Paradise Lost and some paintings…

September 23, 2012

babel

But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown:
Forthwith a hideous gabble rises loud
Among the Builders; each to other calls
Not understood, till hoarse, and all in rage,
As mockt they storm; great laughter was in Heav’n
And looking down, to see the hubbub strange
And hear the din; thus was the building left
Ridiculous, and the work Confusion nam’d.

from Paradise Lost Book XII

And from an earlier passage in the poem, where Satan meets Sin and Death (I think he is kin to both of them…) guarding the gates of hell, James Gillray drew inspiration for one of his most popular caricatures.  (In Sin, Death and the Devil (1792). Pitt is Death and Thurlow Satan, with Queen Charlotte as Sin in the middle.)  Then Jacques Louis David somehow took it into his head to use the Gillray’s pose for his Rape of the Sabine Women.  More here.


Paradise Lost: the Movie

September 9, 2012

… so sore
The griding sword with discontinuous wound
Passd through him, but th’ Ethereal substance clos’d
Not long divisible, and from the gash
A stream of Nectarous humor issuing flow’d
Sanguin, such as Celestial Spirits may bleed,
And all his Armour staind ere while so bright.

Satan battles Michael, and Micheal’s sword slices through him, but no matter, he heals right up.  I see CGI effects doing great here. 

[Note:  It seems there has never been a movie treatment of Milton's epic, but somebody in 2007 was thinking of it!  (NYTimes Article).  A web-search today turned up recent news that the project was killed.]


Rodriguez, Detroit Sugar Man

September 4, 2012

Before I left to go to the Detroit area for the Labor Day weekend, I read a review [tepid] of a new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit.  Well, the city has one hell of a FREE jazz festival over the holiday weekend, and I heard some excellent music there.  The whole thing is presided over by the weird Minoru Yamasaki building (he designed the original WTC in NYC) seen in the background of the photo on the left, below.  This band, Papo Vazquez and his Pirates Troubadours was wild, with their Afro-Puerto Rican Modern Jazz blend.

Detroit Jazz Festival

The cultural high point of my stay was seeing the movie, Searching for Sugar Man.

Sixto Rodriguez was a folk-rock singer and songwriter in the late 1960s:  he put out two albums, but they were flops.  The people who knew him are in awe of his talent, and mystified as to why he never caught on.  But he did catch on in South Africa during its anti-apartheid period, and his records were wildly popular.  He never knew anything about it, and after his brush with the music industry, went back to ordinary life.

Rumor had it that he had died in spectacular fashion, an on-stage suicide.  Two South African fans decide to get the real story, and they find to their amazement, that he is alive and well, living in Detroit.  (Right near where I was that weekend, in fact.)  He is incredulous at their tales of his South African super-stardom, “You’re bigger than Elvis there!” but he agrees to go on tour.  He sells out stadiums.

This movie is weirdly enchanting in many ways: The tale of a man returning from the dead;  the fan-turned-detective’s thrill; a fairytale of  a man ignored finally getting recognition for his work; perhaps another sorry tale of the music industry stealing from an artist, but that’s not completely clear; and the man himself.  This last bit is what fascinated me the most.

Rodriguez is an very unusual man:  that come through clearly.  He is deeply non-materialistic.  When his fame falls upon him, he is totally uninterested in the perks, the limos, the hotel suites, the papparazzi.  He is unfazed by the cheering throngs, serenely responding with joy to their love of his music.  That’s what he’s about – his art, his poetry, his music.  He seems like a Buddha-type.  When the detective-fans finally meet him (they are in a daze of disbelief that this is happening) he is living in a completely rundown apartment in Detroit, making his living, as he has for years, working as an hourly interior demolition worker.  (He also earned a degree in Philosophy, and raised three daughters.) It reminded me of Alexander the Great finally meeting his hero, Diogenes, whom he found living in a tub.

His music is really good, though I prefer it more or less acoustic-solo, rather than with the string arrangements.  Why didn’t he make it?  He’s clearly not the type who would stress and strive to do the things one must do to make it in the business – that has to be part of the story.  He’s touring now, though.


Realms of Gold

April 5, 2012


John Keats was young, sick, and poor…and one of the great poets of the English language.  As such, he died young, and certainly did not have a gentleman’s education.  As with most of us, his knowledge of the ancient classics was by way of translation.  In his day, a new translation of Homer, by Chapman, made a big splash, and Keats was impressed by it.  (Whether that was truly his first exposure to Homer, I do not know.)  He immortalized his enthusiasm in this sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, in which he uses the metaphor of literature as territory, to be explored and appreciated.

 Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 Round many western islands have I been…
The speaker/author has read widely and travelled through the worlds of the literary imagination, including that of Greek poetry.

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene…
Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  Certainly not in its original form.

 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
A beautiful evocation of the excitement of literary discovery, and the enthusiasm of the reader.  The image is founded on the notion of the scientist as a sort of poet/voyager himself, a romantic notion that dissolved in the succeeding materialist century.  Compare to Whitman’s use of the figure of the star-gazer in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.

 Or like stout Cortez…
Cortez is not our day’s notion of a romantic hero:  history now treats him as a ruthless butcher caring for little but gold.  But even I, raised in Southern California in which the school system regaled us with ‘history units’ on the Spanish Conquistadores every semester, cannot help but respond to this image.

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
So, he confused Cortez, destroyer of the Aztec Empire, with Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.  Just where is Darien, anyway?  I think they call this poetic license.


Astolfo retrieves his wits: Orlando Part II

October 4, 2011

Some months ago I put aside Orlando Furioso after completing the first of two volumes in the Barbara Reynolds translation.  Now I have returned to the fray!

As usual, it’s a crazy, exhilarating, bizarre cascade of satire, wit, romance, adventure, and, yes, poetry.  Orlando is furioso because he’s mad.  Since he’s the main man in Charlemagne’s effort to drive the Moslems-Saracens-Africans from France (in the region where I just happened to have been vacationing in August) his mental incapacitation is most inconvenient.  Not to mention the fact that he kills anyone in sight, friend or foe, and all for being jilted by a woman.

His comrade at arms, Astolfo, makes a trip to the moon on a chariot, and finds that it is not made of green cheese, but is an enormous garbage dump of sorts where everything that is lost on earth ends up.  While there, he is given some tips on how to find stuff by Saint John, author of the Book of Revelation.  Sure enough, Orlando lost his wits, and there they are on the moon!  Astolfo gathers up the vial to bring them home and restore Orlando to his fighting best, but not before he notices some of his own  wits – he didn’t know he had lost them, but then, who does? – and snorts them up his nose to restore himself to full mental capacity.

While searching for illustrations of the poem, I came across this wonderful drawing of Astolfo on the lunar dump by Davide Bignotti.  Unfortunately, this is the only picture from Orlando that he has posted.  I think it conveys the wackiness of much of the poem – it reminds me of Italo Calvino too.

Gustave Dore did a set of illustrations for the poem (is there any classic he didn’t illustrate?)  They seem a little stuffy after reading the text.

Here is the poem – Canto XXXIV, 83-84

A liquid, thin and clear, Astolfo sees,
Distilled in many vases, large and small,
Which must (so volatile the fluid is)
Be tightly corked: the largest of them all
Contains the greatest of those essences:
The mind of mad Anglante, of whose fall
You are aware and of his frenzied fits.
And on it the duke read: ‘Orland’s wits’.

On other bottles too the names are shown
To whom the wits belong.  To his surprise,
Astolfo finds a great part of his own;
And more astonished still, before his eyes
He sees the wits of those he thought had none.
But this his first impression verifies:
That little wit they must retain down here
If such a quantity is found up there. 


My kind of Orlando

February 22, 2011

click for summary of poem

From “Taking Liberties,” a review of David R. Slavitt’s new translation of Orlando Furioso, by David B. Hart in Commonweal. 137.13 (July 16, 2010)

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”–that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular–were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments… once the Carolingian theme had been stated [The Song of Roland], the variations that followed…departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478-83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516-32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place, but of tone and texture) as the dramas of England and Spain’s Golden Age theaters. Their stories spill across the entire known world, to say nothing of faerie, hell, and the moon. They recount sieges, military engagements, and single combat, but also tell of giants, sprites, sorcerers, sea monsters, magic gardens, and hidden kingdoms. They lurch convulsively–though somehow quite nimbly–from the hilarious to the tragic to the mystical.

Once upon a time, moreover, they were widely read … Now, however, they gather dust in those shadowy galleries where the Western canon’s most rarely visited monuments are kept. This is a pity. Modern readers may not have much patience for long verse narratives, but these works are anything but forbidding; they can be enjoyed by anyone with an imagination and a sense of humor. Yet Pulci and Boiardo are scarcely remembered today outside Italy. Only Ariosto lingers on in the consciousness of educated persons, and then generally only as an important name.

. . .  Exactly what [Orlando Furioso] is about is difficult to pin down, but this hardly matters. The narrative takes up the various stories begun in the Innamorato, but left unfinished at the time of Boiardo’s death: the infatuation of Orlando with the beautiful sorceress Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, and Orlando’s pursuit of her across Europe and into the Far East; the siege of Paris by the Moors; the adventures of Ruggiero, mythical founder of the House of Este (of which both Boiardo and Ariosto were clients); the rampages of the evil Moorish King of Sarza, Rodomonte; and a number of other plot lines. The principal pleasure of the poem as a whole lies in the ingenuity with which Ariosto weaves the tales together in ever more outlandish and intricate complications–and then manages to resolve them all in a single moment of dramatic finality.

click to enlarge

Monty Python? -click for source

Fantasy Land


Galileo Furioso

January 31, 2011

I am just beginning a new biography of Galileo by Heilbron, and what an unusual biography it is!  Rather than giving us a blow-by-blow of the life of the great man in embryo, we are almost immediately tossed into the chaos and ferment of late Renaissance Italian intellectual life.  Perhaps the details of Galileo’s early life are few and far between anyway.  But, more surprising, the attitude of the writer towards his famous, sainted subject is frequently one of ironic detachment and humor.  No hagiography here!  It’s an exhilarating and fresh approach to a man who is crucial in the history of modern science, but whose own accomplishments seem relatively slender compared to Newton and some others.

One of the most entertaining and unusual elements of the biography is its focus on Galileo as an aspiring literary lion of Florence.  He wrote criticism of poetry, fought in furious and futile intellectual battles over the relative merits of Tasso, Dante, and Ariosto, was instrumental in diagraming the true extent of the Inferno as described in The Divine Comedy, and was influenced by the ironic epic, Orlando Furioso, as much as he was by Aristotle.  Not exactly a typical resume for a giant of early modern science.  (Of course, we conveniently forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on numerology and alchemy than he did on physics.)

I have been hearing about Orlando for so many years now, it’s time to read it.


Recollected in tranquility

July 31, 2009

poetry

Over at Troutsky’s blog, I ran into a blogger named KulturCritic who is concerned that we, human beings, that is, have lost something valuable from our paleolitithic kin-relationship days and are the slaves of our own creation, the time-production-history schtick.  I like to make fun of him for being a wild-eyed utopian, but I share a bit of his sensibility, as any reader of my posts on the “International Work Machine” can tell.  Well, I found myself feeling more sympatico with his posts as I walked home from work on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan yesterday.

Wordsworth thought of  poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I am no poet, so what can I do to communicate my occasional epiphanies?  Should I bother, or will I simply produce some tired, trite prose?  Brace yourself…

Why does anyone do anything, I often ask myself.  All the effort people expend, physical and emotional, on stuff, things I just can’t invest in.  People want to build something, or accumulate something, which is a sort of building, building a pile.  Money, power, sex, a string of lovers, an organization at your beck and call, an enormous portfolio of funds?  In the end…

What do they do with it?  How does it make them feel?  How would it make me feel?  You can only buy so much, and one thing at a time.  Eat one dinner, drink one wine, make love to one woman at a time.  (Even a menage requires attention to one at each separate moment.) When all is available to you, is there any thrill in acquisition?  When we grow old and feeble, do we look back on our glory days as manager-honcho and think, “Those were great days, they made me..,” what???  It just passes away.  It’s as if it never happened.

So, as Pascal might have pointed out, everything we do to accumulate is based on the illusion that things, in our lives, do accumulate, that there is more than the fleeting moment.  Really, everything we do is just motion and action to pass the time of day, divertissement, to make the trip from birth to death more pleasant.  Just as we might, if we care, try to make the lives of our pet dogs and cats pleasant.

This is no cause for despair or sadness – it’s just how it is.  Things like culture, art, literature, philosophy, which some see as having transcendent value are simply more “entertainments.” Most people live without them.  That is, everyone has culture, but not high culture, and what is culture in the general sense, other than a framework for helping us get through the day?

We might as well recognize this, and when we do, most things in our world seem pretty shallow and stupid, and what’s left to hang onto is the other people around us, the similarly lost souls, drifting on the sea of time, mindless of its true nature.  So we might as well be nice to one another.  We might as well expend our mental energy on fathoming the minds around us, instead of planning ahead, scheming, working, and building silly intellectual systems that pretend that there is some ultimate meaning to any of our ideas.  The future does not matter, in most essentials, it’s like the past.  The basic structure of life never changes.  Progress, or history in that sense, is a mistaken idea.

Is it easy to think these thoughts when I am comfortable and well fed?  Easier than being poor in this world, certainly.  But long ago, those ancient humans for whom acquiring food, clothing and shelter was not so simple…Maybe these thoughts came more easily to them since it was so obvious what was important.  Maybe the complexity we have created for ourselves has made it harder, globally, to think these thoughts.

Well, that’s what I thought, anyway, although it seemed more important at the time.  And below, you will find links to some related posts of mine, if you have more time to waste:


Mal de this, Mal de that…

November 17, 2007

charles-baudelaire.jpeg

Here’s Charles Baudelaire in his younger, dandy days. This other, more famous, portrait of him was taken when he was much older, ill with syphilis, in pain, and really sick of life. Instead of just writing about being sick of it, that is. Just kidding…

Mal du siecle, mal de vie, fleur de mal, the city, Paris, ennui, alienation, disgust, such a positive guy this Charles. He and his symbolist, decadent, bohemian flaneur crew. Walking around a part of NYC the other night, a part that I was not familiar with and that retains the look of a much older city, I felt transported for a moment back into that time/mindset of Parisian spleen.

It was dark, damp, a bit foggy. The streets were cobblestoned.  People rushed along now and then to their homes, their families, their dates. A woman’s heels clicked and echoed down the way.  A man’s shoes made that pleasant gravelly grinding sound on the wet pavement that I have always loved so much.  Fleeting laughter, blasts of music and light from a few cafes. I was alone, on my way to someplace, and late, and I felt the loneliness that I associate with being on my own in a foreign city.  You can be alone in a very intense way when you are surrounded by thousands of people in a city who all have something to do and somewhere to go where they are expected, and you’re just wandering.

Is this how Baudelaire felt as he tramped about Paris? He was so sensitive to everything he saw and heard and smelled. He was alive to the fascinating texture of urban life, but you can’t say he celebrated it! Not that he could have lived anywhere else, no. He just complained, and wrote poems in which he begs to be released to “anywhere out of this world!”

Sad men, these brilliant poets I like so much. They would have scorned normal, middle-class (i.e. bourgeois) happiness. Were they capable of it?  I wonder if they were capable of love at all. Was Charles’ problem that he couldn’t love a woman? Like Flaubert couldn’t.  The Goncourts.  Huysmans…so many others.  Misogyny runs like a river at flood through the culture of the fin de siecle.  Men, brought up at a time when the old structures of life, sex roles, expectations were crumbling away, but not yet replaced by something totally new.  Their minds seem to have been about fifty years behind the times when it came to women, and the women were enough like their mothers to really confuse things.  The fresh, independent Gibson Girls were still a generation and an ocean away. They were caught in the middle, and they couldn’t deal with it.


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