Monday, July 21, 2014

Happiness and finitude

On happiness and finitude:

Tragic wisdom is the wisdom of happiness and finitude, happiness and impermanence, happiness and despair. This is not as paradoxical as it might sound. You can hope only for what you do not have. Thus, to hope for happiness is to lack it. When you have it, on the other hand, what remains to be hoped for? For it to last? That would mean fearing its cessation, and as soon as you do that, you start feeling it dissolve into anxiety.

André Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, trans. Nancy Hutson (New York: Penguin, 2008).
This passage suggests to me experiences of which I am increasingly aware and for which I am increasingly grateful: small spots of happiness, moments when all’s well, amid and despite the everything-else of life, the everything-else that is happening and whatever -else is to come. I think any reader who has attained a certain age will understand what I mean. I hope so, because I have no better explanation, only examples: listening to Sinatra in a hospital room, watching a toddler go visiting from table to table in a restaurant.

The tragic wisdom that Comte-Sponville describes is what I find in the words of the vintner Siduri in the Gilgamesh story. She tells Gilgamesh that what he is seeking in the wake of his friend Enkidu’s death — namely, an escape from mortality — is not to be found:
“When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh, an English version by N. K. Sandars (New York: Penguin, 1972).
Notice that Siduri’s advice is not to embrace a mindless hedonism, not to eat, drink, and be merry: her advice is to eat, drink, and be merry with full knowledge of one’s impermanence. Pleasure too, not mortality alone, defines the human condition. Happiness and finitude, right there, straight from Mesopotamia.

[Comte-Sponville sees the hope for unending happiness as a problem for both theists and non-theists: “Such is the trap of hope, with or without God — the hope for tomorrow’s happiness prevents you from experiencing today’s.” About the Gilgamesh story: please, no complications about whether Siduri is a brewer or vintner or tavern-keeper, or why these words are not in all versions of the story.]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Prairie Ensemble (1996–2014)

The chamber orchestra known as The Prairie Ensemble played its final concert last night. For eighteen years, this orchestra flourished in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. How wrong it feels now to write about The Prairie Ensemble in the past tense.

Kevin Kelly, the orchestra’s music director and conductor for all its eighteen years, always assembled programs with unusual, unexpected repertoire. Just three examples of such repertoire, from many years of concert-going: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its original orchestration for thirteen instruments, excerpts from Duke Ellington’s The River, and Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Chôros no. 7. Last night’s program:

Benjamin Britten, Soirées musicales

George Butterworth, The Banks of Green Willow

Carl Nielsen, Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (Mary Leathers Chapman, soloist)

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 6 in F Major
And if you, like me, never even heard of George Butterworth, that was the point: the opportunity to hear something unexpected and surprising and beautiful. New music, from 1913.

Last night’s performance was a great one, which makes the orchestra’s end that much sadder. The descriptive notes for the first and last movements of the Beethoven no. 6 — “Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside,” “Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm” — made me think of this concert as an occasion for happiness and gratitude. For two hours or so, the world was at peace.

My wife Elaine Fine played viola in The Prairie Ensemble for many years. She has written two posts — one, two — about last night’s concert.

Inside James Brown’s mansion

From the Columbia, South Carolina newspaper The State: Inside James Brown’s mansion, with a short video clip and thirty-seven photographs. James Brown died on Christmas Day 2006. His Christmas tree is still standing.

Related reading
All OCA James Brown posts (Pinboard)

Friday, July 18, 2014

The handwriting is on the wall

[Somewhere in Illinois. Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Who says cursive is dead?

Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)

[I like the peace sign. A crazy idea, peace, I know.]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Elaine Stritch (1925–2014)

Elaine Stritch, Tart-Tongued Broadway Actress and Singer, Is Dead at 89 (The New York Times).

[If my memory serves, this performance aired on the WNET series The Great American Dream Machine.]

“Avoid haphazard writing materials”

Walter Benjamin, 1928:

Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

One-Way Street, in “One-Way Street” and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: NLB, 1979).
Benjamin here anticipates my dad’s thinking about abundance and office supplies.

Like Benjamin and my dad, I too eschew the haphazard, though I also believe in “any available paper, any available Bic”: any port in a storm.

[The Chicago Manual of Style, 8.171: “A title of a work within a title, however, should remain in italics and be enclosed in quotation marks.”]

Johnny Winter (1944–2014)

“Johnny Winter, a Texas-bred guitarist and singer who was a mainstay of the blues-rock world since the 1960s, died on Wednesday in his hotel room in Zurich”: from the New York Times obituary. Johnny Winter was seventy.

Here, from 2011, is an NPR interview.

And here, from 1969, is Johnny Winter with nothing but a National guitar and a slide: “Dallas.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Old-timey dream

I was talking with local missionaries, missionaries of a musical sort, each dressed in black and white. They had traveled to New York City to proselytize for old-timey music. Where did they go? The airports. (They must have modeled themselves on proselytizers of the recent past.)

No, no, I told them, they needed to go to the coffeehouses. That’s where they would find people to interest in the old-timey stuff. Some of the coffeehouses, I told them, are original. I was in earnest, and they recognized that.

Related reading
All OCA dream posts (Pinboard)
Greenwich Village and coffee house (From Hart’s Guide to New York City, 1964)
Positively Naked City (A walk down West Fourth Street)

[Some of the coffeehouses are “original.” For instance.]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

“Word Crimes”

My Weird Al tolerance is pretty low. But I still think that “Word Crimes” is terrific. It’s a teaching and learning resource for the twenty-first century!

An earlier twenty-first-century resource
Stephen Colbert, Vampire Weekend, and the Oxford comma

Me or I

Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) speaking, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930):

“No, no, no, that’s me — or is it I ? You know, Markham, I never know.”
I’ve been told that even British audiences have difficulty understanding the dialogue in early Hitchcock films, and I believe it. Some of Murder!, at least in the print we watched, was unintelligible. The Spanish subtitles (no English ones on our DVD) were sometimes helpful, though they left at least one important bit of dialogue untranslated. I think the translator must have given up.

Murder! is well worth seeing, if only to see how much of “Hitchcock” is there early on: the layman pressed into the work of a detective (as in The 39 Steps and many other films), the use of theatrical settings (as in that film and Stage Fright ), the wonderful bits of throwaway dialogue. (See above.) And there’s an eerie moment on a trapeze that made me think of the staircase scene in Psycho.

The cheap videotape-transfer Laserlight DVD that we watched (borrowed from the library) runs about 92 minutes. YouTube has a print that runs about five minutes longer, with a scene that’s missing from the Laserlight disc. (In this scene, a young girl exclaims, “He’s got my pussy!” — meaning cat. Was the scene censored?) The IMDb listing for the film has running times of 92, 100, and 104 minutes. Your guess is as good as mine, or maybe better.

[On the flying trapeze. Esme Percy as Handel Fane.]