One of the reasons I’m convinced of its sublimity is that I’m really not keen on poetry, and in fact don’t care for anything else Eliot ever wrote.
But this particular poem encompasses, encapsulates, the entirety of human existence, in a way no other type of writing could. A novel would make all the subtext into text, and rob it of its nuance; a play would make it mundane and common by forcing the words to be spoken by mere mortals; setting it to music would limit and trivialize it. It has a solemn, tragic beauty that would be diminished in any other form.
The poem isn’t flawless (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws …” is a tad goofy), but the missteps add to the poem’s overall perfection, the way a slightly “off” feature on a beautiful face makes it even more beautiful.
This is my favorite stanza:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail… Continue reading
It was mountains of sound—vast parapets and promontories and cliffs of sound. The deep bass notes were born of thunder, or the roar of a great fire, or the eruption of a volcano. They filled the space completely, as thoroughly as the air, as densely as water.
Somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the notes, the trills of the higher ranges could be heard flitting overhead. It was as if the very songs of the birds had been captured for the pleasure of the composer.
It was the last few bars of the benedictory song being played one ordinary Sunday morning on the great pipe organ of New York’s Trinity Church.
It shook the air.
It was the roar of an immense waterfall. A roar of booms. It was primordial, as if left over from some great cataclysm. Or beginning.
It shook the air and vibrated the body and the soul.
It was sublime.
Though it was one of my mother’s great joys to finally obtain a Hammond for our small town church, I’ve never been enamored by the sound architecture of the ordinary organ. And though my favorite aunt Marian sang… Continue reading
I have suggested in a previous post (June 19, 2014) that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue may reach that pinnacle of human accomplishment which is incomparable, transcendent, even sublime; that it is a composition—a musical invention—beyond the possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. That it is an accomplishment of the human spirit which moves us to a place of great visceral, intellectual, emotional or spiritual wonderment.
Following is how Brother Alphaios (Al-fay-us) hears this amazing piece. He’s a cloistered monk and the protagonist in BOOK OF HOURS: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, a novel written by this author and available to you at the click of a link.
Today, Alphaios was especially happy to escape the confines of the monastery. The morning had been spent in a dull chapter meeting that Brother Richard, possessed of a good heart but small mind, had stretched out interminably. And lunch had been uninspired even by monastery standards.
It was a false spring day. More rain and cold would come before winter released its grip on the city, but today he would enjoy the contrast of warm sun and chilled air. The… Continue reading
It was a more innocent time.
The grounds were not unlike a small college: a circle drive in front of the administration building; two rows of two-story, red brick residence halls; spacious lawns and great leafy trees rising above it all. But in this instance the halls were wards, and the grounds those of the Idaho State School and Hospital—the state’s institution for the mentally retarded. Residing there were six hundred and twenty-seven developmentally disabled children and adults, all of them requiring twenty-four-hour assistance and supervision. Another couple hundred people worked on staff.
A member of administration (in a vaporous position somewhere in the loose space between administrative assistant and assistant superintendent), I had drawn manager duty on that Saturday. It was breezy, jacket-and-scarf cold, and the trees were bare of leaves. It was a weekend day and an inside day.
I was walking from the hospital building to administration (almost certainly with my best hand-carved pipe only just lit) when I saw him. A man I did not know was standing nearly at the center of the campus, two… Continue reading
Several recent blogposts notwithstanding, I have never been one to lean on the quotations of others, great or not. I have preferred most of my adult life—but to less effect, I suppose—a more experiential search for wisdom. So I have been surprised at the strength of my appreciation for the series of literary plaques set into the sidewalk near the New York City Public Library.
From the concrete below, a bronze rectangle faces upward to the sky and warns, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.” (From The Awakening, an 1899 novel by Kate Chopin, 1851-1904.)
Lest one think only of race or ethnicity (and why might one not, for it is true there as well), the context for this particular remark is womanhood—the quiet constraints on the freedoms of women at the turn of the twentieth century. It would be two decades before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution finally recognized (not “gave”, as some might say, but recognized) the right of women to vote. That was a necessary step, but a hundred years later we know it was not anywhere near sufficient to dissipate the hard… Continue reading
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
So says Hanta on the first page of Too Loud a Solitude, a novella by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997).
What more could any writer wish than to have such a reader?
And, too, the words are so vivid as to create the very physical sensations of which he speaks.
I considered posting the sentence with only a simple “wow,” but found myself wanting to know more about these words and their context.
I was in for a surprise.
This happy sentence, chock full of the delights of discovery (and the savoring of it) stands out in the novella as brilliantly as a diamond—not so much for the quality of its construction or insight (for that is superb throughout), but in its brightness of mood. Too Loud A Solitude is full of oppression and darkness and even the putrid. And… Continue reading
Five full drafts from conception and one major reorganization later, BOOK OF HOURS: Peter’s Parchment is off to the editor. There is no doubt he will provide a full, insightful and constructive critique with his well-pared quill. “He” is Peter Gelfan, Associate Editor at The Editorial Department.
It is a sequel. In BOOK OF HOURS: Peter’s Parchment, Brother Alphaios and archivist Inaki Arriaga discover an ancient parchment, which,if made public, could rock the very foundations of the Church. Or, if allowed to remain in the hands of its unscrupulous billionaire owner, it could provide him immense leverage against the Church for his own illicit purposes. Either outcome would render their magnificent Book of Hours—to be a gift for the Pope himself—into nothing but a hollow, bitter vessel for a religious scandal of millennial proportions.
How does one preserve history against such odds? How does one enlighten it?
Meanwhile, the same self-serving mogul has his sights set on acquiring for himself the real estate upon which the humble Monastery of St. Ambrose sits, for it occupies one of the most valuable pieces of land in the entire city. How do a handful of monks, who seek only salvation in… Continue reading
“Information is light,” announces the bronze plaque set into the sidewalk at my feet. Then it continues: “Information in itself, about anything, is light.” The source is cited down in the corner: Tom Stoppard, from Night and Day, 1978.
Another plaque states: “I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” – Garson Kanin, Born Yesterday, 1946.
The plaques are part of the Library Walk, and set into the East 41st Street approach to the New York Public Library. Looking mostly upward in the vertical city, I nearly missed them. Along with a number of others, they have given me both introspective and instructional pause.
Both of these statements were prescient counsel for our culture, our country. Nonetheless, we seem to have slid into a period of willful, noisy ignorance, of petulant dismissal both of “facts” —information and conclusions which we have long mutually accepted as reliable—and the orderly ways in which we determine them. Science, through no fault of its own or its practitioners, has among many of our fellow travelers become suspect. Knowledge itself, whether scholarly or just widely experiential,… Continue reading
In my last post, I laid the foundation for an occasional series exploring the sublime—unmatched and unmatchable human accomplishments that rise above all others, that rise “beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” Achievements which transport us viscerally or intellectually, emotionally or spiritually to a place of great wonderment. As examples, I proposed Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin and the sculpture Balzac by Auguste Rodin.
For my next nomination, I ask you to watch a performance of the Barcarolle from the opera by Jacques Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffman. Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=is0Lb4cj_3c. (Yes, my first suggestion for the transcendental requires you not only to listen to music which derives its name from gondoliers, but to watch it on social media, no less.) It will require about three minutes for your first time through, but my guess is you will want to hear it again, again, and perhaps again. I’ve imported a translation from the French below.
Sisters Irina and Christina Lordachescu perform the Barcarolle in what appears to be an anteroom of a concert hall in Budapest. They are accompanied only by a pianist. It’s an informal setting, not unlike having them in your… Continue reading
In the language of aesthetics, the sublime is “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term specifically refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” [See footnote.]
But not beyond our accomplishment. And not beyond our appreciation, for the sublime transports us viscerally, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually to a place of great wonderment. Of awe. It leads us to a capacious realization of the heights possible within the human experience. Of the pinnacles within our reach if only we pursue them.
Some accomplishments that attain the sublime are the product of spontaneous inspiration, or more likely of relentless exploration and trial by individuals who have the experience and perspicacity to allow such ideas to pierce the commonplace. I think, for instance, of Auguste Rodin and his rough but powerful statue Balzac, the great thinker standing far back and assessing—some say dominating—the world, his immense energy barely contained.
In Peter’s Parchment, The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, while walking along… Continue reading