225 minutes

Originally published here on June 23, 2016.

The wife is away and the kids went to bed at about 9.00, so I spent some part of this evening listening to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, in the 1962 recording conducted by Otto Klemperer. (And I’ll bet this is the only blog in the world in which you’ll find an opening sentence like that today.) Not all of it, I’m afraid; only the first 75 minutes or so. The entire recording lasts for nearly four hours, and I doubt that I or anybody else for that matter has the time to listen to it in its entirety in one sitting, with the exception of those who deliberately carve out an evening to hear it live. Still, even its first third was powerful enough. Listening to it without distraction, even in your own home, leads you into a deep enough contemplation and meditation that is far too rare in my own experience. And I choose my words carefully here — “far too rare” is, in reality, only once every few years. The fragmentation of contemporary musical experience, apart from the sublimity of Bach’s Passions, means that our music comes to us in three- or four-minute slices, far from the 225 minutes of a Bach Passion. What’s more, the Passions don’t even have the narrative drive of an opera. We know how they end, let alone how they begin. Wagner’s Ring has the conflict and characters of the Nibelungenlied, a grand tale of passion stretching over many, many years, and Wagner does with the myth what he will. Bach was rather more constrained with the gospels.

For some reason, this brought to my mind my father, who for the last twenty years of his life lived more or less by himself. His companion, and it was an important one, was the classical music station in Philadelphia WFLN. (Don’t go looking for it; it ceased operations in 1985.) In the 1970s and 1980s, he would sit by himself, quietly smoking and drinking in his sitting room, listening to the chamber music, symphonies, operas, and most likely the Bach Passions every evening for several hours. He listened to them not on a computer or a DVD player, but a radio (I tried myself to find some classical music on the radio tonight, only to find that WQXR has gone all web). He may also have read a book or magazine, and in the spring and summer watched a baseball game or two on television, but even after the games were over, far into the night, he listened to WFLN and thought — about what I can’t say. Maybe philosophy; maybe about his own life; maybe about other things. But listening to the St. Matthew’s Passion tonight myself, alone in my living room, my daughters asleep nearby, drinking a few glasses of Gruner Veltliner, I possibly experienced the same thing, and about what I thought I would find it hard to say. Even “thought” is the wrong word. Perhaps, and only perhaps, it was a few hours in which the music brought me closer to my Self, whatever that is, however that may be defined.

Solitude, quiet, and time unbroken by interruption, whether it’s by glancing nervously every few minutes at an iPhone or by something else: these are the dearest and rarest things, not least because so poorly valued. (And ironically they’re the costliest: Find a quiet bar where you can while away a few hours with a few quiet drinks by yourself, or even a place where you can sit quietly without disturbance in New York. You’ll pay for it.) These are the things that the spirit requires. But of what value is the spirit today? One of the ways in which art teaches us the value of the sublime is through mere duration — not noise or variety necessarily, but through listening or seeing quietly over a long period of time. It carves out a large piece of our lives. I know of few King Lears that last less than three hours, and I’ve already mentioned the Passions of Bach. Contemporary equivalents might include the music of Morton Feldman. They don’t benefit from smartphones buzzing with calls or incoming emails that must be dealt with instantly, or constant looks at one’s watch. Quite the opposite. If you listen to the St. Matthew’s Passion on your computer, you’ll find yourself clicking away to Outlook or another email program, or Facebook, or Twitter, I guarantee it. The music suffers. The spirit has its demands on our attention, and as our attention is distended across distractions, it suffers too.

I mentioned solitude briefly above, but I must contradict myself here, for a live performance of St. Matthew’s Passion is (most likely; I’ve never experienced it myself) an example of individual contemplation within the intentional community of those who choose to attend the performance. In that sense, it is like church. I’ve also been attending services at Grace Church over the past six months or so, and perhaps its greatest message to me has been the necessity of pursuing spiritual life through community. There is a moment during the service in which those in the congregation turn to each other, friends or strangers, to shake hands, to acknowledge fellow churchgoers. It draws the individual from himself to the truth that there are others around him, and that there’s no separation from them; and especially at Grace Church, I’ve found, those others are of far different backgrounds than oneself. For the ceremony, however, we are united, one in spirit, whether white or of color, gay or straight, rich or poor, and however our opinions may differ. (Even atheists may be welcome. As the Yes, Prime Minister series once waggishly put it, they’re called “Modernists” in the contemporary Anglican Communion.)

The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist takes only about an hour — about a quarter of time a performance of St. Matthew’s Passion. Even so, it’s an hour that one must make plans for, for the solitude and quiet the sacrament demands. It is nearly 1.00 in the morning now, but I may just spend another hour or so with the next CD of the Passion. One must make the time, wherever one finds it.

My Vienna

Originally published here in 2004.

Earlier iterations of the journal featured Vienna’s Burgtheater in their banners; it disappeared for a while, now it reappears again. I can’t say that Vienna is the city in which I feel most at home; that Vienna is long gone. (Besides, my German language skills are, if not non-existent, laughable.) But I appreciate the reminders that it was, for a brief moment, a place in which I would have enjoyed spending some time.

Uneasy obsessions with sensuality, elegance, and manners; a growing sense of its own decay, mortality, and irrelevance; a recognition of the power of irrationality — all of these characterize fin de siècle Vienna. Vienna in 1900 was both symptom and landmark of modernity. The self-conscious and ironic grace of Viennese culture both obscured the role of the irrational and made it possible for that same irrationality to spring forth in the novels and plays of Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, the psychiatric work of Freud on dreams and neurosis, the paintings and drawings of Klimt and Schiele, the atonal music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. All of these figures were reviled to some greater or lesser extent by the traditionalists among the Viennese, but from nowhere else, and at no other time, could these figures have emerged. By 1918, the Habsburg monarchy and this same Vienna were dead, though its phosphorescent decay would glow in both Austria and in Germany until 1933.

Freud recognized Schnitzler (also a medical doctor) as a colleague and observer, and along with Schiele and Klimt perceived eroticism within this Old World elegance as inescapable but, unlike our own time, fully cognizant of the body’s own mortality. Klimt’s serpent-women rendered eroticism a part of sensualized nature; Schiele’s crabbed but vulnerable and provocative bodies stared out at the viewer, daring that viewer to look away rather than enter the perspective of the subject. That the suppression of this eroticism would give rise to hypocrisy was obvious; but there was a special appeal, erotic itself, to bearing in mind constantly and simultaneously the activities that went on in the ballroom and behind the closed doors of the bedroom. Social elegance suggested sexual and erotic elegance — but this was the culture of the shared secret, not the exploitation of the erotic and sexual for public titillation. Perhaps there was greater sensual freedom as a result. And, contrary to the arrogant assumptions of our contemporary cult of youth, the more an individual matured, the greater his or her ability to appreciate the possibilities of sensuality, which could be said to mature as well.

Design and style were central obsessions to the Viennese of the turn of the century; the care taken with simple household objects by the Wiener Werkstätte paralleled the care taken with the self-conscious design and style of the human bodies that inhabited those households: the body (both male and female) as aestheticized display object, adorned and unadorned. Few of Klimt’s and Schiele’s figures are wholly nude; they are draped in gold, or wear stockings, though the unadorned figures are easily imagined, even suggested by their apparel. No wonder either then that theatre was, of all the arts except music, of the greatest importance to the Viennese — it was there that styles were set, that self-presentation achieved its greatest mastery and mystery. The Ringstrasse, Vienna’s most theatrical architectual feature, is itself a masterpiece of duplicity — the Baroque to Classical to Gothic to Jugenstil buildings were all constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. Vienna was, simultaneously, dream and nightmare. Perhaps that is its dangerous attraction.

Fin de siècle Vienna, c’est moi? No, that’s foolish. It is of both greater and lesser comfort, though, to recognize something of oneself in a dead historical era. It explains affinities, intellectual and emotional, even if ultimately I can come to no final conclusions.

Finding the hidden city

As the documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment demonstrates, Philadelphia is a city unique in America in countless ways: a palimpsest of history since its formal founding by William Penn in the 17th century. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, due from Temple University Press later this year, unpeels and restores the layers of this palimpsest. I wrote about a few of the more recent layers in May. It was written by Nathaniel Popkin (who also contributed to the documentary) and Peter Woodall, and photographed by Joseph E.B. Elliott. “The book marks out the elements of Philadelphia’s hiddenness through its vivid layers and living ruins,” goes its description here:

Quite unlike books of urban loss that lament or celebrate decline, Finding the Hidden City connects Philadelphia’s particularly accretive form to its idiosyncratic history, culture, and people. By laying out these connections the authors develop an alternative theory of American urbanism to contrast with the better-understood narratives of New York and Los Angeles. The journey here is as much visual as it is literary; Joseph Elliott’s striking photographs the reveal the elemental beauty of Philadelphia never before seen.

The book is now available for pre-order from Amazon here. And don’t forget to check out the documentary series, launched in 2011 and now nearing completion. Episode one — which covers the region’s pre-history, from the Lenni Lenape’s enjoyment of the region to settlers (and opportunists) from Holland, Sweden, and finally England — is below.

Huck Finn and Hamlet

Originally published here in April 2016, and by far the most popular post I’ve ever written, with over 1,500 hits upon its first appearance. Go figure.

If, as Ron Powers suggests in his exemplary biography of the writer, Mark Twain is America’s Shakespeare (and this coming Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his Hamlet. Comparisons are odious, of course, but that never stopped people like myself from stinking the place up a little.

At first glance, there couldn’t be two works of literature more different in genre, style, and voice. Hamlet is tragedy, Huck Finn comedy; Hamlet is set in 14th or 15th century Denmark, Huck Finn in the 19th century American South; Hamlet’s a play confined to the locality of Elsinore, Huck Finn a picaresque novel. And I could go on. But to lay out only their differences is to obscure the continuing appeal of both works to a 21st century international readership. The similarities are more telling.

For a comic novel, Huck Finn has a large body count, nearly as large as Hamlet’s. Indeed, violent death weaves through the novel like a black thread. Before one reaches page 150, Pap Finn, three men on the Walter Scott, and Buck Grangerford (as well as others of the Grangerford clan) have already met violent ends, via a knife in the back, drowning, and shooting; that’s more than three deaths against the two deaths of Ophelia (drowning) and Polonius (stabbing). And there’s more to come, not least a gunshot that leaves Tom Sawyer near death.

There’s more to come in Hamlet, too, which leads to another interesting similarity, and that’s the controversial and, to some, unsatisfying conclusions of both Huck Finn and Hamlet. There are two schools of thought in Twain scholarship about the last fifth of the novel. The first believes that it represents a falling off of Twain’s talent and the book’s appeal, a cowardly repudiation of what had gone before; the second argues that the book is far more subtly crafted and deliberately structured than that, and the conclusion confirms all the satire that has gone before. I am of the latter opinion myself, but even so, Hamlet’s conclusion also suggests that Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and resorted to the Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The End school of narrative closure that Michael O’Donoghue identified many years ago.

Both Shakespeare and Twain were working in a period of great linguistic transformations. Elizabethan English was in considerable flux in 1600, and the plays written and performed from Marlowe to Ford demonstrate the white-hot development of both written and spoken English in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similarly, written and spoken American English, both vernacular and literary, were just beginning to mature in the 19th century. Twain’s appropriation of Southwestern American dialects as he defined them in the author’s note that precedes the book revolutionized American literature (although, it must be said, many Southwestern literary journalists, including Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby as well as Twain himself, had already started integrating this vernacular into stories written for newspapers and magazines).

Finally there is the question of theme, and Hamlet and Huck Finn share one particular thematic concern, that of guilt and conscience. The title characters of both experience confusion, doubt, and moral quandaries as they make their way through the stories that bear their names. Hamlet is tragic in that his search leads to a death-wish; Huck Finn is comic in that his leads to a desire for freedom. But in both works, individual morality in conflict with cultural morality is a central, if not the central, theme.

I picked up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reprieve from the dour imaginings of Shakespearean tragedy, but it was less a reprieve than I thought. Huck’s story is just as complex as Hamlet’s, and like Hamlet you cant get a firm grasp of Huck Finn on a single reading. Perhaps it is this that has led to its remarkable endurance, and not only in America. Like Hamlet, Huck Finn has been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies around the world, and its popularity does not appear to be waning. (Except, that is, in the United States, where there’s far more Shakespeare than Twain sitting on the shelves of serious readers and critics, in the columns of literary and cultural journals, and in my Twitter and Facebook feeds though Huck Finn like Hamlet has generated entire shelves of critical response.)

Perhaps in part this is because, despite the book’s setting in the American South, there are children, temptation, corruption, violence, rivers, the wonders of friendship, and nostalgic longings for a seemingly more innocent past in every country (not to mention guilt and conscience). It may also be because it’s so funny, and remains so. If we’re going to be honest about it, there are more real laughs in Huckleberry Finn than in any three or four Shakespearean comedies combined. There are also a few in Twain’s own parody of the Hamlet soliloquy embedded in Huck Finn, and for a few laughs here, it’s posted below:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take.
In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
Is sicklied o’er with care.
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws.
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

A portrait of the satirist as a child

First published here in April 2016.

At the Strand Book Store the other day, I came across Walt Kelly’s Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, a book that I cherished as a child. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kelly’s comic strip was still running in the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, and it was among my favorites, along with Peanuts. After school, I used to lie on my belly on the blue-carpeted floor of the living room, the last orange rays of the afternoon sun dappling the carpet through the window, and open the Bulletin to its last pages, where I studied these, and others, and laughed myself silly (though I imagine most of the time, given the subtle comedy of these strips, I merely smiled in recognition). Other books (mostly pictures, but words too) that I cherished at the time were Gelett Burgess‘s The Purple Cow and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, both of these published by Dover in fairly sturdy paperback editions. Paging through the Kelly book this weekend, I won’t say that my childhood came rushing back to me in some Proustian tsunami of memory, but quite a bit of it did.

For those who may not remember it, Pogo was an animal strip. Its lead character was Pogo Possum, and the stories meandered through Okeefanokee Swamp, populated by a frog named Churchy LaFemme, a porcupine named Porky, and an alligator named Albert, among the hundreds of characters major and minor who wandered in and out of the strip over its quarter-century lifetime. More to the point, Kelly often used the strip as political satire; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the period covered by Ten Ever-Lovin’ Years, its most significant target was Joseph McCarthy, and in later decades Kelly would target the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and a gentleman from Whittier, CA, named Richard Nixon. In this odd way, I was introduced as a child to recent American history and contemporary politics and racism. And that’s not all; Kelly was, above all, a liberal humanist, and the strip just as often provided a melancholy reflection on a lost, prelapsarian paradise. “Pogo combined both sophisticated wit and slapstick physical comedy in a heady mix of allegory, Irish poetry, literary whimsy, puns and wordplay, lushly detailed artwork and broad burlesque humor,” says an anonymous Wikipedia editor. “[His] characters are a sardonic reflection of human nature — venal, greedy, confrontational, selfish and stupid — but portrayed good-naturedly and rendered harmless by their own bumbling ineptitude and overall innocence.”

This book was soon joined on my shelf by issues of Mad magazine, then enjoying something of a hey-day with the satiric treasure-box of the early 1970s to work through and before it became a brand under the ownership of Warner Communications; it was inexpensive, advertising-free, and owned and published by the anarchic William M. Gaines; and shortly thereafter by the early issues of the National Lampoon, both of these, too, featuring sophisticated artwork and a profound skepticism, even cynicism, towards the American popular and personal experience of the 1970s.

I read these as a boy between the ages of 7 and 13 or so (though the nonsense rhymes of Burgess may have been introduced to me earlier). It was an odd time to be growing up, and I was in an odd situation. My younger brother and I were often plopped down in front of the TV for dinner time as my parents argued in the kitchen, and we ingested Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War as we ingested our chicken or hot dogs or what-have-you. A few years later, I learned about American history and the United States system of government in social studies class, but during summer break in 1973 I learned how this worked in practice during the Watergate hearings. On a more personal level, I watched The Brady Bunch and All in the Family as my own parents’ marriage deteriorated, eventually ending in separation in 1970 and final divorce about a decade later.

When I first came upon satiric novels in my mid-teens, I must have recognized myself in some of their main characters. Both Gulliver and Huck Finn, the protagonists of the novels that bear their names, end up solitary, distinctly apart from the cultures that the novels satirized, Gulliver ensconced in a stable and Huck Finn ready to take to the river again. This voluntary alienation may be less a misanthropic nihilism than a strategic retreat. Although Gulliver doesn’t stand for Parliament or Huck Finn become an abolitionist, nonetheless they have been exposed to kindness and compassion as well as corruption. This retreat may, instead, be an acknowledgement that as individuals they are too easily corrupted by ideals (both real and false), practices, experience, and religious or social dogma that, upon a few moments of reflection, reveal themselves as catastrophically corrupt; Joseph Heller’s Something Happened reveals their ultimate psychic toll. As Pogo himself once famously said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Indeed. Since then I’ve become corrupt too, and unless you head for the stable or the river there’s really no way to avoid it.

I also remember that it wasn’t all satire. I enjoyed other kinds of humor and comedy, not least the gentler proddings of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and W.C. Fields (though all four had their darker moments as well), who are also finding their way back to my library after a long absence. All of this eventually led me to William Gaddis, Heller, Terry Southern, and the others. What I find curious is that I never tried to write satire in any focused way myself, given my pleasure and admiration for these writers and artists. Maybe I should have, but I imagine that what stopped me from doing so was the knowledge that Kelly, Twain, and Swift said it all far more effectively than I could. As Tom Lehrer once admonished, I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is shut up.

My daughters are now 6 and 7 and, most happily, one of the things their mother and I appear to have successfully handed down to them was this sense of humor, not least the first buds of skepticism and cynicism (this despite the fact that in high school the vice principal told me that I was too young to be so cynical, but I don’t think you can ever really be too young for that; it saves a great deal of time and sorrow). And what they like to do most, really, is laugh. One day not yet, but soon I’ll start slipping Pogo and Mad into their bookshelves, so that they can enjoy their first childhoods as I appear to be enjoying my second.