Tag Archives: music

Existential Mathematics

recalled the well-known equation from one of the first chapters of the textbook of existential mathematics: the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. From that equation we can deduce various corollaries, for instance this one: our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self.
—Milan Kundera, Slowness (135)

 

In researching my final film studies paper, I got happily (some might say, stupidly) sidetracked by an essay discussing the libertine novel genre. Through that essay I came to Kundera’s book Slowness which interpolates a modern day story with the story from the 1777 novella by Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow. The modern story relates a weekend spent at a French château in which some sort of political/scientific meeting is taking place. The narrator relates Denon’s tale of sexual ecstasy in a similar setting, to the pathetic tale of political “dancers” and their scurrying ilk.

If a dancer does get the opportunity to enter the political game, he will showily refuse all secret deals (which have always been the playing field of real politics) while denouncing them as deceitful, dishonest, hypocritical, dirty; he will lay out his own proposals publicly, up on a platform, singing and dancing, and will call on others by name to do the same; I stress: not quietly (which would give the other person the time to consider, to discuss counterproposals) but publicly, and if possible by surprise: “Are you prepared right now (as I am) to give up your April salary for the sake of the children of Somalia?” Taken by surprise, people have only two choices: either refuse and discredit themselves as enemies of children, or else say “yes” with terrific uneasiness, which the camera is sure to display maliciously…” (19-20)

Kundera has a gift for describing the cynicism of the world in all of its painful reality. The hypocrisy of it all is what is at the heart of our desire to forget ourselves and others—it’s too painful. Written in 1995, one can see—not much changes. Which is why the juxtaposition of the two stories is lovely and brilliant. In the modern story people are cruel to one another, thoughtlessly hurting each other and simple racing to get through it all and to forget it all as quickly as possible. Devon’s tale is one of shameless pleasure, of a night of slow love whose transience cannot touch the memory that lingers. Time to love, time to ponder the time spent loving, matters. And it is why slowness matters.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace (39).

Kundera has a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, with joy and sorrow, and the true humanity he suspects exists in his fellow citizens. His writing is poignant, elegiac, but always hopeful. He asks us to consider the speed at which we operate when the fleeting aspects of life rushing us towards death are the most painful to contemplate.

I finished reading this book while stuck in a massive traffic jam. This is how jammed it was—I literally read while I drove. The irony of being forced to a crawl, enabling me to finish Slowness, gave me almost enough delight to stave off the frustration of being stuck on a hot road breathing in the exhaust of all the other irritated cars and people. But what is the rush, really? what do have besides time? What should we do with that time? Race through, reach the finish line in record speed? Particularly in the environment I currently exist in which semesters come to a crushingly quick close, I know that this speed makes it impossible to retain all that is good in every day. I have a deep craving to slow things down. I have no time to read books that are not assigned to me, I haven’t time to get through all my work and do the laundry and feed my people—never mind feed my soul. And so, when I do it anyway—when I linger over dinner, chat with a friend,  read a book only because it gives me pleasure and makes me consider the fact that maybe we should slow down and love the people who will let us love them, or even write this blog while my three final papers still loom—I set aside the feeling of vulnerability and fear that my rushed life otherwise pretends to avoid: somehow thinking that to run away and bury ourselves in an all-consuming forgetfulness will be easier.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope (156).

Kundera’s book, most of all, is about love, the kind of love that dearly departed Prince celebrates in his beautiful song (apologizes for the poor quality of the video, but as all Prince fans know getting ahold of internet videos of his music has always been like sighting a unicorn—and this brief interlude of access will most likely not last so enjoy what you can while you can). It is kind of love we all deserve in whatever form: slow love.

 

 

The Heart’s Watermarks

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I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Ken Botnick on his recently published artist book, Diderot Project. While waiting for my final exam of the semester to be released I calmed my nerves by spending a leisurely morning in Mortimer Rare Book Room extending the pleasure by reading this sumptuous, intelligent, and marvelously reverential work.

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I decided, while photographing some of the pages, that I would leave my own hand in the image. First of all—it made it a hell of a lot easier to take the image, but also, reading this book is such a richly tactile experience that my own hand began to take on all of the most wonderful aspects of the book. Not least of all–the first section—which is titled: “To Observe Without Confusion Vol. 1 Memory: The Hand.” My hand turning and touching each page created an echo of meaning. As Botnick relates, to touch something is a complex act: “grasping cannot be reduced to its visomoter aspects” (Marc Jeannerod quoted). And then, the spectacle of dried paint under my thumbnail (the stubborn vestiges of my own printmaking adventures) created a connection between myself, the artist Botnick, and les métiers (the trades) which Diderot so famously championed in his encyclopedia. And finally— I work the book. It is my tool. By my hand the deliciously rich and varied papers are discovered, the ideas absorbed, the beauty felt. The object is directly infused into my senses, of which touch, as Diderot believed, is the most essential.

Hand knowledge and symbolic knowledge constitute equally powerful but different and not equally appreciated ways of organizing worldly phenomena” (Jeanne Bamberger quoted).

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Botnick pieces together a variety of text by various authors, including himself, as a way into the project of representing, through a work, through an object, the vibrating pulse of Diderot’s spectacular l’Encyclopedie. Botnick lets the affecting qualities of what it means and how it feels to become deeply engrossed— intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally— radiate out through his own book. In the second part, “I Insist on the Freedom Vol. 2 Reason: the Object”  he includes the poem, “Delights of the door” by Francis Ponge, arrestingly hinged on the gutter of the book. There is something so sweetly lovely about it…I love to turn a page and feel a smile rise upon my mouth.

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Some of the most extraordinary pages are the most difficult to photograph. Botnick designed several watermarks and had Paul Wang of Dieu Donné Paper produce. I have a weakness (thanks, especially, to Henry Miller) for watermarks. In the third image posted here the watermark of a compass can just be made out, these pages call to the reader’s hand with such intensity it is impossible not to lift the page and find the image increased by the backing of one’s own darker skin behind it. The paper is breathtaking throughout the book, but these pages are so lovely…Botnick has a gift for finding the sublime in the subtle.

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The person who perceives is not spread out before herself as a consciousness must be, she has historical density, she takes up a perceptual tradition and is faced with a present…(Maurice Merleau-Ponty quoted).

The above page, found in the final part, “Through Sensation We are Led to Abstraction Vol. 3 Imagination: The Senses” just about made me fall to my knees…I was trying to drown out the office chit-chat that was being conducted behind me so I put my earbuds in and played my playlist I call “Eclectic” —because it is. As I turned the page, the music went from Sue Jorge’s “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” to Mendelssohn’s Elijah op. 70 “he that shall endure.”  Something in those opening chords combined with the image in front of me just about slayed me.  Our personal-historical density informs and layers every experience we have. This is what I love about a book such as Botnick’s: what he brings, what Diderot left, the watermarks of my own heart—all these things are lived in the object.

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*Project Diderot, the work of Ken Botnick, editor, author, designer, printer, and publisher (Emdash 2015). Bound by Daniel Kelm (Wide Awake Garage).

Song of a Tree

Amabel saw that she would never attract a man again; she would never be loved, for she had not held even the Colonel’s attention (61) 
-Mavis Gallant, New Year’s Eve from Varieties of Exile

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Varieties of Exile is a collection of short stories by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant published in 2003. The stories are told with a perfection of tone. Each protagonist is an isolated voice above the score; Gallant has the ear of a soloist.

 Mrs. Plummer suddenly said clearly to herself or to Amabel, “My mother used to make her children sing. If you sing, you must be happy. That was another idea of happiness” (62).

All of the stories are wonderful, terse and moving, exemplifying the power of the short story. But New Year’s Eve slayed me. It is simply told but deeply discordant. Colonel and Mrs. Plummer, currently residing in Russia, agree to have Amabel, their deceased daughter’s school chum, come to visit over the holiday. Amabel, recently divorced, on a stabbing whim, imagines, hopes, fantasizes that the Plummer’s will take her into their fold and sooth her lonely soul.

They stared at each other, as if they were strangers in a crush somewhere and her earring had caught on his coat. Their looks disentangled (56).

The story transpires over an evening spent at the opera. Amabel, having cut herself free from a desolate marriage is deafened by her now untethered heart; she’s incapable of hearing the contrapuntal recrimination and hostility throbbing between the Plummer’s. She throws herself onto their mercy and they barely notice. Amabel’s lonely awkwardness is wretchedly evinced by Gallant. Her reckless hope that the Plummers will love her is confused by the mutual and in some ways merciful inability to really communicate.

Tears stood in Amabel’s eyes and she had to hold her head as stiffly as Mrs. Plummer did; otherwise the tears might have spilled on her program and thousands of people would have heard them fall. Later, the Plummers would drop her at her hotel, which could have been in Toronto, in Caracas, or Amsterdam; where there was no one to talk to, and she was not loved (61).

A fugue without harmony, Gallant passes the narration around and around, with a slight tragicomic touch. Amabel, rootless, doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, her human desire to connect is so overwhelming, she can’t hear that the Plummers are reading off an entirely different score. Only the sound of loneliness reverberates. And the song is stuck in my head.

When [Amabel] hinted at her troubles, said something about a wasted life, Mrs. Plummer cut her off with, “Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic” (58).

 

Getting Appley

He knew, as an artist, that the only bit of a woman which nowadays escapes being ready-made and ready-known cliché is the appley part of her (205).
– D.H. Lawrence, from essay “Cézanne” in Writers on Artists

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Love is like this. The other day I found myself sitting on the library floor, in between the stacks, pulling every Cézanne book I saw off of the shelves. Okay, I didn’t mysteriously find myself there. But in my defense, it was an unusually slow day at the library. For the first time that I have ever worked there I had shelved every single item and then alphabetized every thing else that had to wait (DVDs that needed security casings, for instance) I was at an awkward impasse- finally I mustered the courage to ask if it would be alright if I read, while maintaining a veneer of readiness should work arrive, of course.

He could not masturbate, in paints or words. And that is saying a very great deal, today; today, the great day of the masturbating consciousness, when the mind prostitutes the sensitive responsive body, and just forces the reactions. The masturbating consciousness produces all kinds of novelties, which thrill for the moment, then go very dead (203).

What joy! I was finally able to get to the essay by D.H. Lawrence on Cézanne that had been the reason I had checked the book out (the book: Writers on Artist is one I came across whilst shelving; I couldn’t resist a perusal, and Lawrence settled the thing. I would have to read it. It is a wonderful compilation edited by Daniel Halpern of some forty essays). The preceding essay had also focused on Cézanne- actually it was not so much an essay as parts of letters written by Rilke to his wife,Clara, relating his frequent, lovingly obsessive visits to the Salon. It was marvelous. Rilke makes me love life, love writing, love art, and not worry so much about the essay length letters I inflict upon my friends…. But – Lawrence. I finished his essay and (may have) let a skipping gait take me deep into the stacks (working in the Arts and Music section has its benefits).

Cézanne felt it in paint, when he felt for the apple. Suddenly he felt the tyranny of the mind, the white, worn-out arrogance of the spirit, the mental consciousness, the enclosed ego in its sky-blue heaven self-painted. He felt the sky-blue prison (201).

Sitting on the floor, I took down one of the large heavy books and it fell open to Apples and Biscuits. I gasped. It’s not that I haven’t seen Cézanne’s work, of course I have seen many works in books, some works in actuality, but…something about this one – I could have spent hours gazing at it- so much for my veneer of readiness- I sank into the floor.

But we have to remember, in his figure paintings, that while he was painting the appleyness he was also deliberately painting out the so-called humanness, the personality, the “likeness,” the physical cliché.[…] Try as he might, woman remained a known ready-made cliché object to him […] Except his wife – and in his wife he did at least know the appelyness (206).

And what woman doesn’t want her appleyness known? Indeed, what person doesn’t long to share one’s appleyness with another? Curiously this particular painting was not to be found in any of the other books. But this was the one. This one sang sweetly right into my ear, piercing my soul. The hard floor and artificial light fell away as the apples teased, excited and calmed my heart in imperceptible turns. The joyful humor of the domesticity of the plate of biscuits, and that beautiful wall…it was love at first sight.

It was not Zola who understood what the point was; Balzac had sensed long ahead that, in painting, something so tremendous can suddenly present itself, which no one can handle. –Rainer Maria Rilke “The Cézanne Inscape”

Maybe this comes close (it certainly does if you have to pleasure to sing it, as I will this Saturday):

That appleyness is our very worth, the core of our humanity, the rounded ripe beauty of our souls. When it is discovered and felt, a sort of primordial roar is released. When we see it or hear it, the tremendous truth is awing. The veneer, cliché, and inauthentic are blasted away. The struggle to maintain what we instinctively feel in the face of cynical convention or mawkish insincerity never really ends – if we can just maintain some space of clarity within (through music, through art) so that when we come across the appelyness – we know we were right all along.

It’s the real appelyness, and you can’t imitate it. Every man must create it new and different out of himself: new and different (Lawrence 206). 

 

I ask you, my human mind…

The human intellect is full of its own emptiness, better at looking than at seeing. – Saint Augustine, Confessions (285)

IMG_1391It was necessary for me to weave several books in and out of Augustine’s Confessions. As long as we are in a confessional state of mind, I will say that I had to keep my foot, so to speak, in the door of my mind to make sure it stayed open, and the effort was fatiguing. I may have read ten or fifteen other books while reading this one.

Who, after all, made me? (139)

That is not to say that the words, ideas, struggles and sublime beauty of language are not all present in the telling.

I was loosened from error, but not fastened to truth (109).

Nor is it to say that I did not, rather generously, ignore the oft repeated insulting words directed at my inferior sex.

Do we remember happiness, then, as we remember mathematical truths? […] No, I ask simply if happiness is a thing remembered – for how could we love it if we could not recognize it? (230)

When Augustine exhausts his intellect considering, memory, time and the cosmos – it is a wonder to behold. His algorithmic approach is astonishing, and his language, the pure beauty of his language, is a marvel.

How could times pass before they were there for the passing? (266)

But I can not help returning again and again, as Augustine himself did, to the epic battle he created between the body and the spirit. Whywhywhy?

He gives up sex, he cannot give up food and drink without sacrificing his life, but he is determined not to enjoy it. And no smell, however sweet will tempt him  (there is something of the Mr. Darcy in Augustine: “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”). In the end he closes all of his senses, even (although he is a bit of a cheater here) to the one thing that really tricks him up: music.

A delicious physical sound should not melt our reason (241).

Ah, but it does. His and mine. As a friend of mine said to me recently, “Music is one of things we humans get right.” And I suppose this brings me to the heart of my confusion. Who, after all, made us? Why these bodies that touch, these smells, tastes, feelings, sounds? Why this moon, this sun, our stars, the mountains, the ocean? Why make something if only to demand a complete renunciation? Why are men so hell bent on religions of deprivation?

Grant this thing I love, since my loving it was your grant (273)

I probably did help matters by listening to Mozart’s Requiem while reading the bulk of this book. But, I am preparing to sing it with my Glee Club and I have no hope or wish to extinguish the awe I feel when singing or listening to such profoundly moving music.

*title from page 268. Penguin edition translated by Garry Wills

Give me ambiguity or…Give me something else!

The brain creates, according to its own rules, the knowledge that we have.
-Semir Zeki, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness (27)

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By beginning his book focused on neurological constancies of the innate brain, that is: the one we’re born with before (as my step-father loves to gleefully quote) “they fuck you up, your mum and dad…” Semir Zeki lays the groundwork for his soul crushing conclusions. I don’t want to impugn Zeki, he in no way blames mum and dad – that is merely an indication of my own learned brain’s irreverent cheek. Forgive me.

It has been shown that color is perceived before orientation and that expressions on faces are perceived before their identity (37).

Color is just one brain concept that is hard wired for constancy. Even when the reality changes (say, from morning to evening light) we still perceive red as red, and we “see” it first, before we may even understand what it is we are looking at, we know it’s red.

Concept formation is one of the great triumphs of the brain but it also exacts a very heavy toll (47).

What the book is so excellently and fascinatingly working towards is the universally shared brain concept of love as a feeling of in-unity with another. In unity– I actually have to pause every time I write or think on that- its succinct precision of definition is quite beautiful.

Fighting against love is fighting against biology (132)

There is so much we don’t know about the brain, and as a brilliant doctor friend of mine reminds me, just because areas “light up” consistently only tells us just that much – areas light up. Still, for such an all-consuming yet (largely) academically and scientifically ignored topic, Zeki’s book is fascinating entrée.

The brain is organized to project its own interpretation to the incoming visual stimulus. And as we have seen, inherited brain concepts are immutable (85).

One of those inherited concepts is ambiguity. Ambiguity, Zeki tells us, is “constant,” which is the very quality that gives art its rich and endlessly creative interpretive life. The ambiguity of the innate brain allows for our different “learned brain” interpretations and perceptions. This is that delicate space in between the artist’s work and our experience of that work. Zeki cites myriad artists and writers whom exemplify a miraculous perfection of ambiguity and:

The difficulty of representing the synthetic brain concept or ideal, and the advantages of leaving much to the mind (111).

Reading Splendors and Miseries of the Brain is such an intellectually exciting endeavor that the soul crushing thesis sneaks up…yes, Zeki is taking us neural pathway by neural pathway to the fatalistic conclusion of the near impossibility of realizing what our brains so stubbornly create and insist upon: the Ideal. The root of all of our discontent, (historically proven in literature, art and music of the centuries past) is but a hopeless quest to experience a synthesis between our Ideal concept of love with reality. To experience the sublime – in unity with another, whether it be sacred or profane- no difference seems to exists within the brain, the lucky few sublimate their disappointment into the highest expressions of art- the rest of us….well, we have the pleasure of appreciation, and we have our dreams. That’s something.

Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter

-Shakespeare, quoted in Splendors (199).

*title – a favorite joke of a friend of mine.

Etiolated Lives

She was the doorway to him, he to her.  At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission. 
-D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (87)

IMG_1258I recently watched an adaptation of Women in Love. I like it well enough, but there were more than a few mystery bits that I had no recollection of from the book. Upon closer inspection I saw that the adaptation was actually of both Women in Love and The Rainbow.  Now that I’ve read The Rainbow I’m sorry I didn’t read it first, not least of all because Women in Love continues the story of Ursula and Gudren. But more than that, for missing out on the natural development of the story in which Lawrence shows an unraveling of human confidence in love over the generations.

Is heaven impatient for me, and bitter against this earth, that I should hurry off, or that I should linger pale and untouched? (265)

The story follows three generations of women, finding, failing, or groping with anguished hope towards love: “the admission”- I love that. Admitting entrance to the other into one’s soul as well as admitting to oneself that the possibility exists. Running  forward chronologically, the story seems almost to run backwards novelistically. The satisfaction of true love comes early in the first section concerning the Polish immigrant widowed mother, Lydia Lensky. Tom Brangwen falls in love with her, and after the usual bouts of trammeled passion they arrive at their font of love. Things are more difficult for Anna, Lydia’s daughter adopted by Tom:

And in this state, her sexual life flamed into a kind of disease within her. She was overwrought and sensitive, that the mere touch of coarse wool seemed to tear her nerves. (314)

The tragedy here is passion without love. Lawrence describes with startling insight the gaps that motherhood fills, still, when Anna marries Will Brangwen having made the all important physical connection,  emotional  communion eludes them. Through their children the painful smolder of life and love half-lived is abated until eventually, separately yet peaceably, they find a lesser path, but at least it is a path –

And since she was nearly forty years old, she began to come awake from the sleep of motherhood, her energy moved outwards. The din of growing lives roused her from her apathy. She too must have her hand in making life. (395)

Let’s pause here for one brief moment to remind ourselves that this book was written in 1915. What Lawrence so boldly put forward- the physicality of life’s desires, is a truly remarkable thing. Sure, it’s no longer difficult to find myriad books focused on sex, even focused on the female’s perspective of sex, but it takes profound nerve to combine those human needs with a divine call to love.

Always, always she was spitting out of her mouth the ash and grit of disillusion, of falsity. (412)

The story ends with Ursula. The depth into which Lawrence takes the reader is awing and inspiring. The questions and possible answers he raises become deeply embedded in the reader’s thinking and feeling soul. Woven into each part of the story are philosophical musings on religion, God, the suffragette movement, the horrors of corporal punishment, the sickness of institutions, the emptiness of formal education, social hypocrisy, and then, at long last he gives us – the rainbow, spread over it all, in regal refulgent splendor.  The beauty. The beauty.

She wanted so many things. she wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to. (384)