30 October 2011

Symphony #1

Symphony #1 was begun in the Spring of 2005 as brief sketches that I composed and placed on my blog. I had developed Of Clay and Wattles Made as a forum where I might be able to think aloud, even publically, about items and issues that concerned me in the exercises of my daily life. Montaigne says about his book of essays, “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” So is it with my blog. But despite his disclaimer, I am certain Montaigne hoped that others would read his work: he did, after all, publish his manuscript! And for me, the blog was a forum for my random thoughts; I never would know to what extent anyone read my work, but over the past six years I have developed and maintained the blog and believe that others occasionally discover my ruminations as they explore the world-wide web; Of Clay and Wattles Made continues to inform me. 
During those same years that I wrote Of Clay and Wattles Made, I published three scholarly books that were well received and little read. Though they were intended for a wider audience, they were actually written for a small, select one. Talmud, Curriculum and the Practical: Joseph Schwab and the Rabbis (2004) was awarded the Outstanding Book Award by Division B Curriculum Studies Special Interest Group in 2006 and Ethics and Teaching (2009) received a glowing review in Choice. Pedagogy, Religion and Practice (2007) remains dearest to my heart as a meditative reflection on what I did during a sabbatical leave. I learned a great many things. My royalty checks are steady, small and gratifying.
Over the years I began to recognize themes in my writing to which I kept returning. They were the same themes that I think drew me to the works of Bob Dylan, Henry David Thoreau, Philip Roth . . . and Ludwig van Beethoven. Maynard Solomon writes of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony: “A unique characteristic of the Eroica symphonyand of its heroic successorsis the incorporation into musical form of death, destructiveness, anxiety, and aggression, as terrors to be transcended within the work of art itself.” Such were the themes that had long inhabited my consciousness and more recently my intellectual work. I have lived in troubled and troubling times. I have not always fared so well, though I have too much for which to give thanks. Sometimes I thought there was someone there; at other times there was only me. And if Dylan, Thoreau and Roth provided me insight into myself and my world through the medium of language in beautifully constructed and arranged forms, then Beethoven deepened my experience in the world through non-linguistic means. Solomon says: “Beethoven’s music does not merely express man’s capacity to endure or even to resist sufferinghis sonata cycles continue to projecton a vastly magnified scalethe essential features of high comedy: happy endings, joyful reconciliations, victories won and tragedy effaced.” This I believe is what drew me to Beethoven’s work, even as I think it had drawn me to literature; I thought I might want to write a symphony.
My present passion for the musicand particularly the symphoniesof Ludwig van Beethoven (I have learned that van denotes a common man whereas von denotes one from the nobility) followed a year of daily listening to Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, a work that portrayed a world breaking up and in despair, and yet a world one out of which joy may be ephemerally wrung. I return regularly to the novels of Philip Roth and find myself particularly drawn to The Human Stain, a work at the core of which lies the tragedy of the human condition. By writing a symphony, I hoped to express myself in words as might a musician in notes. I sought in the composition of Symphony #1 to use the forms of musical structures common to the classical symphony to expose those themes that have run through a good part of my life and in the work to offer variations on those themes. I wanted to explore the progress of my life through the issues that have come now to characterize it. 
Symphony #1 consists of four movements, modeled each after a different musical form: sonata allegro, marche funebre, scherzo, and theme and variations, linked by the emotion with which I address the experience of a life suffered and celebrated. Though each movement can be read separately, the entire symphony is thematically linked and stands as an extended (and extensive) whole. I am too far into my sixties and have lived, as they say, through interesting times.  Symphony #1 begins not with birth nor ends in death, though these subjects run through the work; the symphony nevertheless presents the experience of a life in which beginnings and endings figure importantly. This life takes place on the pond’s shores, but there are times when its bottom is sounded. Sometimes I think there is someone there, and other times it’s only me.

28 October 2011

R U There?

And about some other concerns I am having with the practice of text messaging:
First, like telegrams, these messages arrive with an immediacy that seems to demand my instant attention. Rarely do the messages possess the urgency they proclaim, but I ignore them at my peril. The message assumes importance from the medium by which they arrive, but in fact in most cases they are simply a call for immediate mundane response. What time is dinner? What does diurnal mean? Can I have a sleep over or go to Los Angeles for Winter Break?
But instant attention is what these messages demand. I think these missives (I almost wrote missiles!) reflect the contemporary culture of the need for instant gratification. As soon as an issue is raised a response must be sought and received. I recall once a lawyer friend of mine bemoaning the introduction of fax machines to his office: now documents could be instantly transmitted and he was obliged to stay in the office awaiting arrival and making response. Before this new technology he could at least hold off the onslaught until the morn. But these instant messages, different than emails that for the most part have required that one at least be seated at a desk in front of the computer in order to respond (though the advent of smartphones means that our desks travel with us) make it all the more impossible to escape a weighing sense of obligation. Texts go where no email has gone before: in tunnels and up mountains, into places where wi-fi has not beenand may never bepresent. These instant messages requiring instant response suggest that little time has been given for any thoughts on the question posed nor has any personal effort been made to independently seek answer. The need for immediate answer becomes a pressing demand. I want the world and I want it now!
Finally (for now), these messages assume a simplicity that reality just doesn’t offer. Questions and concerns are posed in these telegrammatic communications that in conversation might demand engagement in serious extended conversation, and would involve complex consideration and response. However, the medium itself precludes such engagement. I am condemned to click away with my thumbs or poke with my index finger while the phone corrects my spelling with often appalling results.

23 October 2011

Perchance to Dream

Perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub. For what dreams may come when we have shuffled off our mortal coil.
I love those dreams that come when I have shuffled it off.  For a long time I have considered that we are embodied by everyone who people our dreams; each character in the dream is chosen to represent an aspect of self. To me this seems consistent with the postmodernist/poststructuralist idea that we are not seamless unities but rather, are fragmented, often conflicted and contradictory identities. In dreams I enact those states, conflicts and contradictions by populating the dream with people with whom I interact in my daily life—or perhaps only with those characters that I can recognize from that life. No one in my dreams is ever a total stranger. In the dream the issues that confront me in my daily life play out in plot and emotion. In the dream I engage in experience that acts as metaphor for the various thoughts and conflicts I experience in my life. When I awaken I consider the drama, and as I might any production, interpret it. I need not be a critic of it because in my dreams I do not aim for art; rather, I aim for clarity and insight.
So the enjoyment in the dream resides not only in its presentation but also in its interpretation. I discover the identities of the issues that I experience in my daily life by understanding the characters that have been chosen for the dream, and the plot, such as it is, that reveals character—my own, of course.
How is this not Eliot’s objective correlative? Eliot has said that the objective correlative is “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events that shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Eliot claimed that Hamlet was a failure because it did not have a clear objective correlative. But I think that I do not search with my dreams (or anywhere, for that matter) for an objective correlative to my feelings, but create in my dreams a situation that represents my interests and conflicts from which a variety of often contradictory and conflicted emotions derive.   The variety and multiplicity in my dreams  suggests that my life that can not be ever objectified in any single image or scene. If Eliot’s criticism of Hamlet is that Shakespeare lacked an objective correlative, then my dreams suggest that no objective correlative exists to represent the complexity of the emotions.
But this afternoon’s dream was so lovely and spoke so clearly (and cleanly) to my current life. It was not that the dream expressed no conflict, but that the choices that had been made for and expressed in the dream were pleasurable and sustaining and they spoke so clearly of direction. I awoke expectant and eager to carry the traces of the dream into my waking life, which I suppose, is the purpose of the dream in the first place.

20 October 2011

Art thou there, trupenny?

So many ghosts in Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost. E. I. Lonoff. Amy Bellette. Anne Frank. Nathan Zuckerman himself. For some ghostly reason I have returned to the Zuckerman novels and am now completing this final volume. One source for Roth’s allusion is Hamlet. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, “doom’d for a certain term to walk the night/And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,” visits his son and commands him to revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. After charging Hamlet, the ghost exits with the command, “Remember me.” And when the ghost exits Hamlet remains and must act alone.  At novel’s end, Zuckerman departs.
I wonder how my actions are inspired by visitations from ghosts. Freud would refer to the visitations of my ghosts as the presence of my unconscious; as for Hamlet, Freud might say that the ghost gives physical presence to Hamlet’s unconscious. “My father, methinks I see my father,” Hamlet says just prior to seeing the ghost. “Oh, my prophetic soul,” Hamlet cries when he hears the ghost’s story. He had known, he exclaims, that which the ghost told him.
What would it mean to consider that I am visited by ghosts who direct my behavior. I think of Andrew Marvell: “But at my back I always hear, Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” Marvell is pursued by this ghost. And the directive in Torah to care for the widow, orphan and stranger in my midst. Aren’t these, too, ghosts? Levinas says that we stand before the other and command them to command us. We think of others as ghosts doom’d for a certain term to walk the night . . . What would it mean to say that everyone I meet everywhere are my ghosts demanding I do something. Art thou there, trupenny? I am always amidst company. And there is always time’s winged chariot.
I might also consider a ghost some mirrored presence in which I see that which I want to see. It is impossible to see the Other through any other lens but my own and there would always be about the Other my own expectancies. In that sense we are all ghosts to somebody.
Interesting is it that the ghost cautions Hamlet that “howsoever thou pursues this act/Taint not thy mind.” As if what the ghost demands could have any effect other than tainting Hamlet’s mind. There is, indeed, something rotten in the state of Denmark, and how could his charge to set it right not taint Hamlet’s mind? And if I am visited always by ghosts, how could I not end up with a tainted mind?
The ghost returns in Act III after the actors, at Hamlet’s urging, have performed The Murder of Gonzago, a play that mirrors the murder of Hamlet’s father by his brother, Claudius. His mother calls Hamlet to her chamber to reprimand him for offending the King. But Hamlet strongly rebukes his mother for her hasty remarriage that is to this hyperion to a satyr. The ghost had demanded that Hamlet not harm his mother and “returns to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” The ghost commands, “But look, amazement on they mother sits, O step between her and her fighting soul! Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works. Speak to her Hamlet.” And as Hamlet obeys, the stage directions say, “Exit Ghost.” But it is all too late: Hamlet’s rash deed takes control out of his hands. Exit ghost means that Hamlet is alone.

17 October 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

I had the choice this past evening of going to the movies or to the theater. At the former I might have seen Moneyball with Brad Pitt or The Ides of March with George Clooney.  The former had received very good reviews and I enjoy Brad Pitt’s acting: I was not averse to paying my money down. The latter film received only tepid reviews, but I have great respect for Clooney’s engagement in politics and his willingness to address issues of some public concern (albeit somewhat sanitized for public consumption), and so I was not averse to paying my money down.
On the same evening, the Guthrie Theater was performing Seamus Henry’s The Burial at Thebes, a retelling of the story of Antigone, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Since neither play was sold-out (a eventuality of rare occurrence out here in the mid-West, I am happy to say) rush tickets were available. I could see either play for half-price.
What to do?
I have always adored the movies; for a period of my life I saw at least two movies each week. I am always happy in the movie theater, sitting in the dark staring up at the big screen envelope my images and sound. I am, however, appalled at the absurd incomes of these actors. Whatever they are doing it is not worth the millions and millions of dollars they earn from each project to which they sign contracts. I am also weary of the cult of celebrity that occupies the news, print media and television fare. Years ago I stopped watching sports events because the players were absurdly overpaid and I resented their compensation packages given the nature of their occupation. I could no longer rationalize my support of this system. And so, last night I opted for the theater where I know the actors are paid not much better (if better at all) than those in the teaching profession. And Much Ado About Nothing proved to be the perfect choice for the evening:  Shakespeare’s play is superb, and better than I remembered, the acting was excellent, and the staging and design competent and beautiful.  I left the theater satisfied and inspired. I had spent the evening not with people who peopled People magazine, but with those who thought better of meand maybe even of themselves. I did not feel exploited, a safety that I discovered is rare these days when I venture out into the public world.

12 October 2011

Some Signs of Winter

1) On campus the men have started wearing their hoodies and the women their Ugg boots.

2) I have been informed by those who know such things that it is now acceptable to wear corduroy pants.

3) I have again begun searching for a winter coat. The one I have enjoyed for the past five winters at least, and which I am loathe to give up, is a cashmere garment that was a gift from my dear friend who purchased it for a dollar from a Thrift Sale. It has now been worn beyond repair. And so I must wonder: do I want a pea coat or am I too old and stodgy for one? Shall I purchase a long coat on line or go to the store and shop in person? Should I choose a traditional navy or black model? Single or double breasted? Wool or a blend? Thus far the number of decisions I need to make has kept me from making any decision. I am wearing a great many of my sweaters.

4) As for these sweaters: apparently over the past Spring and Summer some creature or creatures have been feasting on my winter wear. I am asking, how big must the hole be before the sweater is no longer able to be worn? Once, when I was in college I traded a very lovely sweater for a very ripped one because I thought that wearing the torn sweater would enhance my presence and sense of hipness. It didn’t, actually, and fortunately the winters there weren’t too cold.

5) The leaves in the trees have withered and died. The brilliance of the Fall foliage has faded, and the trees outside my windows stand quite bare and forlorn.

6) Even the Japanese beetles and box elders have disappeared. Of course, their absence can also be attributed to the ocean of insecticides I sprayed about the doors and windows. I guess I could have better tolerated them if they politely remained outside my domicile, but they hover and flit about the portals, and once they have entered the home they cover the walls and ceilings and are only removed with the long attachment on the vacuum cleaner. It is broken.

7) The company that plows our driveway—and more recently the path to Walden—sent us this year’s higher prices for our signature.

8) The air conditioning system at the University that took the summer to repair is now fully operable, and the heating unit has been taken off line for the winter.

9) Today, the weather person warned that conditions out West make snow possible as soon as next week, and the lady at the dry cleaners became the first to complain that winter is upon us.

09 October 2011

Don't Walk Away, Renee!

I got an email from one of my oldest and now dearest friends. A long time ago we were psychological intimates: somehow, we grew symbiotically on each other. Of course, then I would never characterize our relationship in those terms; then, I loved her differently than I think that she loved me, but then we did unquestionably love each other each in our own way, and speaking for myself, I think that love must have helped me become who I am because she stills lives inside of me. And today she reminded me of something I am glad she remembered.
I attended a college in the South for obscure reasons. The South was, however, as far removed from my culture as I was prepared at the moment to go, though at that moment I do not believe that I would have been able to articulate this as my motive.  I was a liberal Northerner, a participant in the Jewish faith, a liberal Democrat (though I would not have used those latter terms then). What I was doing down South at that time was, indeed, a mystery to me. No sooner did I arrive there then my position as stranger confronted me: there were people on campus who didn’t like me for being either from the North, or being Jewish, a liberal Democrat (though I would not have used the latter terms then), or all of the above. Once, I was playing Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” on my stereo and my roommate announced indignantly that Dylan was a liar and he knew that for a fact because William Zantzinger was his neighbor! I thought, “You who philosophize disgrace . .”
I was making the best of a difficult situation, I thought, when I saw a poster on campus announcing the upcoming concert of Judy Collins. I had been listening to Judy Collins for years, adored her work . . . ah, why lie? I adored her. I bought my ticket.
I remember almost nothing from the concert but this . . . for her encore she sang “We Shall Overcome,” and I remember thinking that her choice was a brave choice in such a hostile environment. I thought: well, if she can be so strong, then so perhaps could I.
There were other aspects of the concert that my friend recalled to me, but I will let that information remain between she and I, but obviously, I must have talked to her at some length about the evening. More than my memory of the event, it is her memory of my story that I hold to tonight. Because I am the motive of that memory for her.

06 October 2011

My Annotated Books

I love photography but I have little affection for photographs. I admire framed photos on a museum or gallery wall, and I have in my book collection several themed photographic collections. I really don’t go into museums very often; inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial, and I prefer to stay away from the courthouses. I almost never look at any of them unless somehow they have fallen off the shelf.
I rarely look at photographs pasted in album books whose purpose is to measure moments in my life, even if the images portray someone else and someone else’s moments. And somehow, those kodachromes that make all the world a sunny day seem so false. They are always filled with regret. On my wall I sometimes hang a photograph, but mostly these exhibits are for others. Even day after they are hung, I do not see the photographs. They collect dust.  I know photos inspire memory, but at this moment I have no need for this spur to produce memory.
And all about me on the walls of my home are books that I take down regularly to study the annotations I made when last I read the text. I love to discover the person who had such responses. Studying my thought back then I get some sense of what I think now; it is the living production of intellectual autobiography. In the annotations in my book I engage in a conversation with a younger man whom I intimately knew, like running across an old friend whom I have not seen in years. “Please,” I say, “let’s have a cup of coffee.” The photographs I do not take to coffee, but rather, use them as coasters for the mug. It is always a pleasure to renew acquaintance in my annotated books; they serve as a means to know the present. These perhaps are a legacy I can pass on.
In my life I have at times thrown photos in a waste bin, sometimes because I no longer wanted nostalgic remembrance, and sometimes because the photos overwhelmed the space of the present. But I find I cannot discard a single book for fear that with it would go a piece of my self.