Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger: redux.

The death of Pete Seeger produced the usual surge of posts on Facebook, with everything from quotes of his lyrics to personal remembrances to old photos of him.  I quite disdain the predictable outpourings that occur at times like these.  Perhaps it's the anti-social in me, but I tend to think some words are truly better left unspoken, and not every thought is an interesting thought, nor is it likely to be an original one. 

Nevertheless, for some reason, Seeger rose beyond my "silence is preferred" barrier, and I didn't resist my own temptation to join the chorus of lamentors sharing their lamentations. 

Why?  Two reasons ostensibly.

First, Seeger played an important role in my parents' generation, associated as he was with American folk music, with the political Left, with the labor movement, with the civil rights movement, and subsequently with the anti-war movement.  He sang some of the great songs from the American songbook such as "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" and he added many more by his own pen: "We Shall Overcome", "Where Have All The Flowers Gone", "Turn, Turn, Turn".  The list goes on. 

Second, he was very important to my generation.  As I thought back on him and his music, I realized that I had grown up with it all around me.  It was part of the fabric of the noise back then, as much a part of being a child in the 1970s as anything else was.  In that way, it became a part of the fabric of my noise.  There must be a deep resonance for every human being from what they heard growing up, the songs that were "on the radio" then, that shape them in innumerable and incalculable ways.

So it was with me, and plenty a summertime evening was spent around a campfire, singing along to one of his ballads.  In the communal ethos of the time, it was back to the land as banjo pickers with bow ties played songs of loss and songs of hope in front of broad-beamed raftered barns.

"This machine kills Fascists" is what Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar, and Pete Seeger's did too.  American originals, both.

It is meaningful to see Seeger alone on the stage with instrument in hand singing something provocative and political or tunefully resonant -- a refreshing change from today's world where we are bombarded with constant media crap of little to no nutritional value.  Even if the audiences back in 1963 were all white:

A coda to my remembrance: Seeger is very much in the tradition of Whitman and Thoreau, wandering American troubadours in a sense.  Seeger was also a contemporary of JFK and a Harvard classmate of his, an odd and slightly ironic twist in the tale.  Here's a little more on that thought, from an earlier blog post:

Friday, January 24, 2014

Thoreau and Whitman: one more time.

I had reason to read both Thoreau's Walden and Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855 edition) recently, and then further reason to record some of my thoughts about the works and the authors.  Here are those thoughts in one long-ish blog post:
Is Thoreau saying that the wisdom of the woods and of the solitude that it provides open up a truer road to God?  Or is there something else distinctly non-Christian, actually non-religious, to be sought and gained through his writing? 

The rejection of convention is a fruitful but not unfamiliar trope both in literature and in philosophy.  As the title and explanation of this course suggests, it is the traditional role of the “prophet” to be that “apart person”.  If Socrates and Christ can do it, so can Thoreau.  The more important question is, what does Thoreau chose to replace conventional temple worship with?  If the predictableness of Concord’s bourgeoisie is the “it” to be avoided, then what “it” should be put in its place?

My hope was that the woods to Thoreau were not some proxy for God on Earth.  If his proposition was that bourgeois society was simply another errant approach to the full quality and meaning of the divine, then to me Thoreau would be nothing other than a religious extremist of the sort for which America has been a particularly strong breeding ground since its founding, and particularly in the 19th century.  There are few things more dangerous and less appealing than an angry preacher, especially one who feels that the time has finally come to correct the fallacies of his fellow towns-folk. 

Thoreau is not that.  Of course, his book’s place in the American canon serves as a clue to its own enduring value and non-conventionality, but there is no substitute for looking for oneself.  His walk into the woods, his desire to live “deliberately”, his absolutely ethereal claim that “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep …. It is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts ….” (96) is not religiously-backed in any sense, but solely a claim about the capacity and the requirement of man to live.  This is true even though the most religious of terms creep into the language here, “reawaken”, “dawn”. 

“It is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look”, this is a radical claim that gives not room for divine intervention.  Here is the full empowerment of the human senses, and the exhortation to fully employ their ability to shape reality through the creative act of perception.  Perception is not some passive filter through which reality enters into human consciousness but rather an active exercise through which we can “carve” and “paint” our world to “affect the quality of the day”, which is itself the highest creative act available to man. 

Usually, the words “quotidian” and “daily” represent drudgery.  They are seen as negatives, or at best neutral.  In Thoreau’s universe, quite the opposite.  There is no higher human creative act than shaping the air through which we perceive and thus our perceptions themselves.  We might say that the act of seeing well brings us to an awakened state.  This is the Renaissance upended. No longer do we understand man through the sciences and more particularly through the arts, and specifically the visual arts.  Yes, humans are in the center, Thoreau says, but Michelangelo’s sculpture the Rebellious Slave is a lesser accomplishment than my ability to hear clearly and fully this wood thrush perched on that branch.  Botticelli, you take a back seat to my clear perception of that birch bark. 

I can’t help but wonder if Thoreau is searching in all of this to express a peculiarly American voice.  For one, he speaks in the “I”, the seminal word of America’s two most characteristic attributes: liberating individualism and blinding ego-centrism.  Furthermore, he is both explicitly and implicitly non-institutional.  The great works around him are not by the hands of man (granted, there are counter-examples in the text -- his uncharacteristic genuflection before the temple of classical literature is one such -- but we leave that aside here).  Contained in all of this appears the ever-true American stance that our shores are new shores, and the old rules don’t apply.  To that end, his whole Walden endeavor may be a very conscious effort to midwife a whole new American literature.  As such, it follows a familiar formula: Rebirth through Exile.  The woods are the thing by which our artifice is vanquished and that most American of commodities, the great outdoors, becomes the Edenic place where we find our truer selves.  Look not to the temples of culture or the agoras of learning, he seems to be saying. 

It is also quite fascinating to read in 2014 about our country, indeed this Massachusetts neighborhood, but 170 years prior.  Who hears of the Fitchburg Railroad anymore in the sense that Thoreau knew it, at the very dawn of the railroad age when it was the newest of the new technologies? Who has thought about a runaway slave, never mind read an account of meeting one 15 years before the start of the American Civil War? Who can remember any stories of the first Englishmen to break bread with Massasoit, the local Indian chief, and sleep in his hut in those cold and bleak first weeks of the British on these shores? This is a layer of the American story that has receded deeper in the landscape of our memory, grown over by more recent occurrences.

This all leads me to my final point – there is one word that comes to my mind when I think about Thoreau: refreshing.  It is so refreshing to read Thoreau.  There must be many reasons for this.  His introspection and his powerful use of metaphor account for some of it but mostly I think it is his notion of value of disconnection.  It is hard to utter the word “disconnection” and not reflect on today’s world when so much of our world is governed by connection and hyper-connectedness with its premium placed on the clarity of human communication.  It is radically refreshing to rethink our world by a prophet of the self, through arguments he crafted in a pre-industrial age before wide-spread literacy.  His statements are more than perceptions.  They are quite literally a call for revival (we approach religious language again) whose value has only increased because of the unrelenting march of technology. 

Whitman is not like Thoreau in this way – Thoreau is a lonely sojourner, visible at quite a distance, walking his solitary path, framed nicely on either side by the trees that made up his self-made universe, at least for a while. Whitman is nothing so simple, so focused.  He’s the essence of energy, the whirr of activity that is everywhere all the time.  He’s like a swarm of flies.

In this way, he’s much more difficult than Thoreau.  There’s a relentless, driving quality to Whitman as if in his feverish mind, the world really does happen through him.  It is both what he wants us to believe but it is also what he really seems to believe himself.  A simplistic critique would be to call it ego-mania, but not entirely without evidence: in his first 100 lines of Leaves of Grass, he uses the pronouns “I” or “Me/My/Mine” in 54 of those lines.  In case we were ever to doubt what he meant when he said  “I celebrate myself”, now we know.   

But Whitman for all his unrelenting focus on himself is also elusive, like the flitting shadows of swifts in the rafters of a barn.  In these lines, we glimpse an odd aspect of the assertive poet:

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looks with its curious side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it. (66-70)

At this chance to paint his intimate self portrait, where Rembrandt would have looked right back at the artist and therefore at the audience, Whitman portrays himself en scene, as he would be seen at a distance, in the third person. And unlike the painter who can only use the images to convey the feelings, the writer has a whole array of words to describe the inner essence of the being.  Whitman uses almost none of these.  Instead, he decides to use primarily a physical description of himself, as he would be seen: he “stands amused …; <he> looks down, is erect, bends …; <he> looks with its curious side-curved head .…”

Though he claims for himself a “unitary” being, he gives the audience no such unitary view of himself.  Rather, these are a collection of partial views of the person, impressionistic. He chooses not to describe from the center out, but from the outside in. 

Whitman is a watcher, and like many watchers, he is ambivalent about participating.  Indeed, he says as much, “Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” Ambivalence implies distance, and distance means that those things which he’s not willing to get close to, he must know through the eyes.  Similarly, he is probably ambivalent about people getting close to him.  To deal with that, he provides a description that is largely visual, not emotional, not internal: Know me through how your eyes see me.  In this way, Whitman’s endless self-revealing throughout the poem might itself be a cloak of disguise, a way of hiding himself in plain sight.

Yet, concealing any truth seems to be at odds with his fundamental project, in part because his fundamental project is so bold: “I celebrate myself/And what I assume you shall assume.”  How then does he reconcile the rather coy, brief self-portrait with his much larger aims for Leaves of Grass?

To be able to speak to for all people, and indicate a new way, he must first establish his authority, and he does this not by demonstrating it but simply by stating it. The mere assertion of the fact creates the fact, and he creates the fact by asserting it.

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me (353)

I know I am august/I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or to be understood (409-10)

I exist as I am, that is enough (413)

My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite (419)

I am the man … I suffered … I was there.  (827) 

He starts from such a large premise, the audience has no choice but to accept the argument in its entirety or reject the whole project altogether.  And Whitman shows no mercy.  Like any self-appointed national poet determined to both create and resurrect a national identity in one work, like any receiver of revelation, Whitman does not go small.

So what is Whitman’s game, and why would he want to hide, even if in plain sight?  The reason is this – ultimately, Whitman is a guide, and like any guide, he is not the central storyline. Whitman is Beatrice or Vergil, but not Dante. His existence and his work is ultimately catalytic only:

No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, nor church nor philosophy;
I lead no man to a dinner-table or library or exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooks you round the waist,
My right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.

No I, nor any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself. (1201-08)

It’s just that the world to be explored is all around, has always been all around, visible in every direction, experienced many times over, not so much new as yet unseen.  Whitman has seen it and can see it.  His self-appointed job is to reveal it:  

It is not far …. It is within reach,
Perhaps you have been to it since you were born, and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land. (1209-11)

His celebration of self is his opening gambit to us, a way of urging us down the journey to this new land, of buying into the project that this is a worthy journey, him by our side.  It is a journey that shall reveal the full essence of the world surrounding us, that has always been available to us, but has remained largely unseen by us.  Whitman bewilders us into believing his story not only needs to be told, but also needs to be heard.

Monday, January 20, 2014

I went to Walden Pond today to see what I could see.

I went to Walden Pond today.  In part, I wanted to prove that climate change had changed our climate.  Henry David Thoreau records in Walden the dates that the pond froze over for the winter, over a series of years:
In 1845 Walden froze entirely over for the first time on the night of the 22nd of December, Flint's and other shallower ponds and the river having been frozen ten days or more; in '46 the 16th; in '49 about the 31st; in '50 about the 27th of December, in '52, the 5th of January; in '53, the 31st of December.  The snow had already covered the ground since the 25th of November ... (from "House Warming")
He also records the date that the pond typically thawed:
I never knew [Walden Pond] to open in the course of a winter, not excepting that of '52-53, which gave the ponds so severe a trial.  It commonly opens about the first of April, a week or ten days later than Flint's Pond and Fair Haven ... (from "Spring")
I fully expected that the pond would not be frozen.  I was wrong.

Walden, frozen over

Since I was already there, I decided to walk around the edge of it, to see the world that Thoreau knew so intimately.  When I got to the far side I saw the place he describes so well, essentially unchanged:
The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods from where I dwell.  I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link.  The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often ... (from "Sounds")

The spot where the Fitchburg Line "touches the pond", 168 years later, looking direction Concord

From there, I found the place where he lived:
When I first took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, by accident, was Independence Day, or fourth of July, 1845, my house was not finished for winter, but was merely defense against the rain .... (from "Where I Lived, And What I Lived For")

Where Thoreau lived, Walden in the background

I was seated by the shore of a small pond, about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord and somewhat higher than it, in the midst of an extensive wood between that town and Lincoln, and about two miles south of that our only field known to fame, Concord Battle Ground; but I was so low in the woods that the opposite shore, half a mile off, like the rest, covered with wood. (from "Where I Lived, And What I Lived For")

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. (from "Visitors")

He shared his place with many of his friends from the woods:
The wasps came by thousands to my lodge in October, as to winter quarters, and settled on my windows within and on the walls overhead, .... but I did not trouble myself to get rid of them ... (from "House-Warming")
Squirrels and wild mice disputed for my store of nuts.  There were scores of pitch pines around my house, from one to four inches in diameter .... The hares (lepus Americanus) were very familiar.  One had her form under my house all winter, separated from me only by the flooring, and she startled me each morning by her hasty departure when I began to stir, -- thump, thump, thump, striking her head against the floor timbers in her hurry. (from "Winter Animals")

Finally, I wended my way back to where I started, but not without taking a moment to reflect that many a winter night long ago, 168 years to be exact, Henry David Thoreau looked out on this pond, paused, beheld what he saw, and like me, strove to see.

 In his words ...

Friday, January 17, 2014

Whitman re-read aloud.

You could hear it in his voice, breaking as he read the paragraph.  He said that back "in hippie times" it was taped to the walls of dorms around campus, which in this case was at Williams in the 1970s. 

A professor now, he read Whitman aloud to a classroom filled with students, 40 years later. It brought that moment back to life, as fresh in that brief fluctuation in his voice as it was new then.  Walt Whitman is nothing if not American rebirth and renewal and that decade was all about American rebirth and renewal.   Reading Whitman in 1970s America.  Remembering reading Whitman in 1970s America.  The text triggers the memory and the memory retrieves the moment, a moment of awakening and rebirth.  Political, poetical, personal.  In that waver in his voice, we all crossed a bridge of four decades of life.

That personal moment is also the cultural moment. This is how culture is transmitted.  This is how culture is maintained, across geography and generations.  This is why culture is transmitted.  It's the conveyance of someone's very important moment to explain why we should care.  It's why we still gather in groups, professors professing, students absorbing, meaning and feeling, on and on.  It's why culture is cumulative.

Here's the paragraph from Whitman's preface to Leaves of Grass:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body … The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work.  He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured … others may not know it but he shall.  He shall go directly to the creation.  His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches .. and shall master all attachment. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Fifty years is half a century.

Time marches on.  That much we know.  Here's a case in point.

It's been fifty years since the Fab Four first arrived in America for their now famous tour that included a renown appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  If you're old enough, this doesn't seem like such a long time ago.

But here's what a group of Brits were doing 50 years before that:

I'm not sure if this makes the Beatles that much more distant or World War I so very much closer.

(Photo from the Battle of the Somme, 1916.)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

To affect the quality of the day ...

"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour."

-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Nolo contendere.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Blah blah blah.

The world does not lack for words.  There is no global dearth of that commodity these days.  They squish out from everywhere.  They are all around.  Even the most interesting of them are some times nothing more than nothing.  Nothing more than blah blah blah.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Fire in Babylon.

It hadn't occurred to me that one could understand the implications of British colonialism through the game of cricket, but the film Fire in Babylon about the unbeatable West Indian cricket teams that dominated the sport throughout the 1980s has disabused me of my ignorance, at least the beginning edges of it. 

It's obvious to say, and it is said in the film, that the export of cricket to the colonies was a way of subjugation.  The game, made by public school boys for public school boys, established differences and allowed the English to teach the natives another English thing, a game to make gentlemen of the savages that yoked them to a British social structure where everyone had his place.  It also allowed for the expression non-violent forms of oppression that are more culturally destructive than a baton or a rifle butt.  Up until 1960, the captain of the all black West Indian cricket team had to be a white man.

Historian and erstwhile Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff once joked that there is something called a "Commonwealth moment" when inhabitants of the Commonwealth countries can share an insight from their common relationship to the British crown.  Cricket must be one of those Commonwealth moments that links Pakistan to New Zealand and Australia to Guyana.  It's a thread of history that's weaves together billions of the world's people but leaves out 300 million Americans.  This is not a bad thing.  We can find meaning in the sentiment that he should throw a 3-2 sinker away with speed on the corners.  But the idea that the West Indian team had, that's HAD, to beat England in 1976 because London's West Indian immigrants would suffer untold abuse in the workplace if they didn't.  Or Nelson Mandela's appreciation to those cricketers who refused apartheid South Africa's huge payout to a touring West Indian team in the early 1980s because their "no" boosted him in his struggle.  Or that the current Indian logo for their cricket league derives from the pre-Indian-independence British league and not from some newly designed post-1947 logo -- these kinds of things happen at a level of meaning that Americans would be loathe to try to sort out. 

But like film so often can do, Fire in Babylon opens those doors to that world and let's us inside -- to hear the history, see the symbols and to try to decode some of the meaning.