Penguin Cafe Orchestra

I heard it was world penguin day…

Arthur Jeffes gives a beautiful little explanation of how the Penguin Cafe Orchestra came to be:

My father, Simon Jeffes, was in the south of France in 1972-73, where he got terrible food poisoning from some bad shellfish and spent 3 or 4 days with a terrible fever. During this, he had very vivid waking dream – a nightmare vision of the near future – where everyone lived in big concrete blocks and spent their lives looking into screens. There was a big camera in the corner of everyone’s room, an eye looking down at them. In one room there was a couple making love lovelessly, while in another there was a musician sat at a vast array of equipment but with headphones on so there was no actual music in the room. This was a very disconnected de-humanising world that people had made for themselves…

However you could reject that and look further afield, and if you went down this dusty road you would eventually find a ramshackle old building with noise and light pouring out into the dark. It’s a place you just fundamentally want to go into, and this is the Penguin Cafe. There are long tables and everyone sits together, and it’s very cheerfully chaotic. In the back there is always a band playing music that you are sure you’ve heard somewhere but you have no idea where – and that is the Penguin Cafe Orchestra – they play this music.

When my dad woke up he decided that he would write the music that would be played by the band from his dream, and so with that as a criteria he then wrote for the next 25 years and that is the world that we now also inhabit…

just so long and long enough

Shortly after Thanksgiving I promised my cousin an explanation of what I thought was going on in [as freedom is a breakfastfood] by E.E. Cummings. Here we are in March, and I’m finally paying my debts. First, the poem:

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
—long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem                                                     5
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair
and every finger is a toe                                                                 10
and any courage is a fear
—long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind                                                        15
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common’s rare and millstones float
—long enough and just so long                                                    20
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy’s the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do                                25
—time is a tree(this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

Eating peaches from hatracks and hearing the wails from hornets done wrong are such suggestive images that I confess to having liked this poem when it still appeared to me to be a string of nonsense lines arranged in whatever order might seem most pleasing. I still think much of the poem is nonsense, but it’s a deliberate nonsense, and repays a closer look.

Similes do most of the work in the first three stanzas, as the narrator picks two things up and puts them side by side. He then carries that pair over to another pair to see how they look as neighbors. Is freedom a breakfastfood in the same way that truth can live with right and wrong? Well, not quite. That doesn’t seem to mean anything. But can truth live with right and wrong in the same way that molehills are made out of mountains? Very nearly. If truth resigns itself to (“can live with”) the inevitability of right and wrong actions–as opposed to delighting in actions obedient to truth itself–this is much the same as making smaller troubles (“molehills”) out of larger ones (“mountains”) because the mountainous troubles are too great. And if resignation is what we’re meant to see as the narrator plunks lines two and three next to each other, then line one begins to make sense as well. Of all the glorious things freedom might suggest, it’s no slight to the first meal of the day to say that eating whatever one wants for breakfast is aiming pretty low.

But this way of life will only hold “long enough and just so long” (line 4). Unambitious freedom, tamed truth, and unassailable troubles all have their moment, but freedom will one day be exercised, truth will one day be obeyed, and the world will be seen as it is (molehills as molehills and mountains as mountains) rather than as it appears to be. Seem will no longer own being, but things will be according to what and how they are (line 5). Genius will not have to dance a jig for validation from those who would judge talent, and the essential light of all the above–freedom, truth, clarity, genius–will not be quenched, but will be allowed to burn high and bright (line 7).

Though I’ve taken the encouragement that water renders flame to be a euphemism for the relationship between the two elements, with “most encourage” basically doing the same work that “quenches” might, the positive aspects of encouragement also begin to prepare the reader for the reversal of the order of nature in the second stanza. Just as water doesn’t encourage flame as we normally understand that word, so too the dead wood of a hatrack does not grow and bear fruit (line 8), the barren field of a bald man’s head is a place hope may sing a dirge but not “dance best” (line 9), and fingers are not secretly toes in disguise (line 10) any more than courage is dressed up fear (line 11). If these lines describe absurdities rather than the way things are, what’s the point of introducing them?

The narrator answers by repeating his reminder that the absurdities have a shelf-life (“long enough and just so long,” line 12) and then listing two more absurdities that are as common as they are harmful. The impure believe they’ve understood purity (line 13). One who lives in darkness will gladly speak as long as he’s allowed about the light. Those who neither understand nor practice righteousness seldom question their own ability to know what righteousness looks like. They will tell you a finger is a toe. They will tell you that peaches should be ripening any time now from that hatrack in the corner. They will tell you a marriage is whatever five out of nine judges say it is, a boy is a girl, and unborn babies may be chopped up and sold for parts. And what happens when, with the innocence of a child, someone points out that these things aren’t so? The ones with the stingers cry that they’ve been stung by the hate and intolerance of the child of reality (line 14). But they’re the hornets and they’re the ones running the con.

And now that the narrator explicitly has the disorder of human nature in his sights, he doesn’t let go. Not only are things out in the world a mix of tensions and absurdities, but we ourselves undermine our own faculties (“the seeing are the blind,” line 15), define ourselves by our errors (“flatfolk” refusing to see the world is round, line 17), and set up warring factions on the silliest pretenses (dingsters vs. dongsters, line 18). This is a forgetting of what we’re made for, the same as if the robin forgot her song in spring (line 16), or words meant their opposite (“common” and “rare”), or stones began to float (line 19). It’s disorder without, and disorder within. But then for the third time we’re reminded that the contradictions the narrator has identified are passing away. These things hold true “long enough and just so long” (line 20), and here he adds that if tomorrow were the day of everything being set right, it would not be a day too late (line 21).

So then, what will this setting right be like? The narrator breaks from the pattern he’s been using in the previous stanzas to tell us: it will sound like the voice of a beloved–not words on a page, but the joy of a familiar voice (line 22). From the various Whiches, this is the one Who whom the narrator has desired his entire life (line 23). He acknowledges that sexual love has its place and a certain kind of glory to it (line 24), but those who see the pleasures of breasts and thighs as ultimate suffer from a lack of imagination–they’re fixated on the deed and cannot dream what’s ahead (line 25). The narrator clues us in: time is a tree held within the scope of the sky which is love, and the life in which we experience the disorder of creation is a small part of that tree. And because love encompasses and exceeds time’s boundaries, the narrator is able to look at everything that’s messed up in the world and declare his undying love for his beloved (lines 26-28). The formula that has appeared in each stanza to announce a coming end has been reversed to announce eternity. The groaning of life among the absurd lasts “long enough and just so long,” but the pledge of the lover to his beloved is the opposite of that and has no end: “just so long and long enough.”

David Gelernter’s Ideas

This interview with David Gelernter over at The Atlantic is pure fun. Been listening to Schubert sonatas since I read it. His comments on Henry James’s The Ambassadors were especially worth a look:

The Ambassadors is Henry James’s finest novel, and ranks alongside Emma as one of the two finest in English.  Everyone notices the symmetry of the two-section, twelve-chapter plan.  51cMeu1iNLL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_

But critics don’t seem to notice the center of the symmetry.

The Ambassadors is about Paris. Paris is unusual in having an exact psychological and approximate physical center—Notre Dame and the parvis out front, where there’s a milestone embedded in the pavement from which distances throughout France are measured.

The church itself stands towards the middle of the island in the middle of the river in the middle of the city.  And James has arranged for Notre Dame, the center of Paris, to be the exact center of his book about Paris too.It is the center of the episode on which the plot hinges.

Strether, the hero, comes to the church on the first page of the first chapter of part II. He enters a mere respectful outsider, an admirer but no intimate of the church, the city or the heroine. Inside he sees (without recognizing) Marie de Vionnet in the distance, from the back.  She is lost in meditation or prayer. Moreover “there are no altars for him” in the great Catholic church—either because he is a New England puritan or just a New England skeptic.  But he leaves with Mme. de Vionnet on a new basis of close friendship.  And now there is an altar for him in Paris. She is the altar.

Although the story ends in a kind if disillusionment, Strether is transformed by his religious experience.  The Ambassadors remains the perfect study of the woman-worship that is so important to James; that appears at the center of each of his last two novels also.

And it’s important in earlier James too, perhaps most strikingly in The Awkward Age—an underrated, first-order masterpiece with a wholly-undeserved reputation for difficulty.  It includes James’s most dazzling, most breathtakingly beautiful set pieces—the subtle, wordy, moody, moving conversations among a small unchanging group on which he thrives.  It is about the worship of a woman that outlives her death to be handed on like a precious sacred vessel, frail yet almost intact, to her granddaughter.  This act of handing-on is the novel—as critics can’t seem to see.

It’s impossible not to wonder where this theme has gone.  Have men stopped worshipping women?

Hardly.

During feminism’s heyday feminist leaders made clear that they didn’t choose to be worshiped. But it was never up to them. Such emotions are part of a man’s life, not a woman’s.

If we take (say) the novels of Roth and of Coetzee as representing the last several generations of great novels in English, the one instance of woman-worship that comes to mind in all their novels is startling: the magistrate’s love for the unnamed barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians. He loves her not for her perfection but exactly for her imposed imperfection, for the wounds and the suffering visited on her by the secret police.

(The lack of interest in woman-worship as a central theme seems to hold for such relatively young novelists as Sean O’Reilly, Patrick Flanery, Anthony Schneider, Robert Seethaler and Jenny Erpenbeck too.) We seem to have lost something essential, a matter of life and death.

These are great observations, but I think maybe Gelernter doesn’t read Mark Helprin novels. Or listen to Anais Mitchell. Or  La Dispute. Or even Weezer. Still, I wouldn’t mind a bit if The Atlantic were to give him a monthly column to discuss whatever was on his mind. This can’t be said enough:

Beauty is objective.

Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

Good ol’ Wrath Of Gnon has a whole series of posts based on this idea:

C5FL9-8VUAAKlvk

07d5596e53c1de4d9082930cf66f88db

CuJPAyGUEAIPQQO

C59-S14UwAAfsj3

Cbxvu9EVIAASOwJ

Or, as he put it the other day: “‘Beauty is not subjective’, and it has always been an ideal, subjective to effort and sacrifice: not an egalitarian right.”

Unless God Shine into our Hearts

the-person-of-christA few short quotes and then one longer chunk of text from John Owen’s The Person of Christ:

Desire of union and enjoyment is the first vital act of this love. The soul, upon the discovery of the excellencies of God, earnestly desires to be united to them–to be brought near to that enjoyment of them whereof it is capable, and wherein alone it can find rest and satisfaction. This is essential to all love; it unites the mind to its object, and rests not but in enjoyment. (241)

All italics are mine, by the way.

Love is the principle that actually assimilates and conforms us to God, as faith is the principle which originally disposes thereunto. In our renovation into the image of God, the transforming power is radically seated in faith, but acts itself by love. Love proceeding from faith gradually changes the soul into the likeness of God; and the more it is in exercise, the more is that change effected. (243)

For the natural man receives not the things that are of God. Hence all their obedience is servile. They know neither the principal motives to it nor the ends of it. But they who are so servants as to be friends also, they know what their Lord does; the secret of the Lord is with them, and he shows them his covenant. They are admitted into an intimate acquaintance with the mind of Christ (‘we have the mind of Christ,’ 1 Cor. 2:16), and are thereon encouraged to perform the obedience of servants, with the love and delight of friends. (245)

And then here’s the longer quote. Owen has just asked what is required for the souls of men to be changed that “they would in all things be like to Jesus Christ” (270). This is the first part of his answer:

A spiritual light, to discern the beauty, glory, and amiableness of grace in Christ, is required hereunto. We can have no real design of conformity to him, unless we have their eyes who ‘beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Nor is it enough that we seem to discern the glory of his person, unless we see a beauty and excellency in every grace that is in him. ‘Learn of me,’ says he; ‘for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matt. 11:29). If we are not able to discern an excellency in meekness and lowliness of heart (as they are things generally despised), how shall we sincerely endeavor after conformity to Christ in them? The like may be said of all his other gracious qualifications. His zeal, his patience, his self-denial, his readiness for the cross, his love to his enemies, his benignity to all mankind, his faith and fervency in prayer, his love to God, his compassion towards the souls of men, his unweariedness in doing good, his purity, his universal holiness;–unless we have a spiritual light to discern the glory and amiableness of them all, as they were in him, we speak in vain of any design for conformity to him. And this we have not, unless God shine into our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. It is, I say, a foolish thing to talk of the imitation of Christ, whilst really, through the darkness of our minds, we discern not that there is an excellency in the things wherein we ought to be like to him. (271)

Tolstoy Knows, ii

at-the-dressing-table-zinaida-serebriakova

Zinaida Serebriakova, At the Dressing-table

For Valentine’s Day, another chapter from Anna Karenina. Levin’s in the same place we left him, floundering around with plans and projects to keep his mind off Kitty. But, as one might guess, the songs of peasants, buying land, and the promise of new resolutions can only take a man so far:

The cart was roped. Ivan jumped down and led the good, well-fed horse by the bridle. His wife threw her rake on top of the cart and with a vigorous step, swinging her arms, went to join the other women who had gathered in a ring. Ivan, having come out on the road, took his place in the line of loaded carts. The women, carrying their rakes over their shoulders, bright in their vivid colors, walked behind the carts, their gay voices ringing merrily. One of the women started a song in a harsh, gruff voice and sang it as far as the refrain, when half a hundred powerful voices, some gruff, others shrill, took it up from the beginning again.

The singing women were approaching Levin, and he felt as if a thundercloud of merriment were bearing down upon him. The cloud bore down, enveloped him and the haycock on which he sat; and the other haycocks, the carts, and the whole of the meadow with the faraway fields all seemed to sway and vibrate to the rhythm of that wild, exhilarating, merry song with its loud shrieks, whistling, and whoops of joy. Levin was envious of this healthy merrymaking and he felt like taking part in that expression of gladness in life. But he could do nothing but lie and look and listen. When the peasants with their songs vanished out of sight and hearing, a heavy feeling of despondency at his loneliness, his physical idleness, and his hostility to this world came over Levin.

Some of those very peasants who had most disputed with him over the hay, those whom he had wronged, and those who had wanted to deceive him, those very peasants had bowed cheerfully to him, quite obviously not bearing, and indeed unable to bear, any grudge against him, or any remorse, or any recollection even of having intended to cheat him. All that had been dissolved in the sea of joyous common toil. The Lord had given them the day and the Lord had given them the strength. And the day and the strength had been dedicated to labor, and the labor was its reward. Who was the labor for? What would be its fruits? These were irrelevant and idle questions.

Levin had often admired this kind of life, had often envied the people who lived this kind of life, but today, especially under the impression of what he had seen of the relations between Ivan Parmenov and his young wife, the idea occurred to him clearly for the first time that it depended on himself alone whether or not to change his wearisome, idle, and artificial personal life for that hard-working, pure, and delightful life.

The old man who had been sitting beside him had gone home long ago; the peasants had all dispersed. Those who lived near had gone home, and those who lived a long way off gathered for supper in the meadow where they were to spend the night. Levin, unnoticed by the peasants, remained lying on the haycock, looking on, listening and thinking. The people who had stayed in the meadow kept awake almost all the short summer night. At first there was the sound of general merry chatter and laughter over supper, then again songs and more laughter.

The whole long day of hard work had left on them no trace of anything but merriment. Before dawn everything became quiet. All one could hear were the incessant nocturnal sounds of the croaking of frogs in the marsh and the snorting of horses in the meadow when the mist began to rise before the morning. Waking up, Levin rose from the haycock, and looking up at the stars, realized that the night was over.

“Well, so what am I going to do? How am I going to do it?” he said to himself, trying to put into words all he had been thinking and feeling in that short night. All that he had been thinking and feeling could be separated into three different trains of thought. The first was the renunciation of his old life, of the useless knowledge he had acquired, and of his utterly futile education. This renunciation was a source of pleasure to him and was easy and simple. Then there were the ideas and thoughts concerning the life he wished to live now. He was fully conscious of the simplicity, purity, and integrity of this life and he was convinced that in it he would find satisfaction, peace, and dignity, the absence of which he felt so painfully. But the third series of thoughts revolved round the question of how to bring about this transition from his old life to the new. And here nothing was clear to him. “Take a wife? Have work and the necessity to work? Leave Pokrovskoye? Buy land? Join a peasant commune? Marry a peasant girl? How am I going to do that?” he asked himself again and again and found no answer. “However, I haven’t slept all night and I can’t get any clear idea of anything,” he said to himself. “I’ll get it all sorted out later. One thing is certain, though: this night has decided my fate. All my old dreams of married life were nonsense, not the real thing,” he said to himself. “Everything is much simpler and better. . . .”

“How beautiful!” he thought, looking up at the curious mother-of-pearl shell of white, fleecy clouds which seemed to hang motionless right over his head in the middle of the sky. “How lovely everything is on this lovely night! And when did this shell have time to form? A short while ago I looked at the sky and there was nothing there, only two white strips. Yes, exactly in the same way my views of life have imperceptibly changed!”

He left the meadow and walked along the highroad towards the village. A light wind was rising and everything looked gray and dull. It was the moment of half-light that usually precedes daybreak, the complete victory of light over darkness.

Shivering with cold, Levin walked fast with his eyes fixed on the ground. “What’s that? Somebody’s coming!” he thought, hearing the jingling of harness bells, and he raised his head. Within forty paces of him a four-in-hand with luggage on top was driving toward him along the grassy highroad on which he was walking. The wheel horses were pressing in toward the pole away from the ruts, but the skillful coachman, who was sitting sideways on the box, kept the pole over the ruts so that the wheels ran on the smooth part of the road.

That was all Levin noticed and, without wondering who the travelers might be, he glanced absently at the coach.

In the carriage an elderly woman was dozing in one corner, while at the window sat a young girl, who had evidently only just awakened, holding the ribbons of her white cap in both hands. Bright and thoughtful, full of an exquisite, complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she gazed beyond him at the glow of the sunrise.

At the very moment when the vision was about to disappear, a pair of truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him and a look of amazement and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other eyes in the world like those. There was only one being in the world who was able to concentrate for him the whole world and the meaning of life. It was she. It was Kitty. He realized that she was on her way to Yergushovo from the railway station. And everything that had been agitating Levin that sleepless night, all the decisions he had taken—everything vanished in a trice. He recalled with disgust his ideas of marrying a peasant girl. There alone, in the rapidly disappearing carriage that had crossed to the other side of the road, there alone was the only possible solution to the riddle of his life which had been weighing so agonizingly on him of late.

She did not look out again. The sound of the sprung wheels could no longer be heard; the jingling of the bells grew fainter. The barking of dogs told him the carriage had passed through the village, and around him only the empty fields remained, the village ahead of him, and he himself, lonely and a stranger to everything, walking solitary on the deserted highroad.

He looked up at the sky, hoping to find there the shell he had been admiring and which symbolized to him the whole trend of this thoughts and feelings that night. There was nothing resembling that shell in the sky. There in the unfathomable height a mysterious change had already taken place. There was not a trace of the shell to be seen, but half across the sky there spread a smooth carpet of fleecy clouds which were growing tinier and tinier. The sky had turned blue and much brighter and responded to his questioning gaze with the same tenderness, but also with the same remoteness.

“No,” he said to himself, “however good that simple life of toil may be, I cannot return to it. I love her.” (322-325)

Kvothe Six-String

Throughout his books The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fears, Patrick Rothfuss consistently returns to music to create his fictional world. Narnia and Middle-earth are both sung beautifully to life in their creation accounts, but Rothfuss uses music somewhat differently. Music creates many of the actual characters in his book. Take away their instruments and songs, and you take away their identities.

The following excerpt is from the first book of the series, The Name of the Wind. The narrator, Kvothe, is describing the scene directly following the murder of his parents and all his friends. They had been nomads in a troupe of musicians and actors, so their loss leaves him homeless and alone on a road between towns. Before I lend out my copy of the book, I wanted to get this down so I could remember it. Mark the music:

In the beginning, I was almost like an automaton, thoughtlessly performing the actions that would keep me alive.

I ate the second rabbit I caught, and the third. I found a patch of wild strawberries. I dug for roots. By the end of the fourth day, I had everything I needed to survive: a stone-lined fire pit, a shelter for my lute. I had even assembled a small stockpile of foodstuffs that I could fall back on in case of emergency.

I also had one thing I did not need: time. After I had taken care of immediate needs, I found I had nothing to do. I think this is when a small part of my mind started to slowly reawaken itself.

Make no mistake, I was not myself. At least I was not the same person I had been a span of days before. Everything I did I attended to with my whole mind, leaving no  part of me for remembering.

I grew thinner and more ragged. I slept in rain or sun, on soft grass, moist earth, or sharp stones with an intensity of indifference that only grief can promote. The only notice I took of my surroundings was when it rained, because then I could not bring out my lute to play, and that pained me.

Of course I played. It was my only solace.

By the end of the first month, my fingers had calluses hard as stones and I could play for hours upon hours. I played and played again all of the songs I knew from memory. Then I played the half-remembered songs as well, filling in the forgotten parts as best I could.

Eventually I could play from when I woke until the time I slept. I stopped playing the songs I knew and started inventing new ones. I had made up songs before; I had even helped my father compose a verse or two. But now I gave it my whole attention. Some of those songs have stayed with me to this day.

Soon after that I began playing…how can I describe it?

I began to play something other than songs. When the sun warms the grass and the breeze cools you, it feels a certain way. I would play until I got the feeling right. I would play until it sounded like Warm Grass and Cool Breeze.

I was only playing for myself, but I was a harsh audience. I remember spending nearly three whole days trying to capture Wind Turning a Leaf.

By the end of the second month, I could play things nearly as easily as I saw and felt them: Sun Setting Behind the Clouds, Bird Taking a Drink, Dew in the Bracken.

Somewhere in the third month I stopped looking outside and started looking inside for things to play. I learned to play Riding in the Wagon with Ben, Singing with Father by the Fire, Watching Shandi Dance, Grinding Leaves When it Is Nice Outside, Mother Smiling…

Needless to say, playing these things hurt, but it was a hurt like tender fingers on lute strings. I bled a bit and hoped that I would callous soon. (140-141)

orpheus-1894-jpglarge

Karoly Ferenczy, Orpheus

A Knight of Texas

Sir Lyle Lovett:

The sisters at the borderline,
They’re holding out their hands.
They’re begging me for something, Lord,
Oh, but I don’t understand,
I don’t understand.

And so it’s adios to Alvero,
Tell him to stay between the lines,
And if he sees that Gabriella girl,
Tell her I’ll look her up next time,
Say I’ll look her up next time.

A Prayer from Katherine Parr

In his book Radiant, Richard Hannula documents one of Katherine Parr’s favorite prayers:

Lord Jesus, I pray You give me the grace to rest in You above all things, and to make me prefer You above all things, and to make me prefer You above all creatures, above all glory and honor, above all dignity and power, above all health and beauty, above all riches and treasure, above all joy and pleasure, above all fame and praise. (114)

NPG 4451; Catherine Parr attributed to Master John

Katherine Parr by Master John, 1545

Parr was the last of the wives of King Henry VIII.