26 October 2015

Me and Arlo at Sixty-Eight

Saw Arlo in concert last night as part of his Alice’s Restaurant Massacree 50th Anniversary Tour. For years we celebrated Arlo (and Pete’s) Thanksgiving concerts at Carnegie Hall, and then circumstances made it too difficult to continue our attendance. Nevertheless, I have followed Arlo whenever he was in close proximity and over the years have seen him in Eau Claire Wisconsin, Minneapolis and now St. Paul, Minnesota. The event is always a homecoming. For one, I don’t know anywhere else in the country where I can feel assured that no one sitting by me votes Republican. And the play list covers my life: there isn’t a name he utters that doesn’t situate me somewhere at sometime: they are all part of my community; they have all been my family for years.
     I didn’t need to hear “Alice’s Restaurant” again. I have listened to it every year for fifty years—on at least Thanksgiving Day. I quote some its lines over the course of any year. And there were songs included that I have heard Arlo sing for many years: “St. James Infirmary,” “City of New Orleans,” “Coming into Los Angeles”, even “Chilling of the Evening.” In fact, there wasn’t one song last night I haven’t heard him perform before, nor one narrated story I haven’t heard in previous years. But I would never think to say “Stop, I’ve heard that one,” or, "Darn, I've heard him do that one before," because I am not there merely for the stories or even for only the songs.These components are part of the event but not the event itself. I’m there for the community Arlo’s presence inspires, and the songs and stories are part of that community and presence. I can sing along with all of the songs because they have been part of my life as long as has Arlo and friends been present in it. And when he talks about his friends . . . they have been part of my community as well. Arlo brings into the concert some of the best people and parts of my life, and he has offered me a community into which I have brought my own children. Each of them is seeing Arlo on this tour though each will do so in different cities. But like all those past Thanksgivings at Carnegie Hall, we will be together again.
     When Arlo sings forever “This Land is Your Land” I believe him and maybe everyone else at the gathering does as well.

20 October 2015

On Walden

I am rather appalled at the somewhat absurd reading of Thoreau’s Walden by Kathryn Schulz in her recent New Yorker piece entitled “Pond Scum.” Though she says “The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed, narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world,” she seems at the least to have ignored and pitifully misunderstood (to my mind with spiteful intent) at least the second paragraph of the book. Thoreau writes: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained . . . we commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” In an era when the memoir has become absurdly ubiquitous and to a large extent ghost written, it is more than odd that Ms. Schulz should focus on this aspect of Thoreau’s book. Indeed, Thoreau admits that “I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life . . .” He was provoked into the narrative. And as for Ms. Schulz’s insinuation that Thoreau authoritatively insisted that his life style be the model for others, she has only to read in “Economy,” "I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead." Thoreau throughout Walden advocates that each person learn her own life and certainly not copy his.
            In actuality, Thoreau went to Walden amongst other personal motives to write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers a memorial to his brother, John, who had died of tetanus, and with whom he had undertaken just such a voyage. As in Walden which was finally organized artistically and organically by the natural progression of a single year, so did Thoreau organize A Week according to the ordered progress of the days. Thoreau did not move to the shores of Walden Pond (definitely not a scummy pond: Ms. Schulz should study the contrast between Walden Pond and the other ponds Thoreau in detail describes) but rather to study the needs and demands of his own life. He did not go to the woods specifically to write Walden.  Nevertheless, Thoreau always kept an active journal—Emerson upon meeting the recently Harvard graduate asked Thoreau, “Do you keep a journal?” and for the rest of his life Thoreau maintained a detailed and fascinating record of his life and experience¾but I am not certain to what extent Ms. Schulz has read into the Journal to any extent. Nevertheless, a casual glance would show that this great work was the Ur source for the composition of Walden. Schulz does complain that finally it took Thoreau ten years to write the book, but Thoreau says in “Reading” that a book should be read as slowly and carefully as it was written: alas, Ms. Schulz must have missed that chapter.
            And Thoreau went to the woods not for show but as an experiment. “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not tot live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.” I am surprised that Ms. Schulz missed this early description of Thoreau’s intent in “Economy,” a chapter that Ms. Schulz bemoans to be 80 pages long! (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, weighing in at almost 800 pages, perhaps more to Ms. Schulz’s liking has chapter lengths of 2-4 pages, but I do not think it advisable to measure a novel by the length of the chapters.) Thoreau’s time at Walden was not meant to be a model for exemplary or even solitary living: it was meant as an experiment in his own life! In the conclusion he says “I learned this by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Thoreau went to Walden to see what it was he had to obtain to live, “living is so dear.” Concord was not a town poverty stricken, and the Thoreaus were not wealthy: Thoreau had to decide whether he was going to live to make money (with which he could purchase the things of this world: food shelter and clothing) or whether he was going to live a life according to his dreams. Thoreau went to Walden, she tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life,” but that is not Thoreau’s language. Thoreau went to Walden to learn what was necessary for his life and what wasn’t required so that he didn’t waste his time getting what wasn’t necessary. “The cost of an item,” he writes, “is how much life it takes to get it.” And Thoreau left Walden for the same reason as he had gone there in the first place: “because I had other lives to live.”
            Ms. Schulz complains that Thoreau didn’t live a solitary life at all. She notes that he traveled to town regularly—it was but a 20-minute walk—but Thoreau acknowledges that when he lived ‘in the woods’ he lived but a mile from his nearest neighbor. And as for his sociability which Ms. Schulz denigrates, she apparently ignores Thoreau’s own statement, “I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.” How did Ms. Schulz miss this unless she had motive to be so blind. We know that Thoreau served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. And we do more than suspect that his mother and other women of Concord met in his cabin to discuss issues of abolition and their work in the underground movement.  Ms. Schulz records no record of these visitations. Thoreau’s friend, Frank Sanborn, was more than an acquaintance of John Brown, and there are pages and pages in Thoreau’s journal concerning Brown’s work and martyrdom (Thoreau’s words describing Brown!).
            Ah, there is so much error in Ms. Schulz’s article that I don’t know really where to begin or end. So I will conclude here: she accuses him of an asceticism and self-control that borders on the fanatical. She is completely mistaken. He does not advocate for self-denial at all; indeed, at times he speaks to the opposite tendency if necessary. In the Conclusion he writes, “Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes,¾with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely (italics added)? I have always taken this to mean that in my own quest of self-knowledge (Socrates’ ‘know thyself’ seems to have begun that introspective philosophical tradition), even a flat screen 80-inch television might be appropriate. And Thoreau admits that it is I who must choose what is necessary and what is not rather than to  have that choice made for me by others. Ms. Schulz misses this as well: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some “Symme’s Hole” by which to get at the inside at last (italics added). What Thoreau advocated always as an end was a self-awareness that would lead to independence and an honest life. He would say “However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.. . .”
            I could continue for a good while recording the errors and misreadings of Ms. Schulz of Walden. Thoreau read the newspapers at least once a week, and I go now to mine. There is more day to dawn: the sun is but a morning star.

12 October 2015

Mary Poppins

It is October and despite the aberrant warm days this past weekend, the weather has begun to approximate the typical Fall climate, the latter term, William James notes as just the way people describe the name of a certain group of days but which is treated “as if it lay behind the day . . .”  At this time of year and weather I think immediately of Mary Poppins. I am not sure of the exact film sequence but at the opening the wind blows and the wind vane turns to the opposite direction. Bert, the chimney sweep looks up at the sky—but really at the universe, and portentously (but keenly!) intones,
          Wind's in the east, mist comin' in.
          Like something is brewin' about to begin
          Can't put me finger on what lies in store
          But I feel what's to happen, all happened before.
And soon floating in on her umbrella will appear Mary Poppins to assume duties as nanny at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the residence of George Banks, esquire and his seemingly incorrigible children.
     I’ve always thought I fairly well understood the first three lines of Bert’s almost ominous rhyme—here in the Midwest the autumn winds often violently blow the leaves down and about stripping the trees of their cover—the wind will sound forever different until next Spring’s growth. In just a few weeks the trees will be naked and the ground cold. As Pound threatened “winter is icumen in.”  Given what I know about Mary Poppins (the children watched the film continuously for any number of years) I’m intrigued today at what I understand by that last line. Because at some basic level, Mary Poppins is a rebellious agent disrupting the body politic not consciously as a rebel but organically as a personality. Mary Poppins just is! Like the Cat in the Hat she threatens the social order and serves to break through the bonds that restrict individual freedom. Mary Poppins unsettles every element in society from the individual to the social, from the upper echelons of the bankers to the lower social levels of the chimney sweeps in a way that contrasts with Mrs. Banks’ seemingly innocuous activity in the Suffragette movement. Mary’s feminism is essential to her character and not an add-on to it. And when all has been upturned, Mary Poppins moves on . . . to settle, I suspect, into some other needy household and community that has some need for her anarchic inclinations.
     So I suppose what Bert feels acknowledges the inevitable disruption of the obsessive, compulsive order that maintains a strict guard against any taint of freedom and the entrance of any anarchic force into the repressive and unequal social and political environments that now (and maybe always) oppress us. Mary Poppins’ stay at 17 Cherry Tree Lane alters the trajectory of the entire Banks’ household; when she floats off on her umbrella at the film’s end it is to some other household that requires liberation that Mary Poppins flies. It is not a revolution that she advocates, it is life!

07 October 2015

Of Anna and Levin

Much of the little I have read concerning Konstantin Levin in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina does not speak highly of him: he is considered for the most part a bore. Somewhere in my annotations in this almost 800-page novel I have called him a social conservative, and at the time I meant this description as a criticism. But I am sure that the novel is as much about his search for identity as it is that of Anna’s, and whereas she fails tragically, I now suspect that he succeeds happily and in a fashion for which I have respect. Levin is the book’s hero.
    In fact, Tolstoy’s novel ends not with the description of Anna’s suicide at the end of Book VII but with Levin’s acceptance at the end of book VIII of his imperfections that he acknowledges will never ever end. The book ends, in fact, not in defeat and death but in triumph and life. Though the novel says that Levin has in the end discovered faith, it is not a traditional one that promises him ultimate salvation and hope. “Faith—or not faith—I don’t know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.” His is not the excitement of the convert nor the rapture of the spiritually devout; neither is it the simple faith of the believer or the redemptive conviction of the returning penitent. Levin’s is the simple faith that the world has meaning and it has derived from his living a life defined by contradictions, confusions and diverse concerns.
     Levin’s faith will not change him very much. “I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying . . .” No, Levin’s faith has not affected a single detail of his daily life. Rather, in the grander scheme, perhaps, Levin’s faith is an acceptance that even in his irrationalities there exists meaning: perhaps this acceptance becomes what faith means: the knowledge, even in the absence of evidence, that there is meaning in the world.
     Anna could not accept that the world had meaning. She was prepared to give up the world for her passion: indeed, there was no meaning in the world outside her passion. To satisfy her passion Anna abandoned her marriage, her son, and with her death, her daughter and Vronsky. With her death she confirms the world has no meaning outside her passion! Indeed, her actions have effectively removed her from the world: she existed in a life of veritable isolation without purpose or meaning. Outside of her love for Vronsky and her demand that he join in her isolation, for Anna there was no world!
     And so I appreciate Levin’s acceptance of his faith and himself. In fact, his faith will not change dramatically his daily life and his relationships with others—not even with his wife, Kitty, whom he dearly loves. “I shall go on the same way” he acknowledges,” but perhaps his faith offers Levin the idea that life possesses meaning by the act of giving to others and not in the simple satisfaction of his own desires. Levin learns from his faith the idea of community, Despite the novel’s focus on the heroine—the book’s title insists on her place—Anna Karenina is a novel that affirms daily life.