor; A tender piano ballad, “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden; a jazzy “H.C.R. Strut” (Django Reinhardt); “Per Elena” by Italian film-composer Ennio Morricone; “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo; a segment from a Tchaikovsky concerto played with raucous force by the Stan Kenton Orchestra; the sweet “Teach Your Children Well” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and “Ukelele Lady” performed as a folk-song by someone whose name I’ve forgotten.

Later in the evening we sang a few carols around the piano. Sheila, a professional musician, tried to keep everyone in line while seated at the piano but a few obstreperous tenors in the back of the room (I’m not naming names....) simply would not behave.

Perhaps inspired by this event, Hilary and I went downtown the following evening in the dark to sing Handel’s Messiah in the midst of seven hundred other enthusiastic choristers, with the help of a few soloists and the entire Minnesota Chorale. Sections of St. Olaf Catholic Church had been designated for the various parts, and the resultant harmonies were powerful.


Hilary and I didn’t sing too loud—we don’t really know our parts—but we enjoyed it all the same. And when we got home we immediately put a CD of Handel’s oratorio Deborah on the stereo to sustain the mood.

In the days that followed, we found ourselves sitting in front of the fire repeatedly listening to vocal and choral music. Boccherini’s Stabat Mater was a big hit, for some reason, and one night we listened to Brahms’ Requiem, and enjoyed it so much we immediately put it on again.

When the booming choirs got to be too much, I found myself turning to Handel’s keyboard sonatas, played in pesky style by Glenn Gould—on the harpsichord, no less.


On Wednesday evening we trundled ourselve up to the Brookdale Regal Cinema to catch a simulcast performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. I’ve never see it before, and with Jame Levine at the podium and Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, it seems like a performance not to miss. The tale is feather-light and the arias are few and far between, but the entire three-and-a-half hour production bubbled with good cheer.

And no Christmas season would be complete without a dark, solitary evening in the company of Arvo Pärt. One night when Hilary was working late I listened to his album Alina twice over. It contains the composition “Für Alina,” which marked the composer’s break in 1976 from serialism to the “tintinnabulist” style that made him famous. Pärt’s tempo markings are suggestive—calm, exalted, listening to one’s inner self. For the album, pianist Alexander Malter improvised on the piece for several hours, and Part himself chose two ten-minute excerpts to include, along with other interpretations by minimalist string ensembles. This music goes nowhere. Rather, it burrows deep into the hollows of the soul, probing, echoing, and shining, all at the same time.

In recent days we’ve been pulling out of this long musical exaltation—but not much. Chet Baker’s late album Silence fits the mood of the hour: just look at the tunes. “My Funny Valentine,” “Round About Midnight,” Charlie Haden’s “Silence.” Recorded six months before Baker’s death, it exudes a sad, patient lyricism that’s seldom dull, and the contributions of Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi are consistently thoughtful. The rendition of “Round About Midnight” runs to more than twelve minutes.

But in the end, what can you say about music? I was reading The Frontiers of Meaning: Three Informal Lectures on Music by Charles Rosen the other day, and I came upon this passage:

A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art teaches us how to understand it, and makes the critic not only parasitical but strictly supefluous.

I don’t believe that, though it’s true that music is devilishly hard to write about in a meaningful way. The music itself can never be captured in words.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Nebraska - The Film


…is an elegy for small-town America, as lovingly rendered as possible, I suppose, given director Alexander Payne’s warts-and-all approach and choice of black-and-white film stock. But it must be pointed out that we’re dealing here with “small” small towns, of the type that lost their vitality several generations ago, when railroads gave way to highways, local creameries folded in the face of refrigerated trucking, and weekend trips to Wal-Mart became the rural norm.

The action begins in a medium-sized city—Billings, Montana—and it ends in a small big-city—Lincoln, Nebraska (the Athens of the Midwest)—but it mostly takes place in Hawthorn, Nebraska, which has a main street three blocks long and seems to be populated largely by farmers, retired farmers, bartenders, and their families. The fact that Hawthorn still has a local newspaper is nothing short of a miracle.

Nebraska is a slow, slightly arty movie, reminiscent at times of such films as  King’s of the Road (Wim Wenders) or The Last Picture Show. More often director Alexander Payne seems to be channeling the spirit of Frederico Fellini, as, for example, when he plays with lights and shadows to chisel the features on a row of almost-grotesque faces at a bar or sitting around a farmhouse table, or lounging in a big, silent group in front of a TV set.


The rolling, wide-open spaces of Montana and Wyoming, and the somewhat flatter terrain of Northern Nebraska, also get a good deal of loving attention.

The entire script, single-spaced, would probably fit on a few sheets of typing paper.

The first twenty minutes of Nebraska seem slightly contrived, as if Payne had spent so much time getting the lighting right that he forgot to maintain the rhythms of the dialog. (The same could be said of the opening scenes of Sideways, the first half of About Schmitt, and almost the entirety of The Descendants, especially when George Clooney is on screen.) 


But the film finds its groove soon enough, as an old, more-than-slightly demented man and his son set out on a two-day road trip to Lincoln to cash in the man’s “winning” ticket in the Publishers Sweepstakes. (These things actually happen. My great–aunt, an otherwise astute woman of eighty-five, could not be disabused of the delusion that she had won that same contest. Fortunately she had no desire to drive from Crookston to Lincoln to find out.)

But the meat of the tale involves various interactions that take place in the town where the old man grew up. Most of Woody Grant’s high school friends have died or moved, though there are plenty left to provide his son David with a far more vivid picture of his father’s early years, teen romances, war experience, family life, early drinking habits, and adult behavior than he otherwise would have gotten. The impressions and recollections don’t always match up, of course, which gives the film a vaguely Rashamon-esque flavor.


Comic touches also abound, though the overriding atmosphere remains one of bewilderment, frustration, and loss.

Bruce Dern won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his portrayal of Woody Grant, and Stacy Keach brings an element of braggadocio and menace to his rendering of Grant’s old business partner. Will Forte is less convincing as Woody’s son, though the character itself is bland and slightly confused to begin with, and he grows on you. Watching him, I was reminded of Tim Holt in Treasure of Sierra Madre, trying to hold his own in the company of Bogart and Walter Huston.


Perhaps the moral center of the film lies in the heart of Peg Nagy (played by Angela McEwan), the owner of the local newspaper who dated Woody in high school but lost him to David’s mother Kate. “I knew I didn’t have a chance,” she tells David in her sweet, soft voice, thinking back maybe fifty years with a wistful smile, “I wouldn’t let him run the bases with me.”
    
The graveyard and the old farm-stead, now long-abandoned; the divisions between Catholics and Lutherans; the juvenile delinquency. Scenes from Nebraska stick in memory like a dream or an ancestral memory. (Lots of my relatives come from Nebraska; many still live there.) With Nebraska Payne has crafted a low-key classic, elevating a fairly dismal swatch of American life to the level of art by exposing the all-too-human impulses that keep it moving…and sometimes ennoble it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Terry Eagleton Christmas


To call Terry Eagleton a critic or even a Theorist (note the capital T) is really to damn him with faint praise. The man is uncommonly erudite and he writes with singular panache—so much so that when reading him we’re reminded of philosophers and social critics on the order of Voltaire and Nietzsche, with touches of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis thrown in for good measure. 

Like those brilliant and scurrilous gadflies, Eagleton is a counterpuncher who feigns and jabs, often hitting his mark, while seldom planting his feet on the mat long enough for us to figure out where he really stands.

But perhaps this is a false impression, based on the fact that I’ve read only a few of the essays collected in his book Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others. (I’m so out of touch, I thought  Spivak and Žižek were the same person!) 

My favorite line from that book: “For postmodern thought the normative is inherently oppressive, as though there was something darkly autocratic about civil rights legislation or not spitting in the milk jug.”

That remark strikes me as both true and funny.

I recently stumbled upon Eagleton’s book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Reading the first chapter, “The Scum of the Earth,” I was impressed by his grasp of Jesus’s mission, Aquinas’s analysis of first causes, and so on. He’s well aware, as few thinkers are today, that we live in the midst of entirely different categories of being and often partake of several simultaneously.

A few Eagleton sallies:

In Nietzsche’s view, the death of God must also spell the death of Man—that is to say, the end of a certain overweening humanism—if absolute power is not simply to be transplanted from the one to the other. Otherwise, humanism will always be secretly theological. It will be a continuation of God by other means. God will simply live a shadowy afterlife in the form of respectable suburban morality, as indeed he does today.

He responds to Christopher Hitchens assertion that “thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of any­thing important” as follows:

But Christianity was never meant to the an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

Pursuing the issue of God as creator, Eagleton continues:

God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Cre­ation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

In case we haven’t quite wrapped our heads around this concept, Eagleton lays it on a little thicker, jumping from point to point as if he’s afraid our attention might be wandering.

God and the universe do not make two. In an act of Judaic iconoclasm, we are forbidden to make graven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings. There is a document that records Gods endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it.

Or, as one might say in more theological language, for the hell of it. He made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. In fact, for Christian theology there is no necessity to the world at all, and God may have long ago bitterly regretted succumb­ing to the sentimental impulse which inspired him to throw it off in the first place. He created it out of love, not need. There was nothing in it for him. The Creation is the original acte gratuit.

The danger implicit in this position is that morality relinquishes pride of place to delight. But where’s the danger?

If we are God’s creatures, it is in the first place because, like him, we exist (or should exist) purely for the pleasure of it.

And where does Jesus fit into all of this? The radical Romanti­cs (according to Eagleton) including Marx, find in Jesus a character who fully grasped this radical disjunct between instrumental reason and the ontological freefall we actually live.

 Jesus, unlike most responsible American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdain­ful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pa­riahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. Though he was no revolu­tionary in the modern sense of the term, he has something of the lifestyle of one. He sounds like a cross between a hippie and a guerilla fighter.

Food for thought, on these, the shortest days of the year.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Northern Lights, the Moral Sense, and Form


In "Looking into the Black Box,"  (New York Times, 11/24/13) Michael Strevens raises an  interesting question.

Do we understand something if we know its causes? He gives an example:

To understand the northern lights, for example, is to understand how charged particles in the solar wind are guided to the earth’s magnetic poles, where colliding energetically with oxygen and nitrogen molecules they cause ionization that results in the emission of light. The guiding, the colliding, the ionizing, the emission are all causal processes; to see how these processes unfold is to understand the aurora.

Is this really true? I don’t think so. For one thing, I don’t think we really understand light at all? We’ve been able to devise increasingly elaborate descriptions of it, using terms from the realm of physics that we don’t really understand either. This type of analysis has its uses. But isn’t it annoying to stand on a deathly quiet, snow-covered lake next to an icy know-it-all who informs us that “those ghostly bands of green and white above our heads are merely an emission of light caused by collisions of ionized particles in the solar wind”? Something is missing here.  

Without quite answering the initial question, Strevens brings up a second one that’s no less interesting: is causality itself a valid principle or merely a useful way of codifying relations between things so we can predict their behavior? These reflections lead him to an implicit admission that “understanding,” whatever it may be, must take us beyond the realm of causal links. Yet he never abandons the idea that to understand something is to break it into parts and figure out how it works.    

It might be more illuminating, I think, to leave the Northern Lights aside for a bit and examine something with which we have greater intuitive affinity. How about Bach’s Art of Fugue, which I’m listening to right now. 

Bach was a master of counterpoint, and a popular exercise among composition teachers is to require that their students analyze a section of this magisterial work, pinpointing how the themes and inversions, the canons and stretta passages, fit together. In doing so, the students are supposed to come to a better understanding of counterpoint, and also of what remarkable things can be created following a fairly strict set of rules and a small collection of motifs. And I suspect they often do.


Once again, we’re examining how the parts of a thing work. But do we thereby arrive at a better understanding of The Art of Fugue itself? Once again, I think not.
 
We understand The Art of Fugue not by taking the pieces apart, but by putting them together—inside our heads. It’s an act, not of analysis, but of synthesis. And also of appreciation.

I have sat through more than a few pre-concert lectures during which I’ve been told that if I would only cast aside my hidebound prejudices and remained non-judgmental, if I patiently studied the score in an attempt to grasp the clever things an Elliot Carter, say, was doing in the third movement of his quartet, I’d come to recognize its worth. This isn’t true. I might develop a heightened appreciation for Carter’s cleverness…but the worth of music lies entirely in its sounds. If the sounds don’t come together in a pleasing way,  intuitively, inside our heads, the music is worthless—at least to us.

No doubt there are plenty of compositions that I lack the sensitivity to appreciate. And there are ways of sounding “pleasing” that will appeal to us only rarely, depending on the mood. The other day I was listening to György Kurtág’s  Kafka-Fragmente, and enjoying it. Soprano and violin fighting it out. In the liner notes I read:

Sudden, broken, the fragment is completed not only by its companions sounding around it but by us in silence. We see ourselves, too, in these shivers of mirror, in their sharp but uncertain edges; between humor and anxiety, between withdrawal and explosion, between assertion and indecision.

It’s a lovely partnership, though I wouldn’t want to go there again anytime soon. The author of the commentary, in comparing the piece to various emotions, probably leads us closer to understanding it that any technical analysis could.

There is no need to downplay the importance of analysis, of “tasking things apart,” in our quest for understanding. But in the end it means little if we can’t also put things together and feel them at work inside us. Such a feat come naturally to some, though it requires not only analysis and intuition, but also judgment. And if this in true in the realm of art, where the artifacts in question have been created  intentionally, it’s even more so in the realm of history more broadly conceived, where many events take place as a result of fortuitous interactions.  

The New York Times released its annual list of the ten best books of the year yesterday. I found several of the descriptions interesting in themselves. For example, here is how the editors described The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark:

Clark manages in a single volume to provide a comprehensive, highly readable survey of the events leading up to World War I. He avoids singling out any one nation or leader as the guilty party. “The outbreak of war,” he writes, “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse.” The participants were, in his term, “sleepwalkers,” not fanatics or murderers, and the war itself was a tragedy, not a crime.

And here is how they describe After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead by Alan S. Blinder.

Blinder’s terrific book on the financial meltdown of 2008 argues that it happened because of a “perfect storm,” in which many unfortunate events occurred simultaneously, producing a far worse outcome than would have resulted from just a single cause. Blinder criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, especially for letting Lehman Brothers fail, but he also praises them for taking steps to save the country from falling into a serious depression. Their response to the near disaster, Blinder says, was far better than the public realizes.

Here we see scholars at work, taking things apart but also exercising their judgment; looking for causes, but only sometimes finding them. Readers like me can usually do no better than to single out a few pithy one-liners to remember, but these scholars, who understand their chosen subjects far better than we do, would probably agree that the greater truth lies in the music of the narrative itself.

You may object that there is nothing very scientific about my description of understanding. But the association of “science” with “understanding” is merely one of the odd prejudices of our time. Recent studies have underscored the fact that scientific research is far more likely to produce spurious results than accurate ones. (See Economist, Oct. 19, p. 26-30 for an overview).

 The type of understanding I’m describing here also has a long history, though it’s now largely forgotten. For example, in 1821 William von Humboldt gave a lecture to the Prussian Academy of Science, “On the Historian’s Task,” which became a landmark in the field. Here von Humboldt asserts that “an event…is only partially visible in the world of the senses; the rest has to be added by intuition, inference, and guesswork.” He compares the historian to the poet, then draws an important distinction between them: “The crucial difference, which removes all potential dangers, lies in the fact that the historian subordinates his imagination to experience and the investigation of reality…the imagination does not act as pure fancy and is, therefore,  more properly called the  intuitive faculty or connective ability.”

If you read on in the essay, you’ll come upon expressions such as “inner necessity” and “the breath of life in the whole and  the inner character which speaks through it…” It would almost seem that the historian is being called upon to fashion a work of art from events, in the same way that Bach fashioned The Art of Fugue from a few select motifs. 

Von Humboldt would probably agree. At one point he writes: “Hence, the historian, in order to perform the task of his profession, has to compose the narrative of events in such a way that the reader’s emotions will be stirred by it as if by reality itself.”

A good deal more could be said on this subject, but I’d like to add just one more piece of the story. I’d like to take us back yet another century to 1711, the publication date of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics. In this collection of essays (specifically the essay titled “An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit”) Lord Shaftesbury introduces the notion of moral sense, a faculty he compares to aesthetic sense. The basic point is that there is no way for us to develop  a sense of right and wrong via logic or reasoning, if we don’t already possess a fundamental humaneness or benevolence or sense of justice.

This may seem obvious, but there are many who would challenge the theory, and even call it “dangerous.” On the other hand, the historian Ernst Cassirer has described Shaftesbury’s theory, and its overarching significance, in the following terms:

[Shaftesbury] founds a philosophy in which aesthetics not only represents a systematic province but occupies the central position of the whole intellectual structure. According to Shaftesbury, the question of the nature of truth is inseparable from that of the nature of beauty, for the two questions agree both in their grounds and in their ultimate principle. All beauty is truth, just as all truth can be understood basically only through the meaning of form, that is, the meaning of beauty. That everything real partakes of form, that it is no chaotic amorphous mass, but possesses rather an inner proportion and evidences in its nature a certain structure, and in its development and motion a rhythmic order and rule: this is the fundamental phenomenon in which the purely intellectual, the super­sensible origin of the real manifests itself.

There are echoes of Plato in Shaftesbury’s emphasis on form, and anticipations of Hegel in his rarefied idea of “the real,” but we don’t have time to explore those connections now. We can only note that Shaftesbury  is wrong to equate form with beauty outright; the suggestion that everything in history is beautiful is simply outrageous. But in the same way that an artist brings form to his or her materials, making them beautiful, the historian uncovers the form of events, which is their truth. It isn’t the aesthetic faculty at work in this case, however, but the moral faculty. And when the historian stirs a reader’s emotions (to return to von Humboldt’s remark above), it’s the moral sense that’s being engaged and uplifted.

Where does causality fit into all of this? Nowhere, as far as I can see. A fan of The Art of Fugue might suggest that every note is perfect and necessary—nothing is gratuitous or out of place. Yet few would suggest, I think, that one note or phrase “caused” the next, because Bach’s creative genius is present in every line. 

The same can be said about history. There is little point in considering “what ifs” except as an imaginative—that is to say, a poetic—exercise. But poetry isn’t history. History is the study of what actually happened. And the radical force careening through history, defying merely causal forces at every turn of the path, is the creative spirit of the individual agents involved in it. Where such a force is not involved, there is nothing “real” to be found. We might as well be admiring charged particles in the solar wind colliding with oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere.

It’s a nice show, but it doesn’t engage our moral sense, and therefore, there isn’t much truth to be found in it.
   

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Capitalism and the Pope


Recent remarks by Pope Francis have revived an age-old discussion about capitalism: what it is, how it works, the role it plays in our lives and the role it ought to play. I’ve read quite a few of these op-ed-type pieces, and it seems to me they all have one thing in common. They all misconstrue what capitalism is, and therefore misjudge its value.

It’s common to associate “capitalist” with words such as greedy, rapacious, and ruthless. None of these qualities are intrinsic to capitalism, of course. A capitalist enterprise is one in which individuals finance an activity through which they hope to profit in the future. Many things can go wrong with such an arrangement, of course—as Antonio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice finds out, to take an example at random.

Investors can be swindled, ships can sink, a market can evaporate, anticipated profits might not pan out. The future is always uncertain, which suggests that two qualities intrinsic to capitalism are faith and trust.

I love capitalism, and I marvel at it sometimes when watching a freight train boom across the countryside (building a network of rail lines isn’t cheap or easy) or reflecting on a medical device that required years of expensive research but, once perfected, now saves the lives of many. Though our notions of capitalism, both good and bad, tend to focus on the industrial age in which we live, we shouldn’t forget that the silk merchants we read about in the Arabian Nights were also capitalists.


I would even go so far as to suggest that all economic activity is capitalistic. Even a homesteader needs capital in the form of land, seeds, and livestock, in order to prosper. And this farmer, like any capitalist, needs to increase his capital—he needs to have something left over—because that’s what he and his family are going to be living on.

But there’s a lot more to life than economics. And capitalist enterprises tend to disproportionally benefit those who already have quite a bit of capital. This may have been what Pope Francis was talking about when he remarked recently: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Religious institutions have traditionally made an attempt to redress the balance. In modern times this same role has largely been taken up by government agencies. And more power to them.

I love big government. Call me a socialist if you want, why not? But it seems to me that in the same way all economic life is capitalistic, all government functions are socialistic. The local fire department is financed by the entire community, after all, though only a few households benefit. Come to think of it, Hilary and I have been financing the local schools for decades though we don’t have kids. That’s how government is supposed to work and I’m all in favor of it.

Another thing government does, or is supposed to do, is regulate economic activity in an effort to minimize fraud, reckless leveraging of assets, exploitative labor practices, and environmental degradation. They should do more. Their efforts are blunted somewhat by the fact that the interests they’re fighting against have loads of cash and an individualistic, “me first” ideology that appeals to many voters. 

But when Pope Francis casts aspersions on “the prevailing economic system,” it makes me nervous. Foremost in his mind, I imagine, are the staggering levels of youth unemployment in Europe today. But surely capitalism itself isn’t at fault. The economic system of which the Pope speaks is shaped by laws and institutions that have failed to live up to their regulatory duties, blinded by glib economists and fearful of precipitating a “slow-down.”


I suppose it's a little more complicated than that. Meanwhile, there’s a lot to be said for stepping off the consumerist merry-go-round of snowmobiles and personal devices altogether. The romance of the next new product leads nowhere in the end...

It’s snowing. Time to get out those cross-country skis! And tonight?  How about streaming Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons in The Merchant of Venice?    


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps


It sounds like a gimmick, and in some ways it is—though an effective one. Chris West has given us a brief, readable history of modern Britain, using the issue of postage stamps, one after another, to serve as signposts along the way. Perhaps five percent of the book involves stamps—how the images are chosen, how the design elements have changed. For the most part the text deals with what those choices and changes say about life in Britain at a particular point in time. West also cleverly spins tales off of other aspects of a given stamp.

For example, Chapter 3 focuses on an Irish postmark from 1848 on a Penny Red. The postmark gives West a point of entry into the famine that swept Ireland in 1846 after the arrival of potato blight from North America. Always on the outlook for balance and contrast, and seemingly in command of every detail of British history, West observes that at the time Ireland was a part of Britain and had 105 representatives in Parliament, who did nothing special to alleviate the plight of their constituents. But he reserves the bulk of his criticisms for Sir Charles Trevelyan, the government-appointed chief of famine relief, whom he describes as “ a man with a pig-headed conviction that the market was a solution for all social ills.” 

West maintains a conversational tone throughout the book, asking questions, raising issues, then offering solutions in a speculative rather than a conclusive spirit. To take another example from early in the book, a 5 Shilling Red gets him to talking about what he calls the mid-Victorian Wealth Machine, which was based on industrial production, cheap labor, and a competitive market that weeded out inferior or over-priced products. This machine brought generations of landless folks out of poverty, though it left others behind. Both of these economic developments, he notes, had been anticipated by Adam Smith a hundred years earlier.

Contra Adam Smith, West now brings Karl Marx into the discussion. “Marx can be criticized in lots of way,” he writes, “but in pointing out that the Wealth Machine didn’t automatically benefit everybody, he was surely right.” Good point. West continues: “This was a truth that some Victorians…didn’t understand; others understood but didn’t care; still others understood, cared but didn’t know what to do about it.”

Comparing the two visions of economic life, West notes that Marx depicts capitalism as based on nothing but ruthless greed, whereas Smith emphasizes not only competition but also sympathy and “moral sentiment.” 

Rather than enter into a detailed analysis of The Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital, (neither of which were widely read at the time), West suggests that we examine two books that many people did read and respond to, Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help and Dinah Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman. A few pages (and a new stamp) on, we’re deep into a description of the career of Charles Dickens, who humanized the plight of the urban masses more effectively still.

West rambles easily from economics to literature, from the Opium Wars to a Royal Jubilee, often choosing a significant detail to illuminate a larger truth. Always on the lookout for balance (or a silver lining), he finds it even amid Britain’s rapacious imperialism on the Dark Continent of Africa. “British education has been, and  still is, valuable in the continent,” he writes. “Nelson Mandela studied first at a Wesleyan missionary school, then at Healdtown School (established by Methodists in 1845), then at Fort Hare University,  a world class campus set up by a mixture of  eminent blacks and liberal whites in 1916.”  

In the chapters on Tony Blair and New Labour West describes the arrival of “spin,” which at the time was applied to everything from the invasion of Iraq to the postal service itself:

“Even the postal service suffered at the hands of the spinners, undergoing a ₤2 million revamp of its image that lumbered it with a new and meaningless name, Consignia, which people said reminded them of a deodorant or a walk-on part in an opera.”

West judiciously points out that, matters of spin aside, New Labour also brought peace to North Ireland, more women into parliament, and a minimum wage.

Other topics that his stamp collection calls to mind include the Falkland’s War, the changing ethnicity of Britain’s population, the EU, soccer (World Cup champs 1966, and a stamp to prove it), the Sex Pistols, and Lady Diana. After a description of the outpouring of grief in the days immediately following Diana’s death in 1998, West writes:

“Looking back on those days, some commentators regard them as a national embarrassment, like a teenage diary suddenly found in the back of the drawer. But this totally misses the point: it may have been a bit over the top, but the tears were genuine; they were the tears of people who had spent their lives being told to bury their emotions and were now suddenly allowed to let them out. It was a substantial shift in the nation’s sensibility.”

I’m no expert on British history, but it seems to me West seldom, if ever, “misses the point.” Indeed, he has wrapped aspects of economic, social, and political history into a pleasing narrative, carried along by an undercurrent of that same benevolence he finds in many aspects of British life and history. The intrusion of philatelic detail, far from serving as a prop or a distraction, helps to keep the narrative light and also reminds us that if we’re sitting with a stamp album on our lap in the midst of a decent life, it’s due to the efforts of several generations of communitarian effort… including those of the postal service.

 “Stamps tell stories,” West writes in the foreword. “They speak to us across generations – if only we’d stop squeezing them into albums and worrying about their catalog value, and just listen to their voices instead.”

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Brief History of History - Colin Wells


A Brief History of History is a strange and pleasant book. Strange, perhaps, because it’s so pleasant. I mean, lots of people enjoy reading works of history—biographies, dramatic tales of war and social revolution, cozy examinations of the spice trade or the decline of rural life, mind-blowing narratives of the development of astrophysics, nostalgic examinations of the Fifties, and even histories of salt, the mandolin, and the concept of zero. But very few, I think, take more than a passing interest in the history of history.

The subject is made difficult from the get-go by the word “history” itself. We use it to refer to the past, but we also use it to describe the things we say about the past. I might equally well say I’m studying the history of the Crusades (i.e. studying its past) or that I’m writing a history of the Crusades (i.e. I’m sharing with you my take on its past). 

When we study the history of history, what we’re doing it examining the history of the various things that have been said about the past. It’s a triple regress, and I suspect few readers beyond a thin layer of academics would be interested in entering into such a fun house. (Perhaps the only thing worse would be the history of historiography: the history of the various things that have been said about the things that have been said about the past.)

But it’s to the general reader rather than the scholarly community that the author, Colin Wells, has addressed himself here. Bravo! Scholars will find the work breezy and uncritical (not quite fairly). The general reader will find it fascinating, up to a point. I was reminded more than once while reading it of another minor classic, The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg. 

Wells is good at keeping a narrative afloat.

But here the major problem of his work presents itself. With Schonberg, we can listen to a Mozart symphony or a Wagner opera, and then read up on all the scuttlebutt surrounding the man who wrote it. (In fact, having written that sentence, I just put Mozart’s 40th Symphony on the turntable. Ah, sublime!) When we’re reading about Einhard or Guicciardini, on the other hand, or Bayle or Champollion, the question we ask ourselves time and again is, “Who the hell is that?”

This can be a problem. And if Wells happens to hit on a historian we’ve heard of—Herodotus say, or Burckhardt—our first thought may be, “Damn, I’ve always wanted to read him. I think I’ll go do that now.” Good-bye Wells.

I had that thought more than once while reading A Brief History of History. Thucydides remains a gap in my education, though I have The Landmark Thucydides right here on the shelf. Also Bede.  And Herder.

Well, there is no end to the list of the great historians I’ve never read. And Wells doesn’t shy away from bringing out not only obscure (to us) historians, but also compilations of historical fragments that no one outside the academic community has heard of. 

He seems to be especially strong on Byzantine historiography—an era closer to a black hole than anything Stephen Hawking has ever met up with face-to-face. (And yet A Brief History of Time sold millions!)

The discerning reader may have come to suspect that I myself fall somewhere between the scholar and the “general reader.” I’m no scholar, yet I do have Hume’s six-volume History of England close at hand and also Phillippe de Commynes two-volume Memoirs, an eye-witness account of the history of Burgundy in the later years of the fifteenth century. 

Wells doesn’t mention Commynes. I forgive him. Because what he has done is bring out how fascinating it can be to read histories written in times closer to the events being described than the ones we have access to today.

Undergirding any history of history is a definition of history, and Wells finds his in the first sentence of the first history ever written—The Persian Wars by Herodotus. He dwells on the fact that Herodotus, after explaining that he wanted to preserve the past from oblivion, also wanted to explain why things happened.   

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” (trans. Rawlinson)

Wells notes that “to put on record” interpolates a verb that doesn’t exist in the original. He translates the final clause “and especially the reason why they went to war against each other.” Thus history’s purpose, according to Herodotus, was to preserve the glory of the past, but also to explain it. Hence the subtitle of Wells’s book is: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past.

Yes, but does the past really need to be explained? Do the motives of human activity ever really change? Power, domesticity, expression, love, pleasure, stability, survival, vengeance, and that quality above all others—benevolence. People love to read history because they love to make contact with superhuman examples of those things. Depending on their temperament, they may read Helter Skelter or a biography of Winston Churchill.

Wells makes a very good narrative out of a disparate and challenging collection of thinkers. A Brief History of History is a book I'm sure I could read once a year with profit. Characters such as Bruni, Dilthey, Tacitus, Procopius demand our attention, and Wells does a good job of explaining why. But there are more than a few passages in which his attempt to be breezy ends up sounding trite. For example, of the Italian poet Petrarch he writes:

Before Petrarch, people looked at the past and saw an age of pagan superstition that had been succeeded by the light of Christian revelation. Petrarch flipped this idea like a pancake: The enlightenment of ancient Greece and Rome was followed by an age of ignorant superstition in which ancient knowledge disappeared and culture decayed.

Wells seems to approve of Petrarch’s re-ordering of history, which is also a re-ordering of values. But is it sound? This is an important point, precisely the kind of issue that Wells tends to ignore. Are Christian values worthless? Are there vast stretches of time that contributed nothing to civilization?

Casting around for a richer interpretation of the relation between historical eras, I opened Benedetto Croce’s History: Theory and Practice (1913) and came upon the following passage:

…historical thought knows nothing of returns, but knows that the Middle Ages preserved antiquity deep in its heart and the Renaissance preserved the Middle Ages. And what is “humanism” but a renewed formula of that “humanity” of which the ancient world knew little or nothing, and which Christianity and the Middle Ages had so profoundly felt? What is the word ‘renaissance’ or ‘renewal’ but a metaphor taken from the language of religion? And setting aside the word, is not the conception of humanism perhaps the affirmation of a spiritual and universal value, and in so far as it is that, altogether foreign, as we know, to the mind of antiquity…  

These reflection are of a different order altogether from the ones we find in Wells’s book. They’re rooted in a command not only of historiography, but also of metaphysics, and Wells simply doesn’t possess such a background.

Yet A Brief History of History is a remarkable book all the same.The entertaining tales harbor subtleties of interpretation and judgment that Wells seldom lingers to defend. For example: "History has co-opted the ferocious post-modernists, who set themselves to drain it of meaning but only ended by presenting it with a new set of powerful tools."

The historians he choses to highlight from recent times--Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Brown, Emmanuel Ladurie,Carlo Ginzburg--are an odd lot, none of whom carry name recognition on the order of Macaulay, Voltaire, de las Cases, or Julius Caesar. Yet I cannot help pulling my copy of Ginzburg's essay collection, Wooden Eyes:Nine Reflections on Distance, from the shelf to give it another look.

I am tempted to call Wells's effort a Quixotic one. He has read more, and knows far more about the history of history than you or I ever will. Yet he considers it worthwhile to call up names unknown to us, examine eras in history we've never given a thought to, attempting to tell the story in terms we can understand. As if we might be interested. And indeed, he does make it interesting.

At one point he writes, and it's true: "If historians downed pens right now, we could still never catch up on our reading."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Roy Hargrove Quintet


The Roy Hargrove Quintet is a gift to people like me who long for straight ahead jazz full of energy and surprise, feeling and fun, unabashed tenderness and riotous noise. We’re the folks who grew up on Davis/Shorter, perhaps, but find ourselves listening more often these days to Baker/Getz or Harrell/Woods. There’s a lot to be said for modal jazz, but nothing tickles the brain or the heart like someone—better yet, and entire quintet—that really knows how to play the changes.

Hargrove strutted lithely on stage at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis Tuesday night a little after seven in a dapper suit, designer sunglasses, and a Mohawk. Quincy Phillips (at the drums) wore a summery plaid sport coat with thin yellow stripes and a roadster cap. Sullivan Fortner slouched behind the piano in a bulky purple-and-gray sweater, looking like his mom had just told him to clean out his room…and he was still trying to decide if he had to do it. Meanwhile, ever-bemused Justin Robinson, with a flowing beard and an alto sax hanging from his neck, could have passed for a kindly rabbi in a Woody Allen flick. (Ameen Saleem was largely invisible behind his stand-up bass.)

The band started to play…and they played, and they played. As one number came to a close, the unit would launch immediately into another one, oblivious to the eruption of hearty applause. The harmonies were tight, the solos intermittently inspired and never too long. Bassist Saleem’s solos were rubbery and perhaps over-miked but also joyous, and he sustained the momentum of the evening admirably, while Phillips’s moments in the spotlight were crisp and never thundered off into deep space.

Hargrove and Robinson moved around on the stage from front to back, side to side as their cohorts strutted their stuff, adding riffs here and there (more for the band than the audience) and returning to center stage for the wrap-up. 

Some of the tunes were familiar to me from recent albums, though I couldn’t tell you which was which. “Invitation,” “Salima’s Dance,” “Strasburg/St. Denis,” “The Stinger.” Hargrove's solos were often fragmentary and meditative rather than blistering. Robinson let rip with a succession of incandescent and modally based solos that were slightly at odds with the band’s otherwise harmonic approach, though they added a welcome element of frenzy to the evening. The same could be said of Fortner’s often jumpy and occasionally almost arhythmic soloing, though in the course of the evening the young pianist demonstrated he could offer a sound to fit any musical situation.

Hargrove sang one mournful tune, “Never Let me Go,”  and the impact of the human voice was all the greater because no one had being saying anything much from up on stage. He brought some humor to the phrasing, and  later in the show, along those same lines, he also entered into a rhythm-game with Phillips, matching the drummer’s beats on a hand-held plastic box.

In a short, mediocre set, such an interlude can be one further source of irritation. In the context of a long, ebullient set like the one we heard Tuesday night, it’s an added element of fun.


 Hargrove is a small, wiry man, almost dwarfed by the flugelhorn he pulls out from time to time. But the musical energy flowing through him is a force of nature, and in interviews he makes it clear how deep his knowledge of jazz runs.

I saw another aspect of that elemental force midway through the second set, when Hargrove, after finishing a solo, walked off stage through the curtain and reappeared at another door a few steps from my table. Standing in the dark against the wall, he proceeded to do an energetic dance with himself, somewhere between a watusi and a frugg, with a few 180-degree turns in a very small space. He was having fun and he just couldn’t stop. A moment later he reappeared on stage, horn in hand, ready for a reprise of the tune.
   
Hargrove was asked in an interview once what playing in a big band had brought to his sense of music. His reply:

“... It creates some kind of humility. It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! ... We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you don’t have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody can’t be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! There’s something to be said about being able to trim it down—say less but have it have more meaning.”

We listened to Roy’s quintet for three hours, and it was all music. Stretching boundaries? Pushing the envelope? Not really. Just thoughtful, high-energy music. And a whole lot of fun.
   

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Twelve Steps to Bayfield


Trying to make the most of a cool gray weekend, we hopped in the car and headed for Bayfield. The freeway drive was extraordinary, due largely to the frost on the willow bushes in the swamps. We took a slight detour to Jay Cooke State Park to see the new swing bridge and look out over the magnificent river.


In Duluth we stopped at the Northern Waters fish shop to pick up a couple of Sitka Sushi sandwiches, which we ate at a picnic table looking out over the frigid lake.


Birdwatching being what it was, we also took an interest in these juvenile ring-billed gulls.


The highway along the south shore of Lake Superior was as pastoral and lovely as ever.


Bayfield itself was pretty dead, though we spotted a juvenile and an adult loon in one of the little harbors on the south side of town.


We also stopped at Bodine's Fish Warehouse to pick up some fresh herring. (We didn't buy all of it.)


It rained on Saturday so we made our way to the Big Waters Film festival in nearby Washburn. The theatre there holds 120 people. Here you see director George Desort,,who spent eighty days kayaking solo across most of the lakes on Isle Royale.


On the way back to Bayfield we hiked out the Houghton Falls


... and on to the big lake.


I don't have time to describe the spicy Mexican stew we made or elaborate on the exploring, the reading, or the saunas. But I will mention that on the way back to Minneapolis we took a shortcut on County road C south of Superior and ran into some nice clumps of winterberry.


Flocks of snow buntings were everywhere on the highways near the big lake. I'm sure we saw a thousand birds all told, though they were all in flight, dashing off into the woods at our approach. By the time they get to Alaska and the Yukon, spring will be right around the corner.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Apee ow-uuur (Happy Hour) at Salut


I am suspicious of French-American restaurants, imagining the food to be overpriced and the furniture over-padded, but that’s largely an unconfirmed prejudice, considering I rarely go into them. Hence the “imagining.” The Happy Hour at Salut on Grand Avenue in St. Paul turned out to be a most pleasant surprise. 

The location was perfect, what with people coming in from all directions—Mahtomedi, Prior Lake, Edina, Linden Hills, Mac-Groveland, and Golden Valley. We were given a long table in front of the oyster bar and soon discovered we were being served by a front-line waitress with a wry sense of fun.

Friends arrived one by one and soon the long table was full. We discussed the upcoming election only briefly—we were all voting in different municipalities. We learned that Gayle’s downstairs neighbor—a nun—had fallen off a ladder and was now in the hospital. Appetizers arrived. French fries with béarnaise sauce ($3), sliders, little pizzas, a bucket of moules, a croquet-Madame that Renee made short work of. Little loaves of bread were brought to the table gratis, and when Jeff accidently knocked over an order of fries our waitress hurried to bring us another one, though we had no trouble finishing off the first one before she got back with the  replacement.

I was listening to two conversations simultaneously, both focused on Europe. Why? I guess because Jeff and Fran recently got back from Croatia, Renee and Michel were in France this summer, and Tim spent three weeks in Macedonia this summer, too. He and Carol have been to Croatia quite a few times, dating back to the Tito era and were curious to find out how the country has changed since becoming an independent state with a currency pegged to the euro. Meanwhile, Renee was describing how France has changed since her days in Paris long ago. Her husband, Michel (home with the kids), was more surprised than she was by how unFrench parts of the country now seemed, compared to back when he was hanging out in Lyon.
I haven’t been abroad for a decade, but that didn’t keep me from remarking on a book I saw recently about the decline of French cooking…and culture.

“I think they may be talking about the three-star restaurants,” Carol suggested.

“No, I’m quite sure the book was about eating and cooking habits generally,” I replied. “But I’ve never actually seen the book. I read a review.”

Then I had to make a further qualification. “I saw the review, but I didn’t actually read the review. I read the headline and the photo caption on the review.”

“Well, my mother was French,” Jeff said, “And she was a very good cook. I’m not sure if she was a French cook.”

“We never ate out when we were in France,” Carol said. “We were broke.”

“I remember a meal we had,” I said. “We were kayaking down the Tarn River, after which we stopped for lunch at a little restaurant on the river bank, out in the country. A three-course meal for $7. That was amazing.”


At one point two plates of sliced cucumbers topped with salmon mousse appeared. A few minutes later our waitress came by with a Happy Hour last call, and began to inquire about dinner. She got no takers, though we were curious all the same to hear about the Julia Child Monday Special.

“This week we’re doing boeuf bourguignon,” she grinned enthusiastically, “Chunks of beef in a red wine sauce—“

“And don’t forget the pearl onions,” someone chimed in.

“Oh, yes, and the bacon and peas…” It did sound good.

All of this French talk reminded Gayle that she’d been reading Shadows on the Rock, a Willa Cather book set in Quebec two or three centuries ago.

“Lots of Roman Catholic paraphernalia in that one, as I recall,” I said.  

“It is a little slow,” she admitted.

“They’re all slow,” Carol said, “though I did like My Antonia.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Tim said.

The Professor’s House,” Gayle added. “Anything in the Southwest.”

“Well, you know what Cather says about Balzac and Flaubert,” I remarked, apropos of nothing beyond the restaurant atmosphere and general bonhomie of the occasion. Then I couldn’t remember the line. “How does it go? ‘If you haven’t read Balzac at twenty, you haven’t lived. But if you’re still reading him at forty, you’ve lived in vain.’ Something like that.”

Two desserts, split among eight people, and then it was time for the check. Our waitress had been so kind as to itemize orders by chair, but we’d been sharing things liberally and settled on a $20-per-person contribution, with adjustments for late-comers, and a huge tip on top. Then out into the night.

As chance would have it, I had Alsatian soprano Anne Azema’s recording The Unicorn in the CD player—haunting medieval French Songs with harp/rebec accompaniment. Perfect for a lovely drive home across the river and up the parkway in the dark.
*
This morning I looked up the Cather quote: It comes from the essay in the collection Not Under Forty in which she makes the acquaintance of Flaubert’s niece. “It is scarcely exaggeration to say that if one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live; and if at forty one can still take Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempré at Balzac’s own estimate, one has lived in vain.”

I wasn’t too far off. Can you imagine anyone making a remark like that today?

I also looked up the book about French cooking I’d been referring to. It’s called Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. I ordered a cheap used copy. Here’s an excerpt from one review:

This is not the type of opinion writing wherein the French are simply bashed. Steinberger provides the regulatory detail, changes in French eating and drinking habits, and political and social background to convincingly show why French cuisine has collapsed - and it is a collapse. By way of example: France is the 2nd largest market in the world for McDonalds, the country has lost close to 200,000 restaurants, French wine consumption is down 50% since the 60's, and the living standard has declined precipitously.

At the political root of all this is the Mitterand regime. In response to the global economic issues of the 70s and 80s, France chose a socialist government, which proceeded, naturally, to dramatically increase spending, entitlements, and regulation. Steinberger doesn't write as an anti-socialist. I read him as politically neutral in this book. But the globalization context he provides makes it clear that France's actions were a disaster for French agricultural life - and the cuisine and wine about which he writes.


Yes, we’ve got to preserve those traditions! We’ve got to get to work!



Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Last Hunter - Will Weaver

I’m the type of guy who enjoys tooling around the back roads of rural Minnesota (and Wisconsin) not looking for anything in particular beyond landscapes and vegetation, farms and streams, quaint villages, migrating birds, explosions of winterberry, moody bogs, and luminescent spirals of pale green moss on the trunks of maple trees.

I’m curious to know what might be found in Yucatan (Houston County) or Meadowlands (northeast of Floodwood) or Argyle. (Well, I guess everyone knows where Argyle is.)

And it’s my good fortune that Hilary also likes such excursions. She’s usually got the highway map and the Vincent Atlas open in her lap, helping me find the way into the heart of the country, and back.

You can’t spend much time roaming the countryside, however, without beginning to ask yourself what really goes on out there. I grew up in a school district (Mahtomedi) that had town kids and farm kids, and it was pretty obvious they lived in two different universes. We would complain about having to mow the lawn or take out the garbage once a week; they would often have hours of chores to do after school every day.

I never set foot on a farm during my adolescence, however; a teenage party at Mary Jacobson’s orchard was about as close as I got, and it was dark the whole time. Nor was I envious of those who were carted off to join Jim Rudeen on his uncle’s farm for a week in the summer. They invariably came back worn out from all the work they’d had to do.

I recently spent two weeks in a less-than-glamorous corner of north central Minnesota, and I put a thousand extra miles on the car during that time. I saw a lot of interesting countryside yet came away with the same nagging question: What really goes on out there?


A few days later a very good answer fell into my lap by chance, in the form of an economical little book, The Last Hunter, by Will Weaver. Weaver is well-known to most Minnesotans who read, what with “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” and Red Earth, White Earth to his credit. He was raised on a dairy farm outside of Park Rapids.

The Last Hunter is ostensibly about deer hunting. In fact, if offers a very good portrait of what it’s like to grow up in rural Minnesota, how four brother manage to farm in the same vicinity, how the generations interact, how kids grow into hunting under the guidance of their elders, what it feels like to lose touch with the land, and how hard it is to come back to it.

Weaver left the farm and caught the literature bug as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. He describes the atmosphere of rebellion on campus, the looming war in Vietnam, the scramble for deferments. (I was at the U at the same time and remember having a lengthy discussion with someone in my Robert Frost class about splitting wood. Will, was that you?)

In those days Weaver’s ties to the farm mostly took the form of frozen packages of venison, pheasant, grouse, and walleye that he’d retrieve during monthly trips back home. He used these to woo his later-to-be-wife Rose, but lived in dread of the moment he’d have to bring Rose herself home to Park Rapids, thus shattering his persona of a Shakespeare-quoting aesthete.

She knew I was from a farm—but I was not ready to share the real details of farm life. My old-world dairy barn with its wooden stanchions. The rank smell of calf pens. The dark winter mountain of ma­nure. The frozen deer blood that lingered all winter on the tailgate of my father's pickup. The cold garage hung with frozen fox and coyotes. The carcasses of skinned beaver and mink and raccoons that we tossed into the hayloft as win­ter food for the barn cats; the clattering, dried skeletons I removed in spring with a pitchfork. The sick cow that had to be dragged, bellowing, from the barn by rope and tractor, then shot. Hunting and blood trails and butchering and farm accidents—all of this I held back from her.

The visit goes well enough, but Weaver’s career path soon takes him (and Rose) far from Minnesota—all the way to wooded hills above Santa Cruz, California. The success of his novel Red Earth, White Earth further alienates him from the countryside he once called home. Tribal leaders from the White Earth reservation and the AIM movement say they’re out to get him, while local farmers are equally upset, claiming that he’s portrayed them as a bunch of rednecks.


But Weaver does eventually return to Northern Minnesota, and to the hunting he loves. In later chapters he deftly interweaves a narrative of his futile attempts to get his children to hunt with references to his father's declining health and changing farming methods in the region. With a French fry factory in Park Rapids and a potato chip factory in Perham, farmers shift their focus increasingly to capital-intensive potato farming, and huge irrigation rigs spring up across a landscape hitherto largely dedicated to pastures.

I’m not a hunter myself, though I love tromping through the woods in any season. Weaver’s description of his family hunting (and trapping) traditions offers a corrective to the common stereotype of drunken maniacs who’ve been baiting their chosen “prey” for months. In the Weaver family, drinking and hunting didn’t go together. And the hunting was part of the larger effort of a rural family to exploit the “fat of the land,” a phrase that, to Weaver’s father, referred to “anything that could be gleaned, picked, fished, or hunted—and put to good use for the family.”

Using deer hunting as a thread allows Weaver to cast light on many aspects of family and work life in a region where the north woods gives way to farms and ranches, without becoming unduly dramatic or confessional. It’s a beautiful and subtle portrait, like a faint star we see more clearly because we’re not looking directly at it.